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Wednesday,August 21,2019
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You Don't Have Any Right to Build On Our History
Controversy has flared up over the U.S. Embassy's plan to construct a new embassy building and a high-rise apartment building near an old palace site in downtown Seoul. The U.S. Embassy plans to construct a 15-story embassy building and 8-story apartment building for its staff on the old Deoksu Palace site. The plan has faced strong opposition from environmentalists and civic groups. They charge that it is absurd to erect tall buildings so close to an invaluable place in Korean history. The plan triggered more anti-Americanism  in Korea.
Civic groups set the ball rolling and conducted campaigns to oppose the plan during the World Cup but their voices were not heard. However, the July 26 talks between the U.S. Embassy and civic groups aroused interest in this issue. So did the recent news report of a property exchange contract in 1986 between Korea and the USA that allowed the U.S. Embassy to use the Jung-dong area next to the old Deoksu Palace.
Jung-dong area had been under the ownership of the U.S. since they took it away from Japan after liberating Korea. In 1984, Korea and the U.S. started to discuss rental fees for the U.S. Embassy Jung-dong area and plans to remove their Embassy. In 1986, a memorandum of understanding of the U.S. Embassy's use of the area was exchanged between the two nations. In 1990, the Mayor of Seoul, Ko Gun, and the American deputy secretary of administrative post  in the Ministry of Defense, Evan Selen, agreed that the U.S. Embassy had the ownership of the Jung-dong area on condition that the Korean government gets back the American Cultural Center building in Uljiro 1-ga and a part of the quarters for the embassy staff in Songhyun-dong for 39 billion won. The 1990's contract also included that the Korean government permitted the U.S. to construct a 15-story building in that place. The Korean government has kept this agreement secret  for 16 years.
Thirty-one civic groups including Korea Youth Corps, Democratic Labor Party and Citizens' Movement for Environmental Justice, demonstrated against the construction of the US Embassy and the apartment building on the palace site. They conducted a campaign to collect signatures on and off line. By Oct. 8, 25,005 netizens had signed the on-line document and the numbers are rising steadily. Moreover, they held many conferences and demonstrated on the streets in order to inform everyone of this situation. Since May 29, an one-man demonstration and picketing against the construction of new US Embassy has been going on in front of Deoksu Palace. Shin Jae-gi, a 13-year old,  junior high school student, participated in this demonstration on Aug. 23. "I think that the US doesn't care about our precious cultural heritage. I don't want our Korean heritage damaged for another country's convenience," he said.
"The Performance to Get Back the Deoksu Palace Site" was held by 31 civic groups in front of the site on Aug. 29, National Humiliation Day. About 100 citizens and students took part in this performance. They lit candles around Deoksu Palace and held an exorcism to recover cultural sovereignty.
The U.S. Embassy has requested the Ministry of Construction & Transportation of Korea to revise the Homebuilding Promotion Law, to give it preferential treatment so that it can build staff accommodations. The Mayor of Seoul, Lee Myung-bak, said, "The idea of building apartments on the historic site would violate regulations and is unreasonable considering its historic significance. If the U.S. Embassy wishes, Seoul City will offer an alternative site." And he stressed that the city administration would deal with the issue according to related laws. However, the government, in accepting the request, finally chose to follow an exceptional path.
"We can't accept the idea of building large structures on the site where a palace used to be. Even though the planned site is now U.S. property, there is no reason to insist on that particular site. I believe Deoksu Palace needs to be restored to its original splendor sometime," said Cheon Chun-ho, the president of Citizens' Alliance against U.S. Embassy construction plan.
Although the original Deoksu Palace site has been reduced over many years, it is still a very important part of Korea's cultural heritage. So, Jung-Dong area and Deoksu Palace have to be preserved as a cultural heritage area. It is our generations' responsibility that  has to turn over the old palace with ancestors' spirits to the next generations without any stain. The most important thing is that citizens are aware of this issue and have a mind to protect our cultural heritage.
The relations between Korea and the U.S. in the future depend on how the problem of the U.S. Embassy construction plan is solved.

Park Jee-young  wldud@dongguk.edu

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