Seoul, Sunday 25 March 2012. It’s a cold, sunny morning, like the day before.
I’ve booked myself on a walking trip of Seoul’s palace area, courtesy of the Royal Asiatic Society, Korea branch. We’re due to meet outside the Deoksu Palace at 9am, hence in part my reluctance to over-indulge the previous evening. It’s a pleasant day to stroll there from Insadong, and I set off in plenty of time.
I get as far Jongno Sam-ga, and puzzle at the number of young riot policemen gathering at every corner. My visits to Seoul often coincide with some demonstration or other, and I wonder what particular riot is expected today.
Then I remember. Obama’s in town for the Nuclear Security Summit. I can’t think why anyone would want to demonstrate against Obama or against Nuclear Security – but then you can never be too sure bearing in mind the enthusiasm with which Koreans participated in the mad cow protests.
The police aren’t stopping anyone walking anywhere they please, so I continue my solitary amble. I pass the Seoul Financial Centre. Outside are the flags of all the nations who provided the Republic of Korea with support against Kim Il-sung’s aggression in 1950, whether military, medical or in post-war reconstruction. The RoK has been consistently generous in showing its gratitude, and with Seoul on show to the world it certainly did no harm to put on display the solidarity of most nations in uniting against the regime in Pyongyang, who were doing their best to hijack the summit with their announcement of the proposed missile test.
There are about a dozen of us who are joining the RASKB tour, a mixture of military and intelligence types and English speakers from a variety of backgrounds. Our guide is Peter Bartholomew, businessman, hanok-dweller and past president of the RASKB. Like David Kilburn, he has conducted a lonely years-long campaign trying to defend his hanok and his neighbourhood against Seoul City Council and the property developers. His passion for preserving the best of the past, and his attention to detail, constantly shone through his commentary.
The first target for his wrath were of course the Japanese, who destroyed 97% of Joseon dynasty palace buildings in Seoul, which once stretched in a long crescent from, broadly, where the Westin Chosun Hotel is now, through the Deoksu and Gyeonghui Palaces, around to the Gyeongbokgung, through the Bukchon neighbourhood to Changdeokgung and onwards to the Jongmyo Shrine. Here, we are to interpret palace buildings broadly, to include ancillary buildings for servants and services, government administrative buildings, so-called “detached palaces” for the minor royals, ancestral shrines as well as the familiar royal quarters and throne rooms. A photograph of the Deoksu palace area in 1903, affixed to a builder’s hoarding, showed what Bartholomew meant.
Next in the firing line was Park Chung-hee, who in modernising Seoul demolished so much that was worthy. In particular, while filling in the Cheonggyecheon and building the expressway on top, he destroyed the ancient stone bridges which crossed this stream.
Finally (though there were probably many other villains in between) came the current heritage authorities, for their inauthentic restoration of some of the roofs of the palace buildings – any straight lines at the edge of a roof are sure signs that they’ve got it wrong; for their incorrect papering of doors – in such a way that the wind would come howling through the building – to their insensitive one-size-fits all policy on wall reconstruction: the size and pattern of the newly rebuilt walls in the Gyeonghui Palace are much more suited to a domestic hanok than to a stately palace building. “I’ve told them, but they won’t listen to me,” was his heartfelt complaint.
We walk through the Deoksu Palace, learning of late Joseon Dynasty history: of Gojong’s valiant refusal to sign the 1905 treaty by which Japan made Korea its protectorate, despite having a cannon pointed at him, and of lots more besides. We pass out of the back entrance to the palace and into the embassy quarter, past the former library of the Deoksu Palace (later the premises fo the Seoul Club), past the site of the old Russian legation, and on to the Gyeonghuigung.
All that remained of the Russian legation was a tower. The site of the embassy had been flattened into a quiet park which now no-one visits. But the state-sponsored act of vandalism had its intended effect, making the area unusable by the Soviets for an embassy when they established diplomatic relations with Seoul in the 1990: the nearby US and British embassies didn’t want the Russians situated so close and able to eavesdrop.
We learned of the destruction of the Gyeonghui Palace by the Japanese, who bulldozed the majority of the palace buildings to the bottom of the hill – which explains the existence of the otherwise puzzling mound in front of the first building you get to when entering the precincts.
The Gyeonghui Palace (경희궁), once occupied by eunuchs and palace women cultivating silk-worms, is probably the least-visited of the five palaces in Seoul but it is well worth a visit, living up to its name which literally means Palace of Serene Harmony. Despite being largely destroyed by the Japanese, the detailed royal records enabled an exact restoration to be conducted once only three points on the groundplan had been precisely located.
We are shown the picnic spot at the back of the Gyeonghui Palace where a spring emerges from the rocks. We walk via the Seoul Museum of History, where the remains of some Pimatgol shops have been transplanted and put below some glass as the march of progress sweeps away another neighbourhood. We ponder whether it would not have been better to preserve the past by maintaining it in daily use rather than transplanting it and sealing it in a glass case. We have lunch in a solitary one-storey restaurant surrounded by high-rise buildings and construction sites – it will surely not survive long.
Proceeding north beyond Gwanghwamun station, we walk through a low-rise area of small restaurants and residential buildings. Bartholomew points out good and bad restoration practices. Emerging alongside the Gyeongbokgung, he negotiates the party through the security cordon and we walk around the back of the palace past Cheongwadae, as he points out the gates in the wall through which palace servants and female royalty would pass. It’s already 3:30, and the party is about to walk through Bukchon to the Changdeokgung and the Unhyeon Palace. It looks like there’s another hour and a half to go: time that would be very well spent. But I need to leave them or I’m not going to get to Tongyeong that day. Regretfully I peel off towards Insadong to pick up my bags on the way to the bus terminal.
Everyone is heartily encouraged to join the RASKB1 and, whether as members or otherwise, participate in some of their events and tours. The value I got out of the six and a half hours with such an expert was immense, and you are much better informed on these tours than you would be by one of the standard tour guides who have their well-rehearsed scripts aimed at the average tourist.
- The walking tour itinerary on the RASKB website
- Accounts of previous walking tours on Discovering Korea and Korean Graduate Studies Prep.
- American eye cherishes beauty lost on Koreans, a feature on Peter Bartholomew in the Korea Herald, 30 March 2010
- As I surely shall once they get their Paypal account sorted out