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[Editorial] Sign of change

Yoon to relocate from Cheong Wa Dae, symbol of outsized power, to Seoul Govt. Complex

President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol is expected to push for the relocation of the presidential office from Cheong Wa Dae to the Seoul Government Complex in Gwanghwamun Square.

Yoon plans to use the current prime minister’s office at the complex as his main working space and set aside four to five floors for his secretariats, security and other presidential officials.

Yoon is also expected to move the presidential residence outside of Cheong Wa Dae to a nearby venue so that the current facilities can be open to citizens. A special committee is to be set up so that it can implement Yoon’s election pledge as his first high-profile project as president.

The relocation of the all-powerful presidential office is part of Yoon’s government reforms, which includes a smaller office, an overhaul of presidential committees and introduction of a new system in which government officials and global talents can work together.

It is not the first time that Cheong Wa Dae was targeted as a venue to be reformed. In past presidential elections, similar proposals were made but not implemented. Outgoing President Moon Jae-in also pledged to relocate the presidential office to the government complex in Gwanghwamun in April 2017, slamming former President Park Geun-hye’s lack of communication. But in January 2019, Moon broke his own promise to become a “Gwanghwamun president” by scrapping the relocation plan.

As for the sudden change, the Moon administration cited the difficulty in securing a new working space that is big enough to accommodate all the presidential staff as well as potential problems with security. But the relocation itself comes down to the president’s will. Moon’s failure to push for a relocation reflects that after spending two years at Cheong Wa Dae, he simply found it too convenient and cozy to move out.

Why is it so hard for Korean presidents to give up on the current Cheong Wa Dae location?

Cheong Wa Dae is located right behind Gyeongbokgung, the main royal palace of the Joseon era in central Seoul. It is within viewing distance of the Seoul Government Complex, but the psychological distance has long been far and wide.

Cheong Wa Dae, otherwise known as the Blue House, is a deeply secluded complex of multiple buildings used as the president’s executive office, official residence and secretariat’s office.

For all its grandeur, Cheong Wa Dae is fraught with inefficiency, secrecy and structural issues. At the heart of the problem is that the presidential executive office is about 500 meters away from the secretariat office. Due to the distance, presidential aides were required to walk for about 10 minutes to brief the president on state affairs. As a result, aides often had to make phone calls or write up reports to communicate with the president.

As for urgent issues, aides were said to use a bicycle or car within the compound to deliver messages to the president without delay.

For a president, the main structure of Cheong Wa Dae occupies 8,476 square meters in a traditional Korean architectural style that is widely viewed as grandiose and authoritative. The distance between the president’s desk and the door is so wide -- about 15 meters -- that a minister, after finishing his briefing, once slipped and fell while stepping back toward the door.

Yoon criticized Cheong Wa Dae as a symbol of “imperial” presidential power and a blockade to political reforms. It is hoped that Yoon will start his five-year term at the government complex. It will finally send Cheong Wa Dae down in history as a symbol of emperor-like presidency, one which lasted for about 60 years and was riddled with broken promises.

By Korea Herald (khnews@heraldcorp.com)
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