At the end of April, Seoul’s new mayor Oh Se-hoon announced that remodeling work on Gwanghamun Plaza would continue, but with several modifications. The plaza took its present form in 2009 toward the end of Oh’s first term as mayor. Plans to remodel the plaza again moved forward in the late 2010s under former Mayor Park Won-soon and construction began in the fall of 2020.
Oh’s victory in the April 7 by-election raised speculation that he might stop the remodeling, as some citizen groups had hoped, and return the plaza to its 2009 state. Instead, the new mayor argued, correctly, that administrative continuity is important and that going back would be a waste of taxpayer funds. He outlined several modifications to the plans, including the reconstruction of the stately platform that sat in front of the southern gate of Gyeongbokgung during the Joseon period.
The debate about what to do with Gwanghwamun Plaza is even more interesting now as the world begins to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. What is the role of public space in 21st century cities? And who decides how it is used?
Today’s Gwanghwamun Plaza originated from Sejongno, a wide street leading from the entrance of the Gyeongbokgung to Jongno. During the Joseon Period, important government offices lined both sides of the street and it was known as Yukjo Street. The wide street helped frame the palace and the administrative buildings.
After annexing Korea in 1910, Japanese rulers were eager to display their power. They quickly built new administrative buildings on both sides of the street. In 1926, the large domed Japanese Governor-General Building opened and the main gate was moved to the east entrance of Gyeongbokgung, thus making the new structure ever more imposing. The street was divided into a boulevard with gingko trees in the middle.
After liberation from Japanese rule in 1945, change came slowly to the area at first, but the pace accelerated as the economy began to boom in the 1960s during the presidency of Park Chung-hee. As Park became more dictatorial in the 1970s, he turned to nationalism and began the process of “de-Japanizing” the area. In 1968, the Gwanghwamun gate was rebuilt in concrete near its original location. The statue of Adm. Yi Sun-sin was added, and the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts opened in 1978 to replace an auditorium that had burned.
After Park was assassinated in 1979, the pace of change slowed until President Kim Young-sam ordered the demolition of the Japanese Governor-General Building in 1993. Though controversial at the time, the decision removed the most prominent symbol of Japanese imperialism from the Seoul cityscape and created space for the restoration of Gyeongbokgung. That project included the demolition of the concrete Gwanghwamun gate to make way for a reconstruction of the Joseon-period gate in wood.
Mayor Oh’s 2009 remodeling of Gwanghwamun Plaza drew on the desire to frame the newly restored gate and Gyeongbokgung. The gold statue of King Sejong the Great was designed to add dignity to the space while paying homage to Korea’s most beloved historical figure.
The 2009 remodeling brought people back into the center of the space that had long been dominated by cars and buses. The current remodeling plans build on this effort by closing off the west lane of traffic and merging it with the existing plaza. This will create more space for people and greenery.
As the pandemic tore through the US in 2020, cities began to close off streets to traffic to create space for social distancing. Cities allowed shops and restaurants to use sidewalks for commerce while pedestrians walked in closed streets. They closed streets in densely populated neighborhoods so that residents could have more space outside. Pandemic-stricken cities in other countries adopted similar measures.
These developments suggest that public space is gradually becoming more democratic in its embrace of people over buildings and cars. The next step, of course, is involving citizens more directly in plans for public space. As the pandemic fades, should road closures become a regular part of city life? How should people and commerce share sidewalks? What kind of parks do people want?
Since the 1980s, citizens have, at times, appropriated the Gwanghwamun area as a space to express demands political change, but their involvement in plans for remodeling has been limited. To rectify the situation, Mayor Oh should move quickly to develop ways to increase citizen participation in decisions about public space, large and small, throughout the city.
Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org -- Ed.