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Great Wall of Seoul? A city stands its ground

Seoul’s fortress is to be rebuilt and its landmark gate relocated.

Feb 23,2006
For centuries, an 11-mile fortress hemmed in a royal city already abutting high mountain peaks and steep hills. Now, Seoul is the world’s most wired city. Its skyscrapers overshadow a landscape that had once been 116 acres of green valley and now houses 12 million people.
The fortress walls are long gone, but now, 600 years after the fortress was erected, and at least 100 years since the ramparts were torn down, the central government has decided to bring the stone walls back.
The idea is part of a long-term cultural plan by a government-funded agency that is planning to make Seoul worthy of being designated a “World Heritage City” by Unesco. (The cultural arm of the United Nations has so far designed 130 sites around the world as historic cities, based on the local identity and particular features that were preserved during urban growth.)
“During the Joseon Dynasty, Seoul had been a carefully planned city, both for beauty and for security, according to the priciples of feng shui (a type of Chinese architecture emphazing energy),” said Park Hui-ung, a researcher at the Cultural Heritage Administration. “If we could just restore the remaining artifacts and show that many have been preserved within the city, there’s no reason why Seoul cannot be a great historic city.”
The Cultural Heritage Administration announced last month its 10-year plan to restore Seoul into the “beautiful ancient city as it was,” or so the new motto for the agency goes. Seoul Fortress is first on the agenda.
The plan was pushed ahead after Noh Tae-seob, the former head of the Cultural Heritage Administration, repeatedly stated during his term that, “Seoul Fortress is as valuable as the Great Wall of China.”
Of course, the fortress wall is much shorter than the Chinese structure, Mr. Noh admitted, but the construction technology that was involved and its current condition are much better ― two reasons he said the government should launch a massive effort to restore the fortress.
Though it’s hardly visible, the fortress has not completely vanished. Sections of the walls lay scattered around the city, making up for a combined 10.5 kilometers (6.5 miles). Most of that is up in the mountains, where the fortress followed the ridgeline. According to old records, the entire fortress wall was 18.2 kilometers long.
The Korean government has already designated and numbered as historical spots the remaining sections of the wall, though little effort has been made to preserve them.
One section is in the Seosomun area, which was named after a small gate in the fortress (Seosomun literally means “west small gate”). Standing next to the Korea Chamber of Commerce building and the Taepyeongno Post Office, it doesn’t look at all like a medieval wall, because the district propped regular stones against the ruins to prevent the walls from breaking apart. Those who look closely at the light gray structure can see a small plate plastered on one side, stating that the concrete piece was indeed part of Seoul’s fortress.
Most of the 7.7 kilometers of the wall that are now missing were destroyed during the colonial period when the walls were torn down to make tramways and pave streets ― one reason why ancient structures such as Namdaemun (Great South Gate), Dongdaemun (Great East Gate) and the recently restored Bukdaemun (Great North Gate) stand isolated in the middle of Seoul traffic. Of the four great gates and four small gates that once pierced the fortress, the three great gates mentioned above and one small gate called Changuimun, near Mount Bukak, remain.

Old map of Seoul commissioned by the Joseon king in the mid-18th century shows the location of the fortress walls. Provided by Jongno district office

During the Joseon Dynasty, Seoul was a small planned city in a basin surrounded by four major mountains: Mount Inwang to the west (now the Jongno area), Mount Nak to the east (near Daehangno), Mount Bukak (behind the Blue House) to the north and Mount Mokmyeok, generally known as Namsan, to the south. Korea’s royalty laid down their palaces smack in the middle.
The inner area of the fortress is now only a section of Seoul’s downtown area, but the building of the walls required nearly 120,000 workers, who were mobilized throughout the peninsula to build the structure in 1395, during the time of the Joseon Dynasty’s first king, Yi Seong-gye.
Somewhat ironically, poor inter-Korean relations have helped preserve sections of the wall; the Cultural Heritage Administration said the remains around Mounts Inwang and Bukak are in good shape because visitors have been barred from walking the mountains behind the Blue House since a North Korean commando raid in 1968.
The agency will do the job of mending those structures and putting up stone markers and monuments along the track where the fortress wall had once stood.
“We can’t actually enclose the entire city the way it used to be,” said Jang Cheol-ho, a member of the promotion team at the administration. “But we are going to follow the traces as much as possible so that most of the fortress regains its shape.”
The administration said Seoul will not be ready to apply to Unesco for recognition as a historic city for at least three years from now. It also expects to need more than 2 billion won ($2 million) just to restore the 2.5-kilometer wall section in the Mount Inwang area.
In line with the Seoul Historic City Project, the Cultural Heritage Administration also suggested that the government lift the security restrictions on entering the mountain behind the Blue House and moving Gwanghwamun (the stone gate that makes up the entrance of the Gyeongbok Palace) to its original site, saying the gate had had not been properly restored after a century of war and poverty.
The Seoul city government was less than receptive to the idea of moving the gate, nor pleased at being left out of the planning.
“The construction would block the flow of traffic,” one Seoul city official said last month. He was particularly opposed to moving Gwanghwamun.
According to the agency’s plan, the tile-roof stone gate would be scooted up 15 meters (49 feet) away from the palace. A new public square would also bulge out from the gate, intruding into the area around the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the U.S. Embassy, because another grassy area would be formed around the gate, forcing the current street to adopt a curved shape.
“The Gwanghwamun restoration plan is merely what the agency is hoping for,” the official said.
Some critics have attacked the plan as another forced reconstruction that Seoul’s residents don’t want, while others interpreted the cultural agency’s plan as a political ploy to help the head of the agency run in the local election in May and the presidential election next year.
“Restoring the historical space is not so easy,” said a statement by the group Culture Action, an advocacy group for cultural movements. “This plan needs more than a mere theory from a single governmental agency, it needs more time for experts to ponder the details of the plan.”
The agency, however, insists that its plan is a good one.
“The Seoul Historic City Project has been planned for the past several years,” an official at the Cultural Heritage Administration said. “It’s absurd to speculate that the agency is just doing something for political reasons.”
Nevertheless, a month after the Seoul official’s denunciations of the plan, the agency and other government groups decided to move Gwanghwamun gate and that the move would be managed at the prime minister’s office.
“The government has set aside 5 billion won to rebuild Gwanghwamun’s main structure,” said Yoo Hong-jun, director of the Cultural Heritage Administration, during a news conference last week.
A new Gwanghwamun structure is to be built from its original wood in the original location, far south in the area, by 2009, he said.
The gate, first built in 1398, was destroyed by Japanese invaders in the late 16th century and was rebuilt in 1865. It was torn down again and moved to make room for the Japanese governor’s building during the colonial period from 1910 to 1945.
The gate was destroyed again by aerial bombing during the Korean War and was re-rebuilt in 1968.
Mr. Yoo wants the area near Gwanghwamun to be turned into a cultural complex worthy of Unesco’s approval.


by Lee Min-a


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