Blocked by the past

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Blocked by the past

Heritage fears stymie plans for new U.S. Embassy

Korea and the United States reached an agreement in 1984 to move the U.S. Embassy from Gwanghwamun avenue, in the heart of Seoul, to behind Deoksu Palace.

The United States has one of the biggest diplomatic presences of any nation in Korea. In its quest for a new embassy, the U.S. government wants to build a 15-floor office building (plus 2 below ground) and an eight-floor apartment complex, enough for 54 families. But the United States also wants to build these new facilities on a site behind Deoksu Palace in downtown Seoul. Unfortunately, the site is where the foundations of Deoksu Palace originally stood, and some civic groups aren't about to stand for any new construction there.

Groups such as the Citizen's Network for Cultural Reform have protested the construction of the new embassy, calling it inappropriate due to the site's historical value and because of the risk of destroying cultural assets. At the building site in question there was also a girl's high school built under Japanese rule, but at the time no one could prevent possible destruction of cultural assets.

The embassy tried to do a preliminary investigation of cultural assets that might be buried around the planned site, but all of the organizations that were asked refused.

"We were asked to do an investigation, but the decision is still pending whether to accept the request or not," said Lim Seung-kyung, an official at the National Research Institute of Cultural Properties. The institute had performed a preliminary investigation in 1999 for the building site where the Russian Embassy now sits.

Without a preliminary investigation of the site for cultural artifacts, the construction cannot go forward. And if the embassy cannot find anyone who is willing to conduct an investigation, the government will be forced to name an organization.

If there are any significant findings, the Cultural Properties Administration would be in charge of making a final decision on how to protect the site. Depending on the decision the construction could be canceled or plans could be altered. If nothing turns up, the construction would go ahead as scheduled, provided it does not violate any other regulations.

Korea and the United States reached an agreement in 1984 to move the U.S. embassy some time in the future to the site behind Deoksu Palace, where the ambassador's and other officials' residences are now. Last year in December the embassy presented its building plan to the city of Seoul, including an evaluation of the influence on traffic.

Nevertheless, due to the lack of enough parking, the plan was rejected by the city. According to the current regulations, the new embassy should have a parking capacity of 529 vehicles, but its plans only provide for 116. The embassy argued that it took the regulation into account when drawing up the construction plans, and requested an amendment to the current parking space regulations, but was rejected by the city. In May, the embassy requested the cooperation of the Ministry of Construction and Transportation, which sparked the current controversy as the facts became known to the public. The current regulations do not make any exceptions for foreign embassies that might need special consideration.

For now the embassy has no plans to halt its embassy construction, as it announced on July 4 at a press conference. It reaffirmed its stance in a meeting on July 26, with a delegation of civic groups.

At a news conference Tuesday, the newly elected Seoul Mayor Lee Myung-bak said that a decision should be made according to the current rules and that the case should not be approached emotionally. The mayor's comment drew fire from civic groups because before being elected, the mayor had said that the construction of a new embassy was against the historical and cultural interests of the Jeong-dong area. But now, one city official said that if the embassy meets all the requirements, technically there would be no grounds to deny the construction.

As one official said, if the American Embassy changes its construction plans to meet the parking space requirement, the construction will go ahead as scheduled. Civic groups are urging the government to repurchase the building site and name the Jeong-dong area a special cultural district, and instead offer the embassy an alternative site.

Kim Sung-han, an official with the National Research Institute of Cultural Properties, emphasized that they do not oppose the construction because it is the American Embassy. "In the case of the other foreign embassies in the area," he said, "they are not directly on the grounds where the palace once was. The planned American Embassy is directly on the grounds."

Another regulation forbids any building to be built around the Deoksu Palace taller than a 27-degree angle from the palace's viewpoint. But the new building is said to meet this regulation.

Dr. Alden Stallings, deputy public affairs officer of the embassy, said that the embassy is working with the government to come up with a solution and it has no intentions of going forward with the construction if any regulations are not met. But the official also noted that the embassy does not have any alternative plans if the planned construction falls through. "As it is, we face a practical problem here," he said, "because we do not have any obvious options at the moment."

by Nam Koong-wook

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