Palace Gets More Than a Paint Job

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Palace Gets More Than a Paint Job

The Cultural Property Administration at the Ministry of Culture and Tourism is in the middle of a mammoth project to restore and renovate the largest and most significant palace in Korea, Gyeongbok-gung. Several major features, such as Heungrye-mun, one of the main gates of the palace, are about to reopen to the public, as early as next month.

The Japanese colonial period began in 1910, when Korea was annexed to Japan. Korea remained under Japanese rule until the end of World War II. During the period, many cultural assets in Korea, including Gyeongbok-gung, a royal palace of the Choson Dynasty, were damaged by the Japanese.

The Japanese pulled down many parts of Heungrye-mun when they held a ceremony in the palace to commemorate their fifth year of ruling Korea. The gate then disappeared completely in 1916 when an office building for the occupation government was built in place of the palace gate and its galleries.

In 1996, half a century after the nation's regained its independence, the Korean government demolished the building that symbolized Japan's colonialism, and about a year later, it began to restore the old Gyeongbok palace. In the process of restoring the complex, Heungrye-mun and the neighboring buildings were also brought back to their original appearance.

Gyeongbok-gung used to have three front gates, in accordance with ancient construction traditions. Gwanghwa-mun, for instance, was the outer gate of the palace whereas Heungrye-mun and Geunjeong-mun were located within the palace complex. Geunjeong-mun was the main entrance for Geunjeong-jeon where the government officials saluted the king in the morning. When a visitor entered Geunjeong-jeon from the outside, he would pass through the gates, Gwanghwa-mun, Heungrye-mun and Geunjeong-mun in order.

In addition to the restoration of Heungrye-mun, its east and west galleries, Yuhwa-mun and Gibyeol-cheong, were also restored. Other reconstruction projects include a 150 meter-long royal road between Heungrye-mun and Geunjeong-jeon, where the king walked, and Yeongje-gyo, the bridge over Geumcheon stream that flowed between Heungrye-mun and Geunjeong-mun.


In maps produced early in the Choson Dynasty, Heungrye-mun was the jeongmun, that is the main gate of the whole Gyeongbok-gung palace complex. The original name, Hongrye-mun, was changed to Heungrye-mun much later in order to avoid using the Chinese character "hong."

It was considered disrespectful to use the character because it was also the part of "Hong-ryeok" (pronounced "Hung-li" in Chinese), the name of a Chinese emperor in the 18th century.

The recent renovations are based on records of the King Gojong era when the Japanese damaged the gate, therefore the revised name, Heungrye-mun, stays.

Heungrye-mun is located between Gwanghwa-mun and Geunjeong-mun. The two-story structure is about 5.4 meters wide and 3.6 meters deep.


Yuhwa-mun is the entrance located west of Heungrye-mun. The entrance is about the same size as Heungrye-mun and Geunjeong-mun. Originally, just outside of Yuhwa-mun, there was Bincheong, a building used for cabinet meetings. Government officials from outside the palace usually passed through Gwanghwa-mun, Heungrye-mun and then Yuhwa-mun to enter Bincheong.


Gibyeol-cheong, north of Yuhwa-mun, was the office that recorded and distributed the messages of Seungjeong-won, the organization in charge of receiving and carrying out the king's orders. Gibyeol-choeng consists of two rooms with ondol, floor-heating, and two offices. The building was 3.6 meters wide and 3.6 meters deep. Gibyeol-choeng, which is a part of galleries of Heungrye-mun, has a structure similar to those galleries.

What's Been Done and What's to Come

The plan to thoroughly renovate the whole Gyeongbok-gung complex started in 1990. By 1995, 12 buildings used as bedchambers for the king and the queens were renovated and reconstructed including Gangnyeong-jeon, where the king resided.

Following the reconstruction of those residence halls, another 18 chambers were rebuilt, such as those where princes stayed and another five old structures including an east gate. There was also the reconstruction of Gyeonghoeru, the beautiful pavilion over the pond, completed in 1999.

Still to come are plans to reconstruct 33 buildings, including a chamber for the kings' concubines, scheduled to be finished by 2003, as well as Gwanghwa-mun and Geoncheong-gung, a palace building, to be completed by 2009.

The reconstruction of the whole Gyeongbok-gung complex between 1990 and 2009 is an ambitious work that is expected to cost more than 179 billion won (about $137 million). It will be, however, impossible to fully restore the original complex because many of the old structure foundations were completely destroyed during the Japanese colonial period.

Without knowledge of the original foundations, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to know with any degree of accuracy all the original palace buildings.

by Yoo Kwang-jong

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