[FOUNTAIN]Korea is a museumA Yeungnam University professor and renowned art critic, Yoo Hong-joon, has commented that our entire nation is a museum. The highlight of the “Museum Korea” collection could be the royal palaces in Seoul. Jeong Do-jeon built Gyeongbok Palace in 1395 under Mount Samgak; since then four more ― Changdeok Palace, Changgyeong Palace, Gyeonghui Palace and Deoksu Palace ― were built to house the royal family of the Joseon Dynasty. Occasional fires and wars destroyed many of the structures, but most of the buildings in the five palatial sites in Seoul have been restored in the last 100 years.
When young King Gojong ascended to the throne in the late 19th century, the first project Prince Regent Daewon promoted was an overall restoration of the palaces. The main royal quarters of the Yi dynasty, Gyeongbok Palace, was the priority. Prince Regent Daewon put political significance on the project, thinking that rebuilding the grandeur of the palaces would help recover the dignity of the royal family, which, although nominally the ruling line, had been manipulated by an aristocratic family, the Kims of Andong.
The restoration work became a burden on the royal treasury, but it also represented the essence of Korean heritage.
King Gojong had a political motive when he ordered Deoksu Palace to be renovated. After fleeing to the Russian legation for protection, he moved his residence there when he named himself an emperor. Formerly, Deoksu Palace had been a relatively humble establishment, and King Gojong had most of the structures built when he moved in.
If Prince Regent Daewon and King Gojong tried to save the declining dynasty by building grand structures, Japan ruined the palaces, hoping to sweep away the remaining presence of the royal family. Imperial Japan installed its colonial government in Gyeongbok Palace.
Gyeongbok Palace began to recover its dignity in 1995, when President Kim Young-sam tore down the Japanese colonial government building. Now Korea and the United States are discussing a new embassy building at the site of Gyeonggi Girls High School, once a part of Deoksu Palace. Historical relics were reportedly discovered during the site examination. The entire nation of Korea is a museum, and we should be especially careful when it comes to a palace site.
by Oh Byung-sang
The writer is London correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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