The Blue House ― and the people’s houseFifteen years ago, two college students walking the streets of Samcheong-dong were stopped by four Blue House guards in black suits. Seeing the maps the students were carrying, the guards asked them who they were.
“What are you guys doing here?” one of the guards asked. “This map has more information than one should know.”
The students explained that they were conducting a survey on the number of smokers in the area.
“Do you have any sense about where you are?” one of the guards said. “See the walls on your left? It’s the Blue House. Follow us.”
The students were allowed to leave after a senior researcher for the census company arrived at the scene.
Not so long ago, as this story illustrates, it was hard for Korean citizens even to come near the Blue House.
Now it’s one of Korea’s most popular tourist destinations. Last year it attracted 350,000 people. That number is expected to go up this year, with the Blue House having increased the frequency of tours as of last month. An average of 10,000 tourists a week have visited since then.
Tours are held four times daily, except on Sundays, Mondays, holidays and the second and third Saturdays of each month. To join a tour, e-mail a request two weeks in advance to firstname.lastname@example.org, including your name, address and passport number. Tours, unfortunately, are not given in English. For more information, call (02) 730-5800 (automated English service is available).
Incidentally, one of those students who was stopped by Blue House guards 15 years ago is now a business reporter for a Korean newspaper. Another is a travel reporter for the JoongAng Ilbo.
Entering the Blue House
The tour of the Blue House begins at Chunchugwan, where the pressroom is located.
The name comes from the term for a Joseon Dynasty government office where royal events were documented. It’s the only building in the Blue House that uses a traditional name. Admission to the building is currently prohibited to the general public.
Tours move straight on to the showroom. Here, visitors watch a video presentation that lasts about four minutes, introducing the major buildings on the Blue House grounds.
As the guide explains, the video is necessary because the tour, unlike that of the White House in Washington, D.C., doesn’t take visitors inside the presidential residence.
In the showroom, visitors are scanned for security purposes, creating a certain amount of tension. You are entering the modern equivalent of a royal palace.
Nokjiwon: Walking like a president
Over the hill past the showroom, there is a stretch of green. This garden, called Nokjiwon, has about 120 kinds of trees, including one large pine that is 156 years old. Sometimes rabbits graze here.
This is the most beautiful place on the Blue House grounds. It was once used for military training, when it was part of the Gyeongbok Palace grounds. On Children’s Day, the garden is used for public events.
Nokjiwon was opened to the public after the Roh Moo-hyun administration entered the Blue House. In the past, visitors could only peek into the garden from outside. Now, people can even stroll along the walkways surrounding the grass.
This is where President Roh and his wife often take walks. To prevent the President from tripping on this path, Blue House staff have it smoothed on a regular basis. Walking on this path feels different after you hear that.
Asked whether President Roh comes here often, a guard smiles and says, “He’s very busy these days.”
There is a beautiful hanok on Nokjiwon called Sangchunjae. Built in 1983, it is mostly used for unofficial meetings with important foreign guests. In recent years, British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited here.
The guide hints that the persimmons that grow on the grounds every fall taste very good, but adds that this is “a security matter.”
‘The most fortunate land on earth’
There is a small hill on the Blue House grounds where the presidential residence used to be. It’s the former site of Kyeongmudae, where the history of the Blue House began.
This site was central to modern Korean history. There are remnants of the past here, such as a sculpture in the shape of a traditional pot, which was saved from the old building when it was demolished.
During the Joseon Dynasty, this was called Sugungteo; it was where the royal archers were stationed.
In 1939, the Japanese government established its headquarters here. In 1948, it became the residence of an American general.
During the 1960s, the place was known as KMD for short. In those years, “KMD” symbolized absolute power in Korea. When former dissident Kim Young-sam became president, his administration demolished the building, along with the old Japanese headquarters on the Gyeongbok Palace grounds.
Photography is not allowed here, mainly because the official residence of the president is just behind the hill. The president’s residence was separated from his offices in 1991, after the new main building of the Blue House was completed.
An interesting fact is that the presidential residence observes tradition when it comes to the raising of children in the royal family. In ancient Korea, a king’s offspring, whether a prince or a princess, could not live in their parents’ palace once they got married. By custom, the same rules apply in the Blue House.
Just behind the official residence is a stone monument bearing the phrase “the most fortunate land on earth.” This probably refers to feng shui theory. It is widely known, however, that according to feng shui, the Blue House is not located on a site that brings good fortune.
“According to some feng shui experts, Kyeongmudae is land made for the gods,” explained Choi Jun-sik, a professor of Korean studies at Ewha Womans University. “It’s land that is overwhelmed with energy that humans can’t handle.
“In the Joseon Dynasty, the experts excluded this parcel of land from Gyeongbok palace,” Mr. Choi continued. “But strangely, the colonial government under Japan decided to set up a building here. The latter part of the lives of people who live on land like this tend to be bad.”
There may be something to this theory. We know about the ill fates met by the presidents who served their terms here before Kim Young-sam destroyed the building. Regardless, this is historic land.
Before leaving this hill, one passes a parking lot on the left. This is where government ministers park their cars when they arrive for state meetings.
Asked whether parking spaces are assigned according to rank, the guide says, “It used to be like that. Now it’s first come, first served.”
Past an iron gate is the main building of the Blue House, a familiar sight to anyone who watches the evening news in Korea.
The building’s lobby was opened to the public by the Roh administration, and the lobby is as far as tour groups get. At this point, the guide lowers his voice. On the first floor are the first lady’s offices, and on the second floor are the president’s.
Construction of this building began in 1989. It took two years to complete. It had become clear that a more spacious building was needed; when U.S. President George H.W. Bush visited in 1989, there wasn’t enough space in the lobby of the main building to accomodate his security guards.
According to a guide, some older visitors adjust their clothing at this point; some even bow to the building. One could complain that such gestures are anachronistic in a democracy, but the sense of awe is understandable; the building does have the commanding presence of an old palace.
Incidentally, the name “Cheonghwadae,” or Blue House, was coined by President Yun Bo-seon in the 1960s, in reference to the White House in the United States. When Park Chung Hee took over, there were some government officials who insisted that it be renamed “Hwangwadae,” arguing that yellow (“hwang”) is the true color of an emperor in Korean tradition.
Youngbingwan is the last stop on the Blue House tour. This is a building that hosts major conferences and official events when important guests are here. It was built by Park Chung Hee in 1978. Before then, major state events were held in a traditional hanok building in the Silla Hotel near Mount Namsan, which still bears the name Youngbingwan as well.
The entrance to Youngbingwan in the Blue House has columns 13 meters high. The stone originated in Jinan, North Jeolla province.
The building is on the site of what once was a field where kings maintaned farms. during the Joseon Dynasty. In tribute to this tradition, in front of Youngbingwan, there is a map of the Korean Peninsula landscaped out of grass.
Most visitors take their last snapshots at this point. If you are lucky, you might get to meet the president, who sometimes takes photos with visitors.
But that, of course, is only if you are lucky.
by Son Min-ho