Stories of a royal neighborhood

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Stories of a royal neighborhood

Deoksu Palace, in the Jeong-dong neighborhood at the heart of central Seoul, is often associated with romance these days. Considered an ideal site for wedding photos, the palace compound often seems under occupation by brides-to-be wearing veils and their best smiles.
The palace’s stone wall has a romantic legend of its own, though not a happy one; supposedly, a couple that strolls along the wall for its entire length is doomed to break up. But lovers don’t seem to heed this myth, especially on autumn days when the sidewalks are blanketed with postcard-perfect fallen leaves.
But it’s unlikely that King Gojong, the last king to reside in the palace in the late 19th century, associated the Deoksu Palace area with romantic feelings.
For the king, it was a residence of last resort, as he helplessly faced the end of his reign and of the five-century Joseon Dynasty. Nevertheless, according to the author of a new book, the neighborhood was dear to the king’s heart.
Kim Jeong-dong, a professor of architecture at Mokwon University, tells the tale of this much-storied area in a new Korean-language book, “Jeong-dong and Deoksu Palace, Beloved of King Gojong.”
The heavily illustrated volume delves into the neighborhood’s history since the late 19th century in considerable detail, with anecdotes that are likely to be new to Koreans as well as foreigners.
Jeong-dong was named for a concubine. King Taejo, founder of the Joseon Dynasty, buried his most beloved concubine there; the tomb was named Jeong-reung, which means “grave for a virtuous lady.” According to a legend, the front gate to today’s British Embassy, right next to Deoksu Palace, is where King Taejo, then an army general, fell in love with this woman at first sight.
By the end of the 19th century, the neighborhood was a significant place for Korea’s fledgling expatriate community as well as for the king.
After the “hermit kingdom” opened its doors to foreign countries in 1876, Jeong-dong became Korea’s first expat neighborhood. Foreigners chose it for its proximity to both the core of Seoul and to Mapo, where the ferry that brought visitors to Seoul from Incheon docked.
Americans first bought land in the area in 1883; soon Jeong-dong was home to the U.S. legation, as well as those of Britain, France and Russia. Anglican and Methodist churches were built (and are still there today). Locals called the area the “Westerners’ village.”
This tradition continues today, with the area still home to embassy compounds and official residences, always heavily guarded by police and making a curious contrast with the passers-by taking photographs of buildings like the Seoul Anglican Church with its Romanesque architecture.

Around the time that foreigners were establishing themselves in the neighborhood, the Deoksu Palace site itself was desolate. Built in the 16th century as a temporary home for King Seonjo after Gyeongbok Palace was burnt down, the site was used for centuries as a residence for peripheral relatives of the royal family. Not until the last years of King Gojong’s reign was the palace an official royal residence.
King Gojong’s court was split among factions that leaned toward one or another of the foreign powers surrounding Korea; there were pro-Japanese, pro-Chinese and pro-Russian factions, among others, and King Gojong’s authority was slipping away.
After Queen Myeongseong was slain in Gyeongbok Palace by Japanese assassins in 1895, the king grew fearful for his own safety. In 1896, he fled to the Russian legation in Jeong-dong, seeking protection, and stayed there until early 1897.
As discontent grew over the king’s absence from the palace, he decided to leave the Russian legation, but Gyeongbok Palace was the last place he wanted to go. So he picked today’s Deoksu Palace site, encompassed by the foreign legations and established buildings, as an official residence. In case of emergency, the king had a secret underground tunnel built from his quarters to the Russian legation; the remains of the entrance to the passageway can still be seen on the palace grounds.
In his book, Mr. Kim introduces a Russian architect, Afanasij Ivanobich Scredin Sabatin, who was in King Gojong’s favor. Designer of both the Russian and French legations, the architect was given the Korean name “Sapachin.”
The king had had a taste of a foreign lifestyle during his stay with the Russians, and wanted to mix and match Western and Korean tradition in constructing new buildings on the Deoksu Palace grounds.
So he had Mr. Sabatin come up with designs for buildings like the Sontag Hotel, which at first was for the exclusive use of the royal family. It was named for Antoinette Sontag, a Russian who advised the king on Western manners.
Other buildings in the palace compound employed Western architectural styles, which is what makes Deoksu’s atmosphere unique among the palaces in Seoul. Once the palace compound had been completed to his satisfaction, the king ordered a three-story limit on the height of surrounding buildings.
The king’s power, though, was on the wane. Japan won the struggle for Korea in 1905; in 1907, the colonial government dethroned King Gojong and installed the crown prince in his place as King Sunjong. The Japanese made Changdeok Palace the official royal residence, leaving King Gojong to spend the last years of his life in Deoksu Palace, where he died in 1919.
Mr. Kim said that what most motivated him to write the book was an apparent discrepancy having to do with the size of the Deoksu Palace compound as it exists today, which is not even a fifth of the size of Gyeongbok Palace. He says that the present-day site is too small to have been an official royal residence.
Based on old maps and documents, which he discovered in Japan and other countries, Mr. Kim asserts that the Deoksu Palace compound was actually far larger than one would assume from what’s preserved today.
He says the palace grounds actually included half of what’s now City Hall Plaza, as well as the land where the Koreana Hotel and the Chosun Ilbo building stand today. Mr. Kim writes that the years of colonial rule, and later the rapid urban development of the 1960s, took their toll on the palace compound.
The Cultural Heritage Administration started restoration work on the palace earlier this year; it’s expected to be finished around the year 2008. When it’s complete, Koreans will see the site of the last memories of the Joseon Dynasty from yet another new perspective.

by Chun Su-jin
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