Onerous history puts building’s fate in questionHwang Pyeong-woo was shocked when he first walked last year into Jungmyeongjeon. The once-grand, two-story royal library, a temporary home for Korea’s last independent king and later granted by him to Seoul’s foreign community for use as a social club, was in a terrible state.
Amid rolling soju bottles on the second-floor terrace and office debris from commercial tenants, the site has turned into “an irreclaimable mess,” according to Mr. Hwang, a historian and a director of the Korea Cultural Heritage Policy Research Institute.
On Jeongdong street neighboring the Russian Embassy and Jeongdong Theater, it was the scene 100 years ago where Japanese soldiers strong-armed King Gojong into signing the Eulsa Treaty of 1905, which took away Korea’s diplomatic rights to conduct business with other countries. Despite the building’s historical value ― marked simply now by a plastic sign on the building’s entrance ― the empty front yard lot is being used as a parking lot for visitors to Jeongdong Theater, to whom the government sold its business rights in 2003 for 4.9 billion won ($4.8 million).
The plastic sign indicates that the site has been designated by the Seoul government as a cultural property, but the building’s condition makes it hard to believe it was once part of the royal property.
“If we remind ourselves, this is still a palatial landmark that belongs to Deoksu Palace,” says Mr. Hwang, who filed a claim blocking the construction of a new apartment and U.S. embassy complex on part of the former Deoksu Palace grounds three years ago. “It’s a painful wound of our history for this building to be apart from the palace.”
Architecturally, Jungmyeongjeon is one of Seoul’s first red-brick buildings, and is believed to have been designed by a Russian architect. It showcases some of the essential styles of 19th century European architecture including arch-shaped window frames, decorative eaves and tiles, which experts say were shipped from Russia. In 1904, Deoksu palace caught fire and most of the second floor of Jungmyeonjeon was destroyed, but the palace and the other buildings nearby underwent restoration. Gojong lived there from 1904 to 1907.
Now, the red-brick facades of the building have been painted over in white. The only part of the interior that is original are some tiles in the entrance way, says Peter Bartholomew, an American expatriate and expert on traditional architecture. The exterior, however, still has eye-catching aesthetics that stop viewers from afar.
The tragedy of Jungmyeongjeon is the tragedy of the late Joseon Dynasty, which fell shortly after Korea signed away its rights to Japan. Documents from the period reveal disgraceful scenes. King Gojong is shown surrounded by Japanese soldiers pressuring him to sign the 1905 Eulsa Treaty with Japan. A secretary at the U.S. Embassy ― then located right next to Jungmyeongjeon and now the site of the U.S. ambassador’s residence ― was said to have observed the entire scene from the balcony and admitted the signing was forcefully carried out by Japan. The treaty eventually led to Japan annexing Korea in August 1910. Nine years later King Gojong, the last emperor of Joseon Dynasty, died. The original atmosphere of the treaty was so distasteful that there was even a phrase coined from the incident called “eulsinyeon seurepda,” an adjective describing a nasty and shameful mood. Gojong was so disenchanted with the building, that he gave it to the foreign community as a recreational club, named the Seoul Club (which now exists on Namsan) in 1915. It was later occupied by U.S. troops.
Kim Young-san, a spokesman at the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, says Jungmyeongjeon will undergo a restoration in March; it will partly be used as a performance hall and a dressing room for the theater performers. But historians disagree with the idea, saying the space needs to be turned into a library or a museum that could store research archives related to the colonial history of Korea.
“We thought the building needs to be used as a lively space rather than for a single purpose,” says Mr. Kim during a hearing on the building’s preservation earlier this month.
Mr. Hwang says Jungmyeongjeon’s controversial history is precisely the reason why the Korean government is not making efforts to properly restore the building.
“Just because it reveals a shameful part of our history doesn’t mean we should get rid of it,” he says. “Instead of being anti-Japanese, Koreans need to start becoming ‘post-Japanese’ now. We need to overcome our history. To do that we should also redefine the meaning of ‘cultural heritage’ and leave these sites as a living witness of historical savage as a lesson for our descendants.”
Indeed, the colonial history of Korea is so sensitive that decades after the country’s independence from Japan there are still debates as to whether the government should fund the preservation of houses owned by some of the central figures of Korean politics and art who were regarded as pro-Japanese.
The Capitol Building, which was in front of Gwanghwamun and used as the Japanese headquarters during the colonial period, was demolished in 1995 on the 50th anniversary of Korea’s independence from Japan despite its value as a central symbol of modern Korean history.
The talk for the restoration of the hanok house of Seo Jeong-ju, a renowned poet who was accused of being pro-Japanese, is still facing nationalist opponents, who view the author a traitor to the country. But other countries have dealt with traumatic historical events differently, such as Japan’s preservation of the bombed dome building at Hiroshima or the German extermination camp at Auschwitz, Poland.
Progressive historians such as Jeon Myeong-hyeok, believe that there should be a difference between “memorial” and “archive,” saying the current government doesn’t see the importance of a historical record.
Mr. Hwang is outraged that the government will allow part of the space to be used as a dressing room for Jeongdong Theater performers. He believes the government needs to take stronger action for the preservation of cultural properties in the city in order to fight against potentially harmful commercial interests.
“The beauty of a city is within the history, whether good or bad,” he says. “Simply trying to erase the history is an act of breaking the vein of the present from the past.”
by Park Soo-mee