Makeover for old spy headquarters

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Makeover for old spy headquarters

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The place where South Korea’s former military dictatorship was most cruel ― the National Intelligence Service (NIS) headquarters on Namsan ― is being transformed into a host of cultural venues.
The Sanlim Literature Hall opened on the site of the old barracks of the intelligence service guards last month. This is the first time since the Seoul city government took over the site in 1996 that it has completely demolished a former NIS building and constructed a new one.
The National Forestry Cooperatives Federation and Yuhan-Kimberly paid 1.4 billion won ($1.3 million) to build the venue with 1,057 square meters (11,386 feet) of floor space. After construction it donated the completed building to the city. Literature House, Seoul, which is located in front of the new hall, is a remodeled version of the old official residence of the NIS chief. Its opening attracted a lot of attention.
“With the opening of the literature hall, we are considering a number of programs for the old NIS site to clean its stained historical reputation and be reborn as a place for the citizens of Seoul,” a Seoul city official said.
The literature hall has a glass facade through which the entire profile of Namsan is visible. Being the former annex to the official residence of the intelligence chief, this building is surrounded by the ridges of Namsan. Inside the literature hall, there is an auditorium, a book cafe, a seminar room and a screening room. On the balcony you can view the Literature House and the six-story NIS building beyond. The latter is now used by the Seoul Metropolitan Fire and Disaster Management Department. The main building of the NIS, where Seoul National University’s law professor Choi Jong-gil was tortured to death, has been remodeled and will be used as a youth hostel, which will open in March. There is now also a cartoon museum among the old NIS buildings.
Including the literature hall, 16 buildings on the site were once used by the NIS, starting in 1972.
When the agency moved to Naegok-dong, Seocho district, in 1996, the city of Seoul took over the site. The Naegok-dong site was originally owned by the city; hence the two sites were traded. From 1997, the city of Seoul moved a lot of its departments to this site. The Construction Safety Management Office of the Seoul Development Institute has been in residence there before. Now the Seoul Foundation of Arts and Culture, the Cheonggye stream restoration headquarters and the Seoul Metropolitan Fire and Disaster Management Department are there. The area of restored buildings is virtually a second city hall.
In 1996 when Seoul city took over the site, there were 33 buildings covering 82,644 square meters. The city demolished small bunkers and guard posts and left only sixteen buildings in an effort to reclaim the natural environment of Namsan. The large bunker where countless cases of tortures had occurred over the years has been left with its original facade, but today it houses the Seoul fire department.
The new uses for the old NIS site are controversial. In one case involving the former main NIS building, the council of Jung district filed a lawsuit to the Constitutional Court of Korea, claiming that the usage of the main NIS building should be made in line with the city park law. This is why the city is converting this building into a youth hostel, at a cost of 7 billion won. Half of the main building will be used as a youth hostel and the other half will be used as a youth library. Some say that the site should be used as a historical monument.
“The site should not be used as the city desires, but should be preserved as an educational site about democracy and human rights,” said Yang Geum-sik of the Korea Democracy Foundation. But the transformation has already begun.


by Kwon Keun-young

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