[Viewpoint] Revive our history’s forgotten plaza

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[Viewpoint] Revive our history’s forgotten plaza

The King Sejong statue unveiling ceremony was splendid. The statue matches Gwanghwamun Plaza perfectly. It will instill a sense of pride in our history in the minds of the people. From it radiates a feeling of camaraderie between the powerful and the people. It has become a place to take commemorative photographs.

A huge amount of taxpayer money, around 45 billion won ($38 million), was spent on the creation of the plaza. Yet there are many things about it that seem a little insufficient. First of all, the plaza is too small. It is isolated in the middle of the street. It is difficult to stay there long because of the crowds and car fumes. It is more like an exhibition hall than a plaza.

It reminds me of Yeouido Plaza, a place that disappeared 10 years ago. That memory does not come to mind just because it contrasts with Gwanghwamun Plaza.

Oct. 1 was Armed Forces Day in Korea and the 60th anniversary of National Foundation Day in China. President Lee Myung-bak held a formal military inspection at the parade ground of the Gyeryong military base in South Chungcheong. The formal military inspection of the People’s Liberation Army by Chinese President Hu Jintao was held at Tiananmen Square, Beijing.

The parade ground of the Gyeryong military base is a lawn and looks rustic. It is small and shabby compared to Tiananmen Square, which is huge. Tiananmen Square is the largest square in the world. We once had something similar to it. This was Yeouido Plaza, which was similar in size and utility. The Armed Forces Day parade used to be held there. But they closed it in 1997. The asphalt pavement was removed to create a park. The plaza was stigmatized wrongfully as a remnant of Korea’s military culture, although it was not only a place for use by the military.

It was a place where one could feel the living history of 20th-century Korea. During the Japanese occupation, the imperialists built an airfield on Yeouido islet. This was the place where the legend of the first Korean pilot, An Chang-nam, was created. His test flight in 1922 gave the people respite from their suffering. Three days after independence, the advance party of the Provisional Korean Government in Shanghai stayed on Yeouido for a while. The leaders of the Korean Independence Army - Lee Beom-seok, Chang Jun-ha and Kim Joon-yup - disembarked from an American military transport plane at the airfield.

Development of Yeouido started in the 1960s. Ceremonies such as the send-off of Korean soldiers dispatched to the Vietnam War and celebrations of the achievement of export goals were held there, too. A plaza was created in the place of the airfield. It was first called the May 16 Plaza. National Wind 1981, a large-scale culture festival, was held there during the Chun Doo Hwan administration. While the country was under military dictatorship, most students and ordinary citizens found themselves taken to Yeouido at least once. This was the mobilization of the people for government events. It was also a place where the thirst for democracy exploded. During the 1987 presidential election, candidates Roh Tae-woo, Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung attracted a crowd of one million people to the plaza.

In the 20th century, Korea achieved both industrialization and democratization. These accomplishments were made amid friction and confrontation, oppression and resistance. Yeouido Plaza was the stage where this intense modern history unfolded. Depending on one’s generation and class, people cherish different experiences and memories of the plaza.

The plaza disappeared without notice despite a lack of public consensus on its transformation into a park. The park is the work of Seoul City. When Cho Soon was mayor, the city emphasized efficient use of space, and people with biased historical views took advantage of the trend. Foolish third-class left-wingers ran wild. They distorted the historical truth of the plaza. The plaza was condemned as a site of the dictatorship and military culture.

The loss of the plaza is a tragedy caused by a biased lack of historical awareness. We lost the plaza because of poor imagination when Kim Dae-jung was president. Toward the end of his term, even he pointed out, “Getting rid of Yeouido Plaza and creating a park is wrong.” However, it was too late to stop the project, and he had already parted with Mayor Cho Soon politically.

Yeouido Park is a banal place. There are traditional Korean woods, ponds and pavilions in the park. It is not in good shape. I worry that foreigners will compare the ponds there with traditional Japanese ponds. Most Yeouido residents go to the Han River Park rather than Yeouido. Ten years ago, around 50,000 people on average rode bicycles and roller-skated at the plaza on holidays. Yeouido Park does not have better utility and accessibility than the plaza did.

Yeouido Park should be born again. A government official said, “Part of it can be used as a park and the rest can be used as a plaza again. The trees can be moved to another place.”

It should be revived as a symbol of our modern history. It is also necessary for national unification and the generations that will come in the future. It is worth it to build a historical exhibition hall that shows everything “from An Chang-nam to the explosion of democratization movement” at the Yeouido Plaza. Gwanghwamun Plaza, with its Joseon Dynasty image, and Yeouido Plaza, with its modern history, will complement each other.

*The writer is the executive editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Park Bo-gyoon
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