[Viewpoint] Seoul needs no protection from joy

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[Viewpoint] Seoul needs no protection from joy

Last week another controversy struck Korean society. Everyone had an opinion to express about the snowboard jump slope erected in the middle of Sejongno in central Seoul. Some said it was inappropriate to build an amusement park over a national symbol - Gwanghwamun - while others said it was a creative and fun idea.

I was on the latter side. It was delightful to see snowboarders’ powerful jumps with an urban backdrop instead of white fields of snow. Whenever they landed safely or fell after several somersaults, gasps and sighs came out of my mouth. What’s more, I thought it would be even better to see their performance with the real Gwanghwamun gate in the background, and I hoped that the competition would come to the same venue again next year.

I was not a fan of the event at the beginning. As I bumped shoulders with the crowd gathering in the plaza, I suddenly thought about Zhamen, the border city between Joseon and Qing where immigration offices were set up.

It wasn’t a busy urban area, but Park Ji-won, a scholar from Joseon who knew little about the world outside his homeland, felt timid.

“The buildings are clean and tidy, doors are lined up neatly and roads at the intersections are straight as if they were drawn. The walls are all built with bricks and the roads are filled with wagons carrying people and goods ... It does not look like a rural town ... It is just a small town at China’s eastern border and will develop even further in the future. The thought disappointed me and I felt embarrassed,” he wrote.

But Park soon changed his mind. “This is just my jealousy ... I haven’t even seen a fraction of it, but had such a wrongful thought. It’s probably because I have limited knowledge,” he wrote.

I also have limited knowledge, and I also was not fond of the structures being built at Gwanghwamun Plaza at first. I worried that one of them would collapse or that the snowboarders would lose their sense of direction and fall into the street. I worried that drivers might get distracted and that downtown would overflow with traffic jams. My prejudices - though somewhat fair - continued endlessly.

But then the event started, and my thoughts completely changed. Snowboarders jumped between skyscrapers as cars lined up near the statues of King Sejong and Admiral Yi Sun-sin. It was a scene that would be impossible in any other city in the world. And if it is possible, no one has ever tried.

I was not only ignorant, but lacking in imagination. So what if people snowboard on a symbolic site? Is Korea’s national identity destroyed whenever people skate in front of the statute of King Sejong?

Gwanghwamun Plaza had been criticized as “the largest median strip in the world,” but the snowboard jumping competition was only possible because of the unique shape of the plaza.

The idea of using the steps in front of the Sejong Performing Arts Center to build the sledge slope was also a brilliant idea. The Seoul Metropolitan Government said 300,000 visited the site over three days. That may be an exaggeration, but the slope was full not only of children and youngsters but also middle-aged and elderly people, and foreigners with bright smiles. I probably wasn’t the only one who saw joy at the site. As the crowd admired the snowboarders, the statue of King Sejong probably wanted to look over his shoulder and watch, too.

The Joseon scholar Park learned a lesson when he saw a blind musician walking on the street of the Chinese city. Park closed his eyes and opened the eyes of his heart. He broke away from his old stereotypes and prejudices and took a breath, hoping for a cool-headed look at the world.

It appears to be the time for us to do the same. We need to escape from our prejudices about our nation’s symbolic plaza. That will actually allow us to make the plaza even better.

Park, as he grasped the reality, teased his servant Jangbok, “How would you have felt if you were born in China?”

“I wouldn’t like it,” the servant replied flatly.

Whether we will become like Park, who opened the eyes of his heart, or like his servant, a captive of his prejudices, is up to us.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Hoon-beom

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