[Viewpoint] Rethinking the presidential residence

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[Viewpoint] Rethinking the presidential residence

It may be a rash generalization, but I have come to this theory after covering a number of summit meetings throughout my journalism career. The site of the presidential residence and workplace is in inverse proportion to the level of democracy. A country where the president occupies an excessively large and lavish space is likely to be undemocratic.

The distance between the president and his aides and the citizens is also a factor. If the president looks out of the window from his office and can spot a citizen, the country is highly likely to be a democratic and developed country.

What turned my hypothesis into a theory was Palacio de La Moneda, the seat of the president of Chile. I was expecting to see a grand, overwhelming palace in a remote place since dictator Augusto Pinochet had held power for 17 years. I thought the Chilean presidential office would be a structure to symbolize powerful authority.

However, the palace, which was built in the early 19th century, was not much different from other structures in the vicinity. Citizens were gazing at the presidential palace from the public courtyard, and the atmosphere inside the palace was just as liberal and open. Reporters from other countries were free to smoke and interact with the officials. The site exuded the spirit of democracy accumulated for over two decades since Pinochet.

Architect Seung Hyo-sang said that the United States and the United Kingdom may be enjoying solid democracy thanks to the architectural structures such as the White House in Washington and Number 10 Downing Street, which are at the eye level of the citizens. The same goes for Chile’s La Moneda.

Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw is the opposite. The presidential palace can only be reached after driving 30 minutes on the empty 16-lane highway from downtown. The car went through an iron gate and passed by sparsely spread government buildings. From the presidential palace, large fountains, two suspension bridges serving as an entrance and an exit, and a hill are in sight.

What about the Blue House? Regrettably, it is closer to a backward space. A Blue House insider confessed that it is rather shameful considering the country’s status. The main building was built in the early 1990s as the “residence of the king.” During the Kim Young-sam administration, a minister tripped after debriefing the president as he was walking backward across the huge office. Over a decade later, a secretary was watching a sports game broadcast in his office at night but turned it off in order not to bother the president’s sleep.

Presidents since Kim Dae-jung were not satisfied with the Blue House’s arrangement, at least in the early days of the administration. They were worried that being away from the officials and aides would widen the distance with the citizens. President Kim Dae-jung wanted to have an office at the Central Government Complex in Sejongno, and President Roh Moo-hyun declared that he would renovate the main building to be like the White House.

Their wishes were not granted, but President Lee Myung-bak had a building built for the secretaries and set up an office there. Toward the end of his administration, however, he spent more time in the main building than the secretaries’ annex and chose “a lonely conversation with history” over associating with the aides.

Seung said that because of the spatial character of the Blue House, the president’s mindset and actions become authoritarian, adding that a series of presidents ended up miserable in later years because they lived in such a structure for five years.

It is not too late to renovate and change the Blue House. Let’s close the distance between the president and the officials and citizens. The Republic of Korea will have more presidents in the future, and if it makes the president better at the job, we should try. The two buildings in the secretaries’ annex were given a grade of “D” in the disaster dangerous facility evaluation.

We have to spend money to improve these facilities, and we might as well spend more for a more full-scale renovation. We have seen too many presidents fail because of lack of communication.

*The author is deputy editor of politics and international news of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Ko Jung-ae
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