Seoul mayor set on expansion plans

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Seoul mayor set on expansion plans

Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon announced in a meeting at the city council Tuesday that the plan to expand Gwanghwamun Square will not be stalled despite opposition from the Ministry of the Interior and Safety.

“There is no need to stall the project on purpose,” Park said during a meeting at the Seoul Metropolitan Council on Tuesday. “If we feel that we had not communicated the project well with the people that is something we could work on. We should be able to finish the project [by the original timeline].”

Park was responding to a question from Councilwoman Kim So-yang about whether the city government intends to push through with the Gwanghwamun project to have it completed by the intended schedule of May 2021.

The Seoul city government intends to expand the Gwanghwamun Square to include the southbound lanes of traffic in front of the Sejong Center by May 2021. The current 10-lane road that rings the square will be reduced to six-lanes, according to the working blueprint of the city government.

But the Ministry of the Interior and Safety sent a notice to the city government on July 30 requesting the plan should be reconsidered. Its main concern is on the feasibility of incorporating the road in front of the Sejong Center into the square and rerouting traffic.

The city government’s plan to reroute the traffic affects the annex building to the central government, which will have to be moved.

The city government has repeatedly told the press that it has consulted with the ministry regarding the plan, which the ministry has denied.

Some critics called it a project by Park to boost his publicity as mayor and also as a possible presidential election contender.

“There is a misunderstanding that the Gwanghwamun project is a Park Won-soon project,” Park said. “But the idea of redeveloping the square has been around for ages, even stemming back to the Kim Young-sam government days.”

During the meeting the council also probed Park on how the city government will regulate the use of the square, especially regarding illegal gatherings.

There were a number of scuffles in July between the far-right Our Republican Party and the city government as the party continued to re-erect tents at the square for their unregistered rallies calling for the release of imprisoned former President Park Geun-hye.

“The city government will have to review its policies regarding regulation of the square,” Park said. “But we should also acknowledge the need for the people to have an open space to express their political ideas.”

Park at the meeting brought up former examples of city government projects stalled by the central government or opposed by the public.

“There has been opposition to city government plans before,” Park said. “For instance, nearly 80 percent of the public opposed the restoration of Cheonggyecheon.”

The Cheonggyecheon, which has existed since the early Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), was situated near low-income areas in the 1950s and most of the stream was covered up in the midst of rapid development in the ’60s and ’70s.

It was redeveloped in a 2003 project by former President Lee Myung-bak when he was Seoul mayor, and the city government pitched in 386.7 billion won ($318.8 million) to complete the project in 2005.

“President Lee also had to communicate with the people at the time and he did it well,” Park said. “The restoration of the stream has been well received by the public and assessed to be one of the successful projects of the city government.”

He also mentioned the Seoullo 7017 pedestrian walkway, once an overpass highway, was turned into a park in central Seoul in 2017.

“The Park Geun-hye administration at the time placed a number of brakes on the project,” Park said. “But we did not stop in our efforts to see the project through.”

If all goes as planned with the Gwanghwamun redevelopment project, by 2021 there will be a 2.5-mile long underground space stretching south from the Gwanghwamun area to the City Hall area, and eastbound from Gwanghwamun through the Euljiro area toward Dongdaemun. Pedestrians will be able to gain access to as many as five different subway and train lines underground.

The redevelopment will also restore an elevated platform in front of the entrance to Gyeongbuk Palace where kings held public rituals during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). The platform is called woldae in Korean.

Japan annexed Korea from 1910 to 1945 and in 1926 deconstructed Gwanghwamun and moved it to make way for the Japanese Governor General Building. Woldae was lost in the process and has not been restored.

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