Handmade hoes replace bulldozers as artifacts are uncovered in Gwanghwamun
About two-thirds of Gwanghwamun Square in central Seoul has been fenced off since last October under Seoul City Government’s grand project to redesign the area as a “more pedestrian-friendly park-like plaza.”
The plan involves expanding the square westward and eliminating southbound traffic lanes between the square and the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts. This eventually forced traffic and bus stops in the area to relocate to the west side of the Gwanghwamun Square, squeezing into a now six-lane Sejongno, which used to be a busy 10-lane boulevard.
But not long after breaking the ground, it wasn’t heavy machinery that was brought in.
Instead, groups of men, each holding a traditional farming tool called homi (Korean traditional hoes), to carefully dig dirt out from the site.
Certainly, such manual work won’t help the new “park-like Gwanghwamun Square” be completed and opened on schedule, which was initially this October. But the Seoul City Government had no choice but to halt construction as buried cultural heritages, which include stereobates from different Joseon periods (1392-1910), as well as waterways, a well, stone foundations for fences not to mention pieces of ceramic, were discovered underground, especially abundantly under the road in front of the Seoul Government Complex.
“It may look strange or somewhat funny, but we use homi because there’s no other tool that can be as precise and allow us to excavate with caution,” said No Dong-guk, head of the research study team at the Hanul Research Institute of Cultural Heritage, which is responsible for excavating buried cultural heritages that have been discovered during the reconstruction project of the Gwanghwamun Square.
According to the Seoul City Government, it is the first time that the locations and traces of major government offices of Yukjogeori have actually been confirmed.
“We believe that the greatest achievement from this excavation is discovering the domains of Yukjogeori and the structures along it, especially Samgungu (Three Armies Command) and Saheonbu (Office of Inspector General), as many traces that provide clues to the structure of the buildings have been discovered,” said No. “It is now possible to reproduce Yukjogeori, which we have only been able to vaguely estimate until now, closer to its original appearance.”
Historians in Korea have long been calling Joseon Dynasty's Yukjogeori Korea's symbolic street, like the National Mall in Washington D.C., the Champs-Elysees in Paris and Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
It is the area where Koreans head to when they are angry and want to protest, or when they are ecstatic and want to celebrate. Historical records show that the width of Yukjogeori was about three times larger than other roads in the country at the time, measuring about 51 meters (167.3 feet).
According to the Seoul City Government, “Since preservation of cultural heritage is the most important factor, we will try to preserve most of the sections but allow some to be utilized and be shared with citizens."
Under the current Cultural Heritage Protection Act, if buried cultural heritage is discovered during a construction project, the “implementer of the construction work should immediately cease the relevant construction work” and report it to the Cultural Heritage Administration. Buried cultural heritage inspection specialists then get deployed to begin their research.
The first option is to do an “on-site preservation,” which preserves the whole or part of the cultural heritage by covering it up with soil to restore the status quo ante and prevent it from being exposed to air. The second option is “preservation by relocation,” which allows the whole or part of the cultural heritage to be taken out of the excavation site to be relocated to other places like a museum or gallery. The final option is “preservation of records,” which preserves the heritages by records by compiling the outcomes of the excavation inspection and reburying the cultural heritage.
“We will carry out a meeting with the Cultural Properties Committee on June 16 and decide on which of the three options to take for which sections,” said an official from the city government, adding that it is not certain whether a decision will be made after a single meeting or after several rounds.
Although it depends on the committee’s decision whether the whole or a part of Yukjogeori will be reproduced, it seems like the new Gwanghwamun Square may look quite different from the final blueprint of the Gwanghwamun Square renovation unveiled by the city government.
Center of Seoul or center of controversy?
The renovation project to redesign Gwanghwamun Square, which is considered the “center of Korean history,” has been at the center of controversy ever since the plan was initiated by former Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon.
Park announced in 2018 the plan to redesign the plaza into a more pedestrian-friendly one by expanding the square threefold.
Park had initially planned to expand the plaza to the area in front of the Gwanghwamun Gate and restore the woldae (wide traditional platform), which involved rerouting roads in front of the gate. But after facing fierce backlash from the public and locking horns with the central government, the project which began with two main objectives — “pedestrian connectivity” in the area and “restoring the historical identity of the space" — had somewhat leaned toward the former.
The decision to resume the renovation project by current Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon, who was re-elected in April in a mayoral by-election to complete the one-year term left by Park who committed suicide last July, threw fuel on the already burning controversy over the Gwanghwamun Square reconstruction.
Despite the death of Park, the construction continued under the direction of then-acting Mayor Seo Jung-hyup. Civic groups opposing the plan fiercely criticized the city government for purposely pushing ahead with the construction before potential candidate Oh had taken the seat. Oh's stance back then as a candidate was putting a stop to the project.
“None of the opinions suggested by the civic groups were reflected and it seems that Mayor Oh did not properly understand what the problem is,” said Kim Eun-hee, head researcher at the Urban Solidarity Policy Research Center, during a press conference held in front of City Hall on April 28, a day after Oh's announcement of the resumption.
The civic groups are calling for the suspension of construction and to cover up the currently dug up ground while the plan is being reconsidered.
It was actually Oh who introduced the current Gwanghwamun Square in 2009 while he was serving as mayor from 2006 to 2011. When it was first revealed to the public, citizens and experts all criticized that the symbolic area of Seoul has turned into an eyesore at a cost of 45.7 billion won ($40.9 million).
The main issue was accessibility. As it is located in the middle of Sejongno, like an island in the middle of a busy 10-lane boulevard, it was difficult for citizens to perceive it as a "plaza."
Making matters worse, two large statues of Admiral Yi Sun-sin (placed in 1968) and King Sejong the Great (placed in 2009 for the opening of the plaza) sit in this narrow strip, blocking the view of Gyeongbok Palace and Mount Bukak from downtown. There were fountains, flowerbeds, water features, planters and a few historical artifacts that also were criticized for being “too messy” and later removed.
“Mayor Oh’s new Gwanghwamun Square again includes a lot of sculptures and fountains,” said Kim Sang-cheol, a researcher at Fiscal Reform Institute. “Nobody asked for a fountain. Remember back in 2010, nobody asked for flowerbeds in the plaza. He’s doing it again, the typical window dressing.”
What infuriated the civic groups more was Oh’s announcement that the restoration of the woldae will be executed simultaneously with the revamping of the square, expressing his determination to focus on “restoring the historical identity of the space.”
“Woldae is something we should not give up if we are thinking about the historic value of the square,” Oh said during the press conference in April. However, the mayor reassured that rebuilding the woldae, “which will protrude about 50 meters from the gate,” will not mean rerouting the traffic in front of the gate as the current road in front of the Gwanghwamun Gate will be reshaped into a curve.
Following the announcement, civic groups expressed their bewilderment saying that even former mayor Park had scrapped the plan.
“What’s the significance of restoring the woldae from the Joseon Dynasty at this point in time?” said Hwang Pyeong-woo, director of the Korea Cultural Heritage Policy Research Institute, adding that the new Gwanghwamun Plaza of course should embrace the area’s long history but it should be developed in a “21st-century-style, based on openness and civic attitude.”
Many involved with the project are on the same page on the Gwanghwamun Square renovation project when it comes to “restoring the historical identity of the space.”
“Many of us came to a consensus that not only restoring woldae, but bringing back the statue of haetae (mythical unicorn lion, which is a legendary creature in Korea), to its original location is a proper thing to do to create harmonious scenery between Gyeongbok palace, and the new plaza,” said Hong Soon-min, a historian who specializes in royal palaces and a professor at Myongji University’s Graduate School of Records, Archives & Information Science.
“Before making rushed judgments and making remarks that they like or hate what the government is doing, we should all take a look at the historical characteristic of this space. In other words, we should first think about what kind of space it was when Seoul was established as the capital, how it has changed and what state it is in now and then ask ourselves what we should do to make this area the true center of Seoul and Korea, a space where true democracy gets realized and the starting point for opening Seoul as a historical city and a city of the future.”
The Seoul City Government announced the completion of its nine-step excavation of a total of 47,302 square meters of excavation site over 160 days on May 31.
For the final nine days, the city government opened up the site for the public to see upon registration. A group of 12 citizens was allowed to go into the site twice a day together with one archeologist who was a part of the excavation to learn about the excavated cultural heritages.
“I came to see what the real waterways and the traces of the Joseon Dynasty’s Yukjogeori look like with my own eyes,” said 38-year-old Seoulite Park Soo-jin on May 27. “I think it’ll be a great idea to use AR and VR to reproduce the old Yukjogeori and woldae instead of trying to physically reproduce it and create so much conflict.”
On June 1, the city government began covering up the ground that’s been dug up with soil and non-woven fabric filler to protect the cultural properties from the rainy season between mid-July to mid-September.
“During that time, I believe the Cultural Heritage Committee members will decide on how to preserve the properties and how to incorporate them into the new Gwanghwamun Plaza,” said an official from the Seoul City Government.
“It may not be the right answer to restore this area based on the good times of the Joseon Dynasty,” said Ban Jeong-hwa, a researcher of the Department of Civil Economy at The Seoul Institute.
“Developing without consideration of the past is also not the right answer. Before thinking about how to change it, it is necessary for us to make an effort to find out what this area meant for our Korean ancestors, what it means for us now, and what kind of historical events took place in this square in order for this once-regal road to lose its historic identity."
BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [email@example.com]