Public residence, authoritarian legacy

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Public residence, authoritarian legacy

Hahm In-sun
The author, a former professor of architecture at Hanyang University, is the chief architect for Gwangju Metropolitan City.

After Ahn Cheol-soo, chair of President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol’s transition committee, blasted public residences for heads of municipal governments, consensus started building fast to end official residences as a perk for some central government officials. After reading a recent JoongAng Ilbo series on the matter, which compared practices at home and abroad, I cannot but wonder if Korea is mature enough to be categorized as a developed country.

If public residences are really needed, they should be provided to military commanders who should be on alert 24/7 and must move swiftly in emergencies. Praetorium — the Latin for battlefield tents for ancient Roman generals in the beginning and barracks or fortresses where emperors stay later — could be the start of official residence. In Korea, they are offered to not only heads of local governments and development corporations but also to judges, prosecutors — and even to heads of branch offices of the National Intelligence Service (NIS).

Public residences in regions are the legacy of the authoritarian era, when the president offered residential convenience to officials who were ordered to work in local areas. Today, however, if you are not local residents, you cannot run in local elections for top municipal posts. Even if you live in a remote area, you can attend meetings virtually. Former U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan slept on a cot in his Longworth House office during sessions from 2015 to 2019. Given the outdated use of public residence in Korea, the time has come to end their use.

The father of exploiting public residence for financial gains is Chief Justice Kim Myeong-su of the Supreme Court. He provoked public outrage after allowing his son’s family to live in his public residence and permitting his daughter-in-law to use it for a dinner party with her colleagues at a law firm. The Chief Justice’s public residence is nestled in the hills of Hannam-dong, Seoul, overlooking the Han River. The district also hosts seven other public residences of Army Chief of Staff (to be used as the president-elect’s residence), defense minister, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, vice commander of the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command, commander of the Marines, National Assembly speaker and the Foreign Minister.

The concentration of public residences for the elites in officialdom owes much to their proximity to the U.S. military base and the Ministry of National Defense building in Yongsan — and partly thanks to their easy access to the center of the city and plenty plots of land owned by the state. The location of public residences for the heads of the legislative and judiciary branches can be attributed to safety reasons, as suggested by a cluster of 54 foreign missions in Hannam-dong. That’s not all. Fourteen out of the 24 richest people having shares worth over 1 trillion won ($793.8 million) live there. Many famous entertainers also reside in the UN Village — the place for public residences for Japanese military officers during the colonial days — in Hannam-dong. The guard post at the entrance of the village turns it into a fortress.

After Yoon’s presidential office is relocated to Yongsan next month, a large patch of the district will transform into a park for civilians. It is the time to end the authoritarian legacy succinctly reflected in the concentration of foreign missions in Hannam-dong.

In the West, many former manors owned by lords in the feudal days were reborn as civilian parks. Eight big parks in London — including the Greenwitch, Hyde, and Regent’s Parks and Kensington Gardens — are all royal parks, which were used as hunting grounds or for banquets for British monarchs. The rights to a huge stretch of land was handed over to the common people after the establishment of constitutional monarchy in the 18th century. The Tiergarten in Berlin and the Luxembourg Garden in Paris also were once a part of the estates of lords or a private residence of aristocrats.

Urban parks in the West played a key role in preventing the Industrial Revolution from escalating to a proletarian revolution. But Korea’s cities have lacked such a dramatic transformation. The time has come to change luxurious public residences into parks or cultural space. If you add the space of the Blue House, Gyeongbok Palace and the Gwanghwamun Square in central Seoul, it amounts to nearly a half of Hyde Park in London. The Serpentine Galleries in the park has become an international spot for architectural experimentation over the Pavilion. Why not use the main building of the Blue House for such purposes?

Public office holders in Korea must wake up. Roman soldiers revered Pompey who lived alone in praetorium, but they loved Caesar who shared his tent with them. Leaders of this country must pay heed. 
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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