Editor’s note: Global Atlanta Managing Editor Trevor Williams is traveling in South Korea, reporting on Georgia’s deepening trade and investment ties there. Check here for updates and new entries.
Remember the days when one could tour the White House without contacting a member of Congress and waiting for more than three months?
I never did it, but times have changed since we considered it on my 12-year-old Lions Club trip to Washington DC. Between the security measures introduced after 9/11, the lingering pandemic, and the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol in 2021, it’s a wonder that the centers of power in the U.S. are still open to the people at all.
Now imagine if you could view the Oval Office up close, wander the halls of the West Wing and even sneak up for a glimpse of the residential quarters.
That’s what Korean citizens can now do at the Blue House, their own symbol of presidential power from the post-war moment when the Republic of Korea was created until the inauguration of President Yoon Suk-yeol in May of this year.
During the campaign, Mr. Yoon vowed never to set foot in the set of buildings nestled in the hills north of Seoul’s Gyeongbokgung Palace. Instead he led a contentious relocation of the presidential offices to the Defense Ministry compound in Yongsan five miles south.
Cheong Wa Dae, known for the deep blue of the main building’s hand-made roof tiles, is now a monument to 12 heads of state that lived and worked there, a tourist attraction rather than a working presidential office.
The area itself was used by dynastic rulers for hundreds of years, but its iteration as a locus of modern power was relatively short-lived by historical standards: The signature office building at Cheong Wa Dae’s center, fronted by a massive lawn and raised with earth works to heighten its imposing profile, opened only in 1991.
Now, rather than security forces, a national lottery system controls access to groups of up to six people. Seniors 65 and older are given first dibs on tickets, and about 3 million guests have visited since slots opened up three months ago.
Criticized by some for the estimated $40 million cost of the move, Mr. Yoon reportedly reasoned that the new offices would connect the country’s democratically elected leadership better to its people rather than being cordoned off in a private compound. He and others have criticized Cheong Wa Dae as a symbol of an “imperial” presidency.
Besides offering a built-in bunker, Mr. Yoon also argued the new space would bring more transparency — a park set to open nearby will supposedly let the people see the president at work — while making his office function more efficiently.
It’s hard to argue with the latter perspective. At 63 acres, the hilly Blue House grounds cover a territory three times larger than the White House’s footprint. The president and his functionaries would often have to transition between widely spaced buildings. At the very least, consolidation could help save some walking time.
That said, the Blue House had a sense of cultural gravitas, even with the relative newness of some of its buildings.
My tour started at the Nokjiwon Garden, home to a 175-year-old umbrella pine and a variety of other trees planted by various presidents since it was added in the 1960s on the former site of imperial military barracks. A robot mower plied the expansive lawn in front of the Sangchunjae Hall, a traditional Hanok house built in the early 1980s (of 200-year-old pines) for private meetings with visiting state guests.
Behind it, we meandered through tree-covered stone paths and headed past a 750-year-old yew tree to see the site where the Japanese put the original representative building in 1939 as the site of the occupying governor general’s residence. All that’s left is a sculpture in the shape of an urn. Nearby, a stone stele was discovered with Chinese characters calling the location “the most blessed on earth,” likely a nod to the Daoist practice of divining auspicious locations based on topography and the flow wind and water (fengshui in Chinese, or pungsu-jiri in Korean).
We later moved toward the two-story main building, where I snapped selfies in the spots where Korean presidents worked and met with leaders from around the world, including former U.S. President Donald Trump, whom former Korean President Moon Jae-in hosted for a state visit in 2017.
On the western side of the building, the First Ladies’ wing features a wall of photos paying homage to presidential wives who’d worked there. (Korea’s first female president, Park Geun-hye, was not married). A presidential portrait gallery at the west side of the building was cordoned off and inaccessible.
We also visited the Yeoungbingwan Guest House, where state dinners and other functions were held, and later headed back east to circumambulate the presidential residence, another (larger) traditional Hanok home with magnificent pine pillars and intricate wooden roof work capped by more blue tiles.
Visiting Cheong Wa Dae is well worth doing if you’re interested in history, the architecture of power and diplomatic intrigue, and if you’re a foreigner, I’m told that you might have a better chance than the locals to be one of the nearly 40,000 people a day allotted an opportunity to get through the gates: I had help from the Korean Culture and Information Service, but some websites note that a certain number of walk-in slots are reserved for foreign visitors at two times per day.
It’s unclear whether Mr. Yoon’s move will stick — Korea’s politics are known to contentious — but previous presidents have tried and failed to do just what he has accomplished, and it could be hard to undo.
For now at least, one of the two flagpoles outside the main building remains bare, stripped of the peacock blue and gold presidential flag that flew over the space for 74 years.
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