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2010/01/12 08:00 KST
(Yonhap Feature) Gwanghwamun Plaza, Seoul's new icon in the making

By Kim Hyun
SEOUL, Jan. 12 (Yonhap) -- For 10-year-old Goh Min-wook and many young skating enthusiasts, the brand new outdoor ice rink in the heart of Seoul is an unmatched haven. Set across from a 14th-century palace, contemporary landmarks and snow-covered mountains, the city-run rink at Gwanghwamun Plaza offers a sense of skating through old and new -- and it costs just 1,000 won (US$0.89) per hour to use.

   "It's thrilling to skate here. And the view looks great," the jovial third-grader said on a recent morning, watching other people on the ice during a break.

Not everyone, however, is happy about the new attraction. For some historians, it is disturbing to see what used to be a royal street now turned into a square crammed with entertainment installations. Some taxi drivers are angry that the thoroughfare was cut in half to lend space to the square.

   "This area is the face of our country, but they made it a playground," one taxi driver named Kim Jae-su complained as he drove by.

   The Seoul metropolitan government opened Gwanghwamun Plaza last August, hoping to transform the historic space set up in the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) into a new landmark under Mayor Oh Se-hoon's "Design Seoul" project. The plaza measuring 247 meters long and 37 meters wide was built on the thoroughfare stretching from the Gyeongbok Palace, once considered one of the most auspicious places in Seoul, according to Korean pungsu (feng shui) theory, with flourishing mountains behind it and the Han River in front of it.

   The new plaza combines old and new. Statues of the two heroic figures from the Joseon era -- Admiral Yi Sun-sin, who led the Korean navy against the Japanese invasion in the 16th century, and King Sejong the Great, who invented the Korean alphabet in the 15th century -- arrest visitors' attention before their eyes are drawn to contemporary attractions like visual art installations and the skating rink. It has drawn more than 8 million visitors over the past five months, becoming a major plank in the incumbent mayor's platform in the local elections set for June.

   "We expect Gwanghwamun Plaza to become a new icon that represents the history and culture of Seoul and the Republic of Korea and boosts the morale of the Korean people," Lee Young-sin, chief of the city government's Balanced Development Headquarters team in charge of the rejuvenation project, said in an email interview. "We also wish it will be a tourist attraction where foreign visitors can experience Korean history and culture."

   But too much ambition can be distracting. Since its opening, Gwanghwamun Plaza has undergone constant face-lifts. The skating rink was initially a carpet of flowers, and then became a ski slope to host an international snowboarding competition in December. The current rink will be removed when the weather warms up next month, to be replaced with a new seasonal event.

   Chun Woo-yong, a historian and author of the critically acclaimed book that recounts the hidden stories of Seoul's back alleys, "Seoul Is Deep," feels what was once a historic landmark has been degraded into a marketing tool for the city government or the mayor himself. Kings once started their parades on Gwanghwamun Street, which begins at the front gate, Gwanghwamun, of Gyeongbok Palace, and the dynasty's six ministries were housed along the street. Reflecting its historic origins, the street today is flanked by government complex buildings and the U.S. Embassy.

   "The king stepped out of the palace and into the outside world from there, marking the beginning of a national event. He returned to the palace from there, marking the event's end," Chun said.

   What disturbs Chun the most is not the rejuvenation project itself, but the impression that it gives -- the new plaza may be an ersatz cultural project with political intent. For some, the mayor's urban project is reminiscent of the sensational restoration of the nearby Cheonggye Stream in 2005, which Lee Myung-bak spearheaded when he was the mayor of Seoul. The restoration later became a major driving force in his presidential election victory.

   "Considering that it is no more a feudal era, we may ask ourselves who is the king today, who should be the owner of that space," he noted. "In theory and in reality, the space is now for the people. In that sense, I think it is controversial that the plaza now serves the city government's events, while it is off-limits to ordinary citizens."

   By ordinary citizens, Chun meant street demonstrators. The city has banned civic rallies there, a move that followed massive anti-government protests over U.S. beef imports that rattled downtown in the summer of 2008.

   Critics are also discontent with the linear placement of giant statues in the plaza, an arrangement that blocks the once wide-open view of the palace and mountains.

   In the late 1960s, Admiral Yi's statue was brought in by the authoritarian regime of general-turned President Park Chung-hee in connection with his military background that put national security first. Not everyone agreed with the decision, as critics argued that a statue of King Sejong should be erected on Gwanghwamun Street, which was originally called Sejong Street.

   Last year, the city government came up with a compromise: Keep the admiral and add the king.

   Lee Hyun-gun, author of "Stroll by Seoul With an Old Map," is one of those who want simpler scenery and believe the admiral's statue should be moved to the seaside.

   "The admiral who fought at sea feels like a fish out of water in the city. He should be overlooking the sea, not downtown."

   Despite the shortcomings, many feel that Gwanghwamun Plaza is still evolving. The Seoul city government said it will hold a hearing next month to collect different views on the new city icon, noting it is still "in a transition period" of finding its identity.

   Seoul, Korea's capital for more than 600 years, has won the title of World Design Capital 2010, a recognition conferred to a city that uses design in an innovative way. It will also host the G-20 summit of the leaders from the world's largest economies in November.

   Jon Lie, a tourist from Norway, said he was surprised by the modern view of Seoul.

   "It offers free access to the exhibition downstairs, good transport. It's very tourist-friendly," Lie said during his recent visit to the Gwanghwamun Plaza. "I think it's very modern, more Western than I expected. Everything is bigger than Norway!"