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(Yonhap Feature) Guarding the past, greeting the future
By Matthew C. Crawford and David Carruth
Contributing writers
SEOUL, Feb. 7 (Yonhap) -- It's Wednesday morning at Gwanghwamun, the main entrance to Korea's central palace Gyeongbok, and the ceremonial guards are standing stock-still in the subzero air. A crowd of chattering tourists has gathered opposite the gate, each waiting for an opening. As soon as they see a chance, they dash forward to pose for a picture with one of the stern gatekeepers.

   Eventually, all the tourists return to their tour bus, and the guards have a chance to stretch and shift their flags from one hand to the other. Shortly before noon, a large snowstorm breaks out; even in the whirling snowflakes, the guards are still standing in their places.

Changing of the guard ceremony at Deoksu Palace in central Seoul (Photos courtesy of Matthew Crawford)

The casual observer may wonder what exactly they are guarding. Kim Hyun-sung, director of the changing of the guard ceremony at Gyeongbok Palace, wryly states the obvious: "The king doesn't live (here) anymore." The performance, initiated in 1996, is a way to boost tourism, not of protecting the sovereign.

   In a way, these young men, who are reenacting the ceremony of a kingdom that ended over a century ago, are actually guarding their futures. According to a report by the Hyundai Research Institute, over 20 percent of South Koreans between the ages of 15 and 29 are struggling with unemployment.

   The palace guards interviewed for this article indicated that it was not some abstract interest in history that led them to the job, but rather the pressing need for a job, that brought them to the palaces of Seoul. Despite the hardships, this alternative career path has offered them unexpected benefits and insights.

   Not far from a group of less symbolic guards -- the riot police posted along the sidelines of a sit-down protest - the royal guards at Deoksu Palace are conducting their maneuvers under the watchful eye of the commanding general. Some of the officers are playing Korean traditional horns, creating a wailing sound that would not be out of place in the Jemaa el-Fnaa of Marrakech.

   After the performance, the guards -- ranging in age from 20 to 44 -- disappear into an alley beside the palace and march to their headquarters. Inside is the atmosphere of an all-male sports team's locker room. As they take off their helmets and set down their weapons, they can be heard joking, bantering and making small talk.

   Jo Won-gi, 27, has been working in the changing of the royal guard troupe at Deoksu Palace for about three years now, after being tipped off about the job by a friend. Like the rest of the performers at Deoksu and Gyeongbok palaces, Jo is over 175 centimeters tall and hardy enough to endure the extreme heat in summer and the frigid cold in winter. He had no interest in Korean history or traditional costumes before starting the job.

   One of the reasons he has stayed on so long is because, outside of the actual performance times, the performers are free to use their time as they like. Jo has taken advantage of the unique schedule (they give three half-hour performances per day) to attend night classes for his industrial systems major. He uses the downtime between performances to work on his assignments, and says that if not for the unique conditions of the job, he would never have thought about going back to school.


An older member of the group who started the job three months ago is 30-year-old Seong Jin-gyu. Unlike Jo, he only plans to work as a palace guard for half a year. Part of the fun for him is the challenge of learning the different roles in the ceremony. His role on Wednesday was as a chamha, the second in command, garbed in black and red. The roles change once every two weeks, and Seong maintains that there is an informal incentive system -- hard work is rewarded with selection for a high-ranking post like that of the general.

   In the competitive dog-eat-dog world of the South Korean job market for young workers without university degrees, Seong's position in the ceremony has come as a welcome respite. After working at a restaurant and in a variety of other odd jobs, he finds that in comparison there is almost no stress here.

   "The people I work with really feel like family. When I'm having a hard time, they're always here to help out," he goes on. "That's the kind of environment here. So when there's something I'm having trouble with, I can talk to my coworkers about it. In that regard, this job is much better than what I tried in the past."

   The position has also sparked a new interest in Korean traditions for Seong. Doing some research on the changing of the guards' ceremony in his free time has helped him improve his performance. It has also allowed him to satisfy the curiosity of the occasional onlookers who approach and ask questions, like the young online game aficionado who came up one day, grabbed his leg, and asked, "Mister, what level are you?"

Members of Deoksu Palace guard troupe gather near the locker room in between work shifts.

Though the palace guards are the most visible part of the historical palace reenactments, there are also workers like Lee Jae-min, 24, who handles the tea ceremony at Gyeongbok Palace. Unlike the guards interviewed for this article, he was initially attracted to the job because he is majoring in historical media at Sangmyung University.

   Compared to his previous part-time work experience, ranging from construction site labor to customer service, the job is highly desirable. Aside from the comparatively generous wage, he is able to take something away from the experience, an element he found lacking in past jobs. "Whether on an intellectual level or an academic level," he says, "I have been able to learn a lot. It's a part-time job that has helped me grow."

   Though on the face of it, nothing and no one is actually being guarded by the stoic palace guards with their artificial beards, the Korean and international tourists who visit are being treated to a spectacle that could be likened to the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace. At the same time, the reenactments of historical ceremonies allow several dozen young men to stay afloat in South Korea's turbulent job market. The ceremonies may even be helping to guard and preserve Korea's pride in its traditions.

   "It will be a beautiful memory in my life," remarks Seong, the older of the two Deoksu Palace guards. "Everyone thinks it's a really awesome job. They're proud of me because I'm sharing Korean culture with others."