President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol’s plan to relocate the presidential office before his May 10 inauguration is abrupt and absurd. The decision, slathered in opaqueness, not only defies public opinion and risks gross overspending, it intensifies security concerns amid increasing North Korean missile tests.
None of that seems to matter to Yoon, known for his bulldog mentality when he was a prosecutor. With logistics denying his original relocation plan, he now wants to move to the Ministry of National Defense building in Yongsan-gu, central Seoul. To make way, the Defense Ministry will move to the adjacent Joint Chiefs of Staff headquarters, which have to move to the Capital Defense Command compound miles away.
According to Yoon, a park will be built in front of the relocated presidential office, on land that the US Army occupied, “so that anyone can see the president at work.” Idealistic, of course. Security concerns will keep all but a tiny fraction of Koreans outside.
The surprised Defense Ministry and the Joint Chiefs of Staff have remained stoic. They must be befuddled. Soldiers must be ready to move anytime, anywhere, supporters of the plan argue. But we are not at war. We are in a presidential transition period. The reins of government obviously need to be passed efficiently, without undue distractions like counting moving boxes and deciding where staff members should sit. This is particularly critical now.
On March 24, four days after Yoon unveiled his relocation plan, North Korea tested its most advanced intercontinental ballistic missile to date, heightening tensions on the Korean Peninsula. In its 11th missile launch this year alone, the latest test demonstrated an ability to hit anywhere in the United States. It also fits the North’s pattern of provocative action to gauge the attention of new South Korean leaders. The war in Ukraine also raises security concerns for the peninsula. The results of Russia’s invasion of the former Soviet republic will likely influence the strategies of major powers in East Asia.
In effect, Yoon wants to do what some of his predecessors desired. The site of the current president’s office and residence -- Cheong Wa Dae, or the Blue House -- has been blamed for the fate of former presidents who have been ousted, imprisoned, or accused of corruption involving their family members. Some experts of feng shui, the ancient geomancy practice, have said that a mountainside lot behind a royal palace is inauspicious.
Apart from the mystical theory of interactions between topographic and human energies, a more practical explanation for the often-cited “secrecy and inefficiency” of the Blue House is that its sprawling grounds and exclusive office layout have isolated presidents, keeping them removed from the public.
Hence, in the run-up to the election, the electorate in general welcomed Yoon’s pledge to open the “Gwanghwamun Era” as the fulfillment of true democracy. The street in front of Gwanghwamun, the south gate of Gyeongbokgung, the main palace of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), has functioned as a citizens’ agora and the heart of the capital.
Yoon initially said that his new office would be made in a government complex along this street, just a few blocks away from the Blue House. Then, after the election, he said his promise was found to be infeasible, due to security risks and “catastrophic” inconveniences to the public, including traffic jams.
Chaos is ongoing with opponents arguing that the hasty relocation will cause security risks for the president and the nation, not to mention unnecessary spending of taxpayer money. The estimated cost reportedly ranges from 49.6 billion won ($40.1 million) to more than 1 trillion won ($822.7 million). Opinion polls indicate that more than half of the general public opposes Yoon’s plan. Approval ratings for him have dipped below 50 percent, an unusual showing for an incoming president.
“Withdrawal” and “pause” are not in Yoon’s vocabulary –- or so it seems. “I don’t think the opinion polls matter,” he said. He even said that, if the move is not completed by May 10 due to a lack of cooperation from the incumbent administration, he would continue to work in the transition team’s office after his inauguration, commuting from his home in Gangnam across the Han River.
Yoon’s unrelenting stance has fueled his standoff with President Moon Jae-in, who fears poor preparedness for North Korea’s provocations. Rumors run rampant that Yoon’s wife, Kim Kun-hee, who still stays out of the public eye, has been advised by shamans that the Blue House is cursed and Yongsan is a blessed spot. Yongsan means “dragon hill.” In the East Asian tradition, a dragon is identified with a king. Yoon, indeed, appeared with the Chinese character “wang (king)” written on his palm during early days of his campaign.
The rumors about superstitious belief held by the first couple aside, the lack of priority is mind boggling; a makeshift plan to change the president’s workspace is the top agenda item rather than pressing problems such as the COVID-19 pandemic, North Korea’s recent actions or economic problems.
Many pundits suggest Yoon end the controversy by announcing that he will begin his tenure at the Blue House and rethink his relocation ambitions The presidential office means a lot more than the president’s workspace: it is the nation’s historic and cultural symbol. The Republic of Korea deserves the presidential office and residence of the class befitting its rising cultural power, not to mention its economic capability.
In this regard, the Blue House, overlooking the old city center of Seoul -- clustered with government offices and major cultural facilities and assured of security by scenic mountains at the back -- is far better than Yongsan-gu, which has long been the home of foreign troops. Yoon has two viable options: restructuring the Blue House to meet his standards of communication with his aides and the public, or consulting with relevant experts for a master plan that produces a new presidential office “for the future of the nation.” Lee Kyong-hee
Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. -- Ed.