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[Weekender] Retreats and reads: Glimpse into Korean presidential summers

Reading recs, “summer Blue House” and vacation jinx

Aug. 12, 2023 - 16:01 By Kim Arin

In the sweltering heat of South Korean summers, even the most powerful figures in Korea -- its presidents -- yearn for summer respite. Delve into the history of presidential summer vacations, their reading rituals that give the public a sneak peek into their minds and the seemingly unbreakable jinx of interrupted summer breaks.

Obligatory reading list

South Korean presidents like to reveal their summer reading lists, and their book picks often become bestsellers for the season. From these summer reads, the Korean public tries to seek clues about the unspoken ideas held by the presidents, as well as their interests and what they might be looking into.

The unveiling of reading lists by presidents has come to be known as the “politics of book recommendations,” and one who prominently played this game is previous President Moon Jae-in. After leaving office in May of last year, Moon opened a bookstore in a mountainous neighborhood of Pyeongsan in South Gyeongsang Province, where he retired. On social media, where he remains active, he regularly shares his current reads.

Former President Moon Jae-in is seen reading a book at his vacation home in South Chungcheong Province on Aug. 2, 2018. (The presidential office during Moon's tenure)

President Yoon Suk Yeol, who has been in office for over a year, has not disclosed what he reads so far. He has once cited American economist Milton Friedman’s “Freedom to Choose” as one of his all-time favorites, with his mention leading to the book’s revision being published here after nearly two decades. In a meeting with top aides in February, he reportedly referred to a recently published book on semiconductors. While still a candidate in August 2021, he posted a snap of him enjoying a book in casual attire at his home on his Instagram.

President Yoon Seok Yeol speaks with a merchant during his visit to a traditional marketplace in Geoje, South Gyeongsang Province, on Aug. 4. (The presidential office-Yonhap)

The tradition of presidents showing their public leisure reading is believed to have begun with Kim Dae-jung, who became South Korea’s first and only Nobel laureate in 2000 with his “sunshine policy” toward North Korea.

What the chiefs of major political parties are reading during their time away has also been of high public interest, with their book lists spurring speculations about what they are up to.

Rep. Kim Gi-hyeon, the ruling People Power Party’s chairperson, shared that he took books exploring wealth inequality and universal basic income with him for this summer holiday. The two books picked by the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea’s head Rep. Lee Jae-myung are an essay by an International Labor Organization director and another critiquing the rival party President Yoon’s leadership.

Legacy vacation spots

Among presidents’ traditionally beloved sites for summer retreat are homes that came to be known as “the summer Blue House” in Geoje, an island off the southern coast in South Gyeongsang Province, and North Chungcheong Province’s Cheongju.

Park Geun-hye, the last conservative president before Yoon, spent the summer of 2013 at the home in Geoje frequented by past presidents, including her father Park Chung-hee. The former first daughter had vacationed there when her father was in office as well. Returning to Geoje as president, she wrote in a social media post: “For more than 35 years, memories of the island have always remained in the back of my mind. I feel nostalgic to have come back to this place that holds fond memories with my parents.”

Ex-President Park Geun-hye is seen on the beach near her vacation home in Geoje, South Gyeongsang Province, on July 30, 2013. (The presidential office during Park's tenure)

Park’s immediate predecessor, the conservative Lee Myung-bak, also liked to vacation at the Geoje home that he helped build as an executive of a construction company, long before becoming president.

The presidential vacation home in Cheongju was a favorite of the late President Kim Young-sam, who is believed to have crafted many of his key policies while vacationing there. The Cheongju home became open to the public in 2003 as part of an election pledge by then-President Roh Moo-hyun.

Summer jinx

Several presidents have suffered the misfortune of having their vacation cut short by national disasters, and Yoon was no exception. The president postponed taking time off this summer on alert over record downpours nationwide. The delayed vacation follows the deadly flooding witnessed in August last year, the first summer since he took office, when Seoul streets and homes flooded to claim the lives of at least 14 people.

Roh was perhaps the most unfortunate of all past presidents when it comes to the summer break. He had to resort to a “staycation” three out of his five summers in his term -- in 2004 over the National Assembly passing a bill to impeach him, in 2006 over a typhoon approaching and North Korea launching provocations and in 2007 over South Korean missionaries being held hostage in Afghanistan.

Kim Dae-jung, who assumed office during the International Monetary Fund crisis in 1998, did not take a summer vacation his first year. Park Geun-hye, meanwhile, canceled her vacation for two summers over the sinking of the Sewol ferry and the Middle East respiratory syndrome outbreak in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Similarly, Moon was forced to put off taking a break the first year of COVID-19 in 2020.