A Japanese Offense In the Heart of Seoul

A monument to imperial power and oppression rankles many Koreans. But should it be destroyed?

A GREAT, broad avenue stretches out from the front gate of Kyong Bok Palace in downtown Seoul. The palace buildings, originally built in 1394 and later rebuilt in 1867, are nestled under the humpbacked mountains that ring most of the city.

The theory is that as a locus for dynastic kings, the palace and its natural setting concentrate what is known in East Asian cosmologies as ki. The term does not lend itself to easy translation, but suffice it to say that it stands for the life force and spiritual power inherent in nature.

The problem with this scene is that just inside the palace gates looms a large, three-story building capped by a small, but authoritative dome that exudes bureaucratic power and order - Japanese power and order. Completed in 1926, they used the building as their imperial headquarters until their most recent colonization of Korea ended in 1945. Since then, the structure has had a variety of uses and now houses South Korea's National Museum.

But in spite of the hundreds of artifacts testifying to thousands of years of Korean history that now reside in the building, it remains an affront to many people here, including President Kim Young Sam. Not only does the structure remind Koreans of a period that, for instance, included the use of Korean women as sex slaves for Japanese troops, but it also blocks the ki between palace and city.

President Kim, South Korea's first freely elected civilian leader, announced after he came to power in February 1993 that the Museum would be moved, and that the headquarters would be destroyed. It was a popular move in a country where vilifying Japan is sometimes called a national sport.

From what is now the Museum's coffee shop, a former conference room at the rear of the headquarters, one can understand the argument for doing away with the structure.

The other day I took a break from the exhibits and noticed a young woman sitting pensively at one of the windows. It was a rainy day, and wreaths of mist drifted among the graceful, slightly concave tile roofs of the palace buildings. Off in the distance, under a cluster of odd-shaped ridges that suggest a dragon in repose to Korean viewers, sat the Blue House, South Korea's presidential residence.

None of this can be seen from the city, of course, because the headquarters building very intentionally interrupts the view.

The woman sat in the coffee shop a long time, and when she got up to leave, I asked her if she agreed with the decision to dismantle the structure we were sitting in. She said yes.

``This building was built by the Japanese,'' she explained. I thought that was going be her entire answer, but she added as she looked out the window again: ``It's something very special. It's very difficult to explain.''

I asked the same question of more than a dozen people in Seoul -

politicians, university professors, Korean tourists on the palace grounds, and others - and with one or two exceptions, they all supported getting rid of the building. Some of the politicians hedged a bit by saying that it should simply be moved, but the chief curator of the National Museum, Kang Woo Bang, said putting the structure some place else is technically impossible because it had been weakened by fires during the Korean War. In two or three years, once the museum's treasures have been moved, Dr. Kang explained, ``This building will be destroyed.''

Lee Dong Bok, a former government official, says the president's plan is destined for trouble. A ``significant minority'' of Koreans, he predicts, will oppose the demolition, because they believe that it is more important to preserve the building as a monument to the dark period of Japanese conquest. ``Once you have obliterated the building, you are not going to be sure if your recollection is going to be able to come with such vivid memories of those unhappy days,'' he argues.

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