Seoul ( Associated Press) — For many South Koreans, the former presidential palace in Seoul was a little-visited, heavily protected mountain landmark. That has now changed as thousands of people have been allowed inside for the first time in 74 years.
As one of his first acts, the new South Korean leader The U.S. has moved the presidential offices from the Blue House, named after its distinctive blue roof tiles, and opened its gates to the public, allowing a maximum of 39,000 people a day.
The normally solemn complex has been turned into a fair-like one, with excited crowds looking around and standing in long queues.
“I am grateful that the Blue House has opened to the public,” Lee Sang Woon, a 61-year-old office worker, said during a recent tour with his family. “I’m really happy to be here.”
The Blue House has gone through many changes over the years. Once the site of an imperial garden, the Japanese built the official residence for their governor-general during the colonial rule of Tokyo on the Korean peninsula. After Korea was liberated from Japan in 1945, the US military commander occupied the site until it became the official presidential office of South Korea and residence upon the country’s foundation in 1948.
The opening of the Blue House is part of South Korea’s new President Eun Suk Yeol’s pledge to renounce the palace and set up his offices at the Defense Ministry complex in Yongsan district, about 5 kilometers (3 mi) away.
Yoon said he chose the Defense Ministry complex because it is already equipped with security-related command facilities. He said his goal is to build something similar to the White House in Washington that would give citizens a closer look at the building atop a fence. Yoon said the new offices would allow for better communication with the public.
However, his relocation plans have faced complaints that they were quick and unrealistic. Critics say the rush to top government offices could undermine national security by concentrating too much power in one place, costing too much and infringing on the property rights of the people living in the area.
His predecessor, Moon Jae-in, also expressed concern that Eun made his decision before hearing enough public opinion.
when the moon took over In 2017, he promised in a bid to distance himself from his disgraced, jailed predecessor, Park Geun-hee, who had grown up there as the daughter of a dictator. Moon eventually abandoned his plan, and Park was pardoned at the end of last year.
However, Yoon began his first day as president in Yongsan earlier this month, and the former presidential office was opened to the public on the same day.
Choi Joon Chai, 60, who runs a mill in a traditional market near the Blue House, regrets being moved from his neighborhood of the presidential office, but hopes the relocation will boost local businesses by bringing in more tourists.
“Under the (former president) Lee Myung-bak administration, there were a lot of protests … so it was really hard to get into this area. Cars couldn’t move, so I had to walk,” Choi said.
Thousands of people have gathered near the Blue House in the past to take out mass rallies and marches. Nearby residents said they faced noise and traffic congestion.
“I expect the protests to subside and more people to visit the area,” said Yoo Sung-jong, the head of a popular bakery in the neighborhood. “But (the president) was here for a long time, so it’s a little sad too.”
While some in the new presidential neighborhood expect improvement because of the new offices, there are also concerns.
“As for the traffic issues, I can already see more people coming here. It will be very crowded and complicated at first, but I think it will gradually get better,” said Kim Jung-taek, owner of a gallery near the new presidential offices.