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  • Kyongbok Palace: History, Controversy, Geomancy
  • Min Soo Kang (bio)

We live amidst so many rumors. The stratum of rumor is thick and heavy. We call this history and we call it culture.

It is a sad thing to live one’s life as if listening to a rumor. When we are no longer satisfied with rumors and seek the place of occurrence, that is when we meet destiny.

Choi In Hoon, Kwangjang


What follows is partly history, partly rumor, and partly confession.

I will trace the history of Kyongbok Palace in Seoul, the royal residence of fifteen monarchs of Korea’s Choson dynasty, from its original construction in the late fourteenth century through the destructions and reconstructions it underwent in the following five centuries. My narrative will serve as historical background to the great controversy that lasted from 1993 to 1995 over the question of demolishing the National Museum Building, and will reveal not only a secret history of the palace—one steeped in ancient, mystical beliefs—but also the problematic attitude that modern Koreans have toward their past.

Although I have been trained as an academic historian, this essay is not a work of academic history in the strict sense. I have neither burdened it with a massive list of references and notes to support my findings and interpretations, nor taken on the objective voice of the historian as recording angel. I have set out instead to describe my own sense of wonder, and to explain why I distrust that feeling.

What follows is partly history, partly rumor, and partly confession, but every history is partly rumor and partly confession; every rumor is partly history and partly confession; and every confession is partly history and partly rumor. And I believe that when history, rumor, and confession intermingle, the past reveals itself in its most human form.

What follows is also a dream, or perhaps the recurring nightmare of someone trying to come to terms with a traumatic event. And it is a haunting as well, for what is history but the irrepressible visitations of ghosts [End Page 23] seeking to return to life—not as human beings, but as something much more enduring...

The Palace of Fifteen Kings

Kyongbok Palace lies at the northern edge of Seoul’s midtown area, which is surrounded by a series of hills. Although the easiest way to reach the palace is by taking either the third (orange) subway line, which stops right below the palace grounds, or the glistening new fifth (purple) line to Kwanghwa Gate Station, I suggest starting on T’aep’yong Road near City Hall and walking northward up the street, in order to get the full effect of the view. As you approach the lofty statue of Admiral Yi Sunshin in the middle of the street, which widens out to become the perennially packed sixteen-lane Sejong Road, you will face the green peaks of Pugak Mountain. Below the mountain is the southern gate of Kwanghwa (Luminous Achievement), a solid structure of white stone topped by an elaborately decorated double-tiered roof. Walk past the statue with the Sejong Cultural Center on your left and the American Embassy complex on your right, and you have to cross the street through an underground walkway to reach the southern wall of the building. You can enter the outer grounds through Kwanghwa Gate—which I recommend to fully appreciate the intricate and colorful designs of the roof—but you will then find your view of the rest of the palace blocked by the high scaffolding that hides the work still being done to remove the remains of the recently demolished National Museum Building. You must walk down the east side of the outer grounds to reach the official entrance, where you can purchase a ticket to be admitted into the central section of the palace.

Most of the tourists will be gathered around the two largest buildings: Kunjongjon (Diligent Rule), an imposing wooden structure that was set upon a vast base of stone and that served as the throne room and the audience hall where the kings conducted their public business; and Kyonghoeru (Auspicious Meeting), a grand two-story pavilion on...

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pp. 23-39
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