Sunday, September 18, 2011

Deoksugung or Gyeongungung ?

According to the JoongAng Ilbo ("Deoksu's name might be changed"), the Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea considers restoring the previous name of Deoksugung to Gyeongungung or Gyeongun palace (경운궁). Technically, the last change didn't occur under official Japanese rule (1910-1945), but under Japanese pressure and after Emperor Gojong's abdication in 1907, almost ironically celebrating the long and honorable life (德壽 / Deok-su) of Korea's first and last emperor. Gojong eventually died there in 1919.

The CHA would like to know what citizens think of this potential change, and personally I wouldn't favor abandoning the Deoksugung appellation.

If Japanese occupation left too many open wounds that still require proper treatments, this one is clearly not one of them. Every major city has monuments and names associated with troubled times, but which have, over time, lost all negative meanings and now positively belong to the city's landscape and history.

The city of Seoul, itself, logically changed its own name right after the Japanese occupation (during which "Keijo" or "Gyeongseong" were used), but Deoksugung's name was obviously not a major issue, and changing names wouldn't make much sense anymore, now that Deoksugung is associated with peace time and a pleasant stroll at the heart of the Korean republic's capital. To me, the restoration of Deoksugung-gil was much more important than the restoration of the palace's (not even) original name.

Furthermore, dropping the name Deoksugung would be meaningless without destroying the Deoksugung museum and other parts built during the occupation. We'd rather accept this monument as it is : built by Koreans, altered by the Japanese, now devoted to culture and overall, a major and consistent cultural asset of Seoul that tells a lot about its past, present, and future.

I strongly approved the destruction of the Japanese Government-General Building that deliberately destroyed the very soul of the city, and the restoration of Gyeongbokgung makes perfect sense. But I'm also glad that the new City Hall maintains part of the old Japanese structure. And I militate in favor of the protection of colonial times assets in Incheon. So to respect post-war peace as well as Seoul's full cultural heritage, I oppose the obliteration of the Deoksugung name.

Degrading Deoksugung as the official name would be like erasing sixty years of peaceful history. And please, please, let's not bring down this lovely place to the same arena as Dokdo.

I'm not saying that the Gyeongungung name should be obliterated for good. I simply mean that both appellations are correct (unlike in that other Seoul palace, Changdeokgung, where Huwon is wrongly known as Biwon by most people), but that one belongs only to a long gone past, and certainly neither to the present nor to the future. We shouldn't oppose them nor develop any risk of confusion, which would inevitably lead to stupid word fights were people calling the palace "Deoksu" would be dubbed "collaborators" by the self-proclaimed "patriots" who call it "Gyeongung".

To me, Deoksugung has been meaning something important for decades : the long and honorable life of Korea as an independent nation with a great past, but also a great future, precisely because it overcame sufferings to embrace peace and mutual respect.

Seoul Village 2011
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ADDENDUM 20110923

This column was published today in Korea JoongAng Ilbo under the same title.

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