South Korea’s Blue House opens to public for first time in decades

The former presidential palace is a mountainside landmark in Seoul.

People visit the Blue House in Seoul, South Korea
People visit the Blue House in Seoul, South Korea

South Korea’s famous Blue House in Seoul has opened to the public for the first time in decades.

For many South Koreans, the former presidential palace was a little-visited, heavily secured mountainside landmark.

That has now changed as thousands have been allowed a look inside for the first time in 74 years.

As one of his first acts, the new South Korean leader 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 to visit.

People visit the Blue House in Seoul, South Korea
People visit the Blue House in Seoul, South Korea (Ahn Young-joon/AP)

The normally serious compound has been transformed into something like a fair, with excited crowds looking around and standing in long queues.

“I feel grateful that the Blue House has opened to the public,” 61-year-old office worker Lee Sang Woon said during a tour with his family. “I am really happy to be here.”

The Blue House has gone through multiple transformations over the years.

Once the site of a royal garden, the Japanese built the official residence for their governors-general there during Tokyo’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

After Korea was liberated from Japan in 1945, the US military commander occupied the palace until it became South Korea’s official presidential office and residence upon the country’s foundation in 1948.

A royal stroll is re-enacted at the Blue House
A royal stroll is re-enacted at the Blue House (Ahn Young-joon/AP)

The Blue House opening is part of new South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s pledge to abandon the palace and establish his offices at the Defence Ministry compound in the Yongsan district, about three miles away.

Mr Yoon said he chose the Defence Ministry compound because it is already equipped with security-related command facilities.

He said he aims to build something similar to the White House in Washington that would let citizens have a closer look at the building over a fence. Mr Yoon said the new offices will allow for better communication with the public.

His relocation plans, however, have faced complaints that they were rushed and unrealistic. Critics say a hasty movement of top government offices could undermine national security by concentrating too much power in one place, cost too much and violate the property rights of people living in the area.

His predecessor, Moon Jae-in, also expressed worries that Mr Yoon made his decision before hearing enough public opinion.

The Blue House
People visit the former presidential palace in Seoul (Ahn Young-joon/AP)

Choi Jun Chae, 60, who runs a mill at a traditional market near the Blue House, was sorry to see the presidential office leave his neighbourhood but also hopeful that the relocation would boost local businesses by bringing in more tourists.

“Under the (former president) Lee Myung-bak administration, there were lots of protests… so it was really hard to commute to this area. Cars couldn’t move, so I had to walk,” Mr Choi said.

Thousands of people have gathered near the Blue House in the past for mass rallies and marches. Nearby residents said they suffered from noise and traffic congestion.

“I hope that protests decrease and more people visit the area,” said Yoo Sung-jong, head of a popular bakery in the neighbourhood. “But (the president) was here for a long time, so it is a bit sad too.”

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