Eyesores in Gwanghwamun
By Kim Heung-sook
When longtime residents of Seoul mention Gwanghwamun, they are not only talking about the main gate of Gyeongbokgung; they are referring to the wide street that runs from the gate to the block just before City Hall, and the neighborhood around the boulevard.
Gwanghwamun used to be my favorite district, with all its old ginkgo trees along the street and the lack of blinking neon lights. After dropping by the bookstore in the basement of the 23-story Kyobo building, which is more like a department store than a bookshop, I would hurriedly walk up the stairs in need of fresh air. I would be met by a gust of wind, forcing me to turn away and face the beautiful mountain Bugaksan.
The view of the mountain and the sky would expel my headache right away. I would breathe deeply and start walking along the 16-lane avenue. The walk by the ginkgos was always consoling, especially when exhausted from the hustle and bustle of the capital. Though it was in the heart of a city that houses 12 million people, Gwanghwamun never failed to provide a certain calm.
However, all that has become a thing of the past. On Aug. 1, the so-called Gwanghwamun Plaza was formed by doing away with the six central lanes and removing many of the ginkgos. Now, the rectangular plaza, which seems more like a fat median strip, has many things juxtaposed like goods at a flea market.
The old statue of Admiral Yi Sun-shin is dwarfed by a 10.4-meter-high structure that presents King Sejong as if he were Gulliver in Lilliput. It was out of the question for a general to show his back to the king during the Joseon Kingdom, but here Yi is doing just that. Then there are the numerous fountains, potted flowers, oddly-shaped parasols, uniformed policemen, et cetera.
Seoul City officials call the huge mosaic of potted flowers a ``flower carpet." The carpet's pattern changes quite often according to the weather. In early October, they spent 120 million won to weave the carpet with colorful flowers and plant chrysanthemums, rosemary and others in 432 large pots around the plaza.
In less than a month, however, the flower carpet was removed to build a set of ice rinks. The city administration used to open skating rinks at Seoul Plaza in front of City Hall, but has decided to build them at Gwanghwamun Plaza this year. There will be three ice rinks ― one for preschool children, one for beginners and one for the better skaters.
Building the ice rinks will cost 1.1 billion won, officials say, and operation costs will be enormous, too, as the 17-cm-thick ice needs to be kept frozen despite the relatively warm weather. The city administration used gasoline to maintain the ice in the rink near City Hall, but for the Gwanghwamun rinks, they will use electricity, for environmental reasons.
Having stopped skating in my early teens, I may want to resume the activity, but never on Gwanghwamun Plaza. It would be not only pathetic but also quite dangerous to skate on the small rinks ― the biggest being 25m x 50m ― amidst downtown traffic even if the city puts a fence around them. If a brave person wants to go, the rinks will open to the public from Dec. 12 through Feb. 15, from 10 a.m. through 10 p.m. on weekdays and until 11 p.m. on weekends. Admission is 1,000 won.
City officials say the Gwanghwamun rinks will draw much more people than the City Hall ones did, as there is a lot to see around the area. Last year, 280,000 visited the ice rinks near City Hall. One of the attractions this year will be the ``Seoul Light Festival" that opens on Dec. 11. It will follow the just-ended ``Seoul Lantern Festival."
Not being a big fan of these type of festivities or the construction and deconstruction of the Gwanghwamun area, I feel fortunate that I can stay away from the area during the winter and also the spring, when the dismantling of the rinks will cause dust and noise. But what about the remaining ginkgo trees? My heart aches when I think about them, their ordeal and their loss of sleep. Perhaps I should go there once in a while and touch them. That would be the least I can do to repay the silent encouragement I used to receive from them.