The Korea Times carried a story titled "Seoul city to restore palace walkway" in its Jan. 26 edition. The Seoul Metropolitan Government plans to open to the public a 170-meter section of Deoksu Palace wall, involving pedestrian access through British Embassy property. A number of interesting issues present themselves: historical accuracy, "authenticity" of heritage, and journalistic practice.
The article states that the proposed walkway is "interrupted by the British Embassy … and has been since 1884 when the mission purchased land near the palace." I have seen this theme repeatedly over the years, but it is misleading. Deoksu Palace was not a fully-fledged "beop-gung" (a palace where a monarch resides) before King Gojong issued orders from the Russian Legation in 1896 to construct his new palace ― 12 years after the British Legation opened. Deoksu Palace had merely been a detached palace, or royal villa, for centuries. Furthermore, the U.S., French, Russian and German legations stood in Jeong-dong before Gojong's residency.
Therefore, in no sense did the arrival of Western powers in the late Joseon Kingdom encroach upon the palace. Indeed, King Gojong very likely moved his beop-gung to Jeongdong precisely because, after the Sino-Japanese War and the assassination of Queen Min, he hoped that the legations would prevent predation by the Japanese and Chinese empires.
Secondly, the article used the words "restoration" and "recovery" to talk about the proposed new walkway. It is a universal theme of historical sites to claim authenticity and genuineness, but these are fraught and deeply contested ideas.
A look at the map beside the Deoksu Palace ticket window shows that the original complex looked very different from today, due to demolition by both the Japanese and Korean governments. In fact, the current palace is about one-third its 1897 size, and most people will be surprised to learn that much of the present wall was built no earlier than the late 1960s.
Therefore, the idea of "restoring" the palace wall to its former glory and putting a walkway all the way around it is a difficult one, since so much former palace land has been lost, and the wall was built in its current location and form long after King Gojong's death. The erstwhile existence of gates connecting Deoksu Palace to the U.S., British and Russian legations further shows that there never was a pathway for citizens to circumambulate the wall. The authentic historic experience that the city wants to re-create is in fact a wholly new creation ― a very modern invention, connected to ideas of heritage tourism and universal ownership of national history.
Finally, it was surprising that the article contained quotations from both Seoul's plan and a city council member, but no word from the British Embassy. Missions have staff that handle public affairs, and given that the proposed walkway would enter and exit embassy gates and traverse embassy property, one would imagine that the British government would be keen to have a voice in discussing the plan, especially given concerns about diplomatic security, safety and privacy, but there was no mention of it in the article. Normally, one would at least expect to see a sentence like, "The embassy was not available for comment," or, "We reached out to the embassy, but did not receive a response by deadline," or even, "The embassy declined to comment on this story." Such an absence could leave a newspaper open to criticism that not enough was done to get all sides of the story. I think this is a regrettable editorial decision.
Jacco Zwetsloot, who has spent 15 years in Korea, has a Master's degree in Korean studies from Leiden University, and occasionally leads guided walking tours of historical areas. Write to email@example.com.