|The main building of Cheong Wa Dae (Cheong Wa Dae)|
Lee Hee-won, a 54-year-old taxi driver, still remembers the fear that he felt while passing by Cheong Wa Dae three decades ago, when the country was under the yoke of military authoritarianism.
Ordinary people dared not even look at the presidential office-residence, he recalled, which was a dreadful symbol of the dictatorial rule, surrounded by military operatives and police officers wearing guns on their hips, and a hotbed of backdoor politics.
“But now things have changed a lot, with greater access offered to citizens and tourists and our democracy maturing. I no longer think of it as a scary place,” he said.
Since the early 1990s, popularly-elected leaders have sought to shake off the aloof, eerie image of the presidential complex by gradually opening up some off-limit areas and inviting citizens to its key attractions.
Nestled at the foot of Mount Bukaksan overlooking Gyeongbok Palace, the main royal residence of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), Cheong Wa Dae and its surrounding areas were sealed off for decades following a 1968 assassination attempt on former President Park Chung-hee by North Korean commandos.
The public access to it has increased in line with the country’s democratization. What was a secluded enclave dedicated wholly to the first family has now turned into one of the capital’s most popular sites for tourists and couples.
Over the last five years, more than 1.13 million people including some 25,000 foreign visitors have been to the tour sites around the presidential district.
“Our perception of it has greatly improved as democracy has now matured and so has the political leadership,” said Kim Tae-young, one of the tourists near the complex. “It now depends on how much efforts the new president exerts to create a friendlier, more communicative leadership.”
But memories of authoritarianism that characterized former general-turned-presidents from the 1960s to the 1980s still continue to haunt some. Park and Chun Doo-hwan, who came to power through military coups, pushed for economic development at the expense of democracy.
“I was a military duty driver in the 1970s moving in and out of Cheong Wa Dae when Park ruled the country. I didn’t know I was serving for the dictatorial regime back then, as I was too young to understand the social upheavals,” said a Seoul citizen, who declined to identify himself.
“After my discharge from the military, for some time, guilty feelings gripped me while realizing how the government oppressed the people.”
|The interior of the main building(Cheong Wa Dae)|
The image of the presidential complex is also concerned with the change of its residents, which reflects the vicissitudes of Korea’s modern history. The site was occupied by Japan’s colonial governor and then the U.S. military administrator before Korea’s first President Syngman Rhee took it for his official residence in 1948.
Despite continuing efforts to make it a friendlier, more embracive place, some call for more efforts to make it truly democratic.
“Still, peaceful demonstrations are banned near the complex. If you march or hold a peaceful rally near it, you are, then, to be dragged out of it,” said a 31-year-old citizen who declined to be named.
“Given that the crux of the democratic leadership is to listen to and respect various and conflicting opinions, blocking even a peaceful protest in its vicinity is quite regrettable. To me, this tour program and others do not appear to be sincere.”
With President-elect Park Geun-hye slated to enter the presidential mansion next month, some raise hopes that she would reach out more to the grassroots and create an image of the leader serving for the people.
Observers said Park might feel more pressure than her predecessors to cast off the distant image of the presidency. She is the daughter of former President Park, who ruled the country with an iron fist for 18 years while spearheading the country’s rapid rise from post-war poverty.
During her campaign last year, Park repeatedly vowed to end the presidency’s image of “emperor-like leadership” with centralized power, and prioritize stabilizing people’s livelihoods.
Pointing to the continuing criticism that Cheong Wa Dae is cut off from the general public, opposition presidential candidates had pledged to “tear down the wall” and enhance communication with the people.
Stressing his “people-first” principle, Moon Jae-in, the Democratic United Party’s flag-bearer, promised to set up the presidential office in the central government complex and return the palace building to citizens.
To enhance public trust, what matters most is the president’s will and action, as people largely associate the image of the complex with that of the president, experts point out.
“Given the country’s presidential system and security matters, it is difficult for the leader to meet people face to face frequently. The president already has tools to communicate with people such as the secretariat, the Cabinet, political parties,” said Choi Young-jin, politics professor at Chung-Ang University.
“Thus, it all depends on how actively and willingly the president moves to reflect the people’s voices and differing interests in state management.”
A structural change in the presidential staff is also crucial to make the president more sensitive to the needs of the citizens, experts said.
Lee Chang-won, public administration professor at Hansung University, stressed that the presidential secretariat should be reorganized in a way that its divisions could more specifically reflect policy subjects and get a better grasp of the challenges facing people.
“It could create divisions dedicated to the youth, women, senior citizens, small enterprises and other policy subjects,” said Lee. “With the presidential office geared toward directly serving the socially vulnerable, it would be able to pay more heed to bread-and-butter issues.”
In that way, the overhaul would help craft effective policies tailored for the people’s needs and remove overlapping functions of Cheong Wa Dae and the government, he said.
Yoon Pyung-joong, political philosophy professor at Hanshin University, said that the physical distance between the presidential office and the office for his secretarial staff needs to be reduced so that the president can be in constant contact with working-level officials.
“As many have already pointed it out, the president is physically isolated even within Cheong Wa Dae. Even a president who likes to talk and communicate with his or her staff can become reticent in the current setting,” he said.
“It may be an option to put his office alongside that of his secretarial staff while making the current office a ceremonial venue for foreign dignitaries or opening it to the public in a more symbolic gesture.”
Yoon also suggested holding town hall meetings on a regular basis, in which the president holds unscripted discussions with citizens, in order to get closer to the public.
By Song Sang-ho (firstname.lastname@example.org