On August 1, the city unveiled the new Gwanghwamun Plaza, which runs in the center of Sejong Street from the gate to the statue of Admiral Yi Sun-shin, the great warrior who rebuffed the Japanese invasion of 1592 and invented the turtle ship (Geobukseon 거북선).
You come out of Gwanghwamun station (line 5) at a revamped exit into Haechi Madang (Haechi courtyard)--haechi being an imaginary lion-like beast that is the symbol of Seoul.
There was also an interesting photo display of plazas and squares of Europe.
The plaza itself is well-thought-out and well-executed. When you walk onto the plaza from the madang, Bugaksan looms in the background, a stirring backdrop for the gardens on the north end of the plaza, in front of the gate. Running along both sides is a sort of stream, about an inch deep, 365 m long, the stone bed engraved with important events in Korea's past, called the Waterways of History.
At each end of the garden is a large topiary haechi. Stylized geobukseon serve as planters and bench seating, and provide what little shade the plaza has in the heat of the day.
The flower carpet on the north end of the square "is made of 224,537 flowers. The number matches the number of the days between Oct. 28 1394, when the capital of the Joseon Dynasty was transferred to Seoul from Gaeseong, the capital of the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), and today," according to opening day's story in the Herald.
But the star of the show, at least on a sweltering August early afternoon, is the 364 water jets that surround Admiral Yi's statue.
I'm not sure what this guy was all about ...
... but I remembered reading this editorial in Dong-A Ilbo, one of the most right-wing newspapers here, which worried about the new plaza's temptation to protesters, considering its central location and patriotic backdrops:
The plaza should also not degenerate into a place for illegal demonstrations. Government institutions and the U.S. Embassy are nearby, and Gwanghwamun Plaza is closer to the presidential office of Cheong Wa Dae than Seoul Plaza. The city has banned political assemblies at the new plaza and will impose stricter regulations on such gatherings than for Seoul Plaza. Yet certain groups have repeatedly staged political demonstrations at Seoul and Cheonggye plazas under the disguise of cultural events, and whether the city can stop them from doing so at Gwanghwamun Plaza is unclear.
If Gwanghwamun Plaza is to truly become a Korean landmark, it should establish itself as a public place for relaxation and culture. If it turns into a venue for illegal protests like the candlelight vigils that paralyzed Seoul between May and August last year, the city is better off without the plaza.
Too late, perhaps, as the following story from The Hankyoreh reports, about an incident on Monday:
South Korean police arrested a number of citizens who participated in a press conference held by civic organizations and opposition political parties in Gwanghwamun Plaza, on August 3. The press conference was the first held in the plaza since its opening on August 1. The police arrested them on the grounds of holding a ‘not-reported assembly.’
From the Korea Times:
The police considered the press conference as an illegal gathering and Park Won-suk, deputy secretary general of the People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, and nine others were taken into custody.
The city did not fence off the plaza prior to the gathering, but police saw it as unlawful because they held protest signs.
Other people sided with the city administration and requested for a political demonstration-free area. "Citizens need a peaceful place downtown without rallies. If the demonstrators keep occupying the plaza, the law should protect the people's right to a quiet area," said an office worker identified only as Park, 34.
While protests, or even "press conferences", on the square seem to be off-limits, protests with obnoxiously loud loudspeakers blaring from just across the street in an alley beside the Sejong Center seem to be acceptable:
I've written about this before, and I'm sure I will again: Korean people love a good protest. Although today they have direct voting to effect their political will, they still can't resist a candlelight vigil, an opportunity to wave placards, or the drama of a lockout at the National Assembly.
It is a part of their national character, I think, psychological imprinting from the days of Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan in the 1970s and '80s when protests led the nation from military dictatorship to democracy. Well, I'll get back to this topic later, I've got to take this call ...