Site history stalls embassy project in Seoul
SEOUL — Strewn with colorful fall leaves, the nondescript path runs beside a stone wall near the U.S. ambassador’s high-walled downtown compound, its history shrouded in the woods.
According to historians, King Kojong, Korea’s last king, used the route in the late 19th century to escape his enemies, pro-Japanese collaborators who sought to get rid of him at a time when Korea — nicknamed the Hermit Kingdom for its isolation — felt increasing external pressure from the United States, Japan and China.
That history, and concerns that artifacts lie underneath the soil, could derail plans to build a new U.S. Embassy chancery on grounds close to the famed path. A study delivered Nov. 12 to the U.S. Embassy’s architect supports the notion that the site “has some historic meaning, so it should be preserved,” said Yu Hyung-kyun, a researcher with the Joongang Research Center of Cultural Heritage.
Although not publicly released, the study shows Kojong’s pathway and blueprints of potential foundations of a former palace on the grounds, Yu said. About 18 researchers worked from July to November on the study, reviewing documents related to the grounds and field surveys, said Lee Woo-sung, who works at Foundation for Preservation of Cultural Properties.
The two agencies investigate historical sites around South Korea. They co-wrote the study, which was commissioned by Baum Associates, the Korean architectural firm designing the embassy. A committee from the national Cultural Properties Administration in Taejon will review their work, said Yon Kap-soo of Seoul’s Cultural Properties Division.
The U.S. Embassy is “awaiting the decision of the Korean government on these property issues,” said spokeswoman Maureen Cormack.
Kojong’s path is somewhat near the vacant lot in the Chung-dong neighborhood where the U.S. government planned to build a new U.S. Embassy chancery and an eight-story apartment building.
The government bought the property, barren except for a thick, crooked tree, in 1986 at the South Korean government’s recommendation. It has been idle since a high school there was vacated in 1988. An adjacent property owned by the United States also was to be used for the chancery.
The $240 million project, originally scheduled to be completed next summer, has fallen behind schedule. On its Web site, the U.S. Embassy has acknowledged concerns over the lot’s historical value and has pledged to survey the site fully for historical artifacts.
The embassy writes that many royal families occupied the Chung-dong area and many of the old buildings were razed in the late 19th and 20th centuries.
But only the improved economy of recent years has given South Korea’s government the time and money to preserve historic sites, Yu said, adding that the government now legislates more development rules to save its history.
Before 1999, developers could just start building and digging, Yon said, although if cultural relics were found, they had to report them. But a law passed that year — the cultural properties protection law — requires a ground survey on project sites larger than 23 acres, he said.
In May 2002, the embassy tried to get permission from Seoul to start construction but the city government blocked it, Yon said, saying under the law the land must be surveyed.
The U.S. Embassy has sought to differentiate its project from regular construction projects. South Korean officials in the past have tried to apply regulations for commercial apartment complexes to embassy construction, according to the embassy’s Web page. The assumption that those laws apply “do not fit diplomatic establishments,” the embassy wrote.
For example, requirements for parking spaces should not apply, as underground parking is not permitted for security reasons, according to the embassy’s Web page.
No law or regulations specifically cover building diplomatic residences and chanceries, according to the embassy. “Accordingly, we have asked the Korean Government to designate this project as a diplomatic establishment,” the embassy wrote.