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Beauty Amidst the Tangled Web of History Deoksugung Palace


To the modern eye, Deoksugung Palace appears unremarkable among Seoul’s traditional palaces: the same imposing wooden gates, brightly painted wooden beams in traditional dancheong style, stone-paved courtyards and serene gardens. But Deoksugung was the stage on which a tragic era in Korean history unfolded, and its unique juxtaposition of traditional Joseon architecture with neoclassical Western architecture embodies its tangled history.
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A Royal Home, in the Imperialists’ Backyard

Deoksugung was originally built as a royal villa, the home of Prince Wolsan, the older brother of King Seonjo (r. 1567—1608). In the Japanese invasion of 1592, all the palaces of the kingdom in Seoul were burned down, and Deoksugung was used as a temporary palace. In 1623, King Injo moved the royal residence to Changdeokgung, and Deoksugung was used only as an auxiliary palace for the next three centuries.
In 1895, during a period of widespread imperial activity, the Korean peninsula was in a vulnerable position. King Gojong, who ruled Korea at that time, was a gentle, indecisive man who struggled to resist imperial interests and preserve Korean autonomy. His strong-willed wife Queen Myeongseong — also known as Queen Min — gathered her relatives and appointed them to key administrative positions in an effort to maintain control over the kingdom. Allegedly, the Japanese ambassador to Korea led a gang of assassins in a plot to eliminate Queen Myeongseong and her consorts, who created obstacles to Japanese imperial aims. Queen Myeongseong was murdered and her body was publicly incinerated. This incident triggered King Gojong’s move to the Russian Legation just outside Deoksugung’s walls, and, without leadership, Korea’s already tenuous political autonomy went into further decline. Queen Myeongseong’s brutal assassination seemed to foretell the ruthlessness with which the Japanese would later occupy Korea.
After a year in the Russian Legation, King Gojong relocated to Deoksugung. The palace was expanded during his residence to make it more suitable as one of the five principal palaces of Seoul. Western pressures on King Gojong, amid the conflicting forces of imperial interests, modernization, and Westernization, are clear in the structures of the palace grounds.
King Gojong’s rule from Deoksugung Palace was watched carefully, a fact that is palpable on the palace grounds today. Deoksugung’s location in the center of the Jeongdong neighborhood, where foreign legations once peeked over the palace walls, gives modern visitors a sense of the watchful Western eye.
Throughout the next decade, King Gojong struggled to balance modernization efforts with resistance against the control of the Japanese and Russian legations. The King could not maintain sovereignty in the face of imperial ambitions and was forced to abdicate the throne in 1907 under Japanese pressure. He continued to live in the palace until his death in 1917.


Tradition in the Heart of Seoul

The central structure of Deoksugung is Junghwajeon, the main hall. This building was used for the king’s official meetings and the reception of foreign envoys and subjects. The original building, a two-story structure, burned down in 1904. The present hall was rebuilt in 1906 as a single-story hall. This structure is faithful to the conventions of a traditional Joseon imperial hall: marker stones implanted at fixed intervals in the court indicate the positions of the officials who stood there at imperial events, and the walkway is composed of three levels with a center walkway reserved exclusively for the king. All of the features of this stately edifice impress upon visitors the importance of palace’s central feature as the site of official imperial functions.
From the hall, with the skyscrapers of Seoul poking above the walls of the palace, visitors can feel how the palace is a central structure in the bustle of the city. While the towering glass office buildings are modern constructions, the palace has always occupied the most central location of all the palaces in the city. It is precisely for this reason that King Gojong decided to move the royal residence to this location — he felt it emphasized Seoul’s status as the capital city of an independent state.

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☞ Deoksugung Palace Royal Guard-Changing Ceremony


West Meets East in Architecture and History

One of Deoksugung’s most defining features is its inclusion of a Western palace on its grounds. Seokjojeon stands as evidence of the Westernization efforts of King Gojong in his pursuit of modernization. This was the first instance in which Western architecture was included in an Eastern palace.
Construction on the palace began in 1900, and after a decade, Seokjojeon, in all its Western neoclassical imperial beauty, was complete. The front of the building is embellished with a plum blossom, the symbol of Joseon Dynasty royalty after the implementation of modernization reforms in 1894. The imperial servants occupied the first floor, while the second floor was reserved as an imperial audience hall. The third floor was for the emperor’s residence. However, Seokjojeon was never actually occupied by a crowned emperor. By the time construction was completed in 1910, King Gojong had been forced to abdicate the throne, and his son, the puppet king Sunjong, had been moved to Changdeokgung.
The Japanese used Seokjojeon Hall as an art gallery. Later, after Liberation, the building was used as the headquarters of the Joint American-Soviet Commission. Following the Korean War, it became the home of the National Museum of Korea. Today, it’s the Royal Museum, which houses relics from Joseon-era royalty.
The West Wing of Seokjojeon, adjacent to the main hall and connected with a stone corridor, is the National Museum of Art. Japanese colonial architect Nakamura Yoshihei constructed this building between 1937 and 1939.

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For Royal Relaxation

Jeonggwanheon Pavilion, an unusual building designed by Russian architect Aleksey Seredin-Sabatin in 1900, served as King Gojong’s imperial cafe. King Gojong developed a penchant for coffee during his year-long residence at the Russian Legation in 1895 after the assassination of Queen Myeongseong. His partiality to this stimulant motivated him to commission a private coffee house after settling in Deoksugung.
Seated on a hill in the rear garden of the palace, this placid spot is ideal for relaxation. A fusion of Korean and Western architecture, the perimeter of the building has covered colonnades in the Romanesque style. The tops of the columns are decorated with carvings of traditional Korean themes such as deer, pine, and bats; the exterior of the building is embellished with golden gates filled in with arabesques.
Deoksugung’s present grounds are a fraction of their original size. The wooded area at the rear of the palace grounds is the perfect setting for a tranquil
stroll. In this cool and heavily wooded setting, visitors can experience a sense of peace and tranquility that one would imagine royal kings sought to achieve while pacing the palace grounds fretting over the issues of their empire.
Settled in the center of Jeongdong, the hub of activity of Korea’s foreign community at the turn of the century, Deoksugung and the surrounding neighborhood continue to create an idiosyncratic atmosphere. With tree-lined alleys and Western architecture set against the background of a stately Joseon palace, one can clearly feel the conflicting forces that pulled apart the last Korean imperial dynasty in its struggle to mediate between its tremendous traditional heritage and the allure of Westernization. Sadly, with modern education and the Western network came the greed of imperial ambitions, which ultimately pulled the last Korean empire to its end.


Visitor Tip

While at Deoksugung, try to catch the Changing of the Guards Ceremony. Held three times a day at 11 am, 2 pm, and 3 pm, this colorful ceremony reenacts the replacement of the guards entrusted with protecting the Palatial Gates. An impressive display of imperial ritual, the ceremony is accompanied by carefully choreographed drumbeats, verbal orders, flags, and music.

Deoksugung is easily accessible, located in a central region of the city. Take Line 1 or 2 of the subway to City Hall Station, Exit 2. From there, the entrance of the palace is about a 50 m walk. The palace is open from 9 am to 8 pm every day except Monday. Admission is 1,000 won for adults and 500 won for children.

[Find out more on Deoksugung!]
☞ Deoksugung-gil and Nokhwa Street
☞ Walking Tours

The article courtesy of Seoul magazine
Written by Jacqueline Kim
Photographed by Ryu Seunghoo

Date 11/05/2008

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