I edited and wrote promotional information about the Blue House countless times before I went. Korea’s home and office of the president–its White House–it was listed on almost all of the tours offered by travel agency clients of one of my past jobs. So I already wasn’t expecting much before I went, knowing how these group tours with travel agencies oversell everything. I left even more disappointed with the advertised product than I had expected but happily pleased with what wasn’t advertised.
Blue tiles in front of a beautiful mountain… Garden path… Outside, a museum about the rich history of Korean presidents…
The Blue House is not far from where I’m living–just 10 subway stops, including one transfer–so I decided I might as well see one of the most famous political sites in the country. I hoped I could at least see the famous blue tiles. But it was not to be.
The emblematic house is hidden behind a dull grey complex of stone blocks and columns. The main building of the Reception Center isn’t ugly, but it’s not something worth expending much effort to see. Where is the Blue House, I thought? Only from the second floor of the museum can visitors see the part of the roof edging out behind the triangular roof of the front building.
The museum itself could hardly be called a presidential museum. On the first floor, there was a display of 100 of the Korean Tourism Agency’s most favored tourist sites in the country organized by region and mapped. Useful for long-term travelers looking for inspiration, but not very information about the office of the presidency.
The top floor had a replica presidential desk for photo-ops and a virtual reality game where visitors could pretend to be secret service agents protecting the president. A camera tracked the movements of participants who had to hit threats like drones and grenades with their hands. The sign said, “Photo Zone of Presidential Security Service.”
The section containing pages from the Blue House guestbook signed by foreign political and business leaders was interesting. There I learned Barack Obama has good handwriting and is more verbose than most foreign leaders; Larry Page has terrible handwriting; and Xi Jinping supports gender equality: he had his wife Peng Liyuan sign as well.
What did capture my interest was the scene outside: Along the road from Gwanghwamun Square to the Blue House, Korean men stood with large signs with fiery slogans. Many of them wore hats, sunglasses, arm sheaves, and workmanlike clothes. They looked blue collar.
Indeed, most of the protesters had grievances with corporations and sprawling family-owned mega-conglomerates with interests in multiple industries, known in Korean as chaebols. Hyundai and Hankook Tires were under attack on separate signs for closing bases of operations. A few blocks away from the central square, a paper mache model of Hyundai Chairman Chung Mong-koo sat next to photos of a Kia worker who had made complaints about working conditions before committing suicide.
The expansive nature of chaebols means they are often under fire for multiple scandals at the same time. No company exemplifies scandal better than Samsung: It’s president, Lee Jae-yong, is in jail, awaiting trial, for alleged involvement in the bribery scandal that brought down South Korea’s last president, Park Geun-hye. Other protesters raised the years-long scandal over Samsung’s treatment of more than 200 workers who contracted leukaemia, lupus, and other diseases while working in a chip factory that exposed them to dangerous chemicals. While Samsung had agreed to pay out 100 billion won (US$85.8 million in 2015), the group Supporters for the Health and Rights of People in the Semiconductor Industry accuses the company of denying information about working conditions to this day.
(Chaebols often being family affairs, “Jay Lee” was in a way following in the footsteps of his father Lee Kun-hee, who was convicted on charges of tax evasion in 2009.)
I talked with one protester who was holding the anti-Hyundai sign. I could tell he probably spoke English because he was young and was wearing an Arizona University hat. He did. He said he was protesting the planned closing of a Hyundai Heavy Industries plant in his hometown, Gunsan, North Jeolla province. Hyundai Heavy Industries is facing pressure from a slump in the global shipbuilding market, but local politicians and labor activists want the government to intervene, offering subsidies or other incentives. President Moon has met with the governor ahead of the planned June 1 closing.
“Jeolla people like to protest,” I said as a complement. He nodded.
South Jeolla province was the birthplace and constituency of democracy activist Kim Dae-jung, whose imprisonment in 1980 inspired the residents of Gwangju to take over the city and form militias, before being suppressed by the military, an event that influenced Korea’s path to democracy. Kim would become Korea’s third-democratically elected president in 1998 and make strides towards national reconciliation.
After a few minutes he had to go. Down the street, a group of labor activists slept behind a police line and a banner that called for the repeal of “evil laws.” A kilometer or so down the road, union members marched down one lane of the street and bowed to the pavement in unison every few meters.
The impression I came away with from my visit to the Blue House wasn’t that which the guidebooks impress on readers. It was far from what the tourism promoters want you to read. No, it was better than expected. I came away with the impression of a Korea vibrant and free.