SEOUL– President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol on Sunday announced a decision to move the presidential office from Cheong Wa Dae to what is now the defense ministry building several kilometers away, saying he wants his office to move out of a “symbol of imperial power” and get closer to the people.
The decision is highly symbolic as Cheong Wa Dae has been used for decades as the presidential office and residence, though its secluded location and the way the president’s work office is located away from those of aides sparked criticism it causes the president to be out of touch with the public.
Yoon said he will move into the defense ministry compound in Seoul’s central district of Yongsan immediately after his inauguration on May 10. On the same day, Cheong Wa Dae will be fully opened to the public, he said.
The defense ministry will move into the Joint Chiefs of Staff building in the compound, he said.
“It’s a difficult task, but it’s a decision I made for the future of the country,” he said during a press conference at his transition team’s headquarters. “I ask the people to understand that this is not simply a relocation of space but my determination to properly serve them and work properly, as well as to fulfill my promise to them.”
Yoon promised during the campaign to relocate the presidential office to the Gwanghwamun government complex and “return” Cheong Wa Dae to the public. The pledge was intended to demonstrate his commitment to working closely with his aides and interacting frequently with the people.
But following his election on March 9, the plan prompted a fierce debate over whether it will help the president better communicate with the people or simply waste resources.
The Gwanghwamun complex was quickly ruled out because officials said it could not be secured from outside threats, given that it is surrounded by other high-rise buildings, reducing the options to the adjacent annex used by the foreign ministry, and the defense ministry.
The transition team estimated that relocating to the defense ministry compound would cost 40 billion won (US$33 million), while relocating to the foreign ministry building would cost 80 billion won.
During the news conference, Yoon repeatedly asked for the public’s understanding, saying that if he reneged on his promise, like some of his predecessors, no future president would be able to complete the job.
President Moon Jae-in also pledged to move Cheong Wa Dae before scrapping the plan over security and logistical issues.
“I am aware of the concerns that we may be rushing the relocation of the president’s office with only 50 days to go until the start of my term,” Yoon said. “However, I determined that once we enter the Cheong Wa Dae compound, it will become even more difficult to break free from the Cheong Wa Dae that is a symbol of imperial power.”
The president-elect delved into the details of how the defense ministry compound is suitable as the presidential office, and even used a visual aid providing a bird’s eye view of the ministry and its surroundings.
He said that while the Gwanghwamun buildings proved unsuitable due to the inconvenience people would experience from presidential escorts and the like, the defense ministry compound would not pose such problems.
He also said that using the Gwanghwamun complex would prevent him from fully opening Cheong Wa Dae to the public because he would sometimes need to use its facilities, but the defense ministry is already fitted with all the necessary facilities for national security.
“Considering the aspect of causing inconveniences to the public, and the aspect of wholly opening and returning Cheong Wa Dae to the people, I determined it was right to swiftly make a decision on relocating to the defense ministry compound in Yongsan and moving forward with it,” Yoon said.
Above all, he stressed the advantages of its proximity to a planned national park.
“Starting this year, the (land of the) surrounding U.S. military base is expected to be returned in stages, which will allow us to swiftly construct Yongsan Park, use the defense ministry building as an office and commune and communicate with the people,” Yoon said.
To further facilitate communication, a press center will be set up on the first floor of the building used by the president’s office, he said.
Yoon admitted that some of the current occupants, including the defense ministry and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will have to make partial relocations to make room for the presidential office.
He dismissed the notion that moving their offices will create gaps in national defense, a charge that has been leveled by some lawmakers of the ruling Democratic Party. Yoon belongs to the main opposition People Power Party.
“I find it difficult to grasp,” he said. “We will complete the relocation as efficiently as possible at the earliest possible date and make sure there is no disruption to national security.”
Yoon also said the presidential residence will move from Cheong Wa Dae to one of the official residences in Hannam-dong. The residence of the Army chief of staff is being looked at as the most likely candidate.
“Over the long term, I think it will be good to build an official residence or facilities in the area (inside the compound) where we can host guests, but we’re not thinking about such things at the moment,” he said.
Citing the finance ministry, Yoon put the total cost of relocation at 49.6 billion won, including 11.8 billion won for moving the defense ministry to the JCS building, 25.2 billion won for remodeling the defense ministry building into the presidential office and 9.9 billion won for moving the office of the presidential security service.
Yoon said he will reduce the number of staff working for the president and open the compound to the public as much as possible by installing a fence only around the building that contains the president’s office.
“I will also come up with ways to improve the work of the presidential office,” he said. “I will do away with the current Cheong Wa Dae that reigns over ministries and monopolizes power and instead install public-private joint committees and come up with specific measures to ensure the ideas of the dynamic experts of the civil sector are reflected in the state’s core agenda.”
The president-elect said there will be no more “Cheong Wa Dae” and only an office of the president.
A new name for the president’s office will be chosen through a public contest, he said.
“Cheong Wa Dae is a symbol of imperial power,” he reiterated. “I will never move into it.”
Meanwhile, more than 200,000 people have signed an online petition on Cheong Wa Dae’s website to oppose the relocation of the presidential office.
Source: Yonhap News Agency