Numerous people are passing along the sidewalks and wide roads stretching all the way to the end of the city. Climbing out of the exit number two of City Hall subway station, pedestrians walk by a spacious square in front of Daehanmun Gate, the main gate of Deoksugung Palace which is one of the numerous palaces dating back to the Chosun dynasty. There, where visitors from local and abroad come to watch Daily The Royal Guards Changing Ceremony, has its own special place in the history of democracy in Korea.
Daehanmun Gate, originally known as Daeanmun, was renamed Daehanmun, after being rebuilt following the great fire of 1904. The Gate replaced Inhwamun Gate-later renamed Geongeukmun Gate- as the main gate of Deoksugung Palace in 1906.
There were several reasons for the promotion of the Daehanmun Gate. The main gates of Korean Royal Palaces usually head south, but for Daehanmun Gate which looks to the east. This was what made this gate a suitable candidate to be the main gate of Deoksugung Palace. It was much easier to access the palace through Daehanmun Gate than Inhwamun Gate. A number of avenues stretch out from the Gate, and several main arteries of the Hanyang City-which is the old name of today’s Seoul-were also connected to the Gate, enabling people to easily access Daehanmun Gate.
The direction which Daehanmun Gate faces also carries significant meaning. It faces Wongudan, an altar located in the Jung-gu district of Seoul. Wongudan was built in 1897 to serve as a only site for heavenly rituals during the Chosun dynasty. Only emperors were qualified to perform heavenly rituals during the dynasty. Emperor Kojong had foreseen Wongudan to enhance the then perilous status of Korean empire.
First steps for democracy in Korea
Daehanmun also carries significant meaning in that it had been the birthplace of Korean democracy. As Daehanmun became one of the busiest spots in Seoul, many perceived it as place for communication and meetings.
Manmin Gongdonghoe, or Mass Protest Meeting of 1898, was the trigger for the Korean people’s aspiration for Democracy. The mass protest was hosted by Dongnip Hyeophoe, or Independence Club, which is the first modern socio-political group in Korean history. They were against policies of the Korean Empire which depended heavily on external powers of the time, especially the foreign policy. The conservative parties of the Korean Empire tended to depend much on Russia, which took advantage of this by winning various lucrative resource contracts from the Korean government. These contracts included mineral, forest, fishery and more. Many Koreans, including those of the Independence Club were against such government tendency.
The Mass Protest yielded many fruitful results. It triggered the formation of Heonui 6-jo, or Six Proposals, which demanded independent governments, transparency in national finance, and respect for the peoples’ right and will. The Independence Club submitted these proposals to Emperor Kojong, who received it positively and promised the adoption of it. The Emperor failed ultimately in applying the proposal, due to objections from conservative parties, but it was meaningful enough in the aspect that people had tried to participate in democratic public expressions. Feeling threatened by such movements, conservative parties tried to slander the Independence Club by distributing flyers. These flyers carried false facts such as the Independence Club’s alleged attempt to dethrone Emperor Kojong and build a republican government. This was a major blow to the Independence Club and its name.
The citizens of Seoul began to grow increasingly restless in the absence of active government response. They felt they deserved more. As such, they gathered in front of the Daehanmun Gate, the young and old coming together in demanding reinstatement for the Independence Club and the establishment of a National Assembly. The rally continued for 42 days beginning from Nov. 5 until the government finally retaliated with force.
Protecting national sovereignty
The people had raised their voices in front of the Daehanmun Gate, hoping to protect the national sovereignty. The movement was led by Daehan Jaganghoe, or the Korean Self Enforcement Society which insisted that the Korean Emperor should strive to cultivate independent power.
In May 1907, Emperor Kojong secretly ordered three men to deliver his message to The Hague International Peace Conference of 1907. His message reproached the Japanese Empire for forcing Korea into making an unrighteous and unlawful contract, known as Eulsajoyak or Eulsa Treaty of 1905. Emperor Kojong’s intention was to draw international focus and thereby receive assistance from other nations.
Unfortunately, the secret envoys that came to be known as Hague Teuksa, failed in successfully carrying out their mission. They managed to deliver the Emperor’s message in the conference, but no one hardly paid much attention as the international community did know recognize the diplomatic right of Korean Empire as well.
Even so, the Japanese Empire felt threatened by such incident and decided to bring Emperor Kojong from his throne. And they were fast to put it into action. The Korean people were furious with the unlawful and unjust actions of the Japanese Empire. In response, the Korean Self Enforcement Society led 2,000 people, including members of YMCA, to gather in front of Daehanmun Gate and stand against the Japanese Empire, expressing Korean peoples’ right for self-governance.
Daehanmun Gate, the place where people still visit
The people of the Korean Empire used to deliver their opinions and messages in various public places. Among these, Daehanmun Gate was definitely one of the most significant places connecting the common people and ruling class. Due to such historical facts, many people still visit the Daehanmun Gate for meetings and rallies.
However, reasons for them have changed as much as the social circumstances have. Now, people calling for respect for human rights can be spotted in front of the Daehanmun Gate. In 2002, tens of thousands of people gathered from all over the country to mourn two middle school girl students who had been killed in an accident caused by American armored vehicles, demanding the American Military to apologize. Some of them held lit candles to mourn the unfortunate incident. In 2009, Daehanmun Gate also stood witness to citizens gathering to mourn twenty four casualties of a violent repression of protests in Yongsan Redevelopment district four. People questioned the legitimacy of government power.
Some also express their opinions on governmental policies and demand changes. When FTA(Free Trade Agreement) between Korea and U.S. arose problematic in 2007, people came out into the streets once again with lit candles, demanding for economic security. Many believed that the trade agreement could have negative effects on local agriculture and automobile industry. Revision of the Media Broadcast System Law and Four-River Redevelopment Project were also some of the top issues for the Korean people on 2010. University Tuition Reduction Policy, which many students and their families were desperate for, also triggered demonstrations in front of Daehanmun Gate.
It is natural that people require open space to legitimately express their opinions and share ideas. However, some of these events also resulted in unnecessary casualties. It is important to keep in mind that only peaceful protests and rallies can avoid producing such tragedies.
Symbol of communication and free speech
Every day but for Monday, the Royal Guards Changing Ceremony is held three times a day in front of Daehanmun Gate, attracting tourists. The Gate still functions as the center of Seoul City, and carries significant meaning in that people have longed for communication and free speech since the Chosun dynasty. For now, former employees of Ssangyong Motor are rallying in front of the gate in objection of unjust treatment. Kim Tae-yeon, member of the National Labor Union for Ssangyoung Motor said, “During the late Chosun Dynasty, people delivered their ideas and opinions to the government in front of Daehnamun Gate. Since then, many consider Daehanmun Gate as the symbolic site for such gatherings. Many gatherings and events have been held there. We too had chosen this place for protesting against the ill-treatment of employees laid off by Ssangyong Motor.”
Visit Daehanmun Gate today, and remember the people of past and now who simply wished to deliver their message and ideas.