Fengshui behind Korean presidential office
Gangnam, celebrated in the song of PSY in 2012 Gangnam Style, may indeed be a very wealthy part of Seoul, but ask South Koreans and most will say its prestige pales in comparison to that of Hannam-dong: an area between Namsan, the mountain south of downtown Seoul, and the Han River which crosses the capital.
The Lee family who control the Samsung Group, not to mention the Chungs behind Hyundai Motors, the chairman of the retail and food giant Lotte, and the vice chairman Chung Yong-jin of the Shinsegye group (which owns among others the e-mart supermarket chain), all of them have houses there. K-pop group BTS have kept their accommodation in the compound of Hannam The Hill down to the river, and two of its members, Jimin and RM, are said to have bought units in the recently built Nine One Hannam on the other side from the ave. .
Soon joining them as neighbors are President Yoon Suk-yeol who was sworn in on Tuesday and his wife, Kim Geon-hee. Yoon takes over the Foreign Secretary’s official residence overlooking Hannam The Hill when renovations are complete in a month. He will travel to nearby Yongsan, where his new office has been set up in what was until recently a Ministry of Defense compound.
South Korean presidents have lived and worked north of Gyeongbok Palace in downtown Seoul since the founding of the republic in 1948. Nicknamed the “Blue House” after the color of the tiles on the main structure, it is synonymous of political power at the heart of the nation. The color also has royal significance, once only allowed on the roof of lavish halls where a king conducted affairs of state.
Yoon’s choice to abandon this symbol of presidential authority and move to Hannam-dong has sent the country into turmoil. At first glance, the debate seems to be about cost, necessity and practicality. Why would a president give up a perfectly fine office and residence and choose another at taxpayer expense? Is it really to “create a space where the president can work and communicate with the public” as Yoon said to justify the move? Shouldn’t a president live where he works?
But the relocation has also revived old discussions about the auspiciousness of the Blue House. Most South Korean presidents have not behaved well after taking office, and some blame the location of the official residence for inflicting a terrible fate on its occupants, sparking rumors that Yoon is keen to avoid the same thing.
And the fact that he prefers Hannam-dong for a new home brought to light the region’s famous fengshui 風水 (pungsu 풍수 in Korean). Although he denies the selection was made based on Hannam-dong’s good energy flow, the decision has raised suspicion that the ancient art of geomancy has a role to play in where a democratically elected president of a modern nation will be installed.
The notion of fengshui has become familiar in recent decades as the Chinese practice of rearranging furniture and objects within a space to channel energy – as the term Qi 氣 is often translated – in a way that benefits the occupant. Some interior designers claim to apply knowledge for the benefit of clients in addition to making rooms visually appealing. These days, even outside of Asia, online courses are widely available for those who want a career in the tradition.
In the South Korean language pungsu has a more specific meaning: it generally does not refer to the interior or layout of a space, but to the location and relationship of a human construction to the natural world around it. Art scholars recommend where and how to build or what real estate to buy so clients can optimize the effects of cosmic energy for their personal success.
These structures in question may be places for the living to live or work within, but are not infrequently graves for the dead. In the latter case, it is claimed that the energy would enable the descendants of the interred to receive worldly gains, be it fame, wealth or power.
Of course, not all South Koreans buy into the idea that a person’s fortune can be dictated by where they build things, but tradition still wields a powerful force. The movie 2018 Fengshui (Myeongdang 명당 in Korean) – about courtiers and royals in late Joseon vying for particularly blessed burial sites – testified to an enduring fascination with the idea. Much like pre-modern houses, even modern apartment buildings in the country were customarily designed to face south – the direction associated with a strong positive (yang) energy.
More telling is that prominent politicians on both sides of the political spectrum, including the late president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kim Dae-jung, are known to have moved their parents’ burial sites ahead of crucial elections, presumably to influence the outcome. Whether because of that (or not), Kim won the presidency in 1997.
Given the importance of the Blue Houses, the fengshui of its location has been constantly reassessed, particularly due to the origin of the site. Korea was under Japanese rule from 1910 to 1945. After building the office of the Governor General directly at the front of Gyeongbok Palace 경복궁, the Japanese colonial government erected the accompanying official residence at the rear of the palace complex in 1939, cutting the flow space of Bugak Mountain 북악산 behind the Royal Palace of the Joseon Dynasty.
There was a deliberate note. The dynasty had gone to great lengths to choose its new capital and the location of its palace in accordance with the geomantic rules and town-planning customs established in China.
And the presence of mountains in the north was considered essential to the fortunes of the kingdom in accordance with the geomantic principle of baesan imsu 배산임수 背山臨水 — “mountains in the back and water in front”.
The site of the Governor General’s Residence, later occupied by the Blue House after Korea’s independence in 1945, stands between these mountains and the Old Royal Palace, compelling more than a handful of South Korean geomancers moderns to claim that it not only hinders the flow of energy to the fallen monarchy, it also does no good to those who live there.
The most famous of these is Choi Chang-jo, a former professor of geography at Seoul National University. He is often credited with starting this debate in the early 1990s, arguing, “From a fengshui perspective, the Blue House sits on habitable ground only for the dead or spirits. [because it’s on a mountain slope].”
Yoon’s predecessor, Moon Jae-in, pledged to move the Blue House presidential compound to the front of Gyeongbok Palace to be closer to the people.
This plan did not materialize for logistical reasons (too expensive and not enough land available), but at least one senior adviser to the committee studying the relocation plan suggested in 2019 that “the move should have been carried out considering given bad fengshui [of the Blue House]”.
Never one to show much love for Moon, the ultra-conservative newspaper Chosun Ilbo criticized the statement at the time as “superstitious” and “rendering a listener speechless”. But a few months before, in August 2018, the same media company’s monthly magazine had published a long and serious interview with a geomancer claiming that “the series of [unfortunate] the events suffered by former presidents can be seen as an effect of the location of the Blue House”.
(South Korean presidents rarely meet a peaceful end; they have gone into exile, been assassinated, committed suicide, gone behind bars, or been shamed by corrupt family members.)
If Yoon’s March 20 press conference announcing his intention to move the presidential office once and for all came as a surprise, he was certainly not the first to propose it. And when told that opponents linked the decision to a belief in fengshui or shamanism (he had already faced criticism in the campaign for courting the company of spiritual masters), he replied: “The [opposition] Minjoo Party seems to be even more interested in shamanism.”
Yoon, however, isn’t just moving his office; his official residence is transferred to Hannam-dong, synonymous with wealth and prestige. The foreign minister’s residence that he will occupy is on a heavily guarded slope of a park surrounded by several other official residences and foreign embassies. Hannam-dong is also a slice of Seoul that has garnered more praise from geomancers than anywhere else in the city for making a fortune.
In this context, some believe that Yoon’s new office and home is not just about being accessible to people. It’s a sign that this ancient tradition is alive and well in what is considered an ultra-modern country.
Cover: South Korea’s presidential “Blue House” no longer used by a sitting president (source: Steve46814 via Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)