SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea’s new president has pledged to work out of a drab, decades-old government building in central Seoul instead of the grandiose presidential Blue House, a symbolic gesture that brings a logistical headache for his security staff.
Moon Jae-in, 64, was sworn in on Wednesday and vowed to immediately tackle the pressing problem of North Korea’s advancing nuclear ambitions and to soothe tension with the United States and China.
A liberal former human rights lawyer, Moon rose to power on promises of a more just and fair society. He has vowed to “end the culture of an authoritarian presidency”, an image that bedevilled Moon’s disgraced predecessor, Park Geun-hye.
“I will leave the Blue House and begin the age of a ‘Gwanghwamun president’ as soon as preparations are done,” Moon said in his first speech as president on Wednesday.
Gwanghwamun is Seoul’s historic centre and main ceremonial thoroughfare.
Flanked by five royal palaces from South Korea’s dynastic past, it is also home to some of the country’s main corporations and financial institutions, embassies, hotels and a concert hall.
But most importantly for Moon and his supporters, it was the site of big, peaceful candlelit protests against Park that began late last year, helping pave the way for Moon’s election win months later.
At one corner of the 740 metre long plaza, just across the road from Seoul’s landmark Gyeongbokgung palace, stands a tall, plain building within a complex which Moon has said will one day house his office.
The Seoul Government Complex comprises three buildings and contains several government offices, including the Ministry of Unification, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and soon perhaps, the presidential office.
But the buildings, including the largest, ageing 1970s structure, will need major renovations and security upgrades to meet standards in a country still technically at war with North Korea, two people with direct knowledge of the building said.
“It’s going to be a headache,” said one source, who asked not to be identified, citing the sensitivity of the matter.
“Security will have to be strengthened a lot. It’s unrealistic”.
The plan to leave the Blue House has echoes of the security nightmare, and the millions of dollars in expenses, that arose when U.S. President Donald Trump’s wife and son decided to stay in his Manhattan tower block, and not the White House.
Protection for South Korea’s leader got deadly serious in 1968, when North Korean commandos attempted to assassinate then president Park Chung-hee but were stopped by police 800 metres from the Blue House.
Two of the attackers escaped, the rest were killed, and a ring of security around the president got tighter.
Moon has pledged to turn at least some of the forested Blue House grounds into a public park. A spokesman for Moon could not be reached for comment.
The main 19-storey building of the Seoul Government Complex has a standard card-based entry system, a far cry form the sophisticated protection at the heavily guarded Blue House, which sits at the foot of a small mountain behind roadblocks and checkpoints.
The Blue House complex also has a big, underground bunker, built to withstand artillery fire, which was upgraded with a state-of-the-art information system last year, media reported.
Traffic near the Seoul Government Complex is also expected to pose a hurdle, if the usual protection for presidents on the move is maintained.
About 77,000 people a day use a subway station 3 minutes away from the complex, which backs on to a 12-lane thoroughfare.
“The building will need reinforcement,” said Song Sang-rak, head of the Government Building Management Office at the Interior Ministry.
The main building’s last major renovation was the installation of sprinklers in 2008, and its windows lack adequate soundproofing and insulation, let alone strength, Song said.
“It’s going to take some budget, for items such as bulletproof glass,” Song said, adding that Moon hoped to be in his new offices by 2019.
Moon draws comparisons with Europe and the United States to make his point for a more approachable government.
“European countries with parliamentary cabinet systems have their prime ministers’ work spaces or living quarters in the city centre,” he said last month.
“Even in the United States, the public can at least visit the office of the president.”
Additional reporting by Christine Kim; Editing by James Pearson, Robert Birsel