Japan in the public culture of South Korea, 1945–2000s: The making and remaking of colonial sites and memories :: JapanFocus »
Meanings of a building both in landscape and memory-scape can be changed ‘not only by its exterior features or interior functions but also by its way of uniting with the earth’ (Chung 1994: 49). In other words, placing a building as well as designing one is a key element in creating meanings in architectural forms. The intimacy of place and meaning is, in part, derived from the place’s primary role as a ‘container of experience’ and, therefore, its ‘intrinsic memorability’ (Casey 1987: 186). Memory, it is pointed out, ‘does not thrive on the indifferently dispersed’ (Casey 1987: 187). In this sense, the former Japanese Government-General Building (GGB), erected in front of a key palace of the last native royal dynasty, more than any other building evoked for Koreans painful and shameful memories of Japanese colonial rule.
Completed in 1926, the GGB bore witness both to the colonial and postcolonial periods of modern Korean history. In fact, its overall lifespan was more postcolonial than colonial. The colonial administration began the construction of the GGB in 1916 and completed it in 1926. For nearly two decades, until 1945, the building housed offices of the colonial government. However, the building survived for a further five decades of Korea’s turbulent post-liberation history, housing the US military government offices until 1948; providing a home to the government of the Republic of Korea in 1948; and briefly serving as the general headquarters of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea during the Korean War. Following the cessation of hostilities, the building served again as the main government building for the Republic of Korea from 1962 to 1982. It subsequently housed the National Museum of Korea until 1995.
As part of national celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Liberation Day from Japanese colonial rule, the GGB was demolished. This article analyses the reasons why the building survived for half a century after the end of Japanese rule, and the debate during the early 1990s leading to the decision to demolish the building. How was the demolition of the GGB received by the various groups of people in South Korean society? Finally, what does the post-liberation history of the GGB reveal about public images and attitudes towards Japan in South Korea? In exploring these questions, I will first briefly summarize the history of the GGB. I will then analyse the political context for the official decision to demolish the GGB in the early 1990s, reflected in the media, at two levels: reaction from ‘specialists’ of various kinds (architects, city planners, and so forth), and the general public. In the process, I survey and attempt to explain changing attitudes and memories in contemporary Korean society with respect to Japan and the colonial past.