Situated at the heart of Seoul City, Gwanghwamun Square has become a representative plaza ever since refurbishment was completed on Aug. 1, 2009. During the first year, more than 1.4 million people visited the square, an average of 37,000 visitors per day.
“It’s nice to have such a plaza in the downtown area. I have brought my friends from overseas here. They really liked the co-existence of tradition and modernity in the middle of the city,” said Kim Mi-na, a university student.
The 555-meter-long and 34-meter-wide square is about the size of two and a half soccer fields and two statues from the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) during which Seoul was the capital are located at either end.
The statue of Admiral Yi Sun-shin has been standing in the middle of Sejongno Street since 1968 and the plaza was built around him. Last year the statue of King Sejong was newly presented when the square reopened to the public and stands opposite Admiral Yi. There are two underground exhibition halls, one each for the historical figure standing in the plaza above.
The appearance of the square changes according to the season. As it is a sultry summer, children dabble in the water spewing from the fountains in front of the statue of Admiral Yi. But in winter, the plaza was turned into a skating rink and a giant ski jump ramp was installed to host a range of events for winter sports.
During the inaugural year the square was full of commemorative events such as a cycling competition, Tour de Seoul and Seoul Snow Jam 2009, an international snowboarding event.
However, the frequent revamping of the square has constrained Seoul City’s coffers.
For instance, the city spent more than 400 million won to plant some 220,000 flowers at the square for the reopening last August. Autumn flowers worth some 120 million won were added to the plaza later that year. But they were soon removed to make space for the skating rink, drawing criticism for wasting taxpayers’ money.
However, the city changed the policy of the plaza to “emptiness” this year. After the ice rink was removed in February, no other facilities were installed on the square.
Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon said that he would collect public opinion on how to operate the plaza.
In February, the city held a debate on the ideal usage of the square, inviting experts from the municipal government and civic groups. At the forum, professionals suggested that the plaza be operated by citizens, not by the government.
The city will hold another discussion session in September, after the completion of Gwanghwamun Gate in front of Gyeongbok Palace behind the square, to listen to citizens’ opinions regarding the plaza.
The Seoul Metropolitan Council also holds a key to the uses of the square. After the June 2 local elections, the municipal council is now controlled by the main opposition Democratic Party and it plans to pass a revised bill on the use of major open areas in downtown Seoul, including Gwanghwamun Square and Seoul Plaza.
If the “plaza ordinance” is passed by the city council, Gwanghwamun Square will be open to any gatherings. Currently, assemblies are banned in the plaza due to safety reasons as it sits between car lanes and close to the U.S. Embassy.