Former National Assembly Building

Brief Introduction

It was a symbolic place at the centre of Seoul that was also frequently used for the political rallying regarding the war between 1937 and 1940 [5]. Due to its symbolic importance and its purpose, it has often been a target of criticism by people who strove for Korean independence at that time. Thus, it showcases how heritage sites related to Japanese colonial rule, especially during World War II, are perceived by Koreans.

Figure 1.  Former Seoul National Assembly building (Source: http://archive.much.go.kr/data/01/folderView.do)

Why is this building contentious?

By the early 1930s, residents in the Gyeongseong (municipal district of Seoul under Japanese colonial rule) wanted a ‘grand hall’ that would allow for accommodating congregations, lectures, performances, rite gatherings, and other social-work meetings (Kim, 2014).

Accordingly, the municipal government built the building named as ‘Bumingwan’ in 1935 as a venue for various cultural performances (Yoo, 1995). Due to these various functions, it was considered the largest modern cultural facility at that time, with the three-story building with 2,360 seats (ibid).

On December 10, 1935, the opening day of this building, the municipal government delivered the message of uniting Koreans and the Japanese into municipal people called ‘bumin (府民)’ through a series of ceremonies (Kim, 2014). As such, the municipal government introduced this building as a representative building symbolising the culture of Gyeongseong. It was used as a venue for various public performances such as concerts, plays, official meetings, and ceremonies [7] to unify Koreans and Japanese in the name of municipal people (Kim, 2014). In line with its favoured status, well-known theatrical associations (e.g. Drama and Arts Research Association 劇藝術硏究會) frequently continued to rent and perform here. The grand public hall has certainly contributed to the gathering together of the urban masses in the name of ‘municipal people’.

However, the inherent limitations reside here because this building was established as a way to propagandise Japanese colonial ruling policies (Lee 2008; Yoo, 1995), and as advertising for warfare (Lee, 2008), especially in the late 1930s (Kim, 2000). When the news of the Sino-Japanese War (1937) reached the colonial city, this multifunctional cultural place was inevitably transformed into a theatre for boosting war fever amongst the people. Thus, Koreans regarded this building as a bureaucratic space utilised for pro-Japanese events (Lee, 2008; Yoo, 1995).

Attempted Bombing

This building was mainly used as a venue for praising and promoting Japanese colonial policy [8]. On 24 July, just before Korea’s liberation day (15 August, 1945) from Japan’s colonial rule, Mr Jo Munki, a member of the Korean Patriotic Party, tried to blow up the building by installing bombs to express the will of the Korean people’s desire for their independence from Japan (Kim, 1997; Yoo, 1995).

Figure 2.  The people who threw bombs in protest against Japanese colonial rule.
(Source: http://encykorea.aks.ac.kr/Contents/Index?contents_id=E0024166)
Figure 3.  Monument commemorating persons who threw the bomb in protest against Japanese colonial rule
(Source: National Museum of Korean Contemporary History, 2015)
Site of Buminguan Bomb Attack  

On 24July 1945, when pro-Japanese collaborators prepared an event to promote cooperation from Korean people for Japan’s invasive warfare, independence activists installed and detonated bombs on the site
Source: The Information panel of Bumingwan Bomb Attack (2016)

A Living Witness to a Chaotic Political Situation

After the Korean War (1950-1953), it was used as the National Assembly Building. Due to its political symbolic meaning, demonstrations were often held in front of this building. This building has become a living witness of modern and contemporary Korean politics. For example, a massive student demonstration took place in front of this place on April 18, 1960. This triggered the April 19 Revolution, which forced President Syngman Rhee, South Korea’s first president to resign.

Figure 4.  Monument commemorating students’ demonstrations in protest against the dictatorship and electoral fraud of President Syngman Rhee. (Source: National Museum of Korean Contemporary History, 2015)

Timeline

1) 1935-1945 Multi-functional cultural facility built by the Japanese General Government

2) 1945-1950 National theatre building

3) 1950-1953 Temporary office of the Army of United States

4) 1954-1975 The National Assembly Building

5) 1976-1990 An Annexe building to Sejong Cultural Centre of Performing Arts.

6) 1991-the present (2021) Seoul Metropolitan Council building: In 2002, this building was also renamed as the ‘Former National Assembly Building on Taepyeongro’ and listed as National Registered Cultural Heritage No. 11 [7].

Figure 5. Inside of Seoul Metropolitan Council (Source: National Museum of Korean Contemporary History, 2015).
Figure 6.  Inside of Seoul Metropolitan Council (Source: National Museum of Korean Contemporary History, 2015).

implication

Since the Japanese colonial period (1939-1945), this building has had a contentious history of Japanese colonial rule and dictatorship. On the flip side, it has also contained the process of liberation and democratisation. Due to its complicated history, this building is inextricably associated with Korean people’s political point of view. Thus, it is an essential modern cultural heritage site to understand Korean modern and contemporary political history.

Due to its complicated history, some people who are in their 70s or 80s regard this building as an unwanted legacy of Japanese colonial rule whereas baby boomers (currently their ages are from 50s to 60s) consider it to be a reminder of the military dictatorship in the past. Besides, the younger generation did not have any positive or negative perception. Thus, how to view this building by different generations enables me to understand much better the history of Former National Assembly Building.

Not only that, since 1991, it has been currently used as the political centre of Seoul Metropolitan City government. In fact, the layer of its history represents who is in control of South Korea at that time: Japanese colonial government, United States’ army military government, the military dictatorship government, and democratic government.

Despite this building’s historical importance, it has not been well-known by Korean people. To enable the value of this building to be better understood, I think we should strive to utilise the Former National Assembly Building by linking this building to the national curriculum of history education so that the students could facilitate the understanding of the modern and contemporary history of South Korea by exploring the history of this building.

An interesting note: Du-han, Kim, who was regarded as the greatest fist fighter in Korea and later became a member of the national assembly from 1954 to 1958, threw human excrement in protest against the biased decision on Samsung regarding Saccharin smuggling case. This event happened here and it became sensational.

Figure 7. The incidence of throwing human excrement by Duhan, Kim (Source: Parliamentary filth throwing incident, 2021).

Figure 8. The incidence of throwing human excrement by Duhan, Kim through the drama called Wild man
Note: Du-han Kim said “Eat your faeces, you bastards!” (Parliamentary filth throwing incident, 2021)

© 2021 Minki Sung

footnoes

[1] ‘Parliamentary filth throwing incident’ (2021) Namuwiki. Available at: https://namu.wiki/w/%EA%B5%AD%ED%9A%8C%20%EC%98%A4%EB%AC%BC%20%ED%88%AC%EC%B2%99%20%EC%82%AC%EA%B1%B4 (Accessed: 27 April 2021).

[2] Kim, H.I. (1997) Buminwan Attempted Bombing. Encyclopedia of Korean Culture. Available at: http://encykorea.aks.ac.kr/Contents/Index?contents_id=E0024166 (Accessed: 4 April 2021).

[3] Kim, H.Y. (2000) ‘A Study on the Cultural Acceptance of Seoul Residents in the 1930s: Focused on Bumingwan’. The Journal of Seoul Studies, 15, pp. 199 236.

[4] Kim, S.J. (2014) ‘A Grand Public Hall Opened in Colonial Seoul – Gyeongseong Bumingwan or Keij Fuminkan as a Way of Urban Life of the 1930s’. The Journal of Seoul Studies, 56, pp.

[5] Korean Association of Architectural History. (2006) Research into the Conservation and Utilization of Modern Cultural Heritage. Daejeon: Cultural Heritage Administration of South Korea.

[6] Lee, J.H. (2008) ‘The Long-cherished Desire of Gyeongseongbu to be the Leading Cultural City during the Colonial Period’, MINJOG21, pp. 142 147. Available at: https://www.dbpia.co.kr/Journal/articleDetail?nodeId=NODE01142915 (Accessed: 7 April 2021).

[7] National Archives of Korea. (No date) Bumingwan. Available at: https://theme.archives.go.kr//next/place/govLoaclAdmin.do?flag=8 (Accessed: 3 April 2021).

[8] National Museum of Korean Contemporary History. (2015) Seoul Metropolitan Council Building. Available at: http://archive.much.go.kr/data/01/folderView.do (Accessed: 3 April 2021).

[9] Sves Old Drama. (2020) Receive the Gift of the People, and Reflect on Yourself. 13 January. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vWqDNKvB4pI (Accessed: 27 April 2021).

[10] Yoo, M.Y. (1995) Bumingwan. Encyclopedia of Korean Culture. Available at: http://encykorea.aks.ac.kr/Contents/Item/E0024165 (Accessed: 31 March 2021).

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