By Graham Earnshaw
SEOUL, Dec 15, Reuter – Whoever wins Wednesday’s presidential vote in South Korea, one thing is certain — there will be new tenants in the Blue House, one of the most heavily guarded residences in the world.
The Blue House is South Korea’s presidential mansion and true seat of power in this country, but security is so tight that most South Koreans have never even seen a photo of it.
Anti-aircraft guns and machine-gun emplacements guard the perimeter, road blocks stop ordinary citizens from getting anywhere close.
The present tenant is President Chun Doo Hwan, a former general who moved in after a military coup in 1979. He has promised to vacate the premises by next February.
Five candidates are running in the polls to replace him as master of South Korea’s premier piece of real estate.
The Blue House is situated on the slopes of a mountain 10 minutes drive north of central Seoul. Ordinary maps do not show it, although everyone, including any communist North Korean agents who happen to be around, knows where it is.
They certainly had no trouble finding it in 1968.
Late on the night of January 21 of that year, a North Korean commando squad tried to infiltrate the Blue House to assassinate President Park Chung-hee — later killed by his own intelligence chief in 1979 at a dinner near the Blue House.
The 31 commandos made it to within a few hundred meters (yards) of the compound when they clashed with a police patrol. They hurled some grenades and then scattered, trying to make it back across the Demilitarised Zone — DMZ — to North Korea 40 km (25 miles) away.
During a week-long manhunt, 28 of the raiders were shot dead. One was captured alive, and two disappeared.
The Blue House gets its name from the blue-tiled Korean-style roof it was given by South Korea’s first president, Syngman Rhee, in the late 1940s.
With the North Korean commando raid in mind, as well as an attempt to assassinate Chun and his entire cabinet during a visit to Rangoon in 1983, the country’s best trained soldiers guard the Blue House.
The two-storey, white-walled residence sits in a large compound amidst well-kept gardens and surrounded by smaller buildings from which the country is governed.
President Chun meets foreign leaders there and television viewers often see shots of the reception rooms with their chandeliers and thick-piled carpets. But the outside of the building is never shown.
The road leading past the Blue House, not far from the diplomatic quarter of the city, is strictly off limits to Koreans, although foreigners jogging or walking through are not stopped.
Security has loosened up to some extent since the early 1980s. The rule used to be that all windows on tall buildings facing the Blue House must be covered and locked, with no peeping allowed. That has now been dropped.
The government candidate for tenancy of the Blue House, former general Roh Tae-woo, indicated the sensitivity of the issue in a major speech last Saturday.
A top item in his campaign promises was: “I will see to it that citizens can freely walk along the road in front of the Blue House.”
REUTER GAE JF