For decades, South Korea’s presidents have begun their terms in office by acquainting themselves with the vast premises of the Blue House.
But on Tuesday, Yoon Suk-yeol became the first leader in the country’s modern history to shun the presidential residence, heading instead to a new office inside a former defence ministry building in central Seoul.
Yoon, who has styled himself as the “people’s president”, caused consternation when he said he had no intention of following his predecessors into the Blue House, so named because of the colour of its roof.
He said the building, located at the foot of a mountain on a site once used by the Japanese during their 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean peninsula, was a “symbol of imperial power” that would be opened to the public as a sign of his commitment to a more open and democratic presidency.
Successive South Korean presidents have lived and worked there since the country became a republic in 1948.
The gesture has not been well received, however. His predecessor, Moon Jae-in, criticised the move as hasty and a potential security threat, while even some of his conservative supporters questioned the decision – estimated to have cost $40m – at a time when Yoon should be focusing on the economy and North Korea.
Yoon, 61, has been forced to deny that he and his wife had decided to live elsewhere on the advice of shamanistic healers, whose shady role in South Korean politics became an issue during the election campaign.
Yoon said the theory had been cooked up by his political opponents to discredit him. “The Democratic party seems to be more interested in shamans than I am,” he told reporters after his election victory on 9 March, adding that he had considered several locations for his new office and residence.
He had come under scrutiny over claims that spiritual advisers introduced by his wife, Kim Kun-hee, had exerted influenced over his campaign. Kim, 49, had told a YouTube channel that she was a “spiritual person” who preferred meaningful discussions with gurus to visiting nightclubs, according to the Yonhap news agency. Yoon also denied that he had frequented an anal acupuncturist.
There was speculation that Yoon was determined to avoid the Blue House “curse” that had befallen several of his predecessors, including the dictator Park Chung-hee, who was assassinated in the building’s grounds in 1979, and his daughter, Park Geun-hye, who was impeached and imprisoned for corruption in 2017.
As Yoon was being sworn in on Tuesday, members of the public who had drawn lots to visit the Blue House were divided over his decision.
“It feels surreal,” Hwang Jin-woo, who works for a construction company, told the Guardian outside the building, whose grounds will be turned into a public park.
“Since I was young, this place has been a symbol of power. Until yesterday, it was a symbol of power, but now the public can access it. I was born a few decades ago, at a time when I couldn’t even take a glimpse at this place. But suddenly it’s been given to the citizens, so it’s a little overwhelming.”
Lee Jin-ok, who was visiting from Suwon, near Seoul, agreed. “I think it’s really great that it has returned to the arms of the people,” she said. “It has a lot of cultural value and I have always thought that the Blue House is one of the most beautiful buildings in Korea. I hope people will come here and enjoy themselves while learning about the history of Korea and its past presidents.”
But Kim Moon-soo, an office worker, said he was not sure if the millions of dollars used to set up Yoon’s new office had been money well spent.
“I think it was a bit of an act to show that he is keeping his promise from day one,” Kim said. “At the same time, I hope he keeps his other promises and takes good care of the country during these challenging times.”