Gangnam, celebrated in PSY's 2012 song Gangnam Style, may indeed be a very rich part of Seoul, but ask South Koreans and most will say its prestige pales in comparison to that of Hannam-dong: an area between Namsan, the mountain south of downtown Seoul, and the Han River bisecting the capital.
The Lee family that controls the Samsung Group, not to mention the Chungs behind Hyundai Motors, the retail and food giant Lotte's chairman, and vice chairman Chung Yong-jin of the Shinsegye Group (which owns the supermarket chain e-mart among other enterprises), all have homes there. The K-pop group BTS kept their accommodation in the Hannam The Hill compound on the way down to the river, and two of its members, Jimin and RM, reportedly bought units in the recently constructed Nine One Hannam on the other side of the avenue.
Soon joining them as neighbors are president Yoon Suk-yeol who was sworn into office on Tuesday and his wife, Kim Geon-hee. Yoon is taking over the foreign minister's official residence overlooking the Hannam The Hill when renovations are complete in a month's time. He will commute to nearby Yongsan where his new office has been set up in what was until recently a defense ministry complex.
South Korean presidents have lived and worked north of the Gyeongbok Palace in downtown Seoul since the republic's founding in 1948. Dubbed the "Blue House" after the color of the tiles on the principal structure, it's synonymous with political power at the nation's heart. The color also has a royal significance, formerly allowed only on the roof of palatial halls where a king attended to matters of the state.
Yoon's choice to give up this symbol of presidential authority and decamp to Hannam-dong has set the country abuzz. On the surface the debate seems to be about the cost, necessity and practicality. Why would a president give up a perfectly fine office and residence and choose another at taxpayers' expense? Is it really to "create a space where the president can work and communicate with the public" as Yoon said in justifying the move? Shouldn't a president live where they work?
But the relocation has also revived old talks about the auspiciousness of the Blue House. Most South Korean presidents have not fared well after their time in power, and some blame the location of the official residence for inflicting a terrible fate on its occupants, prompting gossip that Yoon is keen to avoid the same.
And the fact that he favors Hannam-dong for a new home has put the spotlight on the area's famous fengshui 風水 (pungsu 풍수 in Korean). Although he denies that the selection was made based on Hannam-dong's good energy flow, the decision has given rise to suspicion that the old art of geomancy has a hand in where a democratically elected president of a modern nation will set up home.
The notion of fengshui has become familiar in recent decades as a Chinese practice of rearranging furniture and objects inside a space to channel energy—as the term qi 氣 is often translated—in a way that benefits the occupant. Some interior designers claim to apply the knowledge for clients' good in addition to making rooms visually appealing. Nowadays, even outside Asia online courses are widely available to those interested in making a career out of the tradition.
In South Korean parlance pungsu has a more specific meaning: it generally refers not to the interior or arrangement of a space but the location and relationship of a human-made construction to the natural world around it. Those specializing in the art recommend where and how one should build or what real estate to buy so that clients can optimize the effects of cosmic energy for personal success.
Such structures in question may be places for the living who live or work inside, but are not uncommonly graves for the dead. In the latter case it's contended that the energy would enable the descendants of the interred to receive worldly gains, whether fame, wealth or power.
Of course, not all South Koreans buy into the idea that one's fortune can be dictated by where they build stuff, but the tradition still exerts a powerful force. The 2018 film Fengshui (Myeongdang 명당 in Korean)—about courtiers and royal family members in late Joseon fighting over especially blessed grave sites—spoke to enduring fascination with the idea. Much as premodern houses were, even modern apartment buildings in the country have been customarily designed to face south—the direction associated with strong positive (yang) energy.
More telling is that prominent politicians from both sides of the political spectrum, including the late president and Nobel peace laureate Kim Dae-jung, are known to have relocated their parents' burial sites before pivotal elections, presumably to influence the outcome. Whether because of it (or not), Kim won the presidency in 1997.
Given the Blue Houses's significance, the fengshui of its location has been constantly subject to reevaluation, not least because of the site's origin. Korea was under Japanese rule from 1910 to 1945. Having built the governor-general's office directly at the very front of the Gyeongbok Palace 경복궁, the Japanese colonial government erected the accompanying official residence at the back of the palace complex in 1939, severing the spatial flow from the Bugak Mountain 북악산 behind to the Joseon Dynasty's royal palace.
There was a note of deliberateness to it. The dynasty had gone to great pains to choose their new capital and the site of their palace in accordance with geomantic rules and urban-planning customs established in China.
And the presence of mountains to the north was considered pivotal to the kingdom's fortune in accordance with the geomantic principle of baesan imsu 배산임수 背山臨水—"mountains to the back and water to the front".
The site of the governor-general's residence, subsequently occupied by the Blue House after Korea obtained independence in 1945, stands between those mountains and the former royal palace, compelling more than a handful of modern South Korean geomancers to assert that not only does it obstruct the current of energy destined for the fallen monarchy, it also does no good for those living in it.
The most famous of them is Choi Chang-jo, a former professor of geography at the Seoul National University. He is often credited with initiating this debate in the early 1990s, arguing, "From the fengshui perspective, the Blue House is sitting on a piece of land habitable only for the dead or spirits [because it's on a mountain slope]."
Yoon's predecessor, Moon Jae-in, pledged to move the presidential complex from the Blue House to the front of the Gyeongbok Palace in order to be closer to the people.
That plan didn't materialize over logistical reasons (too expensive, and not enough available land), but at least one prominent advisor on the committee studying the relocation plan hinted back in 2019 that "the move ought to have been realized considering the bad fengshui [of the Blue House]".
Never one to show much love for Moon, the ultra-conservative newspaper Chosun Ilbo slammed the statement at the time as "superstitious" and "rendering a listener speechless". But just a few months before that, in August 2018, the same media company's own monthly magazine ran a long, serious interview piece with a geomancer claiming that "the series of [unfortunate] events that former presidents suffered can be seen as an effect of the Blue House's location".
(South Korean presidents rarely meet a peaceful end; they have gone into exile, were assassinated, committed suicide, went behind bars, or suffered shame over corrupt family members.)
While Yoon's press conference on Mar. 20 announcing his intention to move the presidential office once and for all came as a surprise, he certainly wasn't the first to propose it. And when told that opponents were linking the decision to a belief in fengshui or shamanism (he had already come under fire during the campaign for courting the company of spiritual masters), he replied, "The [opposition] Minjoo Party seems to be even more interested in shamanism."
Yoon, though, isn't moving just his office; his official residence is being relocated to Hannam-dong, synonymous with wealth and prestige. The foreign minister's residence that he will occupy is on a heavily guarded slope of a park surrounded by several other official residences and foreign embassies. Hannam-dong also is a slice of Seoul that's attracted more praise from geomancers than anywhere else in the city for yielding fortune.
Against that backdrop, some believe that Yoon's new office and home are about more than just being accessible to the people. It's a sign that this ancient tradition is alive and well in what's seen as an ultra-modern country.