Even though Deoksugung is located in the dead center of Seoul, right next to Seoul City Hall, it often goes unnoticed. This palace is, indeed, much smaller and less grand than the other royal palaces, but it has an interesting story and a very peculiar design.
Daehanmun Gate is the main entrance to the palace and usually gets the most attention because of its brightly-dressed guards. Historically, the palace’s south gate functioned as the main gate, but as traffic around the east side of the palace increased in modern times, the east gate began to function as Deoksugung Palace’s main gate. As you pass through the gate, you will have to cross the traditional stone-carved bridge that divides commoners from the King and his court. A stone obelisk in front of the bridge states “All men are equal”. This meant that everyone – be it a servant or a nobleman – have to get off their horse before crossing as "all men have to appear with a humble heart and sincere mind in front of the king".
Located in the center of Deoksugung, Junghwajeon function as the main hall of Deoksugung Palace has been perfectly preserved in its original form. This was where state affairs were conducted, official meetings held, and foreign envoys were received. The ceiling of the hall has intricate ornaments, the most peculiar of which are a pair of dragons with 7 claws, representing the Emperor (instead of the usual 5 symbolizing the King). The ceremonial square between the gates and the throne hall has traditional marker stones implanted at fixed intervals to indicate the positions of the attending officials, while the walkway is composed of three levels with a center walkway reserved exclusively for the king.
The King’s living quarters were located in Hamnyeongjeon and it strays from the traditional palatial style. Some of the halls were designed by Russian architects, interiors were upgraded for modern convenience, and decorations bear distinct western influences. A secret underground passageway still exists leading from the royal cafe to the Russian park behind the walls, connecting king’s pavilion with what used to be the Russian Legation.
Junmyeongdang Hall, or royal kindergarten, is probably one of the saddest halls in Deoksugung. This bright and intricately decorated building was used by the last Emperor Gojong to receive foreign envoys and throw banquets. In later years, it was repurposed to serve as a kindergarten for his favorite daughter - Princess Deokhye. Unfortunately, the girl did not get to live long with her family. After a failed arranged marriage with a Korean nobleman and the death of her father, Princess was taken to Japan when she was only 13 years old. At 20, she was married off to a Japanese aristocrat, but her marriage was far from happy. Princess Dokhye returned to Korea only in 1967, twice divorced, suffering from the loss of a child, and mentally ill. The tragic life of the Last Princess of Korea has greatly influenced Korean culture, and many popular films, dramas, and novels pass on her sad story.
One of the peculiarities of Deoksugung is its combination of traditional Korean and Western architecture. In his pursuit of modernization, King Gojong ordered the building of a new western palace, with a floor for servants, audience hall, and private quarters, in a neoclassical style. However, by the time construction was finished, King Gojong had already lost his crown and the new king – his son Sunjong – was relocated to Changdeokgung. Under Japanese rule, the palace was divided into two parts and served as a public gallery for Japanese and Korean art exhibitions. After Liberation, the building was used as the headquarters of the Joint American-Soviet Commission. Nowadays, the palace houses the Seokjojeon Royal Museum, filled with Joseon Dynasty relics, as well as an annex of the National Museum of Contemporary Art.