Gyeongbokgung’s construction was ordered by King Taejo in 1394, and the “Palace of Shining Happiness” held the regal throne for over two hundred years. At its peak, the palace housed over four hundred buildings within its vaguely rectangular perimeter walls, but most were burned down during the Japanese invasions in the 1590s. However, though few Koreans will admit to it, the invaders were not directly to blame – the arsonists were actually a group of local slaves, angered by their living and working conditions. The palace was only rebuilt following the coronation of child-king Gojong in 1863, but the Japanese were to invade again shortly afterwards, forcibly opening up Korea to foreign trade, and slowly ratcheting up their standing on the peninsula.
In 1895 Empress Myeongseong, one of Gojong’s wives and an obstacle to the Japanese – who refer to her as “Queen Min” – was assassinated in the Gyeongbokgung grounds, a shady tale told in countless movies and soap operas, and a precursor to the full-scale Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910. During the occupation, which ended with World War II in 1945, the Japanese used Gyeongbokgung for police interrogation and torture, and made numerous changes to the building in an apparent effort to destroy Korean pride. The front gate, Gwanghwamun, was moved to the east of the complex, destroying the north–south geometric principles followed during the palace’s creation, while a Japanese command post was built in the sacred first courtyard in a shape identical to the Japanese written character for “sun” (日). One interesting suggestion – and one certainly not beyond the scope of Japanese thinking at that time – is that Bukhansan mountain to the north resembled the character for “big” (大) and City Hall to the south that of “root” (本), thereby emblazoning Seoul’s most prominent points with the three characters that made up the name of the Empire of the Rising Sun (大日本).