Barack Obama visited Gyeongbok Palace in downtown Seoul on Friday afternoon, the first U.S. president to do so. The visit had a symbolic significance since Obama returned royal and national seals of the Chosun Dynasty (1392-1897) and the Korean Empire (1897-1910) that had been looted by American soldiers in the Korean War.
They were seized by U.S. customs authorities last year.
Obama entered the palace flanked by an honor guard and was guided by Park Sang-mee, a professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. He was given a tour of the inner court, which is off limits to the general public.
Park was reportedly chosen as a guide because she studied at Harvard in the early 1990s, about the time when Obama enrolled at Harvard Law School. She got her Phd in social/cultural anthropology there.
Park pointed out the red chest next to the throne in the inner court where the seals were kept. Obama explained that the seals were returned to Korea due to the "conscientious" act of an American woman.
In a more lighthearted exchange, Park said Chosun rulers used to be ready to meet their subjects at 5 a.m., and Obama joked that the same is true for U.S. presidents.
Later, President Park Geun-hye and Obama met at Cheong Wa Dae and took a moment to remember the victims of the sunken ferry Sewol. Obama then presented Korea with the U.S. flag that flew over the White House on the day of the ferry accident and a Jackson magnolia sapling.
The magnolias were planted at the White House in the 19th century by President Andrew Jackson to remember his wife who had died. Since then, they have grown to symbolize comfort for those who have lost loved ones.
The sapling was planted at Danwon High School in Ansan on Saturday, where most of the victims of the ferry disaster came from.