Letter from Korea, May 2010

Like many “western” countries or “westernised” countries, Korea is perceived as a modern democratic nation, a country that represents the development and organisation expected of the young twenty-first century. It is a country, like many countries at all points of the compass, that has suffered from the over zealous ambitions of its neighbours and rivals.

I’ve always found Korea to be quite Americanised, unlike its neighbours who have more visible influences from Europe. I take it that this has a lot to do with the influences of European colonialism throughout the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. This is definitely the case with China, and also Japan which seemed to legitimise its own colonial ventures by replicating the efforts of the colonial powers that dominated the era, who were of course Britain, France, Russia, and to a certain extent the United States. Korea’s greatest ‘foreign’ influence came in 1950 with partition, civil-war and the taking of sides previously unthought-of. Ironically, South Korea went east over the Pacific Ocean and the north looked west to China and the then USSR.

Gyeongbuk Palace, Seoul

During the period before Japanese occupation, specifically speaking the nineteenth century, Korea attempted to keep its doors closed and to prevent foreign intervention. But, the more I think about this period, I wonder how much truth lies in this. The outcome of the Russo-Japo War of 1906 laid the foundation for the Japanese protectorate and furthered its claims to colonial dominance. The war itself, a key event in international power politics, allowed Britain, and possibly France, to concentrate their colonial defence closer to home while relying on a treaty with Japan to police the seas around East Asia. Britain, France and Germany had considerable economic interests in this part of the world and Korea, known as a closed kingdom, lay in the middle. While there may have been no foreign merchants (there certainly were missionaries) carousing the streets, there was no doubt a select few representatives scratching at the Gyeongbuk Palace gates itching for the ears of officialdom. What foreign intervention there was before the 1905 war appears to be celebrated as brief interventions on behalf of convention, as was the case with the French expedition to Gangwha Island in 1866.

Korea maintained its resolute stance against foreign interference only to become the object of  colonial expansion with no say in its own future. Surely any previous arguments in favour of foreign association were quashed once this reality set in. Some may argue today that opinions against foreign involvement still hold in modern day Korea.

The entrance to the very funky Passion 5, a bakery...

The “western” influence in Korea is new and is most clearly seen in the buildings of Seoul. What old western styled buildings do exist in Seoul came from Japan’s colonial authority suffering from its own crisis of identity attempting to meet the criteria of a colonial power. The monolithic ‘nice’ European buildings littered around Seoul are a testament to this.

In the five years since I first arrived in Korea, Seoul has become more self assured of the image it wants to portray to the world. A skyscraper littered cityscape is no longer enough to convince visitors of Korea’s economic prominence. International travel by Koreans has only been permitted since the 1980s and even still it has taken some time for the effects to sink in. Now, governmental delegations regularly visit international partner cities and confer over planning and administration strategies and techniques. Having realised that an open door is a sound method of achieving success, Korea is reaching out.

People here have travelled the world and seen that buildings all go up and a tall building will always stand out, but to really stand out a tall building must look good while standing tall. Koreans, as a society, are very image conscious and it comes as no surprise that this consciousness coupled with the demand for global success has earned Seoul the title of World Capital for Design 2010.

Downtown Seoul from the Namsan cable car.

Yes, there are still many gruesome eyesores all over the city, some crumbling and some that look like they will never go away. These eyesores are slowly losing attention, being replaced (not yet outnumbered) by fresh modern and adventurous design ideas that any city in the world would be proud to own.

Like Seoul, Dublin has been criticised for the numerous dated buildings which dominate the once modern blemishes which now make up Georgian Dublin. Seoul and Dublin both have the intention of becoming cities that are looked on for inspiration by the rest of the world. Both can learn from each other through design which, although modern, must be able to last beyond the next phase in the always fickle fluctuating tastes of design enthusiasts.

When I came back to Dublin in 2008 after three years in Korea I got the feeling that the capital had learned its lesson. Can it be said that Seoul has learned from its mistakes and the lessons of others, or will we have to wait and see?

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4 thoughts on “Letter from Korea, May 2010

  1. Korea’s (or rather Chosun’s) first treaty with the US was in the 1880s I believe. Also, Koreans were allowed to travel abroad prior to 1980, on a case by case basis (with government permission). What are your opinions on the architectural differences between Kangnam and Kangbuk?

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    • Right I figured as much with the travel, but not many people could go on a random holiday when they wanted. This has made a big difference! Not familiar with Kangbuk. Kangnam is very monumental; what I mean by this is that it seems that many of the buildings are there to impress aggressively. I actually only like the Kyobo building but maybe because it’s red… but you can see new buildings in the process of being built that have a lot of promise.

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  2. Pingback: Letter from Korea, April 2013 | If I had a minute to spare...

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