July 30, 2012
By Jennie Lee
Last week, we went to the National Museum of Contemporary Art. Compared to the National Museum of Korea, which we visited our first week, the tour we received this time was very short and incomplete. We only viewed some works in the photography collection, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. The exhibition was on Images of Silence and its four themes were: desolate landscapes, space of absence, absence of communication, and death—eternal silence. As we went through the gallery, the more dark and eerie the subjects of the photographs became. In a way, these photographs of silence seemed to be a reminder of how Korea has constantly been silenced during the past century of colonization, intervention, and dictatorial rule.
To start off this week, our last week in Korea, we visited the N Seoul Tower. Used as a communication and observation tower, it is located at Namsan, or South Mountain, in Seoul. It is commonly know as the Namsan Tower or simply Seoul Tower. When we arrived, I was surprised to see a banner over the entrance saying that the Tower was voted the #1 tourist attraction in Seoul. It led me wonder why it was and made me anticipate the tour even more.
We took an elevator up to the observation deck. Instead of focusing on the view of the Seoul landscape outside the windows lining the walls, I could not help but be distracted by the gift shop flagrantly in the middle of the deck. Next to it there was a postcard station to write postcards and send them in a mailbox. On another floor there was a cosmetics shop, and on the ground floor, there was another gift shop, which even sold K-pop goods.
Next to the Tower, we walked along the Tower fence where there were thousands of colorful hanging padlocks. This fence is a famous part of the Tower as a tourist site. For years, couples have been placing locks on the fence with written messages of love, and then throwing the keys away. Hence, these locks symbolize the hope for eternal love, and Seoul is presented as a city of love.
The Tower fence was familiar to us because it was in a few scenes in the recent Thai film Hello Stranger that we watched in class. A romantic comedy set in Seoul, the film was partially funded by the Korean National Tourism Organization (KNTO). While the movie was a satire on Thai citizens’ obsession with Korean dramas, in the end, Korea was portrayed as a space where Korean-drama-esque love can actually be fulfilled.
It was interesting because we noticed that there were many Thai tourists at the tower. Our tour guide told us lately there have been many Thai tourists visiting South Korea. It’s difficult to know how much the film has actually impacted Korean tourism, but Hallyu (the Korean Wave) has undeniably been sweeping Southeast Asia. Or to be more correct, Sin Hallyu (the New Korean Wave), has been spreading infectiously around the world. This wave emerged in the early 2000s as a conscious effort by the KNTO to utilize hallyu for profit in Korea. The consumerist infrastructure has been built to control and manipulate hallyu to represent Korea as an attractive place for foreigners to visit and experience beyond their T.V. screens.
All of these aspects of N Seoul Tower made the impression on me that the Tower is a hyper-tourist site in the sense that I could tell the Korean government was working hard to make the Tower appeal to foreign tourists. It serves as a microcosm of Korea as a whole, which the government wants to portray as a country of beauty and excitement. And at the same time, the visit to the N Seoul Tower highlighted the bi-lateral relationship between the producers of hallyu and its consumers. In my eyes, seeing the crowds of foreigners writing postcards at the observation deck and hanging padlocks on the fence reaffirmed this international popularity of Korea.
For the second part of our tour for the day, we went to a district in Seoul called Itaewon. It is known as the most “foreign” zone in Seoul where many U.S. military personnel reside and hang out, along with other international residents. The area formed as a place of accommodation and entertainment for American soldiers at the U.S. military base in Yongsan, and the Imperial Japanese Army before them. Thus, since colonization, the Itaewon area has been de-territorialized, which means that it does not identify as a Korean national space. Only recently has the Korean government been taking steps to do what can be seen as re-territorializing the space. The government is involved in a form of manipulation to control Itaewon’s exoticism. For financial reasons, it does not want the foreign appeal of Itaewon to disappear as globalization spreads foreign influence into other parts of Seoul and the rest of Korea.
Our tour guide shed a very negative light on Itaewon by emphasizing that Itaewon was notorious for past rape incidents and violent crimes involving American soldiers. Over the past few years, Itaewon has largely shifted from being a recreation area for only foreigners to being a shopping area for both foreigners and native Koreans. Perhaps that is why the general atmosphere of Itaewon did not seem that different to me. Obviously there are some differences. We definitely saw more foreigners in Itaewon compared to other parts of Seoul. There are many “authentic” ethnic food restaurants and stores that sell “large-size” clothing. The Korean storeowners are more comfortable speaking in English. Also, Itaewon has gay bars and clubs that are rare in Korea. However, the general space is occupied by the same type of Korean merchants and chain fast food restaurants found throughout Seoul. It will be interesting to see how Itaewon develops over the next few years before the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in 2018 because the Korean government will undoubtedly want to draw in the foreign tourists.