Can Koreans Perceive Foreigners as Part of the Tribe? by Senior Advisor Tom Coyner

Living abroad offers interesting and frustrating challenges. Having lived half my life in East Asia, I have long accepted that the trade-off in having an above-average existence comes with above-average potential irritations. That is, if one really gives a damn about what is happening, living in Asia can drive the well-intentioned expatriate up the wall. On the other hand, if one rationalizes what is happening in the immediate community is none of the foreigners’ business, life can be much simpler and more pleasant.

A recent case in point came in the guise of an e-mail from an American friend who has lived in Korea for more than 40 years. Having lived here more than two-thirds of his life and being bilingual in Korean, he often seems more Korean than Western. But even before he arrived as a Peace Corps volunteer, he had developed a passion for older architecture. In time, he has developed a deeper understanding and appreciation for the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) and early 20th-century Korean buildings than even Korean experts. In fact, today, the Korean media have given him the nickname of the “hanok jikimi” – “protector (literally translated “keeper”) of hanok.”

My friend lives in a traditional hanok house and has defended his well-maintained neighborhood from being demolished by private land developers.

Returning to the aforementioned e-mail, my friend alerted several “old Korea hands” about the plans to yet again redevelop Insa-dong. On Aug. 22, the Seoul Metropolitan Government announced a city development plan that could turn what remains of a traditional entertainment neighborhood into a modern, more profitable commercial zone. Seoul newspaper articles quoted bureaucrats announcing lifting a 35-year ban on developing the district. Details of the plan are not yet clear, but initial announcements give good reason to be concerned. That left me scratching my head, since a great deal of development supported by landlords was done over the protests of the more aesthetically inclined shopkeepers.

Specifically, according to newspaper articles, the permitted number of floors will be increased from one or two floors, in keeping with previous restrictions and traditional standards, to three or four floors, more in common with shopping malls. Citing concerns for pedestrian convenience and emergency vehicle access, the minimum alley width will be increased from two meters to four meters. Of course, to do this means tearing down many of the hanok and other older buildings lining small alleyways.

While I can sympathize for the need for greater access of fire engines, etc., I also recognize the absurdity. I live in a traditional community with widened alleys – clogged with illegally parked vehicles, making the area inaccessible for larger emergency vehicles. The concern with fire safety can be addressed with alternative facilities, such as increasing the number of fire hydrants in the alleys and installing smoke detectors, sprinkler systems and other fire prevention and mediation equipment in the buildings.

Kim Ji-ho, an official in charge of the city’s urban planning bureau, was quoted as saying, “The project’s goal is to increase the value of the city. The city government will try its best to preserve Insa-dong’s historical features.” Given my observations over the decades, I suspect there is greater concern about increasing the value than preserving historical features.

And this is where the long-term Seoul residents, Koreans and foreigners alike, may get involved. According to the city, Insa-dong will go into redevelopment after the city planning commission makes a final announcement in October. Until then, foreign preservationists plan to organize a pushback on the tentative plans.

While I’m sure there are also Korean preservationists, there are some fundamental differences between native and foreign preservation attitudes. At the risk of oversimplification, one may say that foreign preservationists believe in preserving as much as possible of the originality of the buildings so long as the structure is not a safety hazard. Native preservationists tend to preserve just the overall structural frame with a few essential bits and rebuild massively around these primary parts of a structure.

Aesthetically, the foreign approach preserves many of the details that in aggregate may comprise the greatest preservation cultural values. Whereas the native approach works along the lines that what is non-essential and old should be replaced to ensure the long-term viability of the structure; sadly, in most cases the building owners and local bureaucrats simply do not accept that originality of form and structural components is what creates the uniquely Korean cultural value. Incidentally, there is a lot more money to be made in pursuing the local approach versus the foreign methods.

So what happens, when a historical building is preserved, too often only the primary beams and pillars along with some of the foundations, and if one is lucky, the original roof tiles are kept. The rest goes to the scrap heap. A good example is Sungnyemun, often called “Namdaemun.” Much of what went up in flames in 2008 was material built into the gate during the 1962 major renovation project when it was razed and rebuilt.

In other words, much of what had survived the Japanese invasion of 300 years ago, the 17th-century Manchu invasion, the Japanese colonial period of neglect and nearby blasts  from the 1950-53 Korean War, was disassembled, with some components thrown away during the renovation project a half-century ago. And what happened to this monument, designated as National Treasure No. 1, has too often become the fate of other important as well as mundane architectural survivors.

I have often wondered aloud that if the natives don’t care about preservation beyond moneymaking opportunities, then why should the foreigners bother? If the foreigners think they know better and believe that future generations of Koreans may blame the present generation’s poor stewardship of national assets, is it the foreigners’ concern?

I can put together a coherent argument either way. But no matter how some of us foreigners may feel, Korea is not our country. Even foreigners with Korean citizenship are not “really Korean” in many local people’s opinion. So, as a foreigner, I may argue that I need not really give a damn. But as a global citizen, well, the issue becomes a bit more complicated.

*The author is president of Soft Landing Consulting, a sales-focused business development firm, and a senior adviser to the IPG Legal group.  The original article may be found at: Who really Cares – and Why?

By Tom Coyner

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