KOREAN CULTURE & ARTS
From Idol to Artist; Authentic Message of Their Own Narrative; ARMY: The First Fandom of its Kind; Zeitgeist and Transmedia Art Revolution; A Leap toward Global Standards
The Odyssey of Seven Young Artists
VOL. 33 NO. 3
IMAGE OF KOREA
Dried Persimmons, More Fearsome than Tigers Kim Hwa-young Literary Critic; Member of the National Academy of Arts
t my childhood home we had many persimmon trees. They blossomed in June, and when their light beige petals fell thick on the ground, we would thread them on strings and make necklaces. In autumn, the glossy persimmon leaves were used to wrap tasty rice cakes made with newly harvested grains. But the trees’ greatest gift was, of course, the luscious fruit. Freshly picked, the persimmons’ flesh was soft and sweet, though the best was yet to come. On a sunny autumn day, all of the adults would sit around on a portable wooden floor in the yard, on which fresh persimmons were piled up in mounds. It was a festive occasion that involved diligent attention — peeling the skin of the persimmons as thinly and neatly as possible. The peeled fruits were then placed in rows on a large screen that rested on a rack in the yard. When the top part became dry and dark, the persimmons were turned over to dry on the other side. When they had partly dried, just feeling the soft flesh of the fruit was mouthwatering. Too impatient to wait, I used to hover anxiously between the desire to pilfer one or two persimmons from the screen and the fear of being betrayed by the empty spaces that would be left. When the persimmons were completely dried, they were stored away in earthenware crocks. Sometimes, handfuls would be taken out and stuffed with walnuts or used for drinks such as sujeonggwa, the traditional Korean cinnamon punch. But in general, they were left alone to be eventually placed on the table of ancestral rites or eaten as a late snack on long winter nights. There is a fun tale that all Koreans hear during childhood. A long, long time ago, on a dark night, a tiger was pacing around the backyard of a house when it heard a mother inside trying to soothe her crying child. “A tiger’s here. You better not cry.” But the child continued to cry. “Look here! It’s a gotgam [dried persimmon]. Now, don’t cry.” The child stopped crying immediately. The tiger, thinking that the dried persimmon must be something more ferocious than itself, became frightened and ran away. Though we no longer have any tigers in our mountains, dried persimmons remain. Thank goodness for that.
© Yonhap News Agency
Coverage of a Beautiful Storm
Charles La Shure
Watching a BTS performance, one can’t help feeling like attending a ritual. As they give it their all to put on a perfect show, they seem to defy human limitations. No wonder. It is well known that during their trainee days, the group’s members practiced dancing for as long as 12 hours a day, thus dispelling any suspicions that they might lip-sync on stage. The seven boys, who have now grown into seven beautiful young men, have taken the world by storm. BTS are the hottest K-pop sensation ever, although ARMYs, the name adopted by their fans around the world, revolt at the idea of pigeonholing the group into that genre. Without a doubt, the coverage of the BTS phenomenon presented a major challenge for Koreana in many respects. First and foremost, the global superstars are currently unavailable for personal interviews — a critical stumbling block for any conscientious media outlet. An alternative route was to recruit the most knowledgeable writers, hence the lineup of the authors for this issue’s Special Feature, “The Odyssey of Seven Young Artists.” We invite our readers to explore the journey these seven regular boys from Korea have taken to reach the pinnacle of the global music industry. “It seems like the table has been turned, with me visiting the country of BTS from the country of The Beatles,” said Professor Colette Balmain of Kingston University in London, who was in Seoul last month to attend the “BTS: Beyond and Behind” forum. An ARMY herself (see page 25), she is now organizing an international interdisciplinary conference about BTS, to be held at her university on January 4-5, 2020. As of this writing, BTS are on their first extended break since their 2013 debut. As international media have reported, they are expected to return “recharged and refreshed” for a concert in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on October 11. Once again, fans across the world are looking forward to get solace and comfort, as well as joy, from their music.
Kim Eun-hye, Kim Nam-hyung,
LAYOUT & DESIGN
Kim’s Communication Associates
44 Yanghwa-ro 7-gil, Mapo-gu
Seoul 04035, Korea
SUBSCRIPTION/CIRCULATION Price per issue in Korea 6,000 won
Lee Kyong-hee Editor-in-Chief
Elsewhere US$9 Please refer to page 104 of Koreana for specific subscription rates.
PRINTED IN AUTUMN 2019
KOREAN CULTURE & ARTS Autumn 2019
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Published quarterly by THE KOREA FOUNDATION 55 Sinjung-ro, Seogwipo-si, Jeju-do 63565, Korea https://www.koreana.or.kr
Korea Foundation. The opinions expressed by the authors do not necessarily represent those of the editors of Koreana or the Korea Foundation.
Koreana , registered as a quarterly magazine with the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism (Registration No. Ba-1033,
Composition of images of the seven members of global K-pop sensation BTS. By Kim Ji-yeon & Kim Nam-hyung
August 8, 1987), is also published in Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Indonesian, Japanese, Russian, and Spanish.
BTS: The Odyssey of Seven Young Artists 04
SPECIAL FEATURE 1
SPECIAL FEATURE 3
From Idol to Artist
ARMY: The First Fandom of its Kind
SPECIAL FEATURE 2
Authentic Message of Their Own Narrative
SPECIAL FEATURE 5
A Leap toward Global Standards Jung Duk-hyun
SPECIAL FEATURE 4
Zeitgeist and Transmedia Art Revolution Lee Ji-young
Bong Joon-ho: ‘A Genre Unto Himself’
ON THE ROAD
Five Islands of the West Sea Lee Chang-guy
Dance at the Art Gallery
Hanok for the 21st Century Lim Jin-young
TALES OF TWO KOREAS
Sowing Seeds of Growth Kim Hak-soon
Weaving Fine Bamboo Strands into Hat Brims Kang Shin-jae
IN LOVE WITH KOREA
Switching Tracks: From Bullet Train to Pâtisserie Choi Sung-jin
Bae: Delicious in Many Ways Jeong Jae-hoon
74 BOOKS & MORE ‘The Plotters’ More than a Chilling Thriller about Assassins
‘The Nine Cloud Dream’
A New Rendition of Classical Korean Fiction
GUARDIANS OF HERITAGE
‘The Little Drummer Girl’: Boundaries Deconstructed Jung Duk-hyun
86 LIFESTYLE Virtual Reality Touts Real Deal Kim Dong-hwan
‘Where We Were Together’
Charles La Shure, Ryu Tae-hyung
Variations on Reality and Fantasy
76 AN ORDINARY DAY
Indie Rock Tracks from the Busan Beachside
Survival in No Place for Bookends Kim Heung-sook
JOURNEYS IN KOREAN LITERATURE
Choi Jae-bong Kim Do-yeon
SPECIAL FEATURE 1
BTS: The Odyssey of Seven Young Artists
IDOL TO ARTIST The seven-member Korean boy band BTS have emerged as a sociocultural juggernaut, leaping over borders and captivating millions of fans around the world. Their influence is enormous, making them a global phenomenon comparable to The Beatles craze of the 1960s. Where did it all start? Suh Byung-kee Editor and Senior Writer, Lifestyle Section, The Herald Business
4 KOREANA Autumn 2019
The 2019 BTS world tour “Love Yourself: Speak Yourself” kicked off on May 4 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, and ended triumphantly on July 14 at the Ecopa Stadium in Shizuoka, Japan. The sellout tour covered eight cities and drew 860,000 fans. This photo was posted on BTS’s Facebook page for the “2019 BTS FESTA,” held in early June to mark the sixth anniversary of the band’s debut. © Big Hit Entertainment
KOREAN CULTURE & ARTS 5
very young generation finds its coming-of-age voice through a particular singer or group. The artists best suited for a worldwide following presumably are “mainstream,” linked to major music producers and performing in English, the universal lingua franca. BTS have upended that assumption: they come from a modest entertainment company, sing in a language that less than one percent of the world population understands, and do not even conform to their genre, K-pop. Although BTS songs are based on the trials and tribulations of growing up in Korea, their essence strikes emotional chords regardless of nationality or culture. That is the high octane of the seven “boys” with the stage names RM, Suga, Jin, J-Hope, V, Jimin and Jungkook. Drawing on their own experiences, they comment on self-doubt, parental pressure, frustrated dreams and institutional failures. Their thoughts and emotions assure fans that they are not alone. Fittingly, the name BTS is derived from Bangtan Sonyeondan (Bulletproof Boy Scouts), denoting “resilience and protection.”
Emotional Chords beyond Borders
In this era of social media, BTS’s musings are amplified thousands of times over. The group’s well-organized global fan base, called ARMY (Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth), immediately translates, dissects and shares new BTS songs and videos in many languages, rendering linguistic and physical barriers non-existent. Korean and English words also are mixed for a “K-pop vocabulary,” which includes expressions such as baepsae (parrotbill or crow tit, a small bird indicating something weak or insignificant) and heuksujeo (dirt spoon), that are used to describe impoverished origins K-pop, of course, has had many popular groups since its birth in the early 1990s. But the recognition of BTS is unprecedented. The group has won Top Social Artist three consecutive years at the Billboard Music Awards. They are the first group since The Beatles to have three No. 1 albums in the Billboard 200 chart within a year. Time magazine has included the septet on its global lists of next-generation leaders and the most influential people on the internet. “The success of Drake, BTS and Ariana Grande has helped the music industry earn its biggest revenues in a decade. The music market is now worth US$19 billion, close to the level of 2006,” says the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, which represents the global music industry. “An explosion in streaming subscriptions has essentially saved the industry, which was in freefall for a decade.”
6 KOREANA Autumn 2019
At home, BTS members are the youngest recipients of the Order of Cultural Merit, a presidential award to honor their contributions in spreading Korean culture and language. The group generates US$3.6 billion for the Korean economy annually, according to the Hyundai Research Institute. They hold the record for best-selling album (“Map of the Soul: Persona) and are the best-selling artists in history.
Breaking the Mold
The genesis of BTS stemmed from failure. In 2012, Bang Si-hyuk, CEO of Big Hit Entertainment, misfired with a new female group called GLAM. Searching for a way to rebound, he decided to depart from the traditional approach of training and managing “idols,” or mainstream K-pop acts. Before BTS, popular Korean idol groups were often criticized as “factory products” of intensive competition and training that lasted years before they debuted. It was a constant viewpoint of foreign media reports. When Jonghyun, the main vocalist for the boy band Shinee, committed suicide in December 2017, Variety wrote, “The Korean entertainment industry fosters a ‘Hunger Games’-like work environment.” Referencing the success of two groups from much bigger entertainment companies — Big Bang managed by YG Entertainment and EXO under SM Entertainment — Bang dissected the music market and concluded that artists, not mere idols, were the answer. Instead of simply training individuals and groups in hopes of a few hit songs in a typically brief career, Bang and Big Hit Entertainment would seek ways to give its wannabes a long-term presence. To that end, Bang believed it was much more important to help his entertainers develop the ability to create their own songs. The business model reincarnation from idol to artist along with a focus on the global stage re-energized K-pop. Known as “Hitman” for his knack of composing top songs, Bang’s role has not gone unnoticed. In 2017, he received the Presidential Commendation at the Korea Content Awards, and in 2018, Variety named Bang an International Music Leader. Moreover, recognizing BTS’s status, the U.S. Recording Academy invited Bang and BTS to the select group of music industry members to vote in the 2020 Grammy Awards. During their trainee days, Bang would ask the BTS members, “What are you thinking these days?” “Don’t you have anything you want to say?” In this way he encouraged them to delve into themselves and find their own stories.
2 © Big Hit Entertainment
1, 2. Scenes from the music video for “Blood Sweat & Tears,” the title song of the second BTS album “WINGS,” released in 2016. The song’s motif comes from Hermann Hesse’s novel “Demian: The Story of Emil Sinclair’s Youth.”
KOREAN CULTURE & ARTS 7
Traditionally, K-pop fans favored idols who shone as singers and dancers. While song and dance skills gained through long years of hard training were still required to hone BTS’s stage presence, the boys were encouraged to express their personal opinions and their thoughts and interpretations of issues. Otherwise, they could not be protagonists of their music.
Mind and Soul
Big Hit Entertainment’s operational model for BTS naturally demands a kind of creativity alien to typical Korean boy bands. The BTS crew must be able to interpret in their own way not only the music but everything surrounding them, understanding the interrelationships and contexts of their environment. All members, starting with RM and Suga, are equipped with this ability. BTS began learning to take charge even before their 2013 debut. Media interviews became opportunities for articulate explanations of their thoughts on music, the result of endless discussions among themselves, reading books and self-reflections. Recurring themes of BTS have included the growing pains of youths, mental health, shortcomings of institutions and young adults losing hope. In short, BTS songs ring with a social consciousness that has managed to leap across borders to connect in different cultures. Fans everywhere say the songs give them solace and motivation.
“I think audiences today are smart and sophisticated. They can tell right away what is genuine and what is not,” said RM (Rap Monster), the group’s first member and leader. “While being faithful to our main job, we make an effort to convey our true feelings and thoughts a little bit better through social media.” To deliver their stories, hip hop was considered the best vehicle because it asks singers to write songs about their own experiences and create strong stage personalities with their own messages. RM and Suga had already paid their dues in the underground hip hop scene before becoming part of BTS. The timing was opportune. The year 2013, when BTS debuted, was a watershed year for hip hop. Rappers such as Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar were at the height of their popularity. Hence, the strong hip hop tendencies in BTS songs are not only a result of the members’ personal preferences but also of the marketing strategy adopted to find a breakthrough. Success did not come overnight. Not being exactly an idol group or a rap group, BTS did not quickly win over fans of either genre. Coming from a small entertainment agency instead of the behemoths SM, YG and JYP also ensured an under-the-radar debut. Overseas, BTS faced the same stereotyping that all Korean boy bands faced. That is, they lacked depth, had no message and could not possibly be a mainstream pop act because they cannot sing in English. Also, idols were not supposed to discuss social and political issues
‘Little Father’ to the Boys
© Big Hit Entertainment
Pdogg Chief Producer
8 KOREANA Autumn 2019
To BTS, Pdogg (Kang Hyo-won) is jageun
BTS’s stage presence and helped develop the
abeoji, literally “little father.” It is the salu-
members’ composing to narrate their personal
tation for an uncle, specifically the younger
experiences. He once said the preparatory
brother of one’s father, which indicates
phase to ready the group was so difficult that
Pdogg’s influence on the group. All of BTS’s
he thought he would die: “I climbed this moun-
music, from the debut single “2 Kool 4 Skool”
tain, that mountain, all of them.”
to the latest album “Map of the Soul: Perso-
In 2018, he became the Korean producer
na,” has passed through his hands as chief
with the highest earnings in copyright reve-
producer of Big Hit Entertainment.
nue, and earlier this year, at the 56th General
Pdogg met Big Hit’s CEO Bang Si-hyuk in
Assembly of the Korean Music Copyright As-
2007, soon after Bang founded the company.
sociation (KOMCA), he received two KOMCA
He brought his deep knowledge of Western
Music Awards for the highest earnings in roy-
hip hop and other genres. He has guided
alties for composition and lyrics.
© Big Hit Entertainment
A scene from the music video for “Fake Love,” the title song of the third BTS album “Love Yourself: Tear.” This song has been described as “emotional hip hop” for being atypically melancholic and uneasy for the genre.
From Dance Routines to Facial Expressions BTS’s choreography is extremely ambitious
mance elements to hip hop, and the hardest
and difficult. Son Sung-deuk creates the dance
thing was making it look natural,” Son said in a
routines as well as virtually every other move-
ment on stage, including gestures and expres-
Son began to take dance seriously when
sions. His influence is immense as the dances
he was in his mid-teens and now has more than 20 years’ experience. In his freelancing
over the world.
days, he directed the choreography for some
In the early years of BTS, each member
© Lee Seung-hee
he choreographs are followed by BTS fans all
of Korea’s most famous idol groups of the
had a fairly clear-cut role, so the choreography
late 1990s to the early 2000s, including Sechs
revolved around J-Hope and Jimin. But as their
Kies, Fin.K.L and Shinhwa. When Big Hit was
cohorts’ dancing made huge strides, the cho-
launched, he began working on the perfor-
reography spotlight shone on the entire group.
mances of 2AM (in cooperation with JYP),
“At first it was a bit awkward adding perfor-
GLAM and BTS.
Son Sung-deuk Performance Director
KOREAN CULTURE & ARTS 9
“We have talked about the things that we know best. In our teens it was school, in our twenties it was youth. Those stories have been built up, producing ‘Love Yourself ” and ‘Persona’ in the process.”
BTS deliver their acceptance speech for the Top Social Artist Award at the 2018 Billboard Music Awards, held May 20, 2018, at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. The band has won this award three years in a row since 2017. In 2019, they also won Billboard’s Top Duo/Group Award.
© Getty Images, Photo by Kevin Winter
Creator of Seven Fashion Icons
© Lee Seung-hee
Kim Sung-hyun Visual Creative Director
10 KOREANA Autumn 2019
Like other Big Hit executives, Kim Sung-hyun’s
linked to the concepts and messages that BTS
title belies his total contribution to BTS’s suc-
convey and ends up having a huge impact.
cess. He is the fashion designer, so he natu-
Recalling the mini albums “The Most
rally has tried countless outfits on the group
Beautiful Moment in Life,” Kim said he
members since their trainee days, eventually
watched numerous movies to explore the
turning them into fashion icons.
concept. His viewing included “The Dreamers,”
Clothing and accessories are just one part
“Basketball Diaries,” “Trainspotting,” “Dead
of Kim’s control over every visual component
Poets Society” and “Flipped” as well as the
that BTS audiences and fans see. That includes
works of American director Larry Clark, which
album covers, video scenery and stage back-
mostly deal with teenage delinquency. Kim
drops. He oversees two teams of fashion styl-
loves rock music almost as much as hip hop
ists, visual designers, video art specialists and
and says he often looks to other music genres
editorial designers. Their work is inevitably
or be candid about their emotions and life experiences. Even now, with BTS unparalleled as the top boy band in the world, negativity has not receded completely. Critics dismiss BTS’s music and say the group is mainly the product of a huge global fan base that coordinates through social media. Twitter says the BTS account has 21.5 million followers.
“Netizens instinctively reject contents that smell of publicity. So, contents have to be fun. You’re making a show. There’s no need to get all serious. You suggest, ‘What about this?’ That’s enough. If this were literature, a novel by HarukiMurakami would do. It’s important to make people feel before perception gets in the way,” Bang Si-hyuk said years ago. He described the production of contents as “pleasantly deceiving the audience.” Like putting together the pieces of a puzzle or finding hidden pictures, the legions of BTS fans interpret the meaning of their songs, find the hidden symbols and metaphors in their music videos, and compare answers and observations with each other. In itself, this is a form of digital game that they voluntarily engage in. It must also be noted that the members of BTS have the attributes of Generation Z. Born between 1995 and 2005, they grew up with consumer electronics. A generation dreaming of being creators, professional gamers, comput-
er programmers or startup founders, they live life in their own way, not the way their parents want. They are quick to pursue their interests and express their opinions and convictions, rather than sit on the sidelines. In addition, rather than just watching things created by others, they create their own. In short, they represent a carpe diem (seize the day) generation who takes action. These defining traits of Generation Z overlap with BTS in many respects. The BTS members put their own experiences and thoughts into their songs and share them on social media, which is fitting for these representatives of Generation Z, who forge their own lives. The members of BTS are now in their early to mid-20s. Naturally, one wonders what they will present in the coming years. RM once said, “We have talked about the things that we know best. In our teens it was school, in our twenties it was youth. Those stories have been built up, producing “Love Yourself” and ‘Persona’ in the process.” Already, they have transitioned from hip hop to other genres. In 2017, BTS announced their name would also mean “Beyond the Scene,” suggesting they were looking forward to surpass the next hurdles. After conquering the world stage, the next frontier is out of this world — literally. The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s playlist for its trip to the moon in 2024 includes three BTS songs: “Moonchild,” “Mikrokosmos” and “134340.”
Music Videos Replete with Surreal Aesthetics BTS’s highly popular music videos, including
Aesthetic devices are multilayered
“Blood Sweat & Tears,” “Fire,” “Spring Day,”
throughout BTS music videos. They may contain enigmatic symbols and metaphors of surrealist ambience or simple find-the-hidden-pic-
of the group’s music videos, deftly crafed
ture elements. The myriad signs and schemes
non-stop feasts for the eyes, have garnered
create ample room for fans throughout the
hundreds of millions of views on social media.
world to interpret and discuss, interacting
As a visual artist, Lumpens is being touted
“DNA,” “Fake Love” and “IDOL,” have been the work of Lumpens (Choi Yong-seok). Many
as the second Nam June Paik, the father of vid-
Lumpens draws his ideas from movies
eo art. Although he is a freelancer, not a full-
and novels. In the trailer for “Map of the Soul:
time Big Hit employee, he has been actively
Persona,” he added a sci-fi element by em-
involved with BTS since the group’s debut in
ploying the latest technologies to create a giant
digital humanoid persona of BTS leader RM.
Lumpens Video/Art Director
KOREAN CULTURE & ARTS 11
Â© Big Hit Entertainment
12 KOREANA Autumn 2019
SPECIAL FEATURE 2
BTS: The Odyssey of Seven Young Artists
TS stand out from their countless idol contemporaries for expressing themselves honestly through their music rooted in hip hop. Successfully negotiating the traditionally contradicting elements — hip hop and idol identities — they have created something entirely different from other K-pop boy bands. Around the time BTS debuted in 2013, hip hop music, which had gradually gained popularity in Korea since the mid-2000s, started to make a palpable impact on K-pop across the board. Notably, the boy band Big Bang adopted a hip hop image and attitude, and idol-turned-hip hop stars like G-Dragon and Jay Park emerged. The popularity of “Show Me the Money,” an audition program launched in 2012 by the music and entertainment channel Mnet, helped to bring the inherently underground genre to the mainstream. The rise of hip hop has infused new imagination into idol music, which spearheads Korean pop music. An idol band committed to hip hop or a hip hop group in idol outfits was a carefully devised new formula and many new bands were organized along the same lines. However, none of them has embraced the essence of hip hop more effectively and successfully than BTS.
Bang Si-hyuk, CEO of BTS’ label Big Hit Entertainment, wanted to create an idol group with a hip hop identity that could do more than just rap. Its leading members, RM and Suga, were selected based specifically on their talents as rappers and producers. Bang encouraged them to exercise creative freedom, so that hip hop could serve as a medium for their own stories rather than being a mere “accessory.” The result was the birth of a hip hop idol group with exceptionally raw, honest and healthy messages.
The Core of Hip Hop
Unlike their idol contemporaries, BTS employed an old-school hip hop sound and style that harks back to the 1980s and 1990s. This is especially apparent in their earlier works dubbed the “School Trilogy,” and then resurfaced in the singles “Intro: Persona” and “Dionysus” from the latest album “Map of the Soul: Persona” released this April, asserting once again that their musical roots are in hip hop. With an interest in old-school music, BTS have adopted in their lyrics the literary sensibilities and social criticism of ‘80s and ‘90s hip hop. Behind their success in rendering the decades-old style as well as the latest trap beats are the producers of Big Hit Entertainment, including Pdogg and Supreme Boi, who know more about the genre than anyone else in the Korean music scene. Although some would suspect otherwise, BTS remain committed to hip hop, staying faithful to the genre’s fundamental elements of authenticity and representation. Rappers are expected to tell genuine stories and honestly represent their class and origin, and they
OF THEIR OWN NARRATIVE Chart rankings, industry influence, music consumption in the new media era, K-pop’s globalization — these are some of the factors that are often highlighted in discussions of BTS. However, the group’s success and its implications for music history should be observed, above all else, through the merits of their music itself. Youngdae Kim Music Critic
KOREAN CULTURE & ARTS 13
花樣年華 14 KOREANA Autumn 2019
are judged accordingly, sometimes quite harshly. In this respect, the music of BTS has stayed true to the essence of hip hop. Instead of imitating others, BTS have consistently told their own stories, expressing their pain and rage as underdogs in society, far removed from the privileges of those born with a silver spoon in their mouths. They also made a delightfully creative attempt to assert their provincial identity in a song featuring rap in Korean regional dialects. This honesty has appealed to the public and garnered their support. Despite occasional criticism from the hip hop community and idol fans, their authenticity and commitment to the genre has been proven by the way they have constantly expanded their musical boundaries without abandoning their rapper identity. Lead rappers RM, Suga and J-Hope have each produced their own mixtapes aside from the group’s regular albums, demonstrating their talent as rappers and producers. Although the projects were not intended for commercial success (being made available as free digital downloads), the resulting albums served as intimate expressions of their thoughts as artists.
The lyrics are often counted as a crucial factor in the appeal of BTS music, but it would not suffice to simply say their lyrics are good. BTS place narratives at the center of their career, and they are the only K-pop artists to do so. Today’s idol music has used predetermined concepts, worldviews and characters like those of role-playing games as indispensable elements for promotion. But the concepts and worldview assumed by BTS transcend those of existing idol music, which is often limited to fictional and abstract ideas. The ordinary, realistic, true-to-life character constructed by each member is free of artificiality and affectation. Furthermore, BTS have created a continuous narrative in the form of serial concept albums with unified themes.
Their messages are received as genuine and sincere because the lyrics written by the members match their characters as individuals. Concept photo for “The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Pt. 2,” the second album of the Youth Series and the group’s fourth mini album, released in 2015. The photo was released under the title “Je Ne Regrette Rien” (I Don’t Regret Anything), expressing the youthful energy that refuses to be satisfied with reality. © Big Hit Entertainment
KOREAN CULTURE & ARTS 15
Â© Big Hit Entertainment
16 KOREANA Autumn 2019
Consisting of “2 Cool 4 Skool” (2013), “O!RUL8,2?” (2013) and “Skool Luv Affair” (2014), the School Trilogy speaks from the perspective of students about their dreams, happiness, frustrations and anger. Earlier in the 1990s, Seo Taiji and Boys and H.O.T. had dealt with school life in their songs, but the message communicated by BTS is more concrete and personal. As the band’s career developed and its members grew older, their stories changed. In the Youth Series with “The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Pt. 1” (2015), “The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Pt. 2” (2015) and the second studio album “Wings” (2016), the group expanded their scope beyond school life, and featured some literary themes from the contemporary youth experience — their beauty and suffering, maturity and temptations. Taken from English-language coming-of-age novels or Japanese boys’ cartoons, these themes and visual motifs have been widely used in the lyrics, melodies and music videos, constructing the band’s unique worldview and aesthetics. In the process, they reveal their weakness as individuals with no pretension or adornment, departing from the typical K-pop approach of projecting perfect and flawless idol images. With time, the members have matured both as musicians and individuals, and their stories evolved into philosophical discourses on the agonies and anxieties of wounded youths, which are expressed in the series “Love Yourself” (2017–2018). The theme of self-love, borrowed from “The Art of Loving” written by the psychologist Erich Fromm, was employed to continue and develop the narrative from the previous albums. Rather than reducing the
concept of love to the banality of relationships, they turned it into a healing message for today’s youths: Love yourself. Going through the enticement of love and the pain of a broken heart, they started to reflect on themselves, and the fundamental question “Who am I?” is proposed in the latest album “Map of the Soul: Persona.” Their messages are received as genuine and sincere because the lyrics written by the members match their characters as individuals. BTS is not a commodity manufactured by producers with artificial images improvised based on trendy concepts; the personality of each member is reflected in the character he assumes in the group, and their growth and change in thinking are frankly expressed in their music. From this ground grows their authentic narrative, one of the greatest merits of their music.
Lyricism with Universal Appeal
BTS’ narrative is convincing because their music is in beautiful harmony with their message. There is logic in the way all the songs in the albums are sequenced, and the details of the employed genres and arrangements are closely related with the stories the lyrics aim to deliver. Rather than laying too much emphasis either on the message or the sound, they blend the two seamlessly to create their stories. Their music is both trendy and retro at the same time, keeping a subtle balance between old and new, and between Western and Korean, to acquire unique lyricism with universal appeal. BTS have experimented with diverse genres, such as old-school hip hop, electronic dance music, pop, R&B, and even traditional Korean music and African sounds, but never for the sake of mere variety. Instead, each genre has been an effective means to express their artistic self-awareness and present their own stories. There is something sad and nostalgic about the melodies of BTS songs, and even the most exciting rhythms are colored with subtle melancholy. This unique trait has touched the sensibilities of not only young people in their teens and twenties, but middle-aged fans who are yearning for their youthful days and audiences all over the world across national and cultural boundaries.
1. Earlier looks of BTS members can be found on the jacket of “2 COOL 4 SKOOL,” their debut single, released on June 12, 2013. 2. The jacket of the first mini album “O!RUL8,2?,” employing an old-school hip hop sound, has a powerful hip hop concept with its bright red color and bold lettering. 3. “The Most Beautiful Moment in Life” series, consisting of the third and fourth mini albums, is devoted to life’s brilliant moments of beauty and happiness, reflecting the change in the consciousness of the members in their passage from boys to young men. 4. The repackage album “You Never Walk Alone,” issued in 2017, is a bright representation of youthful friendship and inner growth.
KOREAN CULTURE & ARTS 17
SPECIAL FEATURE 3
BTS: The Odyssey of Seven Young Artists
THE FIRST FANDOM OF ITS KIND Behind the rise of BTS is a powerful global fandom called ARMY (Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth). Unrivalled in its organization, dedication and pride, the fandom itself is a distinct sociocultural phenomenon. What sets the ARMY apart is the way the fans internalize the narrative and message of BTS. Lee Jee-heng Lecturer, School of Performing Arts and Media, Chung-Ang University; Member, Film Rating Subcommittee, Korea Media Rating Board
18 KOREANA Autumn 2019
Some 5,000 fans loudly sing along to “Boy With Luv” and “Fire” in BTS’ opening performance for ABC’s “Good Morning America Summer Concert,” held on May 15, 2019 in Central Park, New York. Thousands of fans braved bad weather to camp overnight at the venue to see the concert. © Getty Images, Photo by Bauzen
KOREAN CULTURE & ARTS 19
n May 21 this year, the top part of the Empire State Building in New York was lit up in a dazzling purple for BTS in honor of the band’s visit. The LED light show was a rare sight, usually reserved for national holidays or celebrations of major events like the Olympic Games. Following suit, during the band’s “Love Yourself: Speak Yourself” world tour with concerts held at notable venues, including London’s Wembley Stadium, the Stade de France in Paris and the Yanmar Stadium Nagai in Osaka, the cities illuminated their iconic landmarks in BTS’ signature color purple. It was in recognition and honor of the “cultural icon” of our times, as well as an acknowledgement of ARMY as their citizens.
BTS’ major breakthrough in the global music scene came in 2017. They made a big splash that year, winning an award and performing at the Billboard Music Awards and the American Music Awards, two of the big three music award shows in America. This year, the band not only scored a Grammy nomination but was also invited to attend the awards ceremony as presenters. If, in 2017, global media outlets were asking, “Who on earth are BTS?” in 2018, they were wondering, “What is the reason behind their immense popularity?” and in 2019, they are predicting that “their popularity will last.” There is good reason to believe that BTS’ popularity is neither a transient phenomenon, nor a hype that exists only in the online world: they have the strong backing of a huge fan base who willingly consumes everything to do with the group, from albums, concerts and movies to mobile games, books and merchandise, driving astronomical sales. The popularity of BTS, which many once shrugged off as nothing but a social media frenzy, has been proven in numbers — the second best-selling album worldwide in 2018, all shows on their world tour sold out in a matter of hours, estimated to be worth trillions of won to the Korean economy annually. ARMY’s influence in the music industry is such that it cannot be taken lightly. Moreover, it is fiercely protective, ready to pounce on any perceived mistreatment of BTS — and getting results. For example, in June this year, the Australian TV show “20 to
1. Seoullo 7017, a Seoul landmark, is illuminated in purple, BTS’ signature color, for the band’s fan meeting in the capital on June 22, 2019. 2, 3, 4. Famous landmarks in major cities are bathed in purple light to welcome BTS and ARMY, who converge from near and far for the band’s concerts or fan meetings. From top: Empire State Building, New York; Tower Bridge, London; and Eiffel Tower, Paris.
20 KOREANA Autumn 2019
© Big Hit Entertainment
© Priska Won And All About Korea
© Yonhap News Agency
KOREAN CULTURE & ARTS 21
1. A fan shakes a placard in excitement in front of the Stade de France for the BTS concert held on June 7, 2019, the Paris leg of the “Love Yourself: Speak Yourself” world tour. 2. Fans from overseas take selfies in front of the Olympic Gymnastics Arena at the Olympic Park, southern Seoul, where the fan meeting “BTS 5th Muster: Magic Shop” was held on June 23, 2019. 3. Fans pose for a photo in a parking lot near Citi Field, New York, where they began camping almost a week before BTS’ concert. The final concert on the group’s U.S. leg of the “Love Yourself” tour, held on October 6, 2018, was reportedly sold out in minutes. 4. The BTS online fan café Bangtan Imodan (“Bangtan Aunty Brigade”), consisting of female fans in their 30s to 50s, assist Pinwheel Supporters, which is operated by the Independent Support Group for Children. Like BTS who take social responsibility seriously, their fans also engage in a variety of social contribution activities.
“They are the source of motivation and vigor which I lacked in my life, making me want to dream, to live a fuller life, to change.” 22 KOREANA Autumn 2019
One” that airs on Channel Nine came under fire for its “Greatest Global Crazes” segment. The hosts introduced BTS as “the biggest band you’ve never heard of,” commenting on their chart-topping success in America as “even more impressive because only one band member actually speaks English.” Comparing their explosive popularity to a nuclear bomb, one guest remarked, “When I first heard something Korean had exploded in America, I got worried. So, I guess, it could’ve been worse — but not much worse,” while another mocked that at least one of the seven members must be gay because “it’s just math.” Of the speech delivered by member RM at the UN General Assembly to mark the launch of “Generation Unlimited,” they ridiculed that it was probably about “hair products.” Outraged fans around the world accused the hosts of expressing animosity laden with xenophobic and racist overtones. ARMY pressured network sponsors to pull advertisements and filed complaints with the Australian Communications and Media Authority. Caving in to the pressure, the show issued an apology on social media: “We apologise for any disrespect and offence taken.” Celebrating the successes of BTS like their own, sharing their sorrows and, at times, standing up to the media, public opinion and domestic and foreign political forces — it would not be far-fetched to say that ARMY is at the core of the BTS phenomenon.
© Bangtan Imodan
ARMY is characterized by an extraordinary communal solidarity. The fans, in particular, find a common bond in the narrative of growth that has been a consistent theme of BTS albums, which tells the coming-of-age story of young, insecure boys who pursued their dreams with unswerving determination, overcoming selfdoubt. Their desire to reach greater artistic heights, the strong bond the members share and their consideration for one another have resonated with fans around the world, transcending borders and generations. Fans are not just inspired by BTS’ music; they closely identify with the members’ growth story. “BTS makes me realize I shouldn’t live my life half-heartedly,” many fans say. “They are the source of motivation and vigor which I lacked in my life, making me want to dream, to live a fuller life, to change.” This desire to change extends beyond a personal level to a yearning for effecting social change. The fans state emphatically, “Individual happiness is attained through positive changes in our society of which we are all members. That is why we feel the need to play our part in bringing about meaningful change.” From consumers of popular music, the fandom has evolved to become a positive force for social change, conducting fandom campaigns, engaging in philanthropic efforts and voicing their opinions on political agendas.
KOREAN CULTURE & ARTS 23
Age 18, U.S.A.
Age 21, South Korea
Q. How did you get to know BTS?
Q. In what way has BTS influenced you?
A. It was on the day BTS attended the 2017
A. When I was in high school, I used to read
Billboard Music Awards. On Twitter, I found an
Nietzsche’s books and dreamed of becoming a
article about BTS’ fan base voting over 300 million
philosophical writer. But no one supported me and
times for them. I was amazed, so I turned on my
I was feeling lost and discouraged. That’s when I
TV to watch the awards. Then I went to YouTube,
came across the song “Tomorrow.” I didn’t know
watched the “Blood Sweat & Tears” music video
who the singer was at first, but felt comforted by
and listened to the “Wings” album afterwards. I
it. Soon I started listening to other songs by BTS
was completely captivated to say the least, and the
and was hooked. Their tireless pursuit of their
rest is history.
dreams and passion greatly inspired me. Since our
life is not a one-act play, I’m sure I’ll continue to Q. What specifically about BTS made you a passionate fanboy? A. Before BTS, I had completely stayed away from boy bands. But BTS was so exceptional. Be-
face more trials and tribulations down the road. But I am determined to plow through nonetheless, embracing my wounds, with BTS and their music as my motivation.
sides being very gifted and talented, they are sincere and modest young men. BTS have made me do things I have never done before. Since I joined
Q. What differentiates BTS from other boy bands?
the fandom, I have participated in mass-voting,
A. They don’t feel like stars who shine only
streaming projects and album buying promotions,
on stage but ordinary people who live in the same
and am sharing news about BTS on a daily basis. I
world as us. When I reflect on their lyrics, I can
want to lift BTS higher and higher and ensure that
sense that each of the members have had to con-
they continue to succeed and accomplish all of
front many obstacles and challenges that stood in
the way of their dreams and it feels as though they are trying to reach out to people who have been
Q. What do you think is special about the
hurt like me.
ARMY fandom? A. It is the most hardworking, kindest, dedicated, persistent and optimistic fandom I have
24 KOREANA Autumn 2019
Q. How is ARMY different from other fandoms?
ever seen. One thing I have learned from other
A. The relationship that BTS and ARMY have
ARMYs is that once they have set a goal, they will
nurtured is not simply that of stars and fans, but
accomplish it by all means. Outsiders often say,
something far more intimate. Our worlds may be
“Why BTS? Other groups also work just as hard.”
completely different, but their heartfelt music is a
They don’t realize that BTS has grown this big due
source of great comfort and strength to each and
to the special connection ARMYs have with them!
every one of us.
Age 57, United Kingdom
A. I was always ashamed of myself for not making it to the university or studying the major
Q. How did you discover BTS?
I had wanted to. I studied hard and eventually
A. I had been using K-pop videos
got a master’s degree and a stable job, but I was
in my teaching [at Kingston Univer-
never able to shake off my inferiority complex. Then I came upon BTS. Their dedication and efforts made me realize, “They’re not just good at what they do, but love what they do.” I began exploring the things I liked and enjoyed, and gradually developed a better understanding of myself and my traits. I was finally able to find a sense of direction in my life. Q. What special experiences have you had as an ARMY? A. I once went to a BTS fan meeting by myself. I felt awkward and nervous being alone. Then a young girl who appeared to be in middle school began talking to me, asking me if it was my first BTS event, who my favorite member was and whether I had brought binoculars. I felt my nervousness melt away by her friendliness, treating me as a fellow ARMY. Respect for diversity is a big strength of the fandom. Q. How do you feel about the new image of masculinity that BTS portray? A. I think their music is shifting towards a more gender-neutral tone. Hence their musical style has become more varied and easier to listen to. BTS have helped me realize that gender is just one of the many aspects of an individual rather than a criterion by which we judge or classify others.
Bae Min-yeong Age 34, South Korea
sity, London], although I never really listened to it outside of work. I remember seeing the music video for “Blood Sweat & Tears” in October 2016, soon after it was released. As someone who specializes in East Asian popular culture and, in particular, the Gothic and horror genres, I was drawn to the visual and aural aesthetics of BTS and their multiple intermedial references to the European Gothic.
Q. What is the most striking feature of BTS as artists? A. BTS’ artistry is one of their most striking features and is shown both in their extensive discography and the manner in which they continue to develop their music without losing the essential “Koreanness.” Their popularity is not despite the fact they are Korean but rather because they are Korean. Q. BTS have many intellectual fans, such as professors and scientists. Why? A. BTS’ music and associated transmedia content erase the distinction between “high” and “mass” culture and encourage fans to be active participants and makers of meaning rather than passive consumers of content. At the same time, there are direct references to painting, photography, literature, philosophy and psychology in their work. I have seen fans reading Deleuze and Guattari, whose theories are very difficult, because they have been referred to by BTS. As we live in a rapidly globalizing world, I would suggest that BTS are the object par excellence of
Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth
Q. What significance does BTS have in
that world and thus worth studying.
KOREAN CULTURE & ARTS 25
SPECIAL FEATURE 4
BTS: The Odyssey of Seven Young Artists
Zeitgeist and Transmedia Art Revolution
TS is a group of musicians, so it is impossible to discuss what is currently transpiring without scrutinizing their music, performance and messages. Yet, to say that they are talented and attractive performers producing great music is not a sufficient explanation of the significance of the BTS phenomenon. Any attempt to understand it must address these questions: On what platforms do the artists and their fans around the world meet and build their powerful bond? What is implied by the role of those platforms? Are they evolving in a way that responds to the change desired by the public? Notably, the common feature shared by all critical elements of this unheard-of phenomenon is “horizontality.” Therefore, an explo-
26 KOREANA Autumn 2019
ration of the phenomenon should be based on the inherent horizontality of digital networking technologies; the conservation of this horizontality in BTS content by breaking away from a hierarchy imposed by capital and authority; the message advocating a more horizontal world and the public’s aspirations for horizontality manifested in class, race, language, gender, culture and religion; and the horizontal encounters between BTS and their fans sharing such aspirations. In the course of this exploration, the general public, variously referred to as receivers of art, con-
The BTS phenomenon involves remarkable social and cultural changes inspired by the boy band and their fandom, ARMY. At the root of this phenomenon, which is political as well as aesthetic, lies the rapidly changing media environment, which is actively used for the creation, dissemination and reproduction of art. Lee Ji-young Professor, Daeyang Humanity College, Sejong University
Global fans watch BTS videos on various online media and make their own reaction videos to share them on social media. BTS videos are actively reproduced and circulated by fans through digital networks.
sumers, fandom or audience, may suggest more clearly the direction of change, because the essence of the BTS phenomenon has a lot to do with the political unconscious, or the zeitgeist, behind the explosive enthusiasm of the global fandom.
Audience on the Move
BTS’ music videos, “online installation videos,” concert clips and other types of content are used by viewers in a media environment consisting of a wide variety of screens and networks. The term “online installation videos” covers an array of videos released by the band and circulated under diverse names like short films, highlight reels and trailers. It refers to videos that cannot be placed under
KOREAN CULTURE & ARTS 27
any existing category such as music video or film. These videos are released at intervals like video art works exhibited in a gallery that exists in online spaces only, and the interval between works is not spatial but temporal. Their symbolic images and narratives, each referring to other works, build up a chain of meaning. Similar to experimental films, short films or video art, these clips are a notable feature of BTS videos. In other words, BTS is producing a large volume of audiovisual content made available by the technologies of our era. The music videos, online installations and other works in the “BTS Universe,” a fictional online world starring the seven members, effectively use symbolic images which can be interpreted diversely in a unique structure where they constantly reference one another. These videos are produced on the assumption that viewers will freely access and use them in their digital networks. Consuming an array of audiovisual content in a multi-platform environment, viewers can watch the videos on the go using mobile devices, which enable repetitive viewing, or even use editing functions such as enlarging and color compensation. In this sense, the viewers can be called an “audience on the move.” Taking advantage of such a diversity of platforms, the viewers create remixes or clips by connecting or cutting the original videos. They can produce a wider variety of content by adding their own reactions or interpretations, and the materials created in this way are shared alongside BTS’s original works. This is not limited to a small group of zealous fans, but rather is a common mode of appreciation among the majority of BTS fans. This changed behavior in the reception of art, so common that it may seem insignificant, is bringing profound change in art form. According to the philosopher Walter Benjamin, a change in the way art is received by the general public is the principal cause of a change in art form. In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechani-
cal Reproduction,” he stated, “The mass is a matrix from which all traditional behavior toward works of art issues today in a new form. Quantity has been transmuted into quality. The greatly increased mass of participants has produced a change in the mode of participation.” In sum, as productivity is improved by a certain technology, the mode of artistic production itself changes. Technological development alters the public reception of art, which in turn leads to a qualitative change in the art form itself.
Switch of Roles
Online network platforms are the technological vehicle facilitating audience participation in creation. Through streaming and sharing, the audience endows videos released online with certain functions and a mode of existence. Unlike films presented in theaters or viewed on DVDs, these short clips exist only as data before they are imbued with life by viewers as they click and share. This change in the structure of audience participation brought about by technological advancements is actively realized by BTS videos. The viewers’ creations exist alongside BTS’s original videos on the same platforms, and their interactions and interrelations give rise to a variety of meanings. The scope of art is no longer limited to the creations of professional artists, as the videos made by viewers, which expand and reproduce the meanings of the original works, are also embraced within the fluid boundary. A work’s significance and use
The BTS phenomenon poses important questions about the value sought in media-based art in relation to the changing world and the way the future is heading, as well as the direction in which the media environment is moving with great force.
28 KOREANA Autumn 2019
1. Typing the hashtag “#BTSlogo” on Instagram yields thousands of variations of BTS and ARMY logos made by global fans, demonstrating the reciprocal relations between the musicians and their fans.
are constantly redefined and recreated in the networks of changing images, and these rearrangements constitute a process of convergence, in which different devices are integrated into the user-audience behavior. In “Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide,” Henry Jenkins says, “I will argue against the idea that convergence should be understood primarily as a technological process bringing together multiple media functions within the same devices. Instead, convergence represents a cultural shift as consumers are encouraged to seek out new information and make connections among dispersed media content.” In this mode of production, art radically breaks down the boundary between artist and audience, between art creator and art consumer. The transcendental status, authority and roles traditionally invested in the artist are no longer valid. Making connections with an artwork through online networks, the audience participates in the creation of art and generates new meanings within the networks as users of equal status. In the end, a radical change is impending in the concept and nature of art itself.
2, 3. A month-long campaign conducted by BTS and Hyundai Motor Company, ARMYPEDIA began on February 25, 2019. ARMYs logged on to the campaign website and posted writings, photos and videos on BTS. A teaser of ARMYPEDIA is released on a billboard in London’s Piccadilly Circus.
The major features of video art in the new networks include the fluid scope of artworks; the open territory of art alongside the networks of related content; the breakdown of the traditional boundary between the artist and the audience; and the actual mobility of the audience owing to mobile network technologies. In my book, “BTS, Art Revolution,” I used the term “network-image” to explain this production mode of video art. These characteristics are generated by audience actions performed daily on shared platforms or social networks. Considering the social influence of these mobile network services as well as the sweeping number of viewers who use these services daily, what the 21st-century mobile network society seeks in the “network-image” must be “sharing value.” Just as Walter Benjamin pointed out, mechanical reproduction transformed the value of artistic production from cult value to exhibition value. Similarly, the extensive use of mobile networking technologies means that the value of 21st-century art is changing from exhibition value to sharing value. The advent of the “networkimage” as a new art form means far more than just a change in the mode of art. Fundamentally, it represents an immense historic change. That is, it is a symptomatic indication of the way in which the world is changing. The BTS phenomenon is not just about a somewhat extraordinary way of appreciating a popular boy band’s music videos. Ultimately, it poses important questions about the value sought in media-based art in relation to the changing world and the way the future is heading, as well as the direction in which the media environment is moving with great force.
© Hyundai Motor Company
KOREAN CULTURE & ARTS 29
SPECIAL FEATURE 5
BTS: The Odyssey of Seven Young Artists
A Leap toward Global Standards The BTS phenomenon grew out of the confluence of Korea’s unique cultural topography and the globally connected world of our era. Let’s take a look at the significance of the phenomenal success of these seven young men for the music industry and beyond. Jung Duk-hyun Popular Culture Critic
-pop is a music genre that emerged in the 1990s when major Korean entertainment companies began launching “manufactured” idol groups. Potential talent was recruited through auditions and trained in vocals, dance and foreign languages with the trainee period typically lasting years. Inherent in the idol-making process, where only a handful of those endowed with natural talent can achieve their dreams with hard work, is the kind of elitism and success story that dominated Korean society during the country’s rapid development phase. Even today, trainees must achieve compressed growth to survive the breakneck competition. Just as Korea’s rapid economic development served as a model for other developing countries, its idol groups are the envy of other Asian countries. However, this Korean standard focused on rapid success entailed no small sacrifice. The sweeping pro-democracy movement of the
30 KOREANA Autumn 2019
1980s, calls for economic democratization in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, and more recently, demands to address the widening income gap and conflict among social classes manifest the struggles of Korean society in the course of socioeconomic progress. Similarly, although K-pop has produced remarkable results, it has come at a cost, most notably, the brutality of the idol training system and the short life span of successful idol groups.
A New Era in K-Pop
Korean society has thus sought changes in an effort to depart from the past, and with social changes it became necessary to establish a global standard that was more universal and rational. At the same time,
Kim Nam-joon Born September 12, 1994 in Ilsan, Gyeonggi Province; Group leader and rapper; Nicknames include “master of award acceptance speeches” and “vocal monster”; First member to join Big Hit Entertainment and especially talented in rap, songwriting and composing.
Kim Seok-jin Born December 4, 1992 in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi Province; Vocalist; Nicknames include “Madnae” (meaning the oldest member (mat hyeong ), but one who behaves like the youngest (mangnae ) and “Worldwide Handsome”; Talented vocalist especially noted for his emotional sensitivity.
Min Yoon-gi Born March 9, 1993 in Daegu; Rapper; Nicknames include Minstradamus (combination of surname “Min” and “Nostradamus”) and Syubgiryeok (combination of “Syub” from “Suga” and mugiryeok , meaning lacking in energy, a reference to his love for lying down and doing nothing); All-around talent as rapper, songwriter and composer.
the system that had supported the K-pop industry began to slowly crumble. That’s when BTS come on the scene. Korea’s pop music industry, consisting of an intricate network of management agencies, broadcasting stations, the digital music market and the media, did not allow the entry of a small company like Big Hit Entertainment. Therefore, Big Hit had to go the long and hard route to launch and promote BTS. As an idol group, the seven boys adopted elements of hip hop and made active use of social media to communicate with the public. What was an inevitable choice, paradoxically, paved the way for a new era in K-pop. One remarkable point that sets BTS apart is
that whereas existing idol groups were packaged as “immaculate geniuses,” as if they were not products of the idol training system, BTS showed that the true essence of an artist lies not in talent but attitude, and that an artist is not necessarily “born” but “grows and evolves.” The group chose to highlight the incomplete over the complete, and process over results. The song “Idol” on their 2018 album, “Love Yourself: Answer,” is an honest portrayal of their struggles with their identity between idol and artist, declaring that whatever it may be, it is all part of their story of growth. BTS’s journey from idols to artists exemplifies the angst of Korean youth. In a society that attaches great importance to credentials and results, the younger generation are gradually learning to enjoy the process regardless of the outcome. Young Koreans, who have been pressured to live a success-oriented life, have begun to dream of pursuing an “artist’s life,” that is, one where they grow and
KOREAN CULTURE & ARTS 31
Kim Tae-hyung Born December 30, 1995 in Daegu; Vocalist; Nicknames include CGV (computer graphics + V) and Vwimilbyeonggi (word play on the Korean term for “secret weapon,” referring to V being the undisclosed seventh member before the group’s debut); Versatile and known for his charming expressions and gestures on stage.
Jung Ho-seok Born February 18, 1994 in Gwangju; Dancer and rapper; Nicknames include “Hobi,” “Sunshine” (because of his cheerful and energetic personality) and Choreography Team Leader; Arguably the best dancer in the group who shines in highly difficult sequences, also a songwriter, composer and producer.
develop gradually. Their aspirations are more geared toward a global standard that goes beyond the limitations of what was distinctively Korean. Even if they “fall, get wounded, and it aches,” they seek to pursue a life of their own choice rather than do what others expect. This is actually a dream shared by youths around the world. BTS’ music sympathizes with these sentiments, which explains its far-reaching global resonance.
Shedding the Authoritarian Past
The proliferation of digital culture with the spread of the internet and social media is not irrelevant to the rise of individualism in Korean society, where familism and nationalism had long been pervasive. The traditional patriarchal social system and elitist attitudes of the development era have lost validity in the public consciousness shaped by the internet. Individuals, who were just one of the mass-
32 KOREANA Autumn 2019
es before, began to reveal their personal tastes and voice their opinions on digital networks. This break from the authoritarian past has been most prominently witnessed in popular culture. What was once a vertical relationship between stars and fans became increasingly mutual and interactive. The public no longer viewed celebrities simply as objects of adoration, but as individuals they could relate to; in some cases, fans even offered advice on an artist’s career direction. This new type of fandom that emerged in the 1990s could have been a foreshadowing of the relationship between BTS and their fandom, ARMY (Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth). BTS’ fandom is different from those of other
Park Ji-min Born October 13, 1995 in Busan; Dancer and vocalist; Nicknames include Manggaetteok (for his cute face with chubby cheeks reminiscent of a rice cake, or tteok ) and Dancing Bean; Entered Busan High School of Arts as a top student, well-versed in hip hop and contemporary dance styles, famous for his exquisite dance skills.
JUNGKOOK Jeon Jung-kook Born September 1, 1997 in Busan; Vocalist, dancer, sub rapper; Nicknames include Golden Mangnae (also spelled “Maknae,” meaning the youngest member) and Muscle Pig; Outstanding live vocals and flamboyant dance moves, as well as excellent photography, videography and editing skills.
idol groups in that the social media space where they interact is a global stage, its worldwide reach transcending language and nationality. ARMY is an outgrowth of the digital democratization, which effected huge changes in Korean society over the past few decades, and the global expansion of the strong public consciousness that it gave rise to. Korea’s geopolitical situation has demanded it seek opportunities overseas to create new growth engines. During the development phase, resources were imported from abroad, processed and the end products exported. But the Korean standard that pushed the country to achieve compressed growth in a short period of time lost force long ago. In today’s globalized world, with its ever-increasing
digital interconnectedness, the existing standard no longer promises prosperity. At this juncture, BTS has presented the possibility for a much-needed jumpstart.
Expanding Global Presence
The global nature of their fandom means that BTS have to pursue universality in forging an emotional bond with their fans. The way in which these young artists interact and build rapport with their fans around the world may have important implications for how Korea should expand its global presence. The whole country is elated about BTS’s rise to global stardom not just because it is unprecedented for Korean artists, but because it also suggests Korean society is breaking away from a past bound by national sentiment and confined by regional ties to move further out into the world.
KOREAN CULTURE & ARTS 33
The way in which these young artists interact and build rapport with fans around the world may have greater implications for how Korea should expand its global presence.
34 KOREANA Autumn 2019
Poster image for the 2018 world tour “Love Yourself,” which covered the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, France and Japan. From left: J-Hope, V, RM, Jungkook, Jimin, Jin and Suga. © Big Hit Entertainment
KOREAN CULTURE & ARTS 35
‘A Genre Unto Himself’ Acclaimed for its gritty and meticulous portrayal of the modern capitalist landscape, Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” touched a universal chord and became the first Korean film to win the Palme d’Or, the most prestigious award at the Cannes Film Festival. Coming at the centennial of Korean cinema, it was yet another groundbreaking achievement for the auteur with an ingenious mind. Ju Sung-chul Editor-in-Chief, Cine21
s if to celebrate the centennial of Korean cinema this year, director Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” clinched the Palme d’Or at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival. “Very opportune,” as Song Kang-ho’s character Ki-taek says in the movie. “Parasite” captivated film distributors worldwide. It compiled pre-sales in 192 countries during the May festival period, the highest number ever for a Korean film. After the festival, the movie debuted at French theaters and moviegoers flocked to this year’s top winner. “Parasite” topped the box office, pushing back Hollywood blockbusters “Men in Black: International” and “X-Men: Dark Phoenix” into second and third place, respectively. Of the two posters made for the French release, one was particularly eye-catching in that it showed an image of the character Mr. Park whispering to his wife. In unusually large fonts for a French movie poster, the tagline “Si tu me spoiles la fin, je te tue!” (If you ruin the ending for me, I’ll kill you!) was conspicuously printed like a speech bubble. The witty concept was based on the premise that word of mouth had already spread among French audiences to be wary of spoilers.
Over the past 20 years or so, winning the Palme d’Or has been the holy grail of Korean filmmakers, as they became familiar faces at Cannes. Korean cinema evolved and flour-
36 KOREANA Autumn 2019
His remarkable trajectory of change and evolvement over the last two decades has overlapped with what the public expects and desires from movies.
Bong Joon-ho’s seventh feature film “Parasite” won the Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, the highest prize awarded at Cannes.
ished during this time, displaying an abundant array of themes, settings and techniques. Lee Doo-yong was the first Korean director to attend the festival with “Spinning the Tales of Cruelty Towards Women” (1983) in the Un Certain Regard category, while Im Kwon-taek became the first Korean director to be invited to the main competition with “Chunhyang” (2000). Dubbed the “nation’s director,” Im was invited a second time to Cannes and took home the Best Director award for “Chihwaseon” (Painted Fire, 2002), signaling to the world that Korean filmmaking had arrived. Thereafter, further Cannes accolades raised the global stature of Korean films. Park Chan-wook took home the Grand Prix for “Old Boy” (2003), while Lee Chang-dong earned the Best Screenplay Award for “Poetry” (2010). Not to be left out, Im Sang-soo was invited to the main competition with “The Housemaid” (2010), a remake of Kim Ki-young’s legendary work of the same title from 1960, and “The Taste of Money” (2012). Bong said in his acceptance speech that he had dreamed of becoming a movie director ever since middle school. He made his first short film “Baeksaekin” (White Man, 1994) in college as part of his film club project. It became his ticket to the Korean Academy of Film Arts, where he made the short “Incoherence” (1994), for which he began to gain recognition when it was invited to screen at the Vancouver International Film Festival. He slowly expanded his field of expertise working on “Motel Cactus” (1997) as a member of the directing team and participating in the screenplay of “Phantom the Submarine” (1999).
New Phase in Korean Cinema
Bong’s debut feature “Barking Dogs Never Bite,” released in 2000, marked a new phase in Korean cinema at the dawn of the new millennium. With a mix of cinematic and non-cinematic elements, the movie harbors an unpredictable energy that diverges from previous Korean films. Bong demonstrated amazing imaginative prowess in his uninhibited command of the art form. At that time, he said his favorite Korean film director was Kim Ki-young and that he owned more than 10 videotapes of his movies. Kim was known for horror films that focused on the psychology of female characters. Bong said he didn’t go to the theaters much when he was a child. Instead he watched TV — a lot of movies and the AFKN (American Forces Korea Network). Bong further noted that he learned the concept of directing by watching the Japanese anime series “Future Boy Conan.” Whenever his spirits were low while at the Korean Academy of Film Arts, he would spend the whole day watching the entire © Cine21, Photo by Oh Kye-ohk
KOREAN CULTURE & ARTS 37
© CJ ENM
3 © Showbox
© The Jokers Film
© CJ ENM
14-hour series, he said. Once deemed a disrupter or outlier, Bong has become a formidable force in Korean cinema. The industry has seen a generational shift; at the forefront are directors like Bong, who attended college when student movements were receding and devoured all types of films, from animation to B-grade, through TV and video rental shops rather than theaters. So, naturally, Bong’s artistic sensibilities are distinct from his predecessors. He joined the ranks of so-called “film buff directors” alongside Park Chan-wook, director of “Joint Security Area,” Kim Jee-woon, who directed “The Foul King,” and Ryoo Seung-wan, director of “Die Bad,” all released in 2000, the same year as Bong’s “Barking Dogs Never Bite.” Bong’s monster movie “The Host” (2006) was invited to the Directors’ Fortnight section of the 59th Cannes Film Festival, while his anthology “Tokyo!” (2008), directed with Michel Gondry and Leos Carax, and the thriller “Mother” (2009) were invited to compete in the Un Certain Regard category at the 61st and 62nd edition of the festi-
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val, respectively. His first entry in the main competition was Netflix-produced “Okja” (2017), which premiered at the 70th edition. Finally, when attending the festival for the fifth time, he picked up its most prestigious award.
Meticulous Detail, Offbeat Humor
Bong’s two trademarks that characterize his films are his fastidious attention to detail, which has earned him the nickname “Bongtail,” and what the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma defined as “L’art du piksari” (“The aesthetics of piksari”; piksari is Korean slang for a voice crack when singing), referring to Bong’s style of injecting an unexpected dose of humor through an apparently clumsy mishap. For his second feature, “Memories of Murder” (2003), a crime drama that brought him into prominence, Bong doggedly sought to achieve a faithful recreation of Korea in the 1980s, the film’s setting. His suggestions to the art director exceeded the norm for scene design. Props such as old cigarettes and cars were merely the
1. “Memories of Murder” (2003), based on an actual serial murder case, was sought out for the Korean cinema section of many international film festivals, including the Bogota International Film Festival. 2. “Mother” (2009), which depicts a mother’s desperate efforts to save her son who is framed in a murder case, was invited to compete in the Un Certain Regard section of the 62nd Cannes Film Festival. 3. “The Host” (2006), which attracted more than 13 million viewers worldwide, is Bong Joon-ho’s biggest box office success. It was invited to the Directors’ Fortnight section of the 59th Cannes Film Festival. 4. “Parasite” (2019) is emblematic of Bong Joonho’s filmmaking, known for meticulous attention to detail, clash of disparate elements, and portrayals of the downside of capitalism.
basics; lewd graffiti on the wall at a checkpoint or an outof-place snack package in a shaman’s house were some of the visual elements that served not only to recreate the look and feel of the era, but drove the story forward as well. Bong also encased most scenes with dark hues to express the period’s oppressive, gloomy atmosphere; the only bold colors in the movie were blue blades of an electric fan and the victims’ red underwear. Bong’s execution of details is considered masterly, all the more because they are not immediately apparent but subtly rendered. In “Memories of Murder,” the police chief slips and tumbles down a rice paddy embankment where the on-site investigation of the crime scene is being conducted; in “The Host,” the monster suddenly stumbles and slips on stairs when it is chasing people. Bong has a predilection for infusing such incongruous elements that seem at odds but lend an offbeat charm that spices up his films. In his review of “Parasite,” David Ehrlich, senior film critic for the film industry and review website IndieWire, wrote, “The giddy, brilliant,
and totally unclassifiable ‘Parasite’ proves that Bong Joonho has become a genre unto himself.” That encapsulates the very essence of the movie as a hard-to-define genre that charts an unpredictable course, a definitive piece of work from a director who strove to become a perfectionist to portray a society that is far from perfect.
Searing Portrait of Society
Another distinctive feature of Bong’s films, as in “Parasite,” is their thought-provoking study of elements of Korean society, such as family love and social stratification. The apartment complex in “Barking Dogs Never Bite,” the unresolved serial murder case in “Memories of Murder” that took place in southern Gyeonggi Province, the Han River in “The Host” and maternal love portrayed in “Mother” are scenes and sentiments that symbolize Korean society. Of “The Host,” Bong said that the movie is essentially a story about the emotional and mental growth of the main character, Gang-du. When he finally composes himself, it comes at a horrific cost to his daughter’s life. The absence or utter incompetence of the public authorities is a ubiquitous fixture in Bong’s films. In “The Host,” the social underdogs are forced to take matters into their own hands due to government inaction. Of this, Bong once said in an interview, “It’s like the underdogs are running a relay race of looking out for each other.” Taking a step further, “Mother” features a mother who is driven to become a “monster.” Dismayed at the nonchalant attitude of police officers who treat a girl’s death as just another case, the mother frantically sets out to prove her son’s innocence on her own. Bong serves up another gritty portrayal of Korean society through the jobless down-and-out family of four in “Parasite.” After the eldest son lands a high-paying private tutoring job, a string of cunning schemes gets other family members employed in the wealthy household. The worlds of the rich and poor converge in this way, but as time passes, a somber foreboding takes over. The symbiosis between the two families at opposite ends of the social ladder is but an elusive dream. The film’s bittersweet depiction of the capitalist world we live in cuts across races and nations, and is what earned Bong the top honor at Cannes. From his feature debut with “Barking Dogs Never Bite” to “Parasite,” Bong has carved out a singular presence in the Korean film industry. His remarkable trajectory of change and evolvement over the last two decades has overlapped with what the public expects and desires from movies. Undoubtedly, Bong Joon-ho remains one of the hottest names in Korean cinema.
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at the Art Gallery Contemporary dancer Ahn Eun-me, an iconic figure known for her shaved head and flamboyant costumes, seldom flaunts her past achievements. “Known Future” is a retrospective commemorating the 30th anniversary of Ahn’s debut, set up in multi-purpose spaces where visitors are the main actors participating in various ways. This highly provocative exhibition, opened June 26 at the Seoul Museum of Art, runs through September 29. Michael Lim Art and Design Historian
icknamed the “21st century shaman,” contemporary dancer Ahn Eun-me encourages people with a smile and hugs them, leading them to dance joyously, if only for a moment. She neither criticizes the present with a stern face, nor does she diagnose the future based on pedantic theories. Her works are packed with vibrant colors and lively expressions. “Known Future,” looking back on her 30-year career, was planned in the same vein. She did not want a conventional retrospective and instead asked for some space inside the art museum.
Exhibition Space Turned Stage
In the modernist era, art galleries aspired to be white cubes, but in the 21st century, major galleries are mounting new experiments in the hope of becoming pluralist art spaces. New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), for instance, actively embraces contemporary dance. Now people are saying that museums should become places where the general public can engage in self-motivated learning. In that
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sense, “Known Future” is right on the mark for it captures the spirit of our times. Through spatial variation, the exhibition guides visitors to change their behavior protocol. At the entrance they are greeted with Ahn Eun-me’s costumes hanging from the ceiling. Walking underneath them, they are visually struck by the sensational colors and concurrently experience different textures as the costumes brush against their faces and hair. After passing through the hanging costumes, they come across the lavish gold costume Ahn wore in a performance for Danish artist Olafur Eliasson’s 2016 exhibition, “The parliament of possibilities.” As if it were Ahn Eun-me’s persona, the costume functions as a welcoming gesture. Then, making their way through a beaded curtain, visitors enter a space where the floor is covered with beach balls containing Ahn’s pictures. Text and videos explaining the exhibition, a chronicle of her major performances, and essays and murals illustrating her world of art are splashed across the walls. This is the prelude to the exhibition. In the next section, many silver air vent
As if it were her persona, Ahn Eun-me’s costume welcomes visitors at the entrance of the exhibition. The costume was worn in a performance for Danish artist Olafur Eliasson’s 2016 exhibition, “The parliament of possibilities.” © Seoul Museum of Art
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© Seoul Museum of Art
42 KOREANA Autumn 2019
© Seoul Museum of Art
tubes are installed like columns, continuously expanding upward and shrinking back. There are wells that present Ahn’s major works on multi-screens and rainbow-colored curtains. Beyond the curtains is a low, wide stage. Stage lights, disco balls, walls covered with circular discs, an actual dressing room, speakers that pour out sound, and two haetae (mythical fire-eating animal) statues adorn the stage. Titled “This World/World Beyond,” this space is where Ahn Eun-me puts on a series of performances and lectures. “Body Dance” features dance lessons for the audience; “Eye Dance” opens up rehearsals to the public to show how a new work is choreographed and created; and “Mouth Dance” is a series of lectures and discussions. Participating in “Body Dance” and “Mouth Dance” is free for those who have signed up in advance on the museum’s website. The classes by philosopher Slavoj Žižek and installation artist Haegue Yang are impressive, but the museumgoers’ favorite moment is Ahn Eun-me’s body-shaking lesson. They seem to feel a sense of catharsis at rediscovering their own bodies and learning how to use them on a more approachable stage set up in an art gallery. After the motion-filled “This World/ World Beyond,” visitors come across two large screens showing video art. It is a mixture of old and new, ranging from the dance moves of a baby who has just started to take its first steps and grannies’ free-style dance. The core message is the “universality of dance” that Ahn Eun-me has discovered. There is a
resemblance in the ways a little baby instinctively moves and an old woman dances with her back and legs bent from years of labor, using her muscles and joints differently from the way she does when working. It is all about escaping reality where you must work to survive, expressing your joy and grief in primitive moves. It is an act of self-esteem; Ahn feels this is the essence of dance. In the next room is a colorful, squishy Ahn Eun-me style bed, and the original drawings of costumes and a collection of pamphlets are on display with dance music playing in the background. Visitors who just kicked around beach balls in the other room lie down on the bed and spend some time taking selfies or surfing the internet. When the curtain with “good-bye” written on it is pushed aside, the archive catalog marking Ahn’s 30th anniversary, soon to be published, goes round and round in circles bidding farewell.
Abstract Grammar for Dance
Ahn Eun-me made her debut in 1988 as an independent artist. She abandoned the conventions of the Korean dance community, which emphasized beautiful moves following the style and methodology of Western dance. Instead, she introduced non-dance “body speech.” She was not afraid to mix the grammar of traditional Korean dance with that of modern Western dance. During the 1990s, including her early years in Korea and the time she spent in New York, she experimented with and pioneered the
1. The low, spacious stage titled “This World/World Beyond,” where many performances and lectures take place, is the most important space in this exhibition. 2. Videos showing edited versions of Ahn Eun-me’s works play on two large screens. Visitors can relate to the consistent theme of “universality of dance.”
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dance language of post-modernism that went beyond phenomenological existence by selecting themes based on social reality, collaborating with artists from different genres, actively using primary colors and objects, and designing stages with visual installations. This period can be summed up as the “Koreanization of post-modernism and post-modernization of Korean dance.” In the early 2000s, Ahn served as artistic director of the Daegu City Dance Company, presenting a string of large-scale works. She introduced a Korean-style dance theater, benchmarking Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater
which pursued the recovery of narrative by combining dance and theater. Ahn did not stop at testing and actualizing her “Vernacular Tanztheater.” In “Let’s Go,” premiered at the 2004 Pina Bausch Festival, Ahn made a breakthrough in methodology. By repeating, adapting and constructing nondance body movements, she further progressed into the abstract world of modern dance. In a world after post-modernism, William Forsythe and Ahn Eun-me are probably the only choreographers to create their own unique abstract grammar for dance.
Universal Body Language
From 2011, Ahn Eun-me challenged herself to study old ladies, youths and middle-aged men as subjects of ethnographic research. It was an experimental move to borrow and recreate their existence on stage. In “Dancing for Grandmother,” Ahn collected the body language people were sharing with her and actually put those everyday people on stage, juxtaposing and mixing them with the choreography she created from her research. “Throughout 25 years of working for the stage, I have been entreating the world and spitting something out. Now I want to do something that’s exactly the opposite,” she said. Dreaming of “giving dance back to people,” Ahn came to adopt as her medium the art museum which pursues plurality. Under the new conditions of a 21st century art museum, she tries to renew herself, the dancers and the audience. If she keeps trying, then maybe the museum will also be renewed.
© Seoul Museum of Art
The museumgoers’ favorite moment is Ahn Eun-me’s body-shaking lesson. They seem to feel a sense of catharsis at rediscovering their own bodies and learning how to use them on a more approachable stage set up in an art gallery. 44 KOREANA Autumn 2019
‘Giving Dance Back to Society’ Michael Lim: This exhibition seems to function as an alternative behavior program or media service. Is there any particular reason why you decided to do this type of work? Ahn Eun-me: Looking back on my life as
you really place a lot of emphasis on breathing. What is the reason? Ahn: I’m like a diver who has to go down into the deep sea. I have to lead people to an unknown space and time through dance movements.
an artist since 2008, I have consistently made
Lim: What is your first memory of dance?
statements to the world. So, I thought to myself,
Ahn: It must have been back in 1970. I was
I shouldn’t just talk about myself, I should pay
playing in the neighborhood, and across the street
attention to the body language of others around
were some strange-looking older girls. I remember
me. I wanted to applaud them. To simply explain
that they were wearing traditional Korean clothing
the “One Minute Fifty-nine Seconds” project, which
and hair accessories. At the time, everything in the
began in 2013, it is sort of a game in which I am
city was gray and only those people dancing were
in the audience clapping, and the spectators are
dressed in colorful attire, so the contrast was very
on stage performing. I truly believe that there will
strong. The first impression I had of dance was not
come a day when all of us make something artis-
movement, but color.
tic, that we will write new history. And I work to spread that belief. Lim: How many pieces have you created? Ahn: I once tried to count, and I counted up
Lim: What were you like as a university student? Ahn: I was quite famous in my college days. I’m 165 centimeters tall, which was
to about 130. I like being prolific. If you produce a
on the tall side back then. My arms and legs
lot, then at least some of the works will turn out to
were longer than average. Seen objectively,
be good. That’s how I think. My goal is to reach 99
I had the physique of a dancer. When I walked
types of metamorphoses until the day I die. I want
around, quite a few people stared and pointed at
to be the mother of fertility who gives birth to time
me. They said to each other, “There goes that mad
and space for metamorphosis; I want to be the
girl.” I thought I was normal looking and perhaps
goddess of the earth.
even lady-like because I had long hair then, but I
Lim: Few people realize it, since it’s not easily noticeable with all the splendor of the stage, but
guess I stood out because the way I behaved was rather uncommon. 2 © Seoul Museum of Art
1. Visitors enjoy the opening performance for the exhibition “Known Future,” held June 26 in the lobby of the Seoul Museum of Art. 2. Ahn shaves her head in the picture on the poster for “Known Future,” a retrospective commemorating the contemporary dancer’s 30th year as an artist.
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Hanok for the 21st Century Purists oppose changes to design and substance of hanok, Koreaâ€™s traditional housing, while modernists contend it is obsolete and should be forgotten. Architect Cho Jung-goo thinks otherwise. He is known for his constant experiments, interpreting traditional Korean-style houses as a platform for architecture that lives and thrives. Lim Jin-young CEO, OPENHOUSE Seoul; Architecture Journalist Ha Ji-kwon Photographer
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n the modern era, traditional Korean-style houses called hanok largely disappeared as high-rise apartment buildings became the norm. Eventually, the traditional houses built around wooden frames in simple design came to be regarded as historical legacy that needed to be preserved, or a cultural icon inhabited by a small number of enthusiasts. Yet another change in attitude has recently occurred, as the reevaluation of its innate value and efforts to apply its basic principles led to the revival of hanok as a contemporary residential style. In 2000, Cho Jung-goo founded his architecture firm, guga Urban Architecture. Since then, he has roamed around Seoul every Wednesday to record the appearance of the capital and interview its residents. He has witnessed many places changing or totally disappearing. The walkabouts have convinced Cho that a good city must be where old and new coexist in harmony.
Lim Jin-young: As a contemporary architect, what do you think attracted you to hanok? Cho Jung-goo: I wasn’t always interested in hanok. Over my years of weekly field investigations, I looked carefully at Seoul and found that there are many urban hanok buildings around the city, which were constructed in the modern and contemporary era. My interest took off not from hanok as traditional architecture but from urban takes on it. Over time, I had the opportunity to work on the design of a hanok home in Bukchon and that’s where I learned the logic of indigenous Korean homes. Lim: So, you learned the ins and outs of traditional Korean architecture on a building site? Cho: That’s right. People usually learn about hanok from books on architectural history, but I learned most of what I know while working on old houses. The important thing is that hanok is alive in the urban architecture of Seoul. As the number of hanok projects increased, we weren’t only working on homes but also restaurants and other kinds of spaces. In such cases, I had to confront the problem of how
Hotel Ragung, which opened in 2007 in Gyeongju, the ancient capital of Silla, was the first hanok hotel. It is credited with proving that traditional Korean architecture can evolve with the times. © Park Yeong-chae, guga Urban Architecture
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hanok can accommodate the needs and technologies of contemporary ways of life, and decided that resolving such demands was the task of the architect. Then, when it came to designing Ragung, a hanok hotel in Gyeongju, in 2005, I eventually realized that an architect could design hanok using traditional architectural language, and that I could have a major influence on modern hanok. I think I exceeded my own boundaries with that project. Lim: Ragung made a big impression on me for the way it reinterpreted and reconstituted hanok. Cho: I think if someone was writing an architectural history and wanted to define contemporary hanok, they would probably have to start with Ragung. In that project, the role of the architect was very important because it combined contemporary needs and usage with the language of traditional architecture in a new way. In that respect, it was an opportunity to integrate traditional architecture into the domain of architectural design. It’s meaningful that this aspect of Ragung was also acknowledged in the market. Lim: The word hanok is now used very widely, and the meaning seems to have become pretty broad. I’m curious how you define hanok as an architect. Cho: In general, hanok can be defined as “a building with a wooden frame and tiled roof.” For me, more specifically, a hanok is “a house with a garden, built of natural materials such as wood, stone and paper.” Recently we built some timber houses in Paju, north of Seoul, and the local people there call them “hanok homes.” This makes me think that we succeeded somehow in teasing out the essence of
hanok in people’s perceptions. Lim: What are the defining characteristics of the hanok structure that you learned while working with them? Cho: The most interesting thing about the structure of hanok is its simplicity. It’s not a difficult structure. The second is that it has an incredibly logical composition. From the structure of the space to the way it’s laid out, there is a union of rationality and simplicity. I was able to decipher how urban hanok had adjusted to the city, and that there were subtle changes in the roof and floor levels. Traditional Korean homes look simple and cozy, but that doesn’t mean there is no art to how they are put together.
Simple, Rational Structure
Lim: When experimenting with hanok, what would you say is its DNA that needs to be maintained? Cho: I think the DNA of hanok is the garden and the eaves. Between the garden and the house there has to be this middle territory of the eaves. The eaves don’t just provide shade but also an intermediate space where you can come outside and look at the garden. Simplicity is also important. Architectural drawings of the layout of most traditional-style homes are as simple as children’s drawings. In that sense, it’s a shame that contemporary hanok being built these days have such complex structures. Architects try to keep the feeling of hanok with the exterior, but because the interior is so over-designed, it feels like the inherent simplicity of hanok is ruptured. If you look at a well-built hanok, there’s a feeling of flow, with spaces naturally connected to each other. We need to refocus on that flow of space. Lim: There are some unfortunate attitudes towards hanok. There is a view that as something traditional, hanok mustn’t be played around with, and at the same time there is a critique that hanok has no value in a modern city and therefore contemporary architects should not concern themselves with it.
Designed so that the surrounding scenery can be enjoyed from the raised level of each room, Hotel Ragung harmonizes the functions of a small-scale boutique hotel with traditional aesthetics. © Park Yeong-chae, guga Urban Architecture
48 KOREANA Autumn 2019
“In the end, if we are building new hanok to live in now, they can’t just be like heritage sites. They need to be shelters for contemporary life. For hanok to stay alive, it must continue to evolve.” Cho: Both views are directed at me. I suppose I stand exactly between the two. Other architects criticize me, saying, “Why save something that’s dying?” but I don’t agree with their diagnosis of hanok. If you look at the modern city, traditional-style homes are still around in good condition and occupied. On the other hand, I am often asked whether buildings designed in more contemporary ways are hanok at all. For example, with Nangnakheon [meaning “House of Double Joys”] in Eunpyeong District [in northern Seoul], we set up concrete pilotis and placed the house on top of them. Although the house won an architecture award, it isn’t regarded as an excellent hanok. Purists can’t accept the concrete stereobate. Despite all that my conviction doesn’t change. Even if our culture returns to tradition, as soon as something is considered “traditional,” it can’t be the same as before. We have to keep moving forward with historical, technical and social progress. In the end, if we are building new hanok to live in now, they can’t just be like heritage sites. They need to be shelters for contemporary life. For hanok to stay alive, it must continue to evolve. Lim: From the perspective of a contemporary architect, hanok is just one of many options. What’s important then should be how the form is approached, how its characteris-
With the employees at his firm, guga Urban Architecture, Cho Jung-goo treks around Seoul every Wednesday, exploring new possibilities for hanok as a living form of architecture.
KOREAN CULTURE & ARTS 49
tics are interpreted. Cho: Our company philosophy is “universal originality.” We always try to have architecture that will have a universal influence. Creating new forms of dwellings is important. In my view, the way to accomplish that is by constantly breaking down the boundaries between traditional and contemporary architecture. With hanok, the plan is more important. This means that architects need to take up their challenges in defferent ways, with their own unique vision. I don’t think my approach is the only right one. If enough people approach it earnestly, we’ll eventually be able to find an alternative. Building homes for our era is a major task for architects, and for me that task is intimately related to the modernization of hanok.
Modernization of Hanok
Lim: You could say that with the Im Jae-yang Surgery in Daegu, you dealt with the memories of traditional Korean and Japanese homes in the city, and then in projects like Mimyeongjae [“Dawn House”], the Y-shaped hanok in Inje, and the circular passageway of Lotte Resort Buyeo, you used existing methods to create something new and exper-
imental. It’s interesting that the architectural approach is to design anew with traditional methods rather than simply follow the standard conventions of hanok. Cho: That’s right. Hanok is a language that I can think with and use. The important thing is how you understand a place; you have to approach it from the perspective of what people will want from it. I think the form comes out of that. With the Chollipo Arboretum Visitor Center, rather than the concept of evolving hanok, we wanted to create a building with a simple composition that had the feeling of a traditional Korean roof. On the other hand, with the Tosan-ri Guest House on Jeju Island, rather than a reinterpretation in contemporary language, it was a case of bringing in the true substance and applying it. Our client wanted a hanok-like home, but said that they didn’t think they could fit their lifestyle into a traditional house. So, we kept the feeling of a Jeju-style family home and used the materials and structure of Korean rooms. In the end, I think of it as an evolved return.
Lim: As an architect, what do you think Korea’s and our era’s homes embody? Cho: The most significant thing hanok has taught me is the idea of “humble space.” A house that has inner depth but doesn’t show it off, a home that embraces and looks outward — that’s the kind of house I dream of. As I mentioned earlier, in such a home the scenery seen when sitting beneath the eaves is important; a simple house with a garden creates that. It makes a home that can give people comfort without being domineering. Lim: With your urban field investigations and constant experimentation with hanok, you seem to be living out a personal theory of “universal architecture for life” Cho: I’m not a hanok architect. I’m just earnestly following the path my life’s work takes. It’s simply that hanok came into my fate. I think of my work as an architect to be drawing a line from the past that passes through the present. Extending from the past, carefully observing contemporary forms of life, and building bridges out into the future.
1. The Tosan-ri Guest House on Jeju Island maintains the sloping topography of its site, while adapting the living room, bedrooms, kitchen and dining area to different elevations.
2 © Yun Jun-hwan, guga Urban Architecture
50 KOREANA Autumn 2019
2. The Tosan-ri house reinterprets the climate and housing style native to Jeju, characterized by stone walls for the structure and perimeter, and a low roof and wide shape to withstand strong winds.
3 © Park Yeong-chae, guga Urban Architecture
Just like my motto, “In search of life’s form,” I am surveying the shapes of life through my field visits, and I think that by now, compared with most people, I have witnessed more from the past to make up the present. I think of myself as gradually building a bridge toward the future. Later on, I’d like it if people considered me someone who tailored spaces to be homes for our era, in keeping with the sustenance and natural climate of our time. 4 © Park Yeong-chae, guga Urban Architecture
3. With views of Mount Bukhan that sits right outside, Nangnakheon (“House of Double Joys”) represents a new style of residence with traditional and modern forms of architecture coexisting. 4. Placed atop concrete pilotis, Nangnakheon is designed to accommodate contemporary lifestyles. An entranceway and parking space are tucked beneath the elevated hall.
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GUARDIANS OF HERITAGE
Weaving Fine Bamboo Strands into Hat Brims The gat, a traditional Korean men’s hat, is no longer worn in daily life, but the skills and procedures for making it have survived. A mother and daughter team have devoted themselves to making brims for the hats using bamboo strands, some even thinner than a human hair. Kang Shin-jae Freelance Writer Ahn Hong-beom Photographer
ith a cylindrical crown and wide brim, the gat was much more than just a hat to Koreans of bygone days. It was a type of formal headwear worn by adult men of high social status, which went with a long overcoat called dopo. When men in mourning for a parent were unable to live at the graveside for a prolonged period, they would wear an extra wide-brimmed hat, called banggat, to express grief and shame so profound that they did not dare to look up at the sky. Thus, the hat was a symbol of a man’s social standing and philosophy as well as part of his daily life and etiquette. However, when Western clothing became common in Korea from the late 19th century, the traditional hat lost its place in daily life. It now remains an antiquity, found only in period films and dramas. Surprisingly, though, the skills and procedures for fashioning it have been preserved intact to this day. The gat-making process involves three parts: forming the crown (chongmoja), weaving the brim (yangtae) and assembling the two parts to complete the hat (ipja). The craft for each procedure has been practiced and handed down separately; the division of tasks still remains clear. Therefore, four master artisans share the title of National Intangible Cultural Property No. 4 for traditional hat making: one crown maker, one brim maker and two assemblers.
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As the hat is not created by a single artisan, no matter how close to perfection each part may be, on its own it is bound to be incomplete. I recently visited a family whose life has been shaped by this complex craft with a long history. Jang Sun-ja weaves the brims, her skills having been passed down by her mother and her mother’s mother. Three years ago, her own daughter, Yang Geum-mi, took up the reins as fourth-generation artisan.
For Rice on the Table
“Other mothers would pick bracken when in season or gather seafood by the seashore in spring to feed their children, but my mother would weave all day long, day in and day out. She said it would buy rice for our family,” Jang Sun-ja said. “When I went up to her after school, she would not let me come closer, saying that my breath would dampen the bamboo threads.” Back in the hard times, weaving the traditional hat brims brought a good income for women in five villages around the port of Jeju. Women who didn’t dive to gather seafood would make the brims at the communal workshop. The brims were sent to the mainland, mostly to Tongyeong in South Gyeongsang Province and Yesan in South Chungcheong Province, to be assembled with the horsehair
Jang Sun-ja inherited the skills for weaving traditional hat brims from her mother and her motherâ€™s mother, safeguarding the long tradition of Jeju womenâ€™s craftsmanship. Her skills were officially recognized with the title of National Intangible Cultural Property in the art of traditional hat brim making in 2000.
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crowns, and the completed hats were sold across the nation. Jang’s mother was widely known on Jeju Island for her excellent skills. Based on her long-standing reputation, she was named a state-recognized “human treasure” in the art of traditional hat brim making in 2000, a position left unfilled for a long time due to a lack of qualified artisans. “When we were young, my friends and I would get together at a big house in our neighborhood to do the weaving. It was like a game for us,” Jang recalled. “We competed to be the first one to finish each round of the brim. One round meant weaving one strand all the way round back to the starting point. We would take our baskets of materials to the house very early in the morning, come back home for breakfast and then go there again to start working. We did this to save a seat by the window. We didn’t have electricity back then. Weaving the brims is an intricate job and should be done very carefully in a place with good light.” In her youth, Jang wanted to start her own business. Her father used to tell her not to waste her youthful days working as a day laborer but to find out what she wanted to do and what she would be good at. So, she started a business supplying bamboo stalks to the brim weavers of her hometown. She would leave the island and roam the bamboo fields in Damyang, South Jeolla Province, for over two months at a time looking for good material. “You had to look for 20-month-old black bamboo stems with long internodes. But they were rare,” she said. “Giant timber bamboos with longer internodes were easy to find, but they are so tough that you might cut your hands working
with them. And it’s difficult to get fine strands from them.” She would rent a house with a spacious yard, where the bamboo stalks were brought in on 10 horse carts. Then she would cut the stalks at the nodes with a hand saw, one by one, taking care that the ends were clean, making it easier to obtain good strands. “Ah, it was such hard work, now that I think about it. But it earned me a lot of money for 11 years,” she recalled. Jang made still more money by growing tangerines before deciding to inherit her mother’s craft at the age of 43. Her experience in the bamboo trade was valuable since producing fine bamboo strands is a critical part of the craft. It is done by boiling the culms in caustic soda and ash, drying them for two days, making tiny cuts on the dried culms and splitting them into thin strips. From a 1-centimeter-wide strip, Jang obtains 50 to 70 strands in 18 different thicknesses, some thinner than a human hair.
Thinner than Hair
“The cuts made on the culms are so tiny that I rely on my fingertips rather than my eyes. It leaves my hands rough and sore. I’m hardly aware of this while doing the work, because I focus completely on the tips of the strips,” said Jang. Her nails warped and thickened, and her fingertips worn down, she weaves the bamboo strands to make the hat brims. The work itself looks rather simple — passing four wefts through the warps arranged circularly on a round wooden plate — but it requires a quick eye to judge the space between the threads and decide the thickness of the wefts
1. Jang Sun-ja and her daughter Yang Geum-mi, who is taking over her mother’s job, make bamboo strands together. Bamboo culms are boiled in caustic soda and ash, dried for two days, and split into strips 1 centimeter wide. Each strip is then divided into 50 to 70 strands. 2. To weave the brim, the warp strands are arranged circularly on a round wooden plate, and four wefts are passed through them, starting from the center and moving toward the edges. The threads get thicker toward the edges to maintain an even texture and density throughout the surface.
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for each round. The thinnest strands are used for the inner rim closest to the crown, and thicker ones for the looser outer edges. Keeping balance is essential. To complete the brim of a single hat, some 300 to 500 strands of 18 different thicknesses are used in a way that maintains an even texture across the surface. Jang’s daughter chimed in, explaining, “A graceful and dignified hat is one with a broad brim, evenly textured with tightly woven bamboo threads.” The beauty and grace of a hat shines through when the sunlight on the finely-woven, translucent brim casts a soft shadow over the wearer’s face. “The final product is completed by joining the bamboo brim to the horsehair crown,” the daughter added. “Sometimes, bamboo or silk thread, as well as silk lining, is used in the process. I believe few other hats in the world are made
with such delicate craftsmanship. The traditional hats featured in films and other media are mostly replicas, entirely different from the authentic handcrafted ones.”
A Lifelong Goal
During the conversation, a topic that kept turning up was the exhibition hall that Jang helped to build in 2009 to showcase the art of traditional hat making. “At first, the provincial government decided that the craft of producing bamboo hat brims was not worthy of being recognized as cultural property, so I turned to the Cultural Heritage Administration and received a grant of 890 million won,” she said. “I sold my tangerine orchard to buy land for an exhibition hall at a location that met all the administrative requirements, then donated the land to
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ng -ka eun H Seo
1, 2. Hats with a horsehair crown and bamboo brim, called gat, were worn by adult men of the Joseon period when they went out. The shapes and details of the hat underwent changes with time, and the straps tied under the chin, adorned with precious stones like amber and coral, served a decorative purpose.
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3. The hat is an important element of men’s costume in period dramas, adding beauty and elegance to the attire. The exquisitely woven brim casts a soft shadow over the wearer’s face, creating a touch of dignity.
Her nails warped and thickened, and her fingertips worn down, she weaves the bamboo strands to make the hat brims… The thinnest threads are used for the inner rim closest to the crown, and thicker ones for the looser outer edges.
the provincial government. I endured so much hardship and unjust treatment to build this hall.” In addition to her money, Jang poured into the exhibition hall her time, memories and beliefs. She went on, “When I was younger, I was toying with the idea of becoming the village head or running for a seat in the provincial council. But then the Cultural Heritage Administration urged my mother to appoint a successor. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to do it, because it’s such a lonely job. I thought about it and in the end agreed, because I wanted to do something worthwhile. I bided my time for more than 10 years, producing a steady flow of works. At 62, when my skills were officially recognized, I made up my mind to build a museum to leave something behind. That’s when I started to save money.” The octogenarian artisan who hopes to sum up her life in the museum has her daughter at her side. Yang Geum-mi studied visual design at college and worked as a designer in Seoul before she quit three years ago and returned home, changing the course of her life after her mother’s persistent persuasion. “Not once in my life had I thought of doing this work,” Yang said. “I vaguely acknowledged that one of us children would have to take it on, but I didn’t think it would be me.” All the same, she was chosen, which she thinks was due to her being single and having more time on her hands. She feels responsible for preserving the craft, and is doing her best to that end, but finds it hard to wholly dedicate herself to the work while making a living by farming tangerines. “The demand for the hats? Only a handful, I must say. And it takes three artisans to produce one piece, so it typically costs more than 10 million won,” she said.
In spite of occasional frustrations, Yang is well aware of her role as fourth-generation bearer of the tradition. Currently, she is looking for ways to modernize the brim-making techniques and materials, conducting research to strengthen the brittle bamboo strands to commercialize them. With a thirst for perfection, she also hopes to learn the other crafts to make not just the brim but a complete Jeju gat with her own hands.
Listening to her talk, Jang often chipped in with praise of her daughter’s character and abilities. But then she provoked her by saying that everything would be easier for her daughter because she had paved the way. Yang lamented, jokingly, that her mother takes her sacrifice for granted. While acknowledging that it might be a sacrifice, Jang retorted that in her eyes it was a piece of cake. Jang grew serious again when she said that, if her daughter worked for a company, she would eventually have to retire. This craft, however, will reward her with the official cultural heritage designation and give her life direction and meaning. She went on that she was proud of herself for calling her daughter home to take over the job. “I can die smiling, knowing that she will carry on the legacy,” she said. Offering a tour around the exhibition hall, Jang angled for a response, asking if I thought it was worth visiting. Giving her my assurances, I thought about one person’s desire and will to pour everything into preserving tradition against the tide of time and the responsibility accepted by 3 another to pass it on to posterity. © Chorokbaem Media
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IN LOVE WITH KOREA
From Bullet Train to Pâtisserie 1
As an elite engineer, Guillaume Diepvens was posted temporarily to Korea to help build its first bullet train system. Then the Frenchman’s love for his country’s bread and his entrepreneurial spirit prompted an unexpected career track — operating bakeries in Seoul. Choi Sung-jin Executive Editor, Korea Biomedical Review Heo Dong-wuk Photographer
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magine you are a Korean engineer working for, say, Hyundai Engineering and Construction and dispatched to France. You find your staple — cooked rice and kimchi — far from satisfactory, making you long for decent Korean meals for just one day. Most probably, you may try to finish your stint as soon as possible and return to Korea. Or, if that’s not possible, you could try to visit Korea as often as possible to satisfy your yen for home cooking. Guillaume Diepvens faced a similar situation in Korea. But the Frenchman chose quite a different course: he decided to stay and set up a genuine French pâtisserie. What motivated him? A sense of mission to propagate French bread in a rice-dominant Asian country? A prolonged, pent-up desire to take an entrepreneurial leap? Weariness from working for a large company? Or a bit of all of these? One thing seems certain: Diepvens would not have made the decision had he not liked his host country. Asked whether he was in love with Korea, the 44-year-old Frenchman answered with a question: “If I were not, would I be living here for 17 years?”
“Sure, I love Korea, but frankly, it wasn’t love at first sight. I have come to like this country little by little,” he says. What troubled him most during his early days in Korea was that he couldn’t understand the language, let alone speak it. Diepvens recalls coping with life in the United States despite not speaking English well because French and English share many words and have similar sentence structures. In Korea, however, Diepvens ran into more than just an entirely unfamiliar language. “We differ vastly, not only in language but the way of thinking as well,” he says. Diepvens arrived in Korea in 2002 as an employee of Alstom, a French multinational company operating worldwide in rail transportation. Any French engineer would love to work for the company and, as a graduate of Arts et Métiers ParisTech, Diepvens had a gilded pathway into Alstom. A prestigious institution founded in 1780, ParisTech has produced some 85,000 engineers in fields ranging from basic industries to aerospace. Alstom was Diepvens’ first workplace and Seoul his first post. His assignment was to help build the KTX highspeed rail system. Six years later, however, the elite engi-
Safe and Convenient
Diepvens sums up his life in Korea with one word — “casual.” Pressed to elaborate, he said Korea is “safe and comfortable” for foreigners, thanks in particular to its marvelous mass transit system and the ease of purchasing daily necessities. Hailing from a small farming village in France, he lived in Paris for two years and in the United States for eight months, but felt he belonged in neither. “Seoul may not be as upscale and posh as Paris in terms of cultural life, probably outside of this Cheongdamdong area, but I think it is safer and more convenient for foreigners to live in than most large European and U.S. cities,” says Diepvens. Another plus for him is not re-experiencing unpleasant situations that he often encountered in the Paris subway system.
1. Guillaume Diepvens started to work as an engineer for Korea’s bullet train system in 2002, but changed his career track to make traditional French bread. 2. Diepvens quit his engineering job after working in Korea for six years and opened a French bakery in Cheongdam-dong, a tony section of Gangnam District, southern Seoul.
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“I wanted to open a bakery to let Koreans taste really good French bread. Some Korean bread was quite close to French products but not as authentic.”
neer left Alstom to devote himself to his pâtiserrie, Maison Guillaume, in Gangnam, southern Seoul. “I wanted to open a bakery to let Koreans taste really good French bread,” he explains. “Some Korean bread was quite close to French products but not as authentic.”
Goodbye to Engineering
The decision to trade scale models for baking sheets and ovens naturally stunned his family and friends. They were slow to understand and accept his pivot. Diepvens had little knowledge or experience in bread making. “It wasn’t easy for myself, either. I spent days agonizing over the decision,” he says. His parents opposed the move at first but eventually acquiesced. “My father and mother are open-minded people,” he says. Diepvens returned to France for an intensive onemonth course in baking bread and then brought a couple of experienced French pâtissiers to Korea to help run his bakery. The master bakers eventually returned home,
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and Diepvens now runs two bakeries with a few French part-timers. His second shop, opened recently, is in Pangyo, south of Seoul. “The French master bakers left Korea mainly because they failed to get over cultural differences,” Diepvens explains. He refrained from elaborating on the differences. “I don’t hire experienced French chefs anymore if they don’t speak Korean and do not know about the Korean way of doing things,” Diepvens says. But he may not need to employ master chefs anymore, because he has become one himself. Maison Guillaume, with an overall pink interior, has a charming display of French bread, which is hard on the surface but soft inside, and assorted dessert cookies. Among the most eye-catching are pastel-colored macarons which look just too lovely to eat, mille-feuille, or the pies with “thousand leaves,” and cute meringues made from egg whites and sugar, which instantly melt in your mouth. It did not take much time for Maison Guillaume’s authentic French bread and cookies to captivate the taste
buds of Koreans. Since its opening in 2008, the pâtisserie has steadily prospered, defending its market share against several competitors.
Key to Success
Diepvens strives for “localization” to harmonize French recipes and Korean tastes. He welcomes the arrival of luxury French bakeries, such as Eric Kayser and Ladurée, because he believes it indicates that Koreans’ recognition of French bread has risen. But he says he will not push for introducing French gastronomy in earnest in Korea. Rather, he will continue to focus on bread and related food items, such as jam and cream. Currently, Diepvens lives in Huam-dong, an old residential area near Seoul Station. “Neither single nor married,” as he puts it, Diepvens enjoys hiking and biking. He has traveled extensively around Korea on his motorbike. “These days, I just take a walk when I have time, often with my dog.” Probably, the work of a pâtissier requires both brain and brawn, leaving him little energy for other exercises. As a vegetarian, Diepvens says he loves simple Korean foods, such as bibimbap (a mash-up of rice and assorted vegetables, with the usual meat excluded in his case), kal guksu (knife-cut noodles in soup) and sujebi (chewy wheat
flakes in soup). From time to time, he visits Gwangjang Sijang (Plaza Market) near the East Gate to enjoy bindae tteok (mung bean pancake). As far as food preferences are concerned, there is little doubt that he is a typical working-class Korean.
Humble Vegetarian Taste
Asked to identify the main obstacles in running his bakeries, Diepvens cites his lack of linguistic ability and experience in the Korean lifestyle and way of thinking. “If I were to start all over, I would first learn Korean as well as bread making,” he says. But he goes on to note that he has no regrets about changing his career and place of residence. “I never regret, once I have decided on something. It was my decision, after all.” For now, the soaring rents are among his biggest concerns in doing business in Seoul. He recently had to close a shop in the “U.N. Village” in Hannam-dong because the landlord raised the rent too steeply in a short period. “The rents are not just rising but redoubling overnight, if I may exaggerate a bit,” he says. Diepvens is not the only one suffering from gentrification. It is a rampant trend in Seoul that provokes concerns. “In the Huam-dong area where I live, hot places have begun to appear one by one, making me worry about skyrocketing rents,” he says.
1, 2, 3. The pain aux raisins, macaron and mille-feuille sold at Maison Guillaume. 4. Maison Guillaume first opened in 2008 and captivated the taste buds of locals. A second store recently opened in Pangyo, Gyeonggi Province.
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ON THE ROAD
Five Islands of the West Sea The Five Islands of the West Sea lie at the heart of the maritime border separating the two Koreas. Most of the major military clashes since the Korean War have occurred in the waters around these islands. However, with tensions easing somewhat, the islands are beckoning you to visit. Lee Chang-guy Poet and Literary Critic Ahn Hong-beom Photographer
Dumujin Harbor on Baengnyeong Island, the largest of the five West Sea islands, features magnificent cliffs along a 4km stretch of coastline. Facing North Korea, the island is marked by military tension, but many tourists come nevertheless to view the spectacular scenery. Ten scenic spots on Baengnyeong, Daecheong and Socheong islands were named National Geoparks in July this year.
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he day’s first ferryboat to Baengnyeong Island slides out of Incheon Harbor at 7:50 in the morning. Passengers are weighed down. Luggage is strapped to their backs and their hands are filled with bundles. The air is full of anticipation and excitement. What’s on the lunch menu today? Baengnyeong-style naengmyeon (buckwheat noodles in cold broth) and kimchi tteok? Or perhaps a plate of fresh sea cucumber and pallaeng-i jjim, a dish of young stingray steamed and covered with sauce? If any first-time passengers appear both curious and cautious, it is understandable. After all, the ferry is heading straight into the main military flashpoint of the divided Korean peninsula. The Korean War ended in 1953 with an armistice that established the Military Demarcation Line (MDL). It is not far from the 38th parallel north, the artificial border that separated South and North Korea after World War II. The two Koreas’ claims over various islands were restored. However, Baengnyeong and four other islands in the West Sea (Yellow Sea) north of the MDL — Daecheong, Socheong, U and Yeonpyeong — were placed under the United Nations Command, which declared a maritime border called the Northern Limit Line (NLL) between the islands and south Hwanghae Province in North Korea. Before, the islands seemingly had little interaction. Now, they are bound together as Seohae Odo, or “Five Islands in the West Sea.”
From Hostility to Reconciliation
The only way to get to the five islands is by ferryboat. Three round trips are made daily from Incheon Harbor to Baengnyeong Island, with stops at Socheong and Daecheong islands in between. Baengnyeong literally means “white feather”; its 51-square-kilometer area is shaped like a flying ibis. At some 200 kilometers by boat from Incheon, it is the farthest island in the archipelago. Assuming the sea is not rough and the ferry can average 30 knots, a one-way trip takes four hours, far less than the 12 hours it took in the past. Yet, strong winds and thick fog frequently keep the ferries moored. Baengnyeong Island is only 16 kilometers from Cape Changsan in North Korea, and Yeonpyeong Island is 10 kilometers from the North Korean port of Pupori. Practically every South Korean fisherman trawling near the islands has
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personal stories about straying into North Korean waters on a foggy day and scrambling to get away. From the North’s perspective, the five islands are a thorn in their side. Haeju, the southernmost military outpost of North Korea, can be observed from Yeonpyeong Island with the naked eye and the movement of North Korean navy ships obviously can be tracked from the islands. North Korea has never accepted the NLL, and in 1999, it declared its own maritime border, dubbed the “West Sea Maritime Military Demarcation Line.” It runs south of the MDL and twists northward to barely exclude the islands.
1. Sahang Harbor on the northwest side of Baengnyeong Island is a renowned fishing spot where sand lances are caught in abundance. 2. A villager dries kelp harvested by the seaside in Junghwa-dong. The village is home to the second oldest Presbyterian church in Korea.
In recent years, the biggest military confrontations between the South and North have occurred around these islands. On March 26, 2010, a South Korean Navy ship sank near Baengnyeong Island, killing 46 crew members. An international investigation blamed a North Korean torpedo. On November 23, 2010, North Korea fired about 170 artillery shells and rockets at Yeonpyeong Island, killing four South Koreans and wounding 19 others. The North accused the South of firing artillery shells into its territorial waters while conducting military exercises. It was the first North Korean attack on South Korean civilians since the Kore-
an War. The 40-some updated civilian bomb shelters on the islands are a stark reminder of how suddenly their tranquility can be shattered again. With tension and confrontation rising, the longing for peace and reconciliation spiked upward. Hopes have been dashed time and time again. Currently, they hang on the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Reunification, adopted by the leaders of the South and North. The pact opened nighttime fishing around the islands for the first time in 55 years and expanded permissible fishing areas. Then, on June 30 this year, the leaders of South
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Korea, North Korea and the United States met at the truce village of Panmunjom and pledged not just to end hostilities but to move toward new relations. The series of events, along with stories from the past, have shed new light on the value of the unique culture and spectacular scenery of the five West Sea islands, which have not been properly appreciated since the division of the Korean peninsula. It is only now that the islands’ tourism marketing catchphrase, “Islands that beckon you to visit and stay a while,” has a sense of reality.
Frontline for Maritime Defense
North and South Hwanghae provinces border on the northern periphery of metropolitan Seoul. The terrain is too flat to be much of a geographical factor for defense. For centuries, that has rendered the region’s coastline an inviting gateway for invasions and illegal activities. In the fifth century, during the Three Kingdoms period of Korea, the waters off today’s South Hwanghae Province were central to a maritime route linking the Korean west coast to the Liaodong region of China. Hence, from around
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North Korea can be seen beyond the barbed wire fence along the coast of Baengnyeong Island. The most serious military clashes between South and North Korea since the Korean War (1950–53) have taken place in the waters off the island.
the 14th century during the late Goryeo period to the 16th century mid-Joseon period, Japanese intruders came around the Korean peninsula to plunder and ravage the coastal area. Taking advantage of the turmoil in the latter half of the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910), when Ming gave way to Qing in China, Japanese pirates roamed the Korean seas. When conditions stabilized in the 1700s, fishing boats from Qing China encroached on Korean territorial waters and frequently sparked skirmishes with resident fishermen. The maritime area also was a favorite conduit of Chinese and Korean merchant-smugglers. Baengnyeong Island, lying 187 kilometers from Shandong Province, closer to China than to Incheon, was a longtime frontline of these conflicts. The Joseon government established forts at major inlets
to guard against invasions. These forts were eventually placed on the islands to intercept intruders from gaining a foothold on the Korean mainland. A military base had already existed on Baengnyeong Island, built in the 11th century during the Goryeo period. The fort added on the island in the 17th century had the advantage of expansive farmlands, which enabled soldiers to be self-sufficient. Even today, the Korean Marines stationed on the island rely on locally grown produce. Perhaps for this reason, many more island residents today make a living by farming rather than fishing.
Spread of Catholicism
Baengnyeong Island locals believe that Indangsu, the sea which features so prominently in the classical Korean novel “The Story of Sim Cheong” (Sim Cheong jeon), is off the northwestern shore of the island. Sim Cheong, the heroine of the tale, needs 300 sacks of rice to offer to a Buddhist temple so that her blind father can restore his sight. At the time, merchants sailing to Nanjing were searching for a young virgin to sacrifice to the sea gods. They wanted to ensure a safe passage through the treacherous sea, and Sim Cheong volunteers in order to be able to afford the offering. In memory of her filial piety, the islanders built a shrine named after her in
Jinchon Village, which faces the sea in the story. The legendary tale is a product of an anonymous writer’s imagination, but the depiction of the turbulent waters between Baengnyeong Island and Cape Changsan is very real. Rocks and reefs coupled with swirling water created by the collision of currents from the south and north have caused frequent sinkings. The victims include several navy commanders who died in 1771 when their ship sank during military exercises. Hence, King Yeongjo ordered that future training be conducted in two groups north and south of Cape Changsan. The sea route from the Shandong peninsula in China to the Joseon capital, Hanyang, or Kaesong (Gaeseong), via Baengnyeong Island gained further historical significance due to Kim Taegon, the first Catholic priest from Korea. In 1846, a year after being ordained, he received an order from Jean-Joseph-Jean-Baptiste Ferréol, the third Vicar Aposto lic of Korea, to pioneer a West Sea route for missionaries to travel. At the time, Joseon was under Western pressure to open its ports for trade. It reacted by persecuting Catholicism, ruling it a heretical religion. Kim Taegon (a.k.a. Father Andrew Kim or Father Andrea Kim) traveled from Hanyang to Baengnyeong Island, where he enlisted Chinese fishermen to help him
Sites to Visit on Baengnyeong Island
Pyongyang Saja Bawi (Lion Rock)
3 Sim Cheong Pavilion
Baengnyeong Island Daecheong Island Socheong Island
Monument for Unification Wharf at Yonggi Harbor
4 Sagot Beach
Junghwa-dong Presbyterian Church
Haeju Seoul Incheon
Yeonpyeong Island U Island
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bring French missionaries to Korea. On his return to the capital, Kim was arrested. Three months later, the Joseon government executed the 25-year-old priest. In 1984, he was canonized and named a saint by the Vatican. There are an unusually large number of churches and cathedrals on the five West Sea islands. On Baengnyeong Island alone, there are 13 churches for a population of some 5,700. Seventy-five percent are believers. Junghwa-dong Church was the second Presbyterian church to be built in Korea. When the Joseon government lifted the bans on evangelism and establishment of churches in 1898, Christians on Baengnyeong Island turned a 40-square-meter school into a church. The Baengnyeong Christian Church History Hall by its side has a permanent exhibition of records of evangelism by missionaries on the island and in nearby areas from the early 19th century.
Cotton Cloth Boom
Before Joseon opened its ports in 1876 under the Treaty of Ganghwa with Japan, the government monopolized trade. However, smuggling was never stamped out. In the early Joseon period, illegal trade occurred through Waegwan
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(meaning “Japan House”), the government offices set up in coastal towns for trade with Japan, or on Tsushima Island. The main products were silver from Japan and ginseng from Korea. Going into the 19th century, the area around Cape Changsan became the center of smuggling between Chinese and Korean merchants. The primary goods were red ginseng from Joseon and cotton cloth from Qing. The Qing dynasty had endured the Opium Wars against Britain and red ginseng was a popular antidote for opium poisoning. In Joseon, Western cotton cloth was all the rage. The quality of cotton woven on machines in Britain or India was much better than the coarse cotton cloth woven on Korean looms. Merchants from Kaesong and capitalists from Hanyang competed in the highly lucrative trading of red ginseng for cotton cloth. Smuggling was rife on Baengnyeong and Socheong islands, which had lax security. Later, when the country’s ports were opened, the cotton trade, which had shaken up the Joseon economy, fell into the hands of Japan. Thereafter, everyone forgot that a new trend that changed Korean clothing forever had come over the waters of Baengnyeong Island. The highlight of any visit to the five West Sea islands is
the beautiful scenery. Like Dumujin on Baengnyeong Island, the whole coastline features layers of precipitous cliffs. There are also beaches big and firm enough for small planes to land on. Geologists believe that this numinous landscape was formed in the process of three massif blocks, formed during the Precambrian Era, slowly moving over the ages to their current position to create the Korean peninsula. That is, the enormous energy generated by the great collision led to folding and faulting that deformed the Earth’s surface, giving rise to fantastic new rock formations. Recognizing their value, in July this year, the Environment Ministry designated 10 scenic spots on Baengnyeong, Daecheong and Socheong islands as National Geoparks. In terms of vegetation, thanks to their location, the five West Sea islands are natural gardens for plants from both the south and north. Daecheong Island is not only the northern limit for camellia trees, but it is also of great academic interest as a natural habitat for the vesper iris and thread-leaf chives.
If any first-time passengers appear both curious and cautious, it is understandable. After all, the ferry is heading straight into the main military flashpoint of the divided Korean peninsula.
Cold Noodles and Dumplings
After sightseeing, it’s time to take a rest and think about lunch. Hwanghae Province-style naengmyeon is made purely with pork broth, unlike the more well-known Pyongyang naengmyeon, which is made with beef broth mixed with chicken, pheasant or pork broth. Naengmyeon made in the Baengnyeong Island style is based on the rather plain tasting Hwanghae style, seasoned with fish sauce instead of soy sauce. The noodles mostly consist of buckwheat, so they are soft and easy to break. For a complete meal, the cold noodles are eaten with a plate of tender boiled pork slices, hefty Hwanghae dumplings or mung bean pancakes (bindaetteok). Winter visitors can try the seasonal specialty, kimchi tteok, a dumpling-like food stuffed with winter kimchi, oysters and mussels, all local ingredients. The catchphrase “Islands that beckon you to visit and stay a while” hovers at the tip of the tongue.
1. The village of Gwanchang-dong on the northern side of Baengnyeong Island. In the past, merchants trading with China unloaded their cargo on the village docks and stored their goods there. 2. Soldiers returning from holidays, island locals and visitors arrive at Baengnyeong Island after a four-hour ride on a highspeed ferry from Incheon Harbor. The vessels make three round trips a day to the island’s port at Yonggi Harbor.
KOREAN CULTURE & ARTS 69
TALES OF TWO KOREAS
ÂŠ Good Neighbors
Sowing Seeds of Growth Good Neighbors, an international NGO founded and led by Yi Il-ha, has been in the vanguard of humanitarian assistance in North Korea since the mid-1990s. The efforts go far beyond simple handouts, setting examples for the organizationâ€™s similar projects around the world. Kim Hak-soon Journalist and Visiting Professor, School of Media and Communication, Korea University
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ne of the most contentious issues surrounding South Korea’s approach to North Korea is humanitarian aid. Some regard assistance as a misguided and unfruitful effort spoiling the leaders in Pyongyang. Others urge charity regardless of the adversarial relationship between the two sides. Yi Il-ha, known as the godfather of Korea’s non-government organization movement, is in the latter camp. The aim of Good Neighbors is a world in which hunger is absent and peaceful harmony is universal. Established by Yi in 1991, the NGO has 52 branches in South Korea and 303 offices in nearly 40 other countries. In 1996, Good Neighbors became the first Korean NGO to receive “general consultative” status from the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the highest recognition the United Nations grant to NGOs.
A Hunger-Free World
More than 3,000 staff members operate the organization’s welfare and relief programs and there are more than half a million donors in South Korea alone. Early this year, Yi anticipated the end of a long freeze on civilian aid programs for North Korea. But the collapse of the second U.S.-North Korea summit in February in Hanoi dashed his hopes. Yi had planned to build a large dairy farm and milk processing plant in North Korea, if Washington-Pyongyang relations improved. He intended to lay the groundwork for raising pigs, cattle and chickens, and build dairy processing and sausage factories. He had also hoped to supply South Koreans with samgyetang, or ginseng chicken soup, made in the North. He further had plans to help upgrade the North’s healthcare infrastructure. They included construction of a pharmaceutical research center, pharmaceutical plants and hospitals and other healthcare facilities, as well as factories
to produce injectable solutions and capsules and herbal medicines. With U.S.-North Korea nuclear negotiations in limbo, however, all these plans remain on the drawing board.
Dairy Cattle Project
Good Neighbors’ humanitarian aid programs in the North can be divided into three categories: child care and protection; agricultural and stockbreeding development; and healthcare services. The NGO’s presence in the North began in 1995, when it started delivering food and daily necessities. At the time, North Korea’s economy was on a downward spiral, which culminated in widespread famine in 1997, the year Yi visited the North for the first time. The next year, Good Neighbors’ paradigm changed when Chung Ju-yung, founder of the Hyundai Group, delivered 1,001 heads of cattle to the North in two spectacular parades of 50 trucks across the Military Demarcation Line. Following Chung’s example, Good Neighbors delivered 200 pregnant dairy cows a few months later and built dairy farms in the North. Chung’s largesse was publicized, but North Korean officials wanted the NGO’s deliveries to be unreported. Yi agreed with no objections. However, the fact that the cows were kept in quarantine in Incheon before their delivery became an open secret and they were filmed by a TV news crew as they left the port, upsetting North Korean authorities. After twists and turns, a total of 510 dairy cows were sent to the North and became the herds of four new dairy farms. In fact, the idea of sending dairy cows to the North was conceived in 1995, when Yi visited the Chinese border city of Dandong. There, he met an Australian of Korean descent who had sent 200 head of hanu, or Korea’s indigenous cattle, to the North Korean city of Haeju, only to be told that dairy cows would be more helpful.
Yi Il-ha, the founder of Good Neighbors, an NGO for international relief and development aid, visits an orphanage in Nampo, about 55km from Pyongyang, in 2004. Good Neighbors’ humanitarian assistance to North Korea since 1995 has included child protection, agro-livestock development, and health and medical services.
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1 © Good Neighbors
1. South Korean veterinarians inspect milk from dairy cows at the Kubin-ri Cooperative Farm in Kangdong County near Pyongyang. Good Neighbors provided the cows and dispatches veterinarians and other experts to take care of the herd. 2. Chongsong Pharmaceutical Company in Pyongyang produces dosages for injection. Good Neighbors is helping North Korea improve its health care system.
Convinced that the North Koreans could have a future if they had a viable dairy industry, Yi consulted a senior dairy industry researcher in the United States. He promised to help but ran into U.S. government disapproval. When a fellow Good Neighbors member working for Seoul Milk learned about the logjam, he helped Yi buy his company’s 200 pregnant dairy cows at a giveaway price of 1.5 million won per head. A secondary reason for Good Neighbors’ interest in starting dairy farming in the North was that herds would require ongoing exchanges between North Koreans and South Korean veterinarians, dairy experts and Good Neighbors staff. Sure enough, Yi and his staff have so far made some 140 visits to the North — Yi about 120 visits himself. Eventually, North Korean officials wanted milk processing equipment to increase the added value of milk. After building a cheese processing plant for them, Good Neigh-
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bors attached one condition: half of the profit had to go to villagers and the other half to feed destitute children.
The success of this project exceeded expectations. The income of residents in Kubin-ri, a rural village in Kangdong County on the outskirts of Pyongyang, jumped 10-fold in five years. Naturally, the village population grew as well. The villagers were so proud that they described their achievement on a placard, writing in large letters, and placed it at the entrance to their village. After seeing the success of the dairy project, the North’s Agriculture Ministry asked for support for chicken farming. It raised the need to buy expensive eggs to improve breeds, as well as equipment, from overseas. Good Neighbors purchased eggs of the most productive egg-laying chicken breeds from France that cost 5,000 to 200,000 won
“Before anything else, we should
develop specialized relief programs for them. We need to strengthen the human and material resources of the North’s agriculture, stockbreeding, healthcare and education.” was sent through Good Neighbors USA. Other deliveries aimed at children have included 150 tons of paper for printing textbooks and educational computers, as well as inline skates and soccer balls.
© Good Neighbors
each, while the North built a chicken breeding farm that was off-limits to outsiders within the radius of 4 kilometers. Again, success bred a request. This time, it was a fertilizer plant. Good Neighbors planned to expand an existing zinc factory near Wonsan and sell zinc produced there to supply raw materials for fertilizer. The project started with a US$1.5 million grant from the South Korean government and a US$7 million bank loan. It was so successful that the loan was repaid in just two years. All in all, Good Neighbors has helped some 220,000 North Koreans, including children, at 25 worksites throughout the North. The NGO’s experience in the North has become a reservoir of models to conduct regional development projects in other parts of the world. Good Neighbors’ food delivery programs for daycare centers in various regions help address chronic food shortages in North Korea. In 2018 alone, 114 tons of powdered milk
On a bigger scale, Yi believes, the humanitarian food assistance program that is currently in public debate in South Korea should have been implemented earlier. “It’s a little late to do it,” he says. “But the North isn’t in dire need of a few hundreds of thousands of dollars from the outside right now. Before anything else, we should develop specialized relief programs for them. We need to strengthen the human and material resources of the North’s agriculture, stockbreeding, healthcare and education. The North is also interested in sustainable development cooperation rather than food or fertilizer aid.” Yi recalls an unforgettable experience at the Kubin-ri Cooperative Farm. He and a few members of his staff stayed there for about 10 days and became very close to the locals. Together, they caught fish in a stream and then prepared and shared a spicy fish stew. “You can achieve success if you invest in the North, regarding it as a potential market with outstanding talents and abundant natural resources,” Yi says. “We can achieve unification early if many more North Koreans have chances to work and share experiences with South Koreans.” Then he adds, “My primary duty as founder of Good Neighbors is to create an atmosphere of reconciliation between the two Koreas. This is why we can’t reduce or stop humanitarian aid programs for North Korean people. I think I’ll have fulfilled my duty in the world if both Koreas become reconciled and peaceful.”
KOREAN CULTURE & ARTS 73
& MORE Charles La Shure
Professor, Department of Korean Language and Literature, Seoul National University
Music Columnist; Consultant, Daewon Cultural Foundation
74 KOREANA Autumn 2019
More than a Chilling Thriller about Assassins ‘The Plotters’
By Un-su Kim, Translated by Sora Kim-Russell, 304 pages, $25.95, New York: Doubleday 
Kim Un-su’s “The Plotters” plunges the reader into a shadow world of assassins and hit men, where beneath the veneer of civilization the high and powerful wage a war of surgical strikes against their opponents. It is a world populated with colorful and fascinating characters: Old Raccoon, who runs a ring of assassins from a library that he calls “The Doghouse”; Bear, a crematorium owner who ostensibly makes a living cremating pets but in fact regularly handles much larger jobs; Hanja, an assassin who has seen which way the wind is blowing and is determined to come out on top; the mysterious and deadly knife man known only as the Barber; a tracker named Jeongan whose goal in life is to be ordinary; and the unlikely plotter Mito, who is planning something so momentous that it will turn the world upside down. In the middle of all this is our protagonist, the assassin Reseng (whose unusual name literally means “next life”). Raised in the library from a young age, he has risen to become Old Raccoon’s trusted right-hand man. Our introduction to him comes through the scope of a sniper’s rifle, and how he interacts with his target tells us much about him: he is a skilled professional, but he also exhibits a deep humanity. It is this job, or at least the way it is concluded, that sets the wheels of the story in motion and puts Reseng and Old Raccoon on a collision course with Hanja. Little does Reseng know, however, that a small group of women are threatening to throw a wrench into the works and bring his world grinding to a halt. Always the assassin taking orders from others, a pawn in a much larger game, Reseng will now have to choose his own path and decide how the endgame will play out. The idea of a vast, thriving underground of plotters and assassins, trackers and trainers in modern Korean society might at first seem rather fantastical, but Kim’s story feels completely believable. This is in part because the premise builds convincingly on South Korea’s modern history, but it is also due to the skill with which each of the many colorful characters and their world is depicted. The novel feels less like far-fetched fantasy and more like a window into a world that we never realized existed right beneath our noses. In a book that takes its title from characters that we rarely ever see — we follow the pawns, not the hands that move them — ultimately the most skillful plotter is the author himself. He weaves a tightly knit plot that builds tension and mystery right up until the end, as he draws us deep into the characters and their stories. As Mito explains, the problem with the world isn’t that people are evil, it’s that “everyone has their own stories and excuses for doing bad things.” And we realize that “The Plotters” is about much more than assassins; it is about what it means to be human in modern society. Each of the characters has to come to terms with who they are and how they should live their lives.
A New Rendition of Classical Korean Fiction ‘The Nine Cloud Dream’
By Kim Man-jung; Translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl, 288 pages, $17.00, London: Penguin Books 
Kim Man-jung’s “The Nine Cloud Dream” is a key work in classical Korean literature, part of a long tradition that nonetheless has its own unique significance and flavor that has helped it stand the test of time. As translator Heinz Insu Fenkl notes, the novel has been translated into English before — the most well-known translations were done by James Scarth Gale in 1922 and Richard Rutt in 1974. But it has been nearly half a century since Rutt’s translation, and the latest translation is a more than welcome new introduction for readers who might find the previous versions less accessible. It may at first strike modern readers as odd that a 17th century Korean novel would be set in ninth century Tang China and writ-
ten in Chinese, but this was not unusual for the time. However, the story rises above simply being an imitation of what came before it, functioning as a referential work, a political satire and a meditation on Buddhism, among other things. It is crucial reading for anyone interested in the roots of Korean literature, and indeed Korean culture today. This new translation addresses some of the issues in the previous translations, presenting the story in more accessible language while still maintaining the archaic tone and mood, and adding plentiful notes to provide readers insight into deep layers of meaning that would otherwise be lost. It joins a long and distinguished tradition of translation itself, much like the classic work it brings to a modern readership.
Indie Rock Tracks from the Busan Beachside
‘Where We Were Together’
By Say Sue Me, MP3 Album $8.99, London: Damnably 
The band Say Sue Me was formed in 2012 by four musicians — Choi Su-mi (vocals and rhythm guitar), Kim Byungkyu (lead guitar), Ha Jae-young (bass) and Kim Chang-won (drums) — over beers at a café in Busan. They practiced in a small studio near the beach and performed at neighborhood bars. As the empty cans and bottles piled up and the smell of sour beer filled the air, their music left traces in more and more people’s hearts. Their music is often categorized as “surf rock,” like that of the Beach Boys, and as far as that goes their sound certainly suits the beach. For this local band that practices near Gwangalli Beach to become known to the world, Elton John played a role. In his “Rocket Hour” show on Apple Music’s Beats 1 radio, he introduced Say Sue Me’s “Old Town,” calling it fabulous.
The band’s second album, “Where We Were Together,” starts with “Let It Begin,” which takes us to a pastel-toned beach, calmly conveying its romanticism, neither excited nor depressed. “But I Like You” presents Choi Su-mi’s fuzzy voice mingling with the jangly guitar sound tinged with sadness. The song “Old Town,” the highlight of the album, certainly deserves its fame. The sense of speed, constantly controlled, invites repeated listening. The pain and emotional resonance in the last piece, “Coming to the End,” gives the album a touch of gravity. Summer and beach romances don’t last forever. At the beginning of autumn, when it has been abandoned, the beach looks forlorn. Conveying warmth with cool forlornness, Say Sue Me’s songs take us to the seaside in summer, and at times the seaside in fall. KOREAN CULTURE & ARTS 75
AN ORDINARY DAY
Survival in No Place for Bookends In his small shop of 40 years, Jeong Byung-ho weaves among towering stacks of used books to fill handfuls of orders, weathering a reading trend that has pushed aside printed books â€” and many of his cohorts. Kim Heung-sook Poet Ahn Hong-beom Photographer
76 KOREANA Autumn 2019
eside the Cheonggye Stream, which flows through the heart of Seoul, sits the aged Pyeonghwa Sijang (Peace Market). In the 1950s, secondhand bookstores sprang up here and thrived into the 1980s. Many of the customers were students who could not afford brand new textbooks or those who had failed their university entrance exam and perhaps sought solace in writings of philosophers. At the time, some 200 to 300 vendors occupied the book haven. But by the 1990s, their ranks began to dwindle. Now, only 18 remain. Jeong Byung-ho is one of them, the owner of the Seomun Seojeom bookstore for the past 40 years. “The biggest reason the used bookstores fell into decline was the overhaul of the middle and high school curriculum and textbooks,” Jeong says. “Before that, there was only one textbook for each subject, and they were designed and printed centrally by the Ministry of Education. Back then, students who couldn’t get ahold of the textbooks in the provinces would come here to the used bookstores, but in the 1990s the policy changed so that many different publishers could come out with textbooks and reference books. From that point, the number of secondhand bookstores began to shrink, and I’m sure it’ll keep going down. Even now, there are people here who have put their stores up for sale.” Small, independent bookstores also have become casualties of a major change in leisure activities and highly competitive discounts at internet bookstores. Korea is the most rapidly digitizing society in the world. With
smartphone ownership at 95 percent, the highest in the world, and countless videos and written articles on the internet to browse, book reading has lost its appeal. According to the 2017 National Reading Survey by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, only 60 percent of adults read one or more books, either fiction or non-fiction. That means that four in 10 Korean adults did not read a single book during the entire year. The main explanations were “being too busy” and “using smartphones and the internet” instead.
Changed Reading Habits
Jeong goes on to explain, “Large-scale internet bookstores deal directly with the publishers, so they can sell their books a little cheaper, but small and medium-scale bookstores have to buy through a distributor, so their profit margins are smaller. There’s no way to compete with the big internet bookstores. There are used bookstores that operate on a large scale too, but fortunately, the competition isn’t quite so fierce.” Jeong heads the Cheonggye Stream Used Book Merchants’ Association, but there’s not much he can do about the situation. He says that there’s no way to stop the changing of the world, so all he can do is try to do his best. “In the mid-1990s, my friends tried to get me to go into a steel plate business with them. They said I could earn in a month what the bookstore earned in a year,” Jeong recalls. “But when I considered it carefully, I came to the conclusion that, since I knew nothing about steel plates and had no interest in them but loved books, I should just keep doing what I enjoyed.” A few years later, in an attempt to get through an economic rough patch, he added “Design and Interior Design Book Specialist” to his store sign. His interest in the arts had led to a stockpile of art books, and it seemed as though there was a growing buzz around art. These days, however, regular books make up a much larger proportion of what gets sold in his store. Even so, he still likes books about art and paintings.
1. Jeong Byung-ho inspects books at Seomun Seojeom, the secondhand bookstore he has run for the last 40 years in Seoul’s Pyeonghwa Market.
2. There used to be some 200 to 300 secondhand bookstores in Pyeonghwa Market, but no more than 20 remain now.
KOREAN CULTURE & ARTS 77
scale is no small deal. If Jeong’s son replaces him, Seomun Seojeom could end up being like the storied Strand Bookstore in New York, a family business run for 92 years so far. “I took over this bookstore from a distant relative, and in the early days it was really difficult. We had to pay the rent but didn’t have any money, so we even took the small gold rings that were gifted to our babies on their first birthdays and sold them at jewelry shops,” Jeong says. “But no matter how hard things got, I always paid the rent on time. If the landlord didn’t come to my store to collect it, I’d stop by to deliver it on my way to work.”
1. With a floor space of around 200 square feet covering three levels, Seomun Seojeom is chock-a-block with books inside and out. 2. Seoul Book Repository, located near Jamsillaru Station, was set up by the Seoul Metropolitan Government to promote reading culture. Seomun Seojeom occupies a booth in the space for secondhand bookstores.
After selling books for another 10 years or so, Jeong would like to try his hand at painting. His wife, Yu Seol-ae, also likes books and art. The couple have one daughter and one son. Their daughter is in Germany studying pipe organ and conducting. Their son went to university to major in animation but quit to pursue other studies. Jeong believes his son probably would do well as the owner of a bookstore but is not trying to persuade him. “I have no intention of forcing him, but if he decides to take it on, I’ll gladly give him everything,” he says. That would involve the store plus all of the books. Jeong sells his books on the first floor of his store. The second and third floors are for storage. Combined, the three floors cover about 200 square feet. Not much. In the heart of Seoul, though, a standalone retail space of that
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Then, in the mid-1990s, the landlord suggested that Jeong buy the store. Jeong lacked sufficient funds but the landlord served as his guarantor for a 30 million won loan. Jeong still feels indebted to his landlord’s generosity. To fill orders, Jeong must leave his first-floor sales counter and go to the upper floors, where books are stacked. He leaves a note on a pile of books with his cellphone number in case incoming customers need to contact him. In the past he had many regulars, but now he has hardly any. He elaborates, “There used to be lots of people who would write the titles of the books they were looking for on a piece of paper and bring it in. Some would bring lists of 10 or more titles, and there were even some who would include the names of the authors and publishers. But now there are no customers like that. Occasionally, there are people who come with an image of a book cover or title on their cellphones. It’s mainly older customers who come to my bookstore, and I really feel for them when they say that they struggle to read old books because the print is so small.” If the old adage that every person is like a book is true, Jeong must be an art book of serene ink and wash paintings. Jeong wakes up at 5 a.m. every day and goes to early morning mass at Dobongsan Catholic Church near his home. He returns around seven, eats breakfast, and then leaves for work around nine on his commute by bus or subway.
Routine on the Go
A few times a week, he checks in with the old used book vendors in the antiques quarter behind Dongmyo, a Daoist shrine near the East Gate, to buy books and catch up with his fellow booksellers. There are three used book
“Even if the number of people reading books keeps shrinking and the online bookstores keep growing, I’ll just keep living like this… Since I’m doing what I want, I’d be happy to do it till my dying day.” vendors in this area. On occasion, he also stops by the Seoul Book Repository, near Jamsillaru Station on subway line two. The facility was opened in March this year by the Seoul Metropolitan Government as a way to boost reading culture. There is a space for the sale of used books and a book café, and various cultural events are also held there, such as exhibits of donated books, book talks and rare book auctions. The repository has booths for around 30 used bookstores, where books are sold with a small commission going to the facility. One of the booths is for Seomun Seojeom. “Because there were lots of reports about this facility in the media, many people come to visit,” Jeong says. “It was even better in the early days. Now it’s not quite as busy, but it’s still better than nothing.” Secondhand bookstores operating on a fairly large scale are able to have an employee at the repository all day, which leads to impressive sales performances. But naturally, that is not an option for those who work alone, like Jeong. He leaves books for sale at the repository and pays a 10-percent commission of the sales price to the Seoul Metropolitan Government. After stopping by Dongmyo or the Seoul Book Repository, Jeong arrives at his store around 11 a.m. Although there aren’t many customers, he is busy all day. There is no time to read. He must select books to send to the Seoul Book Repository, and gather those to fill online orders or the needs of TV broadcasters’ entertainment divisions. “If there’s a doctor in a drama, the bookshelves in the doctor’s office need to be full of books on medicine. So, I select books to suit the setup of the drama and send them off to the studios,” he explains. “In the past, the people in
charge of props would come and choose the books they needed, but it seems it’s not so easy selecting the right books to go with a particular profession. They really like it when I put the books together for them. A small order like that goes from about 50 to 100 volumes, but bigger orders can even be in the thousands. Not long ago I sent off 2,000. A few years ago, I was even tasked with an order of 50,000 books for a coffee shop franchise. They needed around 200 books, mainly novels, every time they opened a new café.”
A phone call from his church can stop Jeong working instantly. At the church, he is “Joseph,” leader of a team of volunteers who manage funeral arrangements and the burial or cremation when a church member passes away. About twice a month, the church calls and Jeong closes his store to set his team in motion. It has been this way for the past 10 years. “It’s something I enjoy doing. I live by the principle that, if I enjoy something, I’ll follow it through 100 percent,” Jeong says. If he doesn’t have to hurry off to church, Jeong usually closes up his store at around 6 or 7 p.m. and goes back home. After having a meal, he lists books for sale online on his Kyobo Bookstore seller account and checks on orders that have come in, and finally goes to bed around midnight. “Even if the number of people reading books keeps shrinking and the online bookstores keep growing, I’ll just keep living like this,” Jeong says. “I’m doing real work, thereby making a living. Since I’m doing what I want, I’d be happy to do it till my dying day.”
KOREAN CULTURE & ARTS 79
‘The Little Drummer Girl’
1 © BBC
Acclaimed Korean movie director Park Chan-wook explores a fragile separation of reality and acting in his TV adaptation of the classic John le Carré spy novel “The Little Drummer Girl.” In the 2018 miniseries for the BBC, Park draws on his experience of living in a divided nation. Jung Duk-hyun Popular Culture Critic
2 © BBC, Photo by Jonathan Olley
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3 © BBC, Photo by Jonathan Olley
py novelist John le Carré took a leap with “The Little Drummer Girl” in 1983. His backdrop in this novel was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, instead of the Cold War, and terrorism and the ambivalence lying underneath cloakand-dagger espionage. His female protagonist played a larger role, allowing more pages for romance. The departure paid dividends, earning Le Carré recognition for his literary achievement beyond the spy thriller genre. The novel was adapted for a movie in 1984, and last year it underwent the idiosyncratic touches of director Park Chan-wook in a six-episode TV miniseries. It aired in Britain and the United States in late 2018, then in Korea in March this year, attracting high viewership in each market.
Park’s filmography includes “Joint Security Area,” released in 2000, which depicts an ill-fated friendship between North and South Korean border guards stationed at the Demilitarized Zone. His attraction to “The Little Drummer Girl” obviously stemmed from the novel’s rendition of the Israe-
1. Poster image of espionage thriller “The Little Drummer Girl” co-produced by the BBC and AMC. The TV miniseries is based on John le Carré’s novel by the same name, set against the IsraeliPalestinian conflict. 2. The scene where actress-turnedspy Charlie played by Florence Pugh and Gadi Becker, her Israeli intelligence agent handler played by Alexander Skarsgard, meet for the first time in front of the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. 3. “The Little Drummer Girl” is the first TV series directed by Park Chan-wook. A fan of John le Carré himself, Park says he tried to maintain an objective perspective as he directed the miniseries.
li-Palestinian conflict. In a TV appearance years earlier, Park said it was difficult for him to judge which side was right in the conflict. Having grown up in a divided nation himself, he said he could relate to the situation, probably from a more objective viewpoint. In other interviews, Park said that he had read many of Le Carré’s works and was convinced that “The Little Drummer Girl” was his masterpiece.
Fiction and Reality
The premise of “The Little Drummer Girl” is the recruitment of a young British actress, Charlie, by Israeli intelligence to locate Khalil, a Palestinian terrorist conducting attacks in Germany. The mental and emotional state of the protagonist pulled by both sides of the conflict beguiled Park, whose films are known for raw subject matters and black humor. In the plot, the idea to use an actress rather than a spy is hatched by Martin Kurtz, a high-ranking officer of the Israeli intelligence. He insists on an “artistic method” of infiltrating the heart of the Palestinian network. Charlie, who initially thinks she is auditioning for an acting role, is “cast” in the operation. Gadi Becker, a secret agent of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, is Charlie’s case officer giving her instructions. She makes her way in and from here on, “acting” and “reality” become intermingled. Boundaries blur. Charlie has to pretend to be the lover of a dead Palestinian militant, and as part of the coaching, Gadi role-plays as the militant. The actress and the secret agent undergo subtle changes in their feelings, and Charlie becomes confused. She is not sure whether she is in love with the dead Palestinian or Gadi. She is conflicted as to whom she is deceiving, and furthermore which side is
right, Israel or Palestine. Park effectively engages the audience by adding detailed descriptions to Charlie’s complex emotional changes. At the same time, Kurtz, the spymaster of this high-level mission, is deeply involved in his role as the director in the “theater of the real.” This miniseries is an outstanding adaptation of the espionage action genre, and at the same time it seems like a sort of “Acting 101” offered by Park. It continuously raises the question whether the characters’ behaviors are acting or real, and we come to the realization that the boundary between fiction and reality that we experience in our daily lives may be quite superficial.
The miniseries also reminds us how the invisible boundaries that we have taken for granted in an era of statism can be arbitrary and easily disintegrated. If so, is the actors’ acting just one of those many arbitrary boundaries? Isn’t it because of such boundaries that people of different nationalities, languages and ethnicities have been in disputes using weapons against each other in the name of survival? To Koreans who have lived in a divided nation, the brutality and futility of such boundaries is something they experience every day. This production, supported by British and U.S. broadcasters and shown simultaneously worldwide, may itself be making a statement. It suggests how to bring down fictional boundaries and prejudices in the way global contents are produced and consumed in our era. This also seems to be signaling that Korean contents need to hurdle over the boundary of hallyu, or the Korean Wave, and take a bold step onto the world stage.
KOREAN CULTURE & ARTS 81
Delicious Bae in Many Ways Many Koreans give pears as gifts for Chuseok, the harvest moon festival. The big pear with golden skin resembling autumn leaves is one of Koreansâ€™ favorite fruits. Pears are also used in cooking as well as traditional folk remedies. Recently, the stone cells of pears are being studied as a possible substitute for microplastics. Jeong Jae-hoon Pharmacist and Food Writer
ÂŠ Getty Images Korea
82 KOREANA Autumn 2019
ears, or bae in Korean, are so refreshing that just the thought of biting into one can almost quench the thirst. A large golden-ripe pear is sweet and juicy. Unlike Western pears that are often sold unripe due to the rigors of long-distance shipping, Korean pears can be eaten immediately after purchase. In addition to water and sugar, pears contain fiber, potassium, vitamin C and various antioxidants. They also contain fructose and sorbitol. These can upset the stomach if consumed in large quantities, but smaller amounts can help relieve constipation. Pears have traditionally been used for constipation relief, as a hangover cure, and to soothe coughs. Recently, experts have learned that the high potassium content of pears helps adjust blood pressure. In 2015, Korean pears hit the headlines when Professor Manny Noakes at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) in Australia, based on her study of pears, said that consuming a cup of Korean pear juice before drinking alcohol helps prevent hangovers. The reason for the effect, or which components do the job, has not yet been determined, but Korean pear juice is thought to act on key enzymes that speed up alcoholic metabolism and inhibit alcohol absorption. To benefit from this effect, the pear or pear juice must be consumed before, rather than after, drinking. According to joint research carried out by scientists from Korea, Japan and the United States, however, it does not work for everybody, with differences depending on genotypes. In the West, human body shapes are often classified as “apple type”
or “pear type.” While apples are generally thicker on top and slimmer lower down, pears tend to have a bulb-like shape, the rounder part being the lower part. Apple types have a rather thick waist and carry belly fat, whereas peartype people have a thin waist with fat concentrated in their bottoms. The apple type is more common among men, the thick waist indicating visceral obesity, a condition accompanied by high risk of some serious metabolic syndromes, such as diabetes or heart disease.
White Fruit of the Rose Family
Unlike their Western counterparts, Korean apples and pears are similar in shape. For that reason, Korean pears, or Asian pears, are sometimes called “apple pears.” These pears are usually bigger than apples and have a golden-brown skin, not the red or green skin of apples, but being round with no difference between top and bottom they are much the same shape as apples. In fact, apples and pears are closely related, both belonging to the Rosaceae, or rose family. Both originated from Eurasia and are pome fruits that develop from calyxes. But it only takes one bite to distinguish between apples and pears by their texture. One fourth of an apple’s volume is air and apples are often dry to bite, but one bite of a pear fills the mouth with juice. Pears are often used in Korean cooking. They contain proteolytic enzymes, which break protein down to amino acids, and are therefore used to marinate beef or ribs to soften the meat. Pear is also eaten with beef tartare (yukhoe) for its crunchy texture and sweet flavor.
Garnish Stimulating Flavor
Old documents show that shredded pears were used as garnish for various dishes. “A Record of the Seasonal Customs of the Eastern Kingdom” (Dong guk sesigi) from 1849, which deals with annual events and customs of the late
The pear, one of Koreans’ favorite fruits, is served as dessert and often used in cooking as well. It has also been widely used in traditional folk remedies to help suppress coughing, cure hangovers, and relieve constipation.
KOREAN CULTURE & ARTS 83
Joseon period, says, “Japchae and pear, chestnuts, sliced beef and pork mixed with oil, soy sauce, and buckwheat noodles make a dish called goldong myeon (literally “noodles with curios”).” The 1921 edition of “Various Korean Recipes” (Joseon yori jeb eop) from early modern times recommends shredded pear as a garnish for bibimbap (rice mixed with various vegetables and meat). In “Various New Korean Recipes” (Joseon mussang sinsik yori jebeop), the first color-printed Korean cookbook published in 1924, pears were one of the ingredients in japchae, a dish of glass noodles mixed with stirfried vegetables and meat. But the first thing that comes to mind when we think of pears is cool dongchimi (white water radish kimchi usually eaten in winter) and naengmyeon (cold buckwheat noodles). Myeongwolgwan (Bright Moon House), the most famous restaurant in Seoul in the early 20th century, had great success in introducing dongchimi noodles cooked in the way it was prepared for the Joseon royal family. A book titled “Essential Knowledge for Ladies” (Buin pilji), published in the early 1900s, introduces Myeongwolgwan naengmyeon, a dish made with noodles in cold dongchimi juice, garnished with thin shredded radish, pear and citron as well as thin-sliced boiled pork and strips of pan-fried egg, sprinkled with pepper and pine nuts. Today, bibimbap and japchae served at Korean restaurants don’t have a shredded pear garnish, but naengmyeon and bibim guksu (cold spicy noodles) are still served with thin shredded pear on top. Adding whole pears to the juice when making dongchimi to give the white rad-
ish kimchi a fresh taste is an age-old method still used at restaurants as well as ordinary homes. In the past, Korean pears were rough on the outside and tasted rather sour. For example, “Women’s Encyclopedia” (Gyuhap chongseo) from 1809 introduces a special dish using pear, called hyangseolgo (meaning “fragrant snow cream”), as follows: “A hard, sour munbae [wild pear] is peeled and cut lengthwise and black peppercorns are inserted into the slices. Place the pear pieces in a pot of honey water with thinly sliced ginger and simmer slowly until the pear changes to a reddish color and the seeds soften after the honey has completely soaked into the pear. Only sour pears turn red. When using pears that are not sour, omija [schisandra berry] juice can be added. To eat with jeonggwa [dried fruits boiled in honey], the concoction should be boiled down till it hardens, but for sujeong gwa [cinnamon punch with dried persimmons], it should be boiled less so there is plenty of honey water, which is mixed with cinnamon powder and sprinkled with pine nuts.”
Wild Pear with Strong Aroma
Baesuk (cooked pear drink) is made in a similar way: black peppercorns are inserted into pieces of pear and boiled with ginger in honey water. Both dishes call for munbae, wild pears that are small, hard and sour, and are also called dolbae (stone pear). Both in the East and West, wild pears are entirely hard. Due to the stone cells that are rich in cellulose and lignin, their texture is rough
1 © Getty Images Korea
84 KOREANA Autumn 2019
3 ÂŠ Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine
1. Pear is served with beef tartare, or yukhoe, for its crunchy texture and sweet flavor. 2. Thin shredded pear is used to garnish various dishes, including cold noodles. 3. Baesuk, a pear drink originating in palace cuisine, is made by inserting black peppercorns into pear pieces which are then boiled with thin-sliced ginger and honey. A cough remedy, the mixture is allowed to cool before drinking. 2 ÂŠ Getty Images Korea
Pears are often used in Korean cooking. They contain proteolytic enzymes, which break protein down to amino acids, and are therefore used to marinate beef or ribs to soften the meat.
like sand. Soft, sweet and juicy pears are the result of improvement by plant breeders. Wild pears have a stronger aroma, despite being less tasty than newer breeds. On April 27, 2018, President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un were served munbaeju (wild pear liquor) at the banquet following their summit at the truce village of Panmunjom. The alcoholic drink was so named as it has the aroma of wild pears that grow in the Pyongan provinces in North Korea, but it does not actually contain wild pear. Even so, it is worth trying to get a taste of the wild pear from the aroma alone. On the other hand, igangju from Jeonju in southwestern Korea is popular for its rich pear taste. Pear, ginger, turmeric, cinnamon and honey are added to soju made in the traditional way by distilling fermented rice, and the mixture is left to mature.
Substitute for Microplastics
In the past, plant breeders tried to reduce the rough stone cells in pears to create a softer texture. But it is those stone cells that are now being studied in Korea as a possible substitute for microplastics that are used as an exfoliant in cosmetics and an abrasive in toothpaste. If research goes well, the leftovers from producing pear juice and canned pears, as well as the fallen and damaged fruit that are usually wasted, could be used to help decrease environmental pollution.
KOREAN CULTURE & ARTS 85
ut on the VR headset in front of you. Please raise your hand if you feel dizzy or have a problem.” Five “roller coaster” riders put on head-mounted displays (HMDs) with looks of anticipation. Then their chairs jerk forward and begin rocking and pitching repeatedly in a steady ascent. A 30-something woman peers to the left and right with an expression of dazed disbelief. “Now, we’re going down… Wow!” The guide’s shouting amplifies the sensation of really being outdoors in a steep drop, and the riders react accordingly. Urged by the guide, a child raises his arms in delight. The ride ends about a minute and a half later, and the woman, who had looked left and right, staggers to her feet.
The roller coaster is just one of many rides that overload the senses at “Monster VR,” a virtual reality theme park operated by GPM, a VR platform company, in Songdo, an international business district in Incheon.
Location, affordability and time have made the theme park an instant hit with families, couples and groups of friends since it opened in 2017. While conventional amusement parks are outdoor venues on the outskirts of cities, theme parks like Monster VR are indoor facilities inside urban areas. That means easier and faster travel from home and year-round availability. Three hours of unlimited VR experiences on weekends and holidays cost 32,000 won, up to 24,000 won less than some convention-
al amusement parks. The trade-off for the indoor advantages, of course, is forgoing real outdoor rides. But VR technologies are being refined to the point where the line between illusion and reality is blurred. Monster VR offers experiences in leisure activities, including bobsleigh, rafting and bungee jumping, and harrowing struggles to survive against vampires, zombies and dinosaurs. Besides the roller coaster, there are more than 30 VR rides, including hot air balloons. Moreover, visitors can enjoy both shopping and games at the same time, as most such VR theme parks are located near mega shopping malls. According to a games media outlet, the theme park had over 300,000 visitors during its first year and up to 2,000 visitors per day, 80
Virtual Reality Touts Real Deal
Virtual reality theme parks are the new urban playgrounds. Easy accessibility, friendly prices and year-round availability are the main factors attracting a steady stream of families on an outing and young people who love online games. Kim Dong-hwan Reporter, The Segye Times
Customers play “Mario Racing Tournament” at VR Station, a VR outlet near Gangnam Station in Seoul. © HYUNDAI IT&E
86 KOREANA Autumn 2019
percent of them teenagers and those in their 20s and 30s.
families, consists of VR equipment and game rooms installed at Daemyung properties. Lotte Department Store became the first in the industry to open a VR theme park. In collaboration with GPM, the owner of Monster VR, Lotte converted the 10th floor of its Jayang-dong branch in Seoul’s Gwangjin District in August 2018, offering more than 60 themed games. The branch is in a busy retail area near a university, and business is booming.
© Monster VR
© CJ Hello
The concept of virtual reality is traced to Antonin Artaud, a French playwright who introduced the term in the 1930s. In his collection of essays titled “Le Théâtre et Son Double” (The Theater and Its Double), he insisted that audiences merely see lighting and images, not actors. Decades later, a pair of American computer scientists laid the technological foundation. In 1968, Ivan Sutherland developed the first HMD and in 1989, Jaron Lanier, a visual artist as well, coined the term “virtual reality” as a computer-generated environment. In the past two years, major expositions in Seoul have been center stage for the VR industry. “VR EXPO 2017” was staged by 53 VR companies from four countries and introduced their latest applications in travel, training, sports, healthcare, architecture and education, as well as video games. Nearly 14,000 enthusiasts visited the threeday B2B event. “VR EXPO 2018” followed up on a much larger scale, with 113 domestic and foreign companies participating. Organizers of “VR EXPO 2019,” scheduled for October 2–4, expected even wider participation by over 200 companies. There is no doubt that VR is being regarded as much more than a training and education tool for a myriad of professions, including medicine, aviation, engineering and sports. In Korea, VR theme parks have mushroomed in recent years, just as internet cafés began sprouting up in nearly all neighborhoods about 20 years ago and many Sony PlayStation and Microsoft Xbox stores opened in the early 2000s. VR theme parks help
everyone become familiar with technologies that once seemed far removed from their daily lives. The Korea VR·AR Industry Association estimates the domestic VR market alone could grow fourfold, from 1.4 trillion won in 2016 to 5.7 trillion won in 2020. The explosive growth melds with recent labor law revisions that aim to reduce working hours, in turn giving people more time for entertainment. VR theme parks are considered ideal places for young people, who are accustomed to computers and online games, and for families to spend quality time together. The development has grabbed the attention of major companies. CJ Hello, a cable broadcaster, collaborated with Daemyung Hotels & Resorts to open “Hello VR Adventure” in June 2018. The venture, mainly targeting
1. “Hunters Game” is one of the most popular games at Monster VR Theme Park in Songdo, Incheon. 2. A digital media theme park at Vivaldi Park, a resort in Hongcheon, Gangwon Province. Visitors can play a variety of VR games alongside media façades, featuring images projected onto a whole mountain. Holograms and interactive media programs are accessed through the internet of things (IoT).
In November 2018, an IT company affiliated with Hyundai Department Store opened “VR Station,” the largest VR theme park in the country, in the upscale Gangnam District. This 3,960-square-meter establishment occupies four floors and offers a raft of popular domestic and foreign VR games. It also offers high-end headsets and motion chairs for watching movies, media arts and webtoons. New games developed by Hyundai IT&E will keep the offering fresh. Illusion World, a VR theme park company, opened “Dongdaemun VR Illusion World,” the largest of its kind in the country, covering 6,600 square meters of the Goodmorning City Shopping Mall near the East Gate, central Seoul. Opened in January this year, it offers a career experience program for young people, in addition to popular VR games. Lotte World Adventure, a theme park operator for three decades, is also entering the heated VR competition. “In contrast to existing VR theme parks that offer ordinary game contents, we’re going to develop quite different VR rides, as befits an amusement park,” a Lotte World executive said.
KOREAN CULTURE & ARTS 87
JOURNEYS IN KOREAN LITERATURE
Variations on Reality and Fantasy Kim Do-yeon was born in a mountainside village in Pyeongchang, where the 2018 Winter Olympics were held, and majored in French literature at Kangwon National University in his home province. This combination of childhood environment and education are quite helpful for understanding the subject matter, themes, form and techniques of Kim Do-yeon’s work. Choi Jae-bong Reporter, The Hankyoreh
ost of Kim Do-yeon’s fiction revolves around his home village and the lives of its residents, including his parents. But he is not technically bound to realism, so often chosen for works on rural themes; instead, he relishes fantasy. Kim Do-yeon considers the time he won the first JoongAng New Writers’ Literary Award, organized by the Seoul-based daily JoongAng Ilbo in 2000, with the story “Buenos Aires at Zero Hour,” his formal literary debut. Although he had won the New Year literary prizes of two provincial newspapers in 1991 and 1996, the former while at university, it was only after the JoongAng award that he received proper recognition as a writer, with literary magazines and publishers showing interest in his work. After graduating and before making his debut, Kim worked as a day laborer, or else helped out at his older sister’s café in a small town. He even attempted to run his own small café, but none of these things provided a decent income. Even in such difficult times, with no regular employment and having to move constantly, he carried around “Faceless Hope,” literary critic Hwang Hieon-san’s book on the poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire. It was like a bible for him, and he read it repeatedly. Throughout this period, he often sent postcards to Hwang with no return address. Hwang Hieon-san, who passed away in 2018, was Kim’s teacher and mentor at university. A translator of the literary and theoretical works of the surrealist and symbolist schools of French literature, and a poetry critic, Hwang particularly favored the works of experimental poets who were known as the “futurists.” For Kim, his mentor’s book and the postcards he sent to him indicated how he never gave up on literature, no matter what difficulties he faced. In an interview with me in 2012, Kim Do-yeon said: “In my 20s, when I was most sensitive, I was totally engrossed in French poetry and fiction and almost cast aside my rural mountain roots. But that obsession was based purely in books, removed from the reality I had lived through, so there was a fairly severe antagonism and conflict between the two. Even now, I have no interest in reproducing my hometown in a realist manner. If I wrote that way, I would never be anything more than a shabby imitation of Kim Yu-jeong (1908–1937) or Yi Mun-gu (1941–2003). On the contrary, my intention is to push the fan-
88 KOREANA Autumn 2019
tastical elements of my writing to the extreme.” Kim Do-yeon’s fantasy elements had been quite apparent right from his debut story, “Buenos Aires at Zero Hour.” The story begins with a man who, upon hearing that the woman he loves is getting married, goes to stay alone at a guest house for four straight days in the run-up to her wedding. Without anything in particular taking place, the main narrative revolves around the dreams and fantasies of the man lying on a bed, drifting in and out of sleep. The hard bed that the protagonist lies on becomes “an entranceway that could lead to absolutely anywhere in the world,” and sleep is “a waiting room where distorted memories come in and go out from the dream within.” In the other works from Kim’s first collection of short stories of the same title, published in 2002, the dreamlike setup of hovering between reality and fantasy is prominent, perhaps evidence of just how dry and gloomy reality was as he perceived it. Kim’s first full-length novel, “How to Holiday with a Cow,” which came out in 2007, is the story of a young man who takes a cow to be sold at the cattle market, but failing to make a sale, ends up traveling around the entire country with the cow in his truck. He is accompanied on this “holiday” by an ex-lover who has just buried her husband. The journey itself is a thing of fantasy — loading a cow into a truck and traveling from coast to coast around Korea, and making a “triumphant march” into Jogye Temple — but the phrase “the cow said” in the opening passage is indisputably characteristic of Kim Do-yeon. In many of his stories that are set in the mountains and rural villages, people converse freely with cows, dogs, chickens, ducks and other animals. For example, in the story “Inside a Windsock,” from his third collection of short stories, titled “A New Understanding of the Before and After History of Separation” (2010), the main character who has been nothing but indecisive between his wife and lover, speeds along the motorway in his car at night when he is chased by a wild boar and a water deer, the latter speaking to him and asking for a ride. The local town library served as a source of strength for Kim Do-yeon as he put the work of the city, like manual labor and running a café, behind him and returned to his hometown, not to take over his parents’ farm but to nurture his identity as someone who reads and writes. For over 10 years, he has frequented the local library to read and write, effectively making it his studio. We are able to imagine his everyday life in short stories such as “Confined in a White Lighthouse” and “Bean Story,” which are set in a library and
© Jeong Hui-seong
Kim Do-yeon: “Even now, I have no interest in reproducing my hometown in a realist manner.” feature a librarian. Included in “Bean Story” (2017), his fourth collection of short stories, “Trapped” is the story of an old bachelor who lived with his parents in their country home and wrote novels, and his older brothers and sisters. Using Chinese characters, the Korean title “Paho” is a term from the game of baduk, or go, but unpacking the meaning of the two characters themselves, the title can also mean the breaking apart of a family. In the story, the narrator-protagonist’s older brothers and sisters have their first reunion in a long time at their country home after their parents have passed away. The expression “lonely and scary” appears many times in the story, which speaks for the narrator’s feelings in the face of all that surrounds the country home and the desires shown by his siblings. The intense rivalry and veiled enmity recreated here may be the situation of one family, but we could say that it exemplifies the collapse and disintegration of rural villages and family ties. Like many of Kim Do-yeon’s other works, this story ends without any clear conclusion. Rather than being a symptom of the protagonist’s indecisive personality, this lack of closure seems more reflective of how desolate and stifling the situation in the story is — as are the issues in real life.
KOREAN CULTURE & ARTS 89
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