Korea’s Disappearing Past

Having spent several years in Korea, I’ve heard and read about the nation’s relatively recent poverty any number of times. I’ve heard my fiancee’s stories of how her father, growing up in 1940’s Busan, would not unoccasionally eat rats. And this despite the fact that her father came from a relatively wealthy Busan family, as evidenced by the fact that he was one of the only children in his class who wore sneakers.

At the moment, I’m reading F.A. McKenzie’s 1920 book “Korea’s Fight for Freedom,” which traces the period from the twilight of the Joseon Dynasty to the official and ccomprehensive colonial takeover of Korea by Japan. While the book offers a wealth of detail that probably wouldn’t stand up to modern academic rigor, it does give a sense of Korea’s society at the time and the ravages inflicted upon by colonial rule that led to the overwhelming poverty of the mid-20th Century.

All that being said, today it’s difficult to imagine the Korean past. It seems that everyone has a smart phone, all my students sport 300,000 won North Face jackets (and I don’t teach in a particularly affluent area), and 8/10 women on the street carries a Coach/Louis Vuitton/Burberry etc handbag. Every morning, I watch the school health teacher pull into the parking lot in a shiny, sleek Hyundai sports car. And all this in provincial Gyeongsangnamdo’s Yangsan City! Needless to say, to a casual observer the poverty of the previous generation is a dissipating reality.

One place that the memory of it still lives is on the mountainsides of Busan, especially above the port and stretching back from Busan Station. There the houses still can be seen, layered atop one another in strking resemblance with the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. During the Korean War, when the Busan Perimeter stood as the only ground unconquered by the invading North Koreans, refugees poured into Busan, turning the small quiet port into a large mass of humanity. For these penniless refugees, the only lands available to them were on the mountainside, and they proceeded to build their new city, with its twisting precarious roads, its back alleys, and its staircase-like array of houses, impossibly built on one another at strange, irregular angles, all of which still today strongly suggests the piece-meal rise of the area, so much at odds with the Lego-like uniformity of the modern Korean apartment complex.

Here one does get a very real sense of the poverty that must have been pervasive sixty years ago, and with that comes a very real sense of history, and the gift of history: a sensual connection to bygone generations who saw the world with different eyes and conceived of the world in different terms. However, these pockets of  history are steadily eroding, as the tin-roofed shacks are one by one demolished to make way for modern villas, one-rooms, and apartments. From a local’s point of view, this is a positive development; the symbols of the neighborhood’s poverty are being erased and replaced by new homes likely to draw a wealthier tenant, with more to contribute to the area and its economic well-being.

But this raises the question in my mind, “What price is paid in the process?” What will the people of Busan (and Korea more generally) lose when the heritage of the past is rubbed off so that the affluence of the present can be more fully dispersed? I’m sure many people would take offence at this idea and point out the enormous economic disparities that exist in Korea today, but I would point out that economic disparity today is working in relative terms, and what we label “poverty” in OECD countries is rather meaningless compared to the past or to countries to countries like South Sudan or (relevant here) North Korea. And therein lies the danger of erasing the past; in doing so, we relativize our own thinking – we label a thing as poverty that thirty years previously would have been regarded as wealth.

I studied abroad in Ireland, and a great deal of Irish Studies focuses on the “creation” of Irish culture in the late 19th/early 20th Century. Anglo-Irish poets and artists looked to the West of Ireland, and saw a romance in the thatched houses, in the thick brogues, in the winding stone walls of the Irish countryside, and around those simple people they manufactured a culture that was foisted on the people without their knowledge or consent.  And today, this “Irish” culture has been quite successful, as American tourists roam the West of Ireland, hoping for a sight of a wee thatched-roof house with a dirt lane leading out of it. Or hoping to turn a bend in the road and be met by an old man herding a flock of sheep, which causes you a happily-met 5 minute delay in your journey. Meanwhile, for the Irish themselves, living in thatched-roof house today is a sign of outdated poverty, and if the price to be paid for a comfortable 21st Century standard-of-living is the loss of some of your cultural heritage, that’s a price they’re prepared to endure. 

In Korea, the process is not as controversial, as there is no real tourist industry related to the areas in question and hence no economic incentive for maintaining them in the current state.  Joni Mitchell famously sang, “You don’t what you’ve got ’til it’s gone,” but I feel the opposite is probably true as well: you know what you’ve got if you remember when you didn’t. As the mountainsides of Busan grow more straight, more regular, as the angles jut less strangely and less organically, they take with them a message and a memory that perhaps might be better remembered.

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