SEOUL -- Insadong was once a sleepy, scenic haven for art lovers and tea drinkers. As recently as the 1990s, the neighborhood, which covers several downtown blocks in Seoul and can by walked through in a leisurely 10 minutes, offered a low-rise main street lined with galleries, used bookstores and antique shops; its maze of back alleys featured tea houses, cafes and inns set in traditional Korean cottages, or “hanok.”
But in one of Asia’s most future-centric capitals, Insadong’s charm has been chipped away. Multi-story buildings arose, and in 2002, after being designated a “tourism district,” Insadong’s main street was colonized by big businesses selling souvenirs, branded coffee and cosmetics.
Today, kitsch – Psy-branded socks, plastic dolls, Korea soccer team t-shirts – is sold alongside celadon pottery, calligraphic supplies and traditional jewelry. A four-story tourist mall, Ssamzie-gil, overshadows family-run craft shops; many alleyways are lined by high-rises instead of the hanok of yore.
Early this year, Seoul City announced plans to redevelop the southern sector following a March fire. At least at the top, the city seems set on preservation.
“It is my firm principle to keep our identity, tradition, legacies and history,” said Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon. “I am asking residents and developers to preserve old homes and small alleys, but it is not easy because residents are anxious to make money, to get rich and destroy everything.”
Plans alter zoning regulations, limiting future retailers in the area to cultural businesses: no more coffee or cosmetic shops will be permitted. And mindful of the swathes of destruction driven through other traditional districts in recent years, City Hall has carefully sub-divided the redevelopment area into small, bite-sized chunks – ostensibly preventing property moguls buying up large lots, bulldozing them and raising monster buildings.
But preservationists are cynical about City Hall’s commitment to preservation.
“In Korea and in many Asian countries, there is an understanding about the importance of monumental architecture,” said Peter Bartholomew, a 45-year Korea resident who is frequently quoted in vernacular media arguing for architectural preservation. “This is not transferred to residential and smaller commercial buildings -- they just don’t acknowledge that there is any value in them.”
Regulations designed to preserve traditional hanok in Bukchon, a neighborhood noted for its old cottages, backfired when owners took city financial incentives to “remodel” their hanoks and destroyed them completely, building new hanok in their place. There was an outcry in 2009, after Pimat-gol, an ancient old back alley lined with venerable but down-market eateries, was razed to make way for an office block. And just months after former Seoul mayor Oh Se-hoon told foreign reporters that there would be no further destruction of hanok on his watch, an alley lined with old cottages in central Seoul’s Gwanghwamun was obliterated for another office block.
In relentlessly capitalistic Korea, where real estate is a key source of wealth, City Hall is subject to pressures from landlords. Under the new plan, owners are able to apply for permissions to raise building heights, increasing rental potential, and widen the area’s narrow alleyways, improving vehicular access.
Though area landlords concede that this creates conflict, they are keen to modernize by raising building heights and improving vehicular access.
“It’s like building owners versus tenants, Insadong residents versus Seoul citizens,” said Choi Hee-so, who heads an association of 90 Insadong landlords. “People here are not worried about widened alleyways - most building owners are fine if they widen the alleyways.”
With no regulation in place for hanok preservation, nor firm policies maintaining the width of Insadong’s alleyways, preservationists are fearful.
“Hanok are the only link to a chapter of history: They were part of the formative experience for Koreans for centuries,” said David Kilburn, a British expatriate and hanok activist. “Hanok are a foundation stone of what it means to be Korean.”
“Those alleys were laid out in Seoul 500-600 years ago,” added Bartholomew. “It would be a crime to destroy these living, vibrant remains of the city’s foundation that have been here for half a millennium.”
The controversies surrounding Insadong are not simply those of planning, architecture and usage; they reflect broader debates roiling Korean society, such as “economic democratization” – i.e. giving small players a chance against the big boys.
Antique merchant Choi Kyung-soo is opposed to ongoing changes and redevelopments in Insadong, which he says makes it difficult for small businesses to survive.
“Most shops here were mainly for arts ‘n crafts - small businesses that don’t make much money,” said Choi, who formerly operated on Insadong’s main street, but now sells his Buddhist statues, figurines and old instruments in a back alley. “Now that Insadong has become popular, the rents on the main street have soared, so artists and small businesses can no longer afford them: The only people who can are big businesses.”
The redevelopment also highlights a demographic chasm dividing a society that has modernized at breakneck speed; between a generation that grew up among alleyways and hanok, and a generation raised in concrete high-rises.
“Many young people have no memories of old alleys, but citizens in their 60s, 70s and 80s are against these plans,” said Kim Ji-myung, Secretary General of the Korea Heritage Culture Forum. “In the past, Insadong was an area for grown-up adults, but is now an area for cheap souvenirs and young people. There is a strong sense of loss.”
“In the old days, visitors to Insadong were older Koreans who liked to stroll the streets and buy antiques and pottery, but as it has become popular, more young people come,” lamented antiquarian Choi. “If a young woman in her 20s came here and I said (gesturing at an old brass gong), ‘Take this, it’s free!’ she’d say, ‘Why do I need that?’”
And with so little left of Olde Seoul remaining, a bigger concern overshadows the Insadong redevelopment plan, which City Hall touts as a model for future developments.
“I am worried because Insadong is the most prominent, salient area promoting traditional Korean culture,” said Bartholomew. “If traditional buildings and the traditional atmosphere is demolished, it will serve as a precedent for the destruction of Seoul’s last, few remaining traditional neighborhoods.”