Freedom Trail for Seoul?
Summer is a time for travel, and my travels took me to Boston, one of the most important cultural centers in the United States.
Educationally competitive Koreans know Boston as the home to Harvard and MIT (which are really in nearby Cambridge), but Americans know Boston more for its central role in the American Revolution. The idea of breaking from England and establishing a new nation was born in the churches and meeting halls of Boston and spread from there to other colonies. Many of the leaders of the independence movement were from Boston, and the first battles of the American Revolutionary War were fought in nearby Lexington and Concord.
The most popular tourist attraction in Boston is the Freedom Trail, a four-kilometer walk that meanders through the city linking important sites involved in the Revolution. Opened in 1951, the Freedom Trail is one of the oldest urban ``theme walks” in the U.S. Many of the historical sites were saved from demolition in the 1870s in preparation centennial celebrations in 1876. The Freedom Trail was designed to make them more accessible to tourists and promote tourism in Boston.
As I walked the Freedom Trail, my thoughts turned to Seoul, which has been home to independence movements and democratic revolutions that were influenced by the same ideas of self-determination and representative democracy that drove the American Revolution. And like that revolution, the Korean fighters for independence and democracy took great risks for an outcome that was far from certain.
From 1919 to 1987, Seoul witnessed one independence movement in 1919 and widespread democracy movements in 1960, 1979-80, and 1987. Each of these movements added a layer of hope in Korea's long struggle for independence and democracy in the 20th century. The March 1st Independence Movement Day of 1919 forced Japanese colonial administrators to relax their stern rule of Korea. Though initially successful, the 1960 and 1980 democracy movements fell victim to renewed dictatorial rule, but they established democracy as a Korean value worth fighting for. With the last democracy movement in 1987, Korea became a democratic society, which opened the doors to the prosperity and international recognition that Korea enjoys today.
For all the importance of the 20th-century independence and democracy fighters, they go virtually ignored in the contemporary ``touristscape” of Seoul. There is no Seoul Freedom Trail. The important tourist sites divide themselves between ``traditional” sites, such as Joseon-period (1392-1910) royal palaces and renovated Joseon-style residential architecture, and ``contemporary” sites such as Cheonggyecheon and Gwanghwamun Plaza. Plaques and stone markers note sites related to the 1919 March 1st Movement, but there is little mention of the 1960, 1979-80, and 1987 democracy movements. Many of the buildings are still standing and could be weaved into an interesting narrative.
Why is the touristscape so flat? One of the major causes is the lack of consensus regarding 20th-century Korean history. The 1919 March 1st Movement has fared better in history because there is a greater consensus regarding meaning of the events. The Independence Hall of Korea in Cheonan honors the movement and its leaders. The democracy movements are recent and a historical consensus has yet to emerge on their meaning. This is natural, but forcing a discussion on the issue will help a consensus emerge.
Another cause is that discussions about tourism in Seoul usually focus on what would interest foreign tourists. The assumption is that foreign tourists want to see something ``Korean” and that the royal palaces and Joseon-period aesthetics fit this need. On another level, Japanese colonial rule and military dictatorships are thought to be embarrassing to Koreans and are best mentioned in passing only as circumstances requires. Likewise, the focus on foreign tourists also leads to an emphasis on showing new and ``clean” sites, such as Cheonggyecheon, that will make a good impression on foreign tourists
The flaws in these arguments are clear: foreigners are not the only tourists in Korea and the struggle for independence and democracy in the 20th century is something to celebrate, not hide. Among Asian countries, Korea has achieved a thriving and stable democracy in a very short time. It was one of the first Asian countries to experience a peaceful transfer of power from one political group to another and then back again. It has taken a leading role in using the Internet for political transparency and to respond to citizens' needs. Among advanced nations, Koreans show a strong interest in politics and in holding politicians accountable.
Considering the weight of the Confucian tradition and 20th-century colonialism and authoritarianism, Korea's democratic achievement is truly marvelous. It stands as one of the greatest historical accomplishments of the Korean people. The time has come to honor it with a theme walk or museum so that visitors and future generations will be able to understand and appreciate the sacrifices of those who struggled to bring it about.
The writer is a professor at the Department of Korean Language Education at Seoul National University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.