Presenting rural Korea to the World as the “Provence of Asia” (essay)

Presenting rural Korea to the World as the “Provence of Asia”

When I lived in Daejeon for four years, I was struck by the beauty of the surrounding landscape. The old hills covered with pine trees, the rivers and canals that surrounded luscious fields of rice were infinitely appealing. I found many delightful villages that produce unique agricultural products in the countryside. The older farmhouses were simple, but beautiful, reminding me of some of the farm houses I had seen as a child in Europe. In rural Korea, I felt, I had encountered something equivalent to Tuscany or Provence in Europe, an idyllic region which could attract tourists from around the world to enjoy its villages and its agricultural products.

But there were not many who saw the rural area around Daejeon in that manner. Tourism in Korea tends to be aimed at bringing foreigners to modern Seoul, or to the large historical temples like Solaksa, or to the pristine beauty of Korea’s mountains or coastline. The rural life of Korea embodied by traditional hanok homes has not been developed into an attractive alternative lifestyle that foreigners can seek out in the way they do traditional farms of Tuscany.

Farmer’s market in Tuscany. It would not take much to create attractive farmers markets with great appeal to internationals in Korea.

It is one of the great ironies that Koreans spend fortunes for designer clothing that is advertized using models posing in front Tuscan farms and markets. The attractive images associated with the good rural life of France or Italy, have immense appeal in Asia. And yet such farms and markets can be found right here in Korea, but they are poorly maintained and not perceived as a possible asset for tourism.

The so-called “Korean wave” has not extended to traditional Korean rural life. If anything, the slick modern life of youth in concrete and glass is the core of today’s “Korean Wave.” I would go as far as to say, however, that the traditional rural life in Korea may be the country’s most valuable cultural asset. Farming villages that now lie neglected, often inhabited by residents in their 70s or 80s, could easily become a Mecca for tourists from across Asia, presenting in a powerful manner a rural lifestyle that has been lost elsewhere. They need to be repainted, surrounded by flowers and other attractive herbage and made the center of attention. Unfortunately, Koreans as a whole do not value older homes, preferring to let them run down and eventually be replaced with new ones.

Whereas Italy and France take pride in the individual traditions of villages and market aggressively the history of towns and castles, and the hand-made delicacies that are found there, Korea has emphasized its rapid rise, its progress since 1960 as the greatest economic miracle. Therefore, Koreans are more likely to stress smart phones and container ships, K Pop and Korean advent garde film, than farmers markets, traditional agrarian life, or the pleasures of walking alongside a rice patty, or enjoying local toenjang paste.

If you actually visit rural Korea, you will find that the older homes are for the most part run down and poorly maintained. Signs are placed along the roads in glaring colors that scream out the modern, but are entirely out of place in a rural setting. There is little sense of the potential beauty of such delightful towns, and no wonder that this is the case; Koreans have been taught that Seoul is the center of culture and modernity and as a result the youth have abandoned rural areas in droves. Old farm houses are seen as a remnant of a backwards age rather than treasures to be presented to the world.

There are some exceptions, of course, and brave efforts to establish organic farms, or villages where one can enjoy the “slow life.” But we can imagine much, much more. The first step would be to establish strict rules for signage, construction and the maintenance of houses and streets in rural communities that would assure that an attractive image is presented. Such strict zoning codes are at the core of Europe’s success. In fact, subsidies to support the lovingly restoration of old buildings, and the construction of new buildings that conform to traditional forms will more than pay for themselves.

The next step would be to create local pride and advertise individual villages for their unique history and produce. In the case of Europe, every village in Provence has its own flag with a coat of arms or other symbol embodying its rich history. These local flags of castles or villages are proudly displayed on t shirts, on bumper stickers and on cups and pins. Residents place a bumper sticker from their home town on their automobile, as do tourists. Such images for villages in Korea would have great impact. The images should not be modern, but rather play on the traditional motifs or the local ecology.

When I lived in Daejeon, I experimented a bit with this concept of a symbol for Daejeon that would make it a tourist destination. Today Daejeon is presented primarily as a science town and the major emphasis is placed the city’s role in creating new technologies for communication and transportation. Such an image of Daejeon is of course quite accurate, but there is another aspect of Daejeon that has immense potential has been essentially overlooked as a result: Daejeon’s ancient history and its original ecosystem.

Daejeon is a fertile basin for rice agriculture surrounded by mountains that was located on the border between the Baekjae and Silla kingdoms. From ancient times the mountains around Daejeon were covered with mountain castles with their own unique taless. The foundations of more than forty of those castles have been identified. With the exception of Gyejok Mountain Fortress, the castles have been neglected and can only be identified with considerable effort by a few remaining stones.

Those forty castles, more than can be found around any other city in Korea, and rare in Asia as a whole, are a potential gold mine for Daejeon. If an artist was hired to design a crest for each castle which could be proudly displayed as a flag or a sticker on your automobile, the castles would suddenly come back to life and become a central aspect of Daejeon’s culture. Each castle could be rebuilt, at least in part, as a unique space for tourists to explore and a walking tour could be established through the hills around Daejeon that would take the visitor to each of the castles. Suddenly Daejeon would be transformed from a city with no history to one with a history dating back to the fifth century.

As an experiment, I made a crest (휘장) for one castle, the Jeok-o Mountain Fortress. I translated the name "red raven mountain" into Italian, rather than English, to draw attention to the analogy with Europe.

I confess the crest is more in the European tradition and may need to be modified a bit for an Asian audience. I took the name of the mountain where the castle is found, jeok-o san (적오산 赤烏山), and played with the original meaning “read raven mountain” in order to create a striking image. I placed the mountain castle in the upper left and the hanok traditional house that is located at the mountain’s base in the crest as well. My crest is perhaps a bit primitive, but I think it suggests a means of creating a distinct image for Daejeon.

I also developed several crests for the city of Daejeon that emphasize the three rivers that converge in Daejeon: the Gapcheon River, Yudeungcheon River and Daejeoncheon River. I wanted to create a striking image for Daejeon that had nothing to do with high tech, but rather drew attention to the ecosystem and Daejeon’s beginnings.

Again, these crests are my primitive suggestions. They give some sense of what is possible in terms of the marketing of regional Korea.

In this version of the crest I included the mountains that surround Daejeon.

This crest for Daejeon features the three rivers that form the geographical space. The Chinese characters read "Big field (top); Three rivers (bottom)" The term "big field" is the original meaning of Daejeon.

I eventually modified the pattern and had a professional artist create a design for an original coffee cup which has been selling quite well.

Chinese character side of cup

Another important step in promoting rural Korea is to develop beautifully packaged local products. The local makgoli rice wine, (막거리) toenjang paste (된장), gochujang hot pepper paste (고추장), tofu (두부) or sesame oil (참기름) must be produced to the very highest standards so it can be presented as gourmet. Also unique recipes for different regions and towns must be highlighted to suggest the diversity of traditions in Korean foods. Those products must be packaged in beautiful containers of wood, ceramic or glass so as to imply value. The factories should be remodeled to resemble wineries in France that radiate tradition and history. Such agricultural products can be

English language side of the cup.

marketed with great success in the manner of Bordeaux wine or Jonzac cognac. By stressing the uniqueness of local products and making them appear more attractive and more valuable, the value of rural Korea will be increased dramatically. As these local products are effectively marketed as high-value products, we will find that people from around the world will want to visit rural Korea to enjoy these products. We can imagine people from as far away at Italy flocking to see unique makgoril wineries. But those wineries must look traditional and put emphasis on how they have carried on a great tradition for five hundred years.

This point of cultural continuity is critical for the process of remarketing rural Korea. And it is here that we run into problems. Koreans would rather emphasize how they built something out of nothing than that they have been making Toenjang paste in the same way for a thousand years. But in marketing Korea, the great variety of products available, and the length of the tradition is critical to Korea’s success. If we look at how successful Italy has been in marketing its rural good life, we can see the potential for an Asian equivalent. We can imagine an age in which a villa in Chungnam would be the ideal life not only for people in Seoul, but for people across Asia.

One response to “Presenting rural Korea to the World as the “Provence of Asia” (essay)

  1. Pingback: Revitalizing rural Korea | Okonomibloggy

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