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Reviewed by:
  • Seoul: Memory, Reinvention, and the Korean Wave by Ross King
  • Keith Howard (bio)
Seoul: Memory, Reinvention, and the Korean Wave by Ross King. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2018. ISBN 9780824872052. xii + 330 pages.

This is an immensely ambitious book, embracing three distinct elements: history, together with both the erasure and reinvention of historical memory; architecture and city planning; contemporary culture, the Korean Wave, and postnationalism. I suspect most of us—including many of those associated with Korean Studies who are cited in the book—would be content to tackle just one of the three, positioning ourselves with historians, urbanists, or cultural theorists, but not attempting to cover all three. King has previously published monographs on cities in Malaysia and Thailand as well as a volume on geography and urban design. Overall, while the thoroughness of his account is to be applauded, those specializing in history or media will find aspects to critique. Throughout, two basic arguments keep returning. The first concerns the dialectical relationship between destruction and creativity, theorized through—or after—Nietzsche and Walter Benjamin, but positioned by the early twentieth century's Japanese colonialization of Korea. The second builds on this, contrasting the local with the hyperspatiality of late capitalism which gives Seoul the aura of just about any modern city, even though its hiding of locality is countered both by Koreans themselves and by a body of scholarship that argues for Korean distinctiveness. Memories are not only founded on choice readings of history, but also rely on invention as well as on the perpetuated claim that Korean culture was undermined and destroyed, primarily by Japanese colonialism.

King's focus is Seoul, as the megalopolis at the center of today's South Korea, accounting, including its satellite cities, for more than 40% of the entire population. His initial and concluding chapters add grand theoretical perspectives, of Jean Baudrillard and the end of history, of Michel Foucault and the contingencies created by action, of Benedict Anderson's imagined nations and identities. Seoul offers Kantian conditions of possibility, but it does so (to cite the subtitles of chapter 6) by obliterating the colonial memorial, dreaming antiquity, naturalizing material culture, and transposing reality. The four central chapters explore four themes: history, as the foundation for the state; rapid development under military dictatorship; urban space and its architecture of non-descript boxes; the digitized city where physical and virtual worlds merge. If all of this can be applied to Seoul successfully, then this would be a great book, for use both by specialists and students. But, it is never clear who King is writing for. Is chapter 2, for [End Page 199] example, directed to historians? Hopefully not, since as he telescopes into a few pages the claimed 5000-year history of the peninsula, from proto-kingdoms through a simplified rendering of the Three Kingdoms period, he writes erroneously that the Silla state was situated between Koguryŏ and Paekche, and offers no qualification for its highly controversial "traditional" dates. He makes too much of the nineteenth-century Tonghak movement's religious component, Ch'ŏndogyo, and wrongly states that the Provisional Government in Shanghai—North Korea take note!—coordinated armed resistance to the Japanese through the 1930s.

King is on firmer ground as he discusses the architecture of the colonial period, and how Japanese Seoul was modernized following liberation. He balances Korean claims of Japanese erasure and destruction with a grounded, evidenced, reality. Still, coming to the present day, I was struck by his claim in chapter 2 that Seoul is a city of protest like no other (p. 71): those of us who recall the turbulent 1980s think differently. Chapter 4, solidly about architecture and urban planning, is the most inspiring part of the book, discussing the planning and realization of Seoul's satellite cities (from the challenged Songdo near the airport to Paju near the DMZ) peppering the account with Derrida, Deleuze, and Guattari. The basic premise is that urban environments have life not because of centralized design and planning, but through unstable assemblage built organically over time.

Two other elements suggest a different target audience: general university courses on Korea and/or East Asia. In chapter...