The streets of Itaewon retain an international flavor, but more and more Korean faces are seen in the crowds these days. (Yonhap News)
Just outside the concertina-wire topped concrete walls of a U.S. Army garrison in downtown Seoul, home to the headquarters of some 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, American soldiers roam the streets, Africans of various nations peddle jewelry, and Pakistani, Indian and Turkish restaurants share street space with Western diners and English-style bars.
Itaewon, long established as a foreigner-friendly enclave, has been just that. Locals shunned it as a shady place of drug dealers and prostitution. Military and police patrols continue during evenings in the neighborhood that used to be congruous to U.S. troops serving in the country, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War.
But the faces on Itaewon’s streets have changed again recently, as Koreans are reclaiming the area.
When Ashley Cheeseman, executive assistant manager of the Grand Hilton Seoul, first visited Seoul in 1997, his Korean wife did not tell him about Itaewon “because she had only heard bad things,” he said.
The Englishman was told of the area by another Westerner and visited, finding a home away from home. Cheeseman and his wife subsequently lived in the next neighborhood over in Hannam for many years, and he continues to visit Itaewon three or four times a week.
“There wasn’t so much of a mix back then,” he said. “People were very segregated. You had the African community going to one place, Filipinos going to another. Now, I see this community where everybody is accepted and nobody is looked down or frowned upon.
“You have this perfect combination of young Koreans being in an environment with a lot of foreigners,” he said.
He believes the change began when Korea co-hosted the 2002 FIFA World Cup, and Koreans wanted to socialize with foreigners and be part of a global experience. Itaewon was one of several focal points in Seoul where locals and visitors gathered together to watch the games.
Kevin Cyr, the Canadian owner of the Chili King burger bar, is another long-time visitor to Itaewon who has watched the area mature along with Korea itself. After coming to Korea as an English teacher in 1996, Cyr started selling chili burgers from a truck on the Itaewon main street in 2008 and moved to permanent premises on a side street in April 2009.
Chili King owner and chef Kevin Cyr believes Koreans come to Itaewon for the authenticity of its many foreign restaurants. (Yonhap News)
In 1996, Itaewon was dominated by young American military and English teachers, he said, adding, “Most Koreans didn’t come to Itaewon because it was still considered dirty and dangerous.”
He said that perception has changed with the promotion of the area by the Korean government and as Koreans “slowly but surely become more worldly.”
“The late-20s, early-30s generation wants to experience more than Korea. A lot of them have either gone abroad, studied abroad or been on trips, so when they come back to Korea, they still want that authentic feeling. They don’t want to go to a Bennigans. They want to go to an Italian restaurant that actually has an Italian cook. They want to go to an American burger joint that actually has a Westerner cooking. They want the authenticity. Itaewon is basically the only place that really offers that,” he said.
Young parents Shim Gyu-sang and his wife Choi Hye-young said they both first came to Itaewon as middle school students and now visit every year or two. When they brought their 10-month-old daughter for her first visit, Choi said she noticed many more Koreans in the area.
“There are lots of tasty restaurants and many authentic restaurants,” Choi said.
Nineteen-year-old Lee Jeong-sun, who was visiting to take photos with two of her friends, said she had been to Itaewon “just a few times.”
“When I was just a high school student, I heard that Itaewon is a beautiful place, similar to Europe, with so many foreigners,” she said. “I think Itaewon is not like Korea because so many foreigners live here so they have their own culture and their own behavior.”
Kang Jeong-moon, 26, said that he has visited Itaewon to shop, go to dance clubs and meet friends about 20 times in the past 10 years. He had also noticed a lot more of his fellow citizens in the suburb and said it was the foreign experience that attracted them.
“If you can’t go to America, you can still come to Itaewon,” he said.
Social media may have had a part in locals’ return. “Itaewon Freedom,” an ‘80s-style disco-rap parody song, became a phenomenal hit through Facebook and YouTube in March this year. Comedian Yoo Se-yoon, who dabs in music, and musician Myuji teamed up as “UV,” and together with singer Park Jin-young, crooned lyrics about freedom unavailable elsewhere in a culture that has rigid expectations of its citizens.
Donning faux afros, they sang lines that include translations of “a world full of youth” and “the world is there.”
Cyr agreed that the area offers a freedom not easily found elsewhere in the strictly regimented society. “For them, it’s like they’re living on the wild side,” he said.
Other long-time foreign residents grumble about the influx of Koreans to what many view as their own small part of the peninsula, though none spoken to wanted to go on record.
Cheeseman said he had heard such complaints.
“But at the end of the day,” he said, “we’re in their country. We are the visitors here so to have Koreans with us and socially accepting us, there can be nothing better.”