Diversity Helps South Korean District Win Locals Back

Itaewon is a neighborhood in South Korea that locals used to avoid because it attracted a high number of foreigners, especially young American soldiers from the U.S. Army Garrison just down the hill. But Itaewon's image has changed in recent years — it's now a trendy hangout for young Koreans, attracted by its relatively liberal atmosphere in a culturally conservative nation.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. We go now to a neighborhood in Seoul, South Korea, which represents some changes happening in that country. It's a neighborhood where foreigners have lived and worked for over a century. Koreans used to avoid it because of cultural barriers and language differences and also its reputation for being seedy and crime-infested. Reporter Doualy Xaykaothao explains why the neighborhood of Itaewon has become more attractive.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN)

DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO, BYLINE: This used to be a dirty, rundown main strip catering to U.S. troops, foreign English teachers and visiting international businessmen. Some people probably still see it that way, but in recent years, Itaewon has become popular with locals.

CHO MIN-YOUNG: When I was young, I saw many foreigners, but now, you know, I always see, you know, many Koreans.

XAYKAOTHAO: Cho Min-young was born and raised in Itaewon. On a break from serving Korean couples at a busy Itaewon Greek restaurant, Cho says she also sees a lot of interracial couples. She explains, this time speaking in her native tongue, that in Itaewon, Koreans have more freedom, like being able to kiss and hold hands in public.

MIN-YOUNG: (Foreign language spoken)

XAYKAOTHAO: She says, outside of Itaewon, Koreans stare at couples embracing each other, but not here. That freedom is what makes the area charming, says Van Wo-young, who's out strolling in the back alleys of Itaewon with her husband and baby boy.

VAN WO-YOUNG: (Through Translator) I like the fact that I see a diversity of people. As you know, Korea is a more globalized place now. In terms of eliminating prejudice, it's good to interact with people of different backgrounds and build different experiences.

XAYKAOTHAO: Like a lot of young Korean parents, she also wants to expose her child to foreign languages. Walking around Itaewon, her little one can catch people speaking in French, Spanish, Afrikaans and other languages. Itaewon is also home to the largest mosque in South Korea. Sung Jang-hyun, the district mayor, is proud of Itaewon's diversity.

MAYOR SUNG JANG-HYUN: (Through Translator) Unique restaurants, different cultures, shops selling the latest fashions as well as antiques, all of this is why young Koreans and Korean families are attracted to Itaewon. It's exotic for them. They feel like they're in a different country.

XAYKAOTHAO: Korean artists UV and JYP have been singing about how special Itaewon is in their hit song "Itaewon Freedom."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ITAEWON FREEDOM")

UV AND JYP: (Singing) Itaewon freedom.

XAYKAOTHAO: The song is about a world full of youth, music, love and freedom, and it's brought a new generation of Koreans to Itaewon. Korean actor Hong Suk-chun knows the song well and claims that song should have been his because Itaewon, for him, is the only place in South Korea where he says he can live comfortably as a gay man.

HONG SUK-CHUN: Actually, like, Korean culture very conservative still. In Itaewon, here's a lot of foreigner and Korean, so they do everything, what they really want to do.

XAYKAOTHAO: Hong describes Itaewon as a small New York where artists and actors chase after their dreams. He followed his, opening up a handful of successful restaurants. It's in Itaewon where he found acceptance.

SUK-CHUN: When I start to live in Itaewon 15 years ago, I feel that feeling. That's why I love Itaewon, and that's why I cannot leave Itaewon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I BELIEVE IN YOU")

DON WILLIAMS: (Singing) Well, I don't believe that heaven waits...

XAYKAOTHAO: Kim Sam-sook loves Itaewon too. She's the owner of a honky-tonk bar called Grand Ole Opry. She's in her young 70s and lives over the bar in the heart of what's known as Hooker Hill in Itaewon.

KIM SAM-SOOK: People no worky(ph). Looks like dead. I have to worky, more happy, more better.

XAYKAOTHAO: She married a Texan long ago and has family in Dallas, but Itaewon is her life. To those Koreans still scared of venturing into this neighborhood, Kim says...

SAM-SOOK: I think education people, they know Itaewon not bad. Friday, Saturday, everybody come in, have a good time. No say buy drink, nothing. That's why they comfortable.

XAYKAOTHAO: And it's those people that have found that little bit of freedom here in Itaewon. For NPR News, I'm Doualy Xaykaothao in Seoul.

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