Improving Korea As A Tourist Destination: Part 2

Part 1 here.

Part 3 here.

In the last post I identified what I considered to be the main places people visit in Korea’s neighbours, China and Japan, and what drives people to visit those places. I also established that the power of pop culture abroad can be an important driving force for tourism at home, including foreign pop culture that references one’s own culture, or uses one’s own country as a setting, the Kill Bill films for example. By that logic, the influence of Korean pop culture abroad, and foreign pop culture referencing Korea, needs to grow. I also layed out a list of various events, places, topics etc that could feature in a sustained growth of Korean pop culture, and indeed, foreign pop culture drawing on Korea as a source material, as has so often been the case with China and Japan.

Finally, at the end of the post, I outlined some basic types of travel that people embark on, so we can move on from there to see what Korea specifically has to offer. That list again:

  • Hiking/exploring
  • Relaxing, pampered holidays
  • City stays, particularly in historical or futuristic cities: anywhere that’s unusual and interesting.
  • Cultural exploration
  • Action/sports holidays including golf, winter sports etc.

For most of these categories, it should be obvious that Korea can provide a uniquely Korean experience of them. Take hiking, Korea may not have the highest mountains you can ever hike, but they have a tremendous history with their mountains, and they have always viewed mountains differently to us. Korea provides hiking routes that take you along the coast, past Buddhist temples, Confucian schools, shamanistic sites and happenings, shrines to mountain spirits, hot springs, gorges, waterfalls, rivers, views; this list could go on. Now, for any non-jaded, inexperienced Korea traveler, that’s got to be an impressive combination.


Relaxing, pampered holidays is a category that could do with some work in Korea, and as far as I’m aware, the closest they get is in Jeju-do. It’s a fine place to visit, with some high quality hotels, scenery, beaches, and some culture if you want it. It has good food, including fresh “sushi.” Not a bad offering, and personally I think it would be a shame to overdevelop the island for the sake of improved “high class” tourism. We must also take into account that the Pacific Islands are not all that far away, and for many people I’m sure it wouldn’t matter how good the facilities were in Jeju-do, Bali’s always going to win. I know there are also some very nice, expensive hotels in Kyŏngju (Gyeongju), complete with plenty of historical and cultural sites to see, but again, it’s a place that it seems a shame to overdevelop with fancy hotels – you lose the soul of the place. It’s therefore a shame that Korea doesn’t have miles and miles of virtually unused tropical beaches, so this probably isn’t the best avenue to take to increase tourism significantly.

As for city stays, I think Korea is more than capable of providing an attractive tourist destination. It simply depends on marketing, and accurately identifying what tourists want to see. Seoul clearly meets the western tourists ideas of the East Asian old meets new. It’s got its futuristic buildings, vibrant nightlife, great food, high technology, excellent hotels, all alongside the traditional temples, palaces, shrines and monuments, and it’s surrounded by relatively low, easily-climbable mountains that give you a break from the bustle and a great view. I also think it has a very unusual atmosphere, with some “quirky” features that have the potential to really connect with tourists, such as the 포장마차, the little street stalls selling cheap snack food.

Cheonggyecheon, central Seoul

Cheonggyecheon, central Seoul


On top of that, there’s also Kyŏngju, as I mentioned before, which is a good city to stay in if it’s culture or history you’re after. Pusan (Busan) also offers a good alternative, and both Jeju-si and Sŏgwip’o (Seogwipo) can combine the best of various different types of holiday.

When people go on a “cultural trip,” what they’re really after is to see some of the authentic local culture that’s different from what they’ve seen before. On that note, I think that could be achieved anywhere in Korea, but some destinations are more obvious than others: Seoul, Kyŏngju, Jeju-do, Hahoe, temples, mountainous rural areas and others I’m sure.

Korea also offers a surprisingly good amount of sports for holiday makers. There are of course numerous golf courses, many at a high international standard, they’re also cheaper than Japan, and regularly classed among the best in Asia. Korea also doesn’t seem to realise how lucky it is to have a few decent winter sports resorts. Admittedly, if it’s altitude you’re after, you’d be best going elsewhere, but for the cost, facilities and relative unspoilt nature of the resorts Korea should be a valid alternative to other more established destinations. In my view, however, Korea is not even on the map in terms of ski resorts, very few people would think of going to Korea for skiing, and I’m sure most companies that people would use to book a winter sports holiday won’t service Korea either. This needs to change, and the potential is all there. It’s also a location that offers more in terms of cultural discovery for most western tourists than Europe or North America. On top of that there’s also horse riding, water sports, snorkeling, SCUBA diving and so on.


Also, there are obviously certain specific sites that are unique to Korea, or add to Korea’s value as a tourist destination.

For me, one of the best has to be the lava tubes in Jeju-do, that UNESCO describes as being of “unequaled quality.” I’d add to this Hallasan, the volcano with the lake-filled crater in the centre of the island, simply for its aesthetic beauty.


For completely different reasons the DMZ is also entirely unique. It’s also the only remaining front of the Cold War, and has to be seen to be believed. I know some people have argued that something so sombre, important and serious shouldn’t be treated like a tourist attraction, and I can see where they’re coming from. My view, however, is that people should take the opportunity to see what one of the most devastating conflicts of the last century has done to the two countries, to see partially into a closed country, and to witness firsthand more of the current geopolitical state. It may be upsetting, but we have to learn about the major conflicts of more recent times, witness where they took place, the people who were involved, because it gives us an important perspective. For that same reason, I’m also a fan of the War Memorial Museum. The Korean War is known as ‘The Forgotten War’, but I think it’s about time something was done to change that. This museum goes above and beyond in that respect, dealing not only with the Korean War of the ’50s, but with a history of combat throughout the ages, making it fascinating, informative and very poignant. It also has value as it emphasises the role played by all who fought, as I think most people (who aren’t Koreaphiles) are aware of America sending troops, but not so aware of how many fought from other countries. In that sense, it still really is the Forgotten War, unfortunately.

Teardrop display from the War Memorial Museum, made from the dogtags of soldiers who fought in the Korean War

Teardrop display from the War Memorial Museum, made from the dogtags of soldiers who fought in the Korean War

When Koreans talk about the beautiful scenery or mountains in their country, and when this is the focus of marketing Korea, I feel it would pay dividends if people could be more specific about which mountains they are referring to. Firstly, there’s no reason to expect that a foreigner won’t be able to muster up at least a vague attempt at pronouncing the proper name, or remembering it. People manage to say “Mount Fuji”, right? Why not Mount Halla? Seorak Mountains? Saying Korea is 70% mountainous isn’t going to attract anyone, it’s also far too vague to give someone a decent impression of the terrain. Not all of Korea’s mountains are particularly beautiful or have certain appealing features. There needs to be an identification of the ones that do have a special appeal – Namsan looks out over the whole of the city, such and such mountain has lots of temples, or a beautiful waterfall, or a giant buddha statue. This approach has worked to some extent in China, and even more so in Japan. No country is entirely amazing; those charged with marketing Korea need to find the parts that they really wish other people could see, and then encourage it, with reasons. The same goes for temples and palaces. There are spectacular examples of both in Korea, and some with incredible histories. These should be made known known. The aim should be to have someone living in Australia, or France, or anywhere else, who’s never had any interest in Korea, to be able to say, “hey, there’s that big temple in Korea, it looks really impressive.” People can picture certain buildings in Japan, China, even if they don’t know the name or anything about them. Korea needs to try and achieve the same level of basic awareness and appeal globally for some of its sites.

Another potentially massive selling point for Korea is the food. It really is unique (again, forgive me for using that word so much – but it is), and it’s glorious! Why is Indian food so popular outside of India? Because it’s different, it’s spicy, and because Indian people move in numbers outside of India. It gets slightly adapted for the local palette, and becomes well known and well liked. India is famous for its food, and most people have never eaten Indian food in India. The same can be said for Japanese food, it’s unique, and has spread, and people think of the two together, despite probably never having eaten Japanese food in Japan. Again, Chinese food is the same. Surely Korea could also benefit from its cuisine becoming better known, better marketed, and better adapted outside of Korea.

I’ve heard that Korean food is quite popular and well-known in parts of North America, which bodes well, but in other parts of the world it’s definitely under-represented. For example, in my native London, the vast majority of customers in all the Korean restaurants are Korean. Of the ones I’ve been to, the one that is most popular among non-Koreans is the most expensive and the least authentic. But the Chinese food you get in London is generally not that authentic. Neither is the Indian. They adapt to succeed. In fact, there is one reasonably authentic and quite good Korean restaurant near Centre Point in London (called Assa for those who’re interested) that permanently has a sign in its window advertising for staff. It’s in Korean. Nothing wrong with hiring Koreans I suppose, but surely they’d have to be able to speak English to serve in a restaurant in London? And would it be that bad if a non-Korean worked there? This may just be a phenomenon that’s limited to Koreans in Britain, but the small Korean communities in Britain tend to be very insular, and often try and replicate a mini-Korea exclusive to the resident Koreans wherever they live. I’m not bemoaning this, I don’t even think it’s wrong, but there’s also nothing wrong with opening up to others around, and both welcoming them among you, and trying to establish yourself among them. In that way, I’m sure more interest could be generated in everyday things such as Korean food, etiquette and so.


But, if you can get people interested in the cuisine in Korea, why not encourage them to visit traditional markets. I’ve heard that some Koreans think that tourists should be discouraged from visiting these markets, as they might be a bit dirty and “backwards.” Ridiculous. They’re great fun, and nothing at all to be ashamed of. I know people who have never been to China know of it’s quirky street markets selling all kinds of wonderments, that would surely be perfectly mundane in China. The same should apply to Korea in my opinion. Folk villages are also great for getting some of the traditional culture and way of life, and what Korea was like before it became thoroughly “modernised.” I’d also obviously advocate Kyŏngju for the same reasons. Kyŏngju should take a leaf out of Kyoto’s book and emphasise the traditional aspects – come on, it’s fun!

That said, according to this article, Korea’s most popular tourist attraction in terms of number of visitors per year is actually Everland, and four of the most popular nine tourist attractions in East Asia (China, Korea, Japan, the article decides to just call this area ‘Asia’) are theme parks. Time to invest in Everland and Lotte World, methinks.

The first point of contact for most tourists to Korea will inevitably be the capital, Seoul, and many won’t even make it outside of the big city. But maybe they don’t have to.

  • Cheonggyecheon
  • Any of the futuristic-looking parts
  • The mountains around it
  • Cheap, efficient, clean subway – rivals any other in the world, surely
  • Temples/palaces – the old and new thing again

As you will see from this post, I’m fascinated by Korean shamanism, and I hate the way it’s been suppressed by Koreans. I cannot abide by those Koreans who think it’s “backwards” and doesn’t have a place in modern Korea. Jesus supposedly lived over 2000 years ago, and they can find a place for him, so live and let live, it’s part of the national history, culture and society. I also think this is exactly the sort of thing tourists would love to see, and not in a false, showy sort of way. Practicing shamans should be encouraged, and shamanistic sites should be protected, not destroyed. I also believe Korean shamans could find a place in the pop culture aspect as well.

Another draw is Buddhism. It’s always been flavoured with a sense of the exotic in the west, with some famous temples, warrior monks, meditation and so on. Korea has many brilliant temples, a long and vibrant Buddhist tradition, and this should be maintained, and potential tourists should be informed of it. Temple stays are also eye-opening experiences.

Final one, apologies for the length of this post again, and this one is quite possibly not at all viable, but it’s not my field. Here goes… Reintroduce tigers and bears to the countryside. That would be immense. Tigers are the national animal, and there aren’t even any left!

Male Sumatran tiger in the wild STCP 2000

Again, I’ve gone on for so long, I think it’s a suitable place to leave this post. There will be a third post that will deal with how the whole thing should be effectively marketed – the final stretch! Bear with me please, but until that’s up your comments are more than welcome!

Shamanism in Korea

Mudang - 무당

In my short blogging career, I’m well aware that I’ve written about subjects that have also been covered elsewhere, and I’ve also written about topics that receive at least some attention in the media or just general discussions, among both Koreans and non-Koreans. But for this post I thought I’d discuss something that is barely even recognised any more, and that is Korean shamanism. This is a subject that has little enough written about it in academic circles, let alone the blogosphere. Yet here I am, and I’m willing to give it a go, as it’s a subject I’ve put a fair amount of time into learning about, and I find it absolutely fascinating. As a brief aside, unlike my previous article on Confucianism in the contemporary education system, I won’t include academic references in this post, but if anyone would like a list, please just let me know!

So, Korean shamanism… where to begin? Well, with its origins seems the most logical place. Korean shamanism dates to before recorded history on the Peninsula, and developed over time, and with the people who practiced it. Korean shamanism was brought to Korea from Siberia, along with the first inhabitants of the Peninsula. In fact, it is still quite easy to see the connection between the shamanism of Korea and the shamanism of Siberia in modern times. One simply has to look at how the shamans themselves dress in the two areas. For example, the headdresses worn by shamans of both areas are remarkably similar. The connection is even more pronounced if we glance back to the Silla kingdom, where it is believed that the kings acted as national shamans.

Siberian shaman dress & Silla crownSiberian shaman’s dress & Silla crown

In this image we can clearly see the forms of trees and shapes representative of animalistic spirits common to both items of headgear. The crown on the right is a well known piece, found in a tomb in Kyŏngju and belonging to a king of Silla. The gold and decoration on the crown shows the king’s exalted status, and arguably that of shamanism at the time, and its form reveals that the king did in fact act as a shaman of a tradition connected to Paleo-Siberian shamanism. The logical progression of course it that for the original inhabitants of the Korean peninsula, shamanism was their religion and system of belief, and so it arrived in Korea with them from Siberia.

So that’s where it came from, and how it got to Korea. But what, exactly, is it? Korean shamanism is variously described as superstition, a religion or more than a religion, depending on from whose perspective one views it. The perception of shamanism in Korea has also changed over time, at various points being state-sponsored then at other times actively persecuted by the ruling classes. The form of shamanism practised in Korea today has been designated ‘superstition’ largely due to its age. Korean shamanism is based on the fundamental principle that every natural object has a spirit.

Mountain Mist

Prior to the formation of the Koryŏ dynasty in 918 AD, shamanism flourished in the Three Kingdoms of Korea. As mentioned previously, the Silla Kingdom makes a particularly insightful study of ancient shamanistic practices. It provides a clear indicator of the importance of shamanistic beliefs, rituals and other practices on all levels of Korean society at the time. The best examples of this are the gold crowns that have been excavated from the burial mounds and tombs of Silla kings. The structure of these elaborate crowns clearly depicts trees, antlers and other facets of nature, all of which are items of great importance to the spiritual ideas of shamanism in Korea. These crowns also evoke the simpler but very similar designs of headdresses worn by shamans in what is now Siberia, so the connection between the two is quite clear. Furthermore, as we can see to this day similar headdresses used by shamans in Korea, the theory has been proposed that Silla kings took the role of a state shaman, an intermediary with the spirits on behalf of their people. Thus the entire Silla state would have been based around the principle ideas of shamanism, and in practice it seems the state was also ran a system which, on a large scale, incorporated shamanistic ritual.

Although the history of the Koryŏ dynasty, the Koryŏ-sa contains more accounts of shamanism than in any of the histories of previous eras, there is also a notable ambiguous attitude towards shamanism. It is clear that shamanism remained an important part of life and the belief system of the masses, but the bureaucracy were almost as a whole actively against maintaining shamanistic practices, and we can see a similar situation in some ways today, but I’ll look at this a bit later. In the Koryŏ-sa it is documented that the literati submitted memorials to the king outlining abuses perpetrated by shamans and even suggested policies to diminish their influence (this comes from here). At one point the literati were so successful in this that they managed to have the shamans driven from the capital and their rites were banned.

Although the bureaucratic officials seemed to have had some success at reducing the influence of shamanism, the Koryŏ-sa also makes it clear that the ruling families of Koryŏ, like the common people, still utilised the services of shamans to aid their ruling of the state. The Koryŏ-sa contains references to more than twenty occasions when kings gathered shamans to pray for rain. Shamans also seemed to prosper thanks to the royal family in times of need. On the other hand, there are also a few examples of members of the royal court being charged with using shamanic black magic to influence dynastic selection. During this period, although shamanism clearly remained important to Korean society, it never enjoyed the same state patronage that Buddhism did, coming to prominence in Korea during the Koryŏ period and becoming the state religion. However, successful shamans could still become moderately rich, and those who avoided the purges by the bureaucracy could sometimes hold considerable unofficial power within the region in which they operated.

The Chosŏn dynasty of Korea saw an even more drastic transition in the status of the shaman. In rural life the beliefs and practices of shamanism held firm, although the state in its entirety attempted to aggressively suppress it. There are very few official accounts of shamnism from this period, and none favourable. The state officials of Chosŏn would encourage the studying of Neo-Confucian principles and ideas to try and discourage the general populace from indulging their apparent “fascination” with shamanism, Buddhism, and Taoist ideas.

This also brings into the analysis another important factor, and that is the fact that there were many philosophical and religious beliefs in Korea throughout its history. In order to survive, these different beliefs obviously either had to struggle against one another, or they had to absorb aspects of the others, and in turn have aspects of themselves absorbed in order to exist alongside each other. In looking at the Chosŏn period, which became arguably the most Confucian state the world has yet seen, clearly the greatest conflict with shamanism came from the Confucian literati. This is not due simply to a difference in ideology and practice, but instead is due to the humanistic nature of Confucianism. Confucianism requires everyone within the society to obey by the rules of the state, created by man, and implemented by man. There is a strict hierarchy, with the worthy scholars at the top, and everyone defers to those above. Shamanism does not partake of this ideology, as it is based on a belief that every natural object has a spirit, and man should live in accordance with nature and the spirits. Therefore it’s not the rules of any man, scholar or not, that a believer in shamanism would follow. Confucian rulers require utter control and awareness of all that occurs within their state. Shamanism is one thing that could never be controlled in this way, and by its nature it falls outside the sphere of possible Confucian influence.

Buddhist Temple

Buddhism, on the other hand, is the best example of a religious belief and philosophy that entered Korea later than shamanism, yet neither notably struggled against it nor tried to remove it. Instead, in order for Buddhism to gain acceptance among the non-political classes it had to absorb some of the aspects of their native beliefs, and find a way to exist alongside these beliefs. And with the rising popularity of Buddhism, shamanism had to do the same to avoid dying out. This continued to the present day, where one can now find in the centre of Seoul, within Korea’s shamanic  centre, self-described Buddhist temples where the monks offer guidance on how to make offerings to the spirits of shamanism. This part of Seoul is truly unique and quite incredible, and I’ll discuss it below.

There are two methods for a person to become a shaman in Korea, which remains the same to this day as it always has. The first is by inheritance. Although this is rare, presumably due to shamans generally not marrying, when it does occur the child would almost always be trained as a shaman. The other way, which is the usual method, is to first suffer from an inexplicable disease which only disappears when the inflicted becomes a shaman. This is believed to be a calling by the spirits to be a shaman. The shamans who inherited their position are not thought to have supernatural powers, and thus cannot tell fortunes or act as an intermediary with the spirit world. Their main role is to perform basic rites. Most Korean shamans, however, are believed to have supernatural powers to heal, and act as an intermediary between the human world and the spirit world. This belief that a shaman has some form of supernatural power would have given the shaman considerable power in traditional rural village life especially, and they would have been both a healing woman or man as well as a spiritual guide, to the point of being the voice of the spirits.

춤추는 무당

A village mudang (shaman)

Every shaman in Korea would have had various items of spiritual and ceremonial importance that would be used when performing the kut, or shaman ritual. The most obvious of these is clearly the clothes they wear. Shaman clothes are generally bright in colour, often strongly featuring the colours that are used in East Asia to identify the five cardinal directions, which all have a representative great spirit. These colours are blue, the colour of the eastern direction and dragon spirit; red, the colour of the south and the tortoise spirit; white for the west and the spirit of the tiger; black for the north and the crow, and yellow for the centre. These symbolic clothes are supplemented by a fan and bells, which the shaman waves with each hand during the kut, which are used to beckon favourable spirits and repel evil ones. Shamans also often use swords or long decorative knives as a way of warding off evil spirits and negative energies.


During a kut, the shaman’s soul is believed to leave their body, and they enter a trance-like state. During this time the shaman communicates directly with the spirits, while offerings of food and drink are made. All the while the shaman’s performance is accompanied by music, usually played by people who requested the kut, and the shaman will dance and sing throughout. Eventually the shaman will reveal the spirits’ intentions to the living. Most kuts contain twelve acts, and the shaman will change their clothes before each, and will communicate and be possessed by different spirits each act. Some kuts facilitate a confrontation of sorts between the living and the spirits of the deceased. During this type of kut, firstly angry spirits will be appeased, then the dead may air their grievances, and finally the living will do the same.

Korean shamanism has developed kuts for many different purposes. The first type of kut every shaman participates in is the ceremony of shaman initiation, which is in two parts, before and after the shaman receives their training. The most important kuts performed in Korean shamanism are rites to heal sickness, leading the dead into the afterlife, and praying to the spirits for a good harvest, as traditionally these all relate to events which would have affected an entire community, considering that traditionally a community would most commonly have been an agricultural or fishing village. Aside from these, two other kuts that a local shaman would regularly perform were kuts to ward off misfortune and to exorcise evil spirits and harmful energy.

Shamanism in Korea has undergone few changes in its long history, and its resilience as a system of belief is testament both to its adaptability when needed, but also to its importance to the people of Korea, despite any other influences opposed to it. However, during the Chosŏn dynasty and also notably under the presidency of Park Chung-Hee, shamanism was officially branded as merely a superstition with some cultural value, and this remains the view of the majority of Koreans today. Many Koreans, especially younger Koreans, refer to their native shamanism using the umbrella term “superstition.” Even more telling than this, however, is that these same Koreans also use the English word “superstition” when talking about shamanism with non-Koreans. This is a rather abstract word, and it seems to me that the only reason they choose to refer to shamanism as superstition is because they’ve been taught to portray it that way. This corresponds with the attitude of such political leaders as Park Chung-Hee, as well as with the near universal desire among Koreans not to appear backwards to people of other nations. Therefore it appears as though at some indeterminable point a group of people – probably school teachers – were instructed that everyone should be encouraged to explain traditional shamanism as superstition to non-Koreans. there are of course precedents in Korea for people to try and portray Korea in the way that they believe will be best accepted by non-Koreans.

If you’ve managed to get this far, firstly well done. Secondly, you may be surprised, but it is actually still possible to find forms of shamanism today that have remained almost completely unchanged. Firstly, rural villages often still have a local shaman, and although the local residents may not all have the belief in the practice that they would have had in previous times, kuts are still performed, and believers and practitioners can still be found. However it must be noted here that many kuts performed in Korea today are done so more as a cultural demonstration than for the perceived spiritual benefit they may bring. One extremely important exception to this is, as noted above, to be found in the centre of Seoul. On the slopes of Inwang Mountain – meaning the Benevolent King Mountain – there is a small village of traditional style low-rise houses and numerous small temples and shrines. The mountain has two rocky peaks, one of which resembles a man wearing kingly robes – the Benevolent King, and the other a tiger.

인왕산인왕산 – Inwangsan. The left peak is the Benevolent King, facing left and sitting down, and his tiger can be seen to the right. Source.

InwangsanOct04-022-742x417Here you can clearly see the Benevloent King or Sansin spirit, wearing what appears to be a crown.

The natural form of this mountain, with its stone Benevolent King and his tiger, has led shamanic believers to believe that it is in fact the great spirit of Korean mountains, Sansin, who is rising up from the mountain into the human world. It is this reasoning that makes this the most important spiritual site in Korea to believers in shamanism. Below these rocks in the village the temples claim to be Buddhist, yet belong to no Buddhist order, and have little to do with the way of the Buddha, and much to do with ways to serve the spirits. This village is also home to numerous shamans, shrines and other areas where they perform kuts that are requested by ordinary people who believe in the benefits these rites bring. People of all walks of life in Korea come to this place to pray, make offerings to the spirits and to request kuts. It is not uncommon to find businessmen and women coming in small groups with offerings of food and drink and playing the music during a kut. It is here that one can truly see how shamanism in Korea has worn the pressures of the ages to survive into the present and beyond. Believers in shamansism gravitate to this place from all over, and it is clear to anyone who visits that traditional shamanism, with a history as long as that of the Korean people, still permeates through this society, perhaps weaker in influence than before, and certainly less conspicuous, but it is certainly still there, both physically and within the people themselves.

sanshinSanshin, the Mountain Spirit, with his pet tiger



422206794_0b6adb39f2Kuts being performed at Inwangsan