What's in a neighborhood name?
The Seochon neighborhood that sits between Mt. Inwang and Gyeongbok Palace is no stranger to controversy.
For most of the 2000s, debates over apartment-style redevelopment riled the neighborhood. In 2008, the city of Seoul stopped redevelopment plans for most of the area and began drawing up plans for preserving the remaining traditional-style Korean houses, or “hanok.” This plan became official in 2010, and several hanok have been renovated with city support. A debate redevelopment continues in a section of Ogin-dong that was left out of the 2010 plan.
As if this were not enough, a new controversy over the name of the neighborhood erupted in 2011. Rumor has it that a few residents thought that the ``seo," which means west, in Seochon, symbolized the setting of the sun, which in turn symbolized the twilight of life. They complained to the Jongno District, and, through ``local connections" managed to get the new mayor of the area to take up their cause.
The neighborhood started to be called Seochon around 2008 when the city of Seoul stopped plans for redevelopment. Once the city's plans for preservation became official, the use of Seochon expanded greatly as the area attracted increased media attention and tourists who enjoy the area's retro atmosphere.
At the same time, a group of local merchants and long-term residents were starting to form a group to help promote the neighborhood. This group originally planned to use Seochon in its name. The group suddenly dropped it in favor of Sejong Maeul, or Sejong Village. The group decided to use Sejong Village because King Sejong the Great was born in the neighborhood. The exact location is still being debated, but a stone marker in Tongin-dong sits on one of the probable sites.
The mayor of Jongno District picked up on the Sejong Village theme and decided to promote the name officially. In early May 2011, the Mayor appeared at a ceremony that ``officially declared" Sejong Village as the name for the area. During the rest of the year, Jongno District promoted Sejong Village in is publications and actively discouraged the use of Seochon.
This style of government might have worked well in Korea's authoritarian past, but it ran into difficulty in the more democratic present. Most residents of the area do not use a name that refers to the entire neighborhood, but rather the name of the district, or ``dong" in which they live. This means, of course, that many residents do not use Seochon either, but Sejong Village is even more alien because, unlike Seochon, it has never been used in the media or other public discussions about the neighborhood.
Many younger residents, in particular, reacted negatively to Jongno District's attempt to use Sejong Village. The lack of public hearings and other opportunities for open discussion struck them as anti-democratic.
Others worry that Sejong Village might promote kitsch tourism, which would damage the uniqueness of the neighborhood. Unlike merchants and landowners who see the development of the neighboring Samcheong-dong as an opportunity, many young people see Samcheong-dong as an example of crass commercialization that will end up destroying the neighborhood.
Since 2011, Jongno District's official promotion of Sejong Village has caused stress for residents in an area where the wounds of debates over redevelopment are still fresh. To the silent majority for whom a neighborhood name is not necessary, the debate is a sideshow that detracts from more serious concerns. To residents who prefer Seochon or another name, the debate is an example of the anti-democratic misuse of government power. Only a small core of strong supporters of Sejong Village is happy.
Clearly something is wrong. One of the basic principles of democracy is majority rule. Another is minority rights. Together these principles work to ensure that government policy reflects what the majority wants to do, but without infringing on the rights of those who have different opinions. This often results in a compromise that makes the large center happy. It also builds trust in the process of decision making itself.
On June 10, the group promoting the name Sejong Village plans to hold a 1st anniversary ceremony. This is their right, just as it is the right of citizens who prefer another name to make their views heard. The important question for this June 10 ― itself the 25th anniversary of the massive pro-democracy demonstrations that led to democratization in 1987 ― is whether the mayor of Jongno District will attend as an official promoter or an invited guest.
This will tell us much about the state of democratization at the local level on the 25th anniversary of Korea's most successful citizens' movement.
The writer is a professor at the Department of Korean Language Education at Seoul National University. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.