The 10 Magazine Book Club hosted a remarkable event on Saturday, September 14, titled “Seoul as a Mecca for the Creative Class in the 21st Century.” This open discussion about Seoul’s potential was led by Dr. Emanuel Pastreich and Dr. Ogan Gurel, both graduates of Yale and Harvard who have made Seoul their base of operations.
Dr. Pastreich is a professor at Kyung Hee University and the director of the Asia Institute, a think tank dedicated to issues in technology and culture. Dr. Gurel, by contrast, is a director at the Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology and a visiting professor at Sungkyunkwan University’s Advanced Institute for Health Sciences and Technology. One approaches the question of Seoul’s potential from a liberal arts perspective as a professor of literature who has worked on technology policy, whereas the other comes from a scientific background, but is also a literary figure in his own right with a novel to his name.
The moderator was Walter Foreman of Korea University, famed host of the TBS talk show “Inside Out.” Mr. Foreman led an excited discussion on new opportunities in Seoul with the audience of over one hundred expats and Koreans. Some members of the audience asked practical questions about setting up one’s own business in the culinary field. Others asked more abstract questions about the requisites for creating a Mecca for creativity.
Dr. Pastreich and Dr. Gurel stressed the remarkable advantages that Korea has because of its universal healthcare that frees young people of the burdens that many young Americans face. They also noted the advantages of the remarkably high level of education found throughout the country that supports President Geun-hye’s “Creative Economy” policy, and its new emphasis on startups and innovation.
Pastreich explained the essential problem in Korean society that has held back this Renaissance with reference to the spooky uniformity of Korean apartment buildings. He explained that although one might get the impression that Koreans are not creative from looking at those cityscapes, in fact, if you go to a gallery in New York you will see that a significant amount of the creative work is by Korean artists. The problem, he suggested, is not that Koreans are uncreative — they are more than anyone — but that the creative artists, designers, and architects of Korea simply are disconnected from the administrative class of Korea and therefore not consulted about design. The problem is ultimately, he suggested, an institutional one.
Both speakers outlined an exciting untapped well of creativity in Korea that could make the city flower if the establishment only embraced such open expression. They suggested that Korea had the combination of capital, technology and cultural vitality to become something akin to Italy during the Renaissance.
Dr. Gurel responded to a question about what it would take to start a Renaissance in Korea today by stressing that three factors contribute to such change: surplus capital, openness to outside ideas, and the ability to change. Stressing the importance of the Medici family as a wealthy family that was a patron to important artists in Renaissance Italy, Dr. Gurel noted that Seoul, with its tremendous economic success, now has numerous such families. Dr. Pastreich pointed out that the Medici family, devoting much of their vast wealth to fund the emergence of art, philosophy and literature, was key to the Renaissance in Florence. Also, both panelists agreed that such families will be key to a global Renaissance centered in Seoul. Dr. Pastreich commented that “This city is now filled with more art galleries than one finds in most any city in the world,” adding, however, that sustaining this will likely require a substantial philanthropic spirit.
With respect to embracing foreign influences, another major factor in Renaissance, Dr. Gurel pointed out the example of the Roman Republic, which, like Periclean and Alexandrian Athens, was one of the major classical influences of the Florentine Renaissance. Unlike the other competing Italian city-states at the time, Rome was open to outside ideas and immigration — as protected by the city’s famous Twelve Tables laws — thus enabling the many civic, artistic, and military advances that led to that city’s ultimate ascendancy. Everyone agreed that Korea has been a society of great change, though certainly it has been a process with stresses and challenges. Dr. Gurel pointed out that one of Samsung’s core values is change. “Change is very deep in the company’s culture,” he said, adding “that this has contributed to Samsung’s own renaissance among global business.”
Dr. Gurel also touched upon the remarkable technological advancements that he witnesses while working in the Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology in Suwon and the inspiring environment that he finds there. He spoke of the fertile exchange of ideas, and philosophies, that happen between Koreans and internationals in that work environment, and how unique perspectives are valued and capitalized upon in that environment.
The event painted a positive portrait of Korea’s cultural and technological potential, suggesting that this may be just the beginning of a mass influx of creative minds to Seoul. Korea, with its reputation as a “hermit kingdom,” has not been seen previously as the place for innovation. But the wellspring of technology and culture in this metropolis is transforming that reputation at lightning speed.
Several members of the audience expressed a new conviction that Seoul has the right stuff to place the role as a Mecca for creativity in our age.