Above: Overlooking Itaewon’s namesake strip.
The South Korean capital’s only foreign enclave walks the line between vivacity and vice.
By Jonathan Hopfner
Photographs by Vincent Sung
When Seoulites speak of Itaewon, they usually refer to a mere kilometer-long stretch of street just south of the forested slopes of Namsan, a centrally located hill that is about the closest thing this sprawling metropolis has to a landmark. But the name is associated with a wider area, and occupies a disproportionately large space in the South Korean mind-set.
Itaewon could be said to begin on the broad, tree-lined avenue that curves from the entrance of Namsan Tunnel No. 3 past the fortified gates of Yongsan Garrison, headquarters of the U.S. military presence in South Korea. As the road skirts the bleak gray facade and hushed guns of the War Memorial, the scene has already begun to change. Sidewalks typically awash in a sea of muted suits and jet-black heads of hair are punctuated more and more with very foreign flashes of color: the fluttering yellow flags held aloft by Chinese tour-group leaders; the green military fatigues of U.S. troops; multihued African robes; the turquoise headscarves worn by pram-pushing Iranian housewives. On signs, too, English, Arabic, and Japanese begin to jostle for space with the severe lines of Hangul script, beckoning passersby into multilingual real-estate agencies or Mexican restaurants or Muslim bookstores.
Beyond the perpetually crowded three-way intersection outside the Noksapyeong subway station, the confluence of cultures reaches fever pitch as the road arcs east into Itaewon’s namesake strip—an unruly tangle of plus-size clothing stores, American diners, Irish pubs, Turkish kebab stands, and Italian delis. Throngs of non-Koreans lounge over bottles of wine on sun-flecked terraces, scoop up bags of spices, answer the call to prayer at mosques, and do dozens of other things that would be difficult or downright impossible elsewhere in Seoul. For Itaewon is arguably the only corner of this homogeneous city that foreigners have been able to claim as their own—though, in some ways, the South Koreans are on their way to claiming it back.
Like so many of Korea’s early encounters with the outside world, Itaewon’s long history as a foreign enclave is a troubled one, marked by conquest, conflict, shame, and scattered moments of triumph. There are indications that the area served as a base of operations for the Mongol, Japanese, and Manchu forces that took turns overrunning Seoul from the 13th century onward. Local legend has it that in the late 1500s, the commander of an invading Japanese army ordered his troops to rape the nuns residing in a Buddhist temple. The resulting pregnancies gave Itaewon its name, which is derived from the Chinese characters for “place of foreign births.”
Thankfully, the homonym-rich Korean language allowed this to be replaced eventually by a more pleasant character combination meaning “place of pear trees.” But the neighborhood’s associations with warfare and the darker excesses of human behavior endured. During Japan’s rule over the peninsula from 1910 to 1945, the colonial army made its headquarters in the Yongsan district, where it built stockades to hold dissidents. Even after the Japanese defeat in World War II, the zone was not returned to Korean hands; instead, the arriving units of American liberators moved in and grew more firmly entrenched with the onset of the Korean War. Businesses sprung up on the base’s outskirts to serve its new tenants: English-speaking tailors, burger shacks, black-market dealers, and bars—especially bars.
Throughout the postwar years and South Korea’s rapid industrialization, Itaewon was a rowdy anomaly, notorious for brawling soldiers and the legions of “juicy girls” who were so talented at separating them from their money. Even in the depths of President Park Chung-hee’s ironfisted dictatorship, it remained a largely independent fief, regarded with embarrassment or not regarded at all, patrolled by the U.S. military police instead of South Korean cops, free of the curfews that shackled the rest of the city.
Left to its own devices, by the 1990s Itaewon had grown into what old Seoul hands remember as one of Asia’s most raucous nightspots. Jeff Krauss, a 14-year resident of the city, recalls throngs of young soldiers swaying outside ramshackle bars with names like Texas or Number One or Forever Together, many wearing ten-gallon hats and supported by a hostess on each arm, their only concession to Korean culture a fierce thirst for the local firewater, soju. Heaving, smoky discotheques like the UN Club reverberated to bass beats and breaking glass, and nights often ended in pitched battles between various ethnic groups. “It was,” Krauss says, “the wild, wild East.” It was also, he’s quick to add, the only place in Seoul where anyone had a hope of finding a decent sandwich.
But then, as Itaewon moved into the new millennium, something changed. A likely turning point was the opening in 2001 of a long-promised subway line serving the area, deliberately delayed, some murmured, to hinder its denizens’ access to other parts of the city. Or perhaps it was the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States the same year, which resulted in American soldiers being confined to their bases and forced Itaewon’s vendors to reach out to new clientele. Discussions about relocating Yongsan Garrison—260 hectares of prime real estate at the heart of one of the most land-scarce cities on earth—also picked up pace, striking municipal authorities with the sudden realization that they needed to plan for the day when Itaewon would once again be theirs.
Whatever the cause, the changes have been striking. Drab storefronts have been spruced up and patchy sidewalks replaced with broad brick walkways. Knockoff-clothing stores now compete with genuine boutiques. At dusk, the intersection in front of the staid red-brick Hamilton Hotel throbs with activity, as well-dressed groups pour out of taxis and into minimalist lounge bars, gaily lit restaurants, or humble soju tents. The soldiers are still around, but they no longer dominate the scene. And, most surprisingly, a good number—perhaps even the majority—of these revelers are Koreans.
One of those best positioned to comment on the neighborhood’s transformation is Shawn Dorscher, current owner of the Hollywood Bar & Grill, a friendly, vaguely sports-themed haunt that’s been an Itaewon institution since his father opened it in the 1980s. The son of a U.S. Air Force veteran and a Korean mother, Dorscher came of age in an area that he remembers as being “totally different,” with a much heavier military presence and “constant fighting that was so bad that the cops actually avoided it.”