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Early 20th century theater building at center of high-brow vs. popular culture debate

Proposal to turn historical building into K-pop concert hall ignites controversy

Located in a vibrant shopping district at the heart of Seoul is a five-story building that stands as a unique example of colonial architecture.

The Myeongdong Theater, a National Theater Company of Korea venue and a sanctuary of South Korean theater, is at the center of heated debate over what performing arts genres it should allow under its roof.

Myeongdong Theater (National Theater Company of Korea)
Myeongdong Theater (National Theater Company of Korea)

The theater has gone through a series of transformations since opening its doors as a cinema in 1934 during Japanese colonial rule. Briefly used as a residence for Seoul city officials following Korea’s liberation in 1945, it was designated as a national theater in the 1960s only to be sold off in 1975 to a private entity. Artists and local merchants saved the building from demolition in the early 2000s, prompting the government to repurchase the property and reopen it in 2009 as a theater dedicated to serious drama.

Yet again, the Myeongdong Theater finds itself challenged to defend its status as a theatrical arts arena after Rep. Lee Hae-chan of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea held a meeting with players in the tourism business during a visit to Myeongdong on Jan. 3. Lee and fellow ruling party lawmakers Rep. Ahn Min-seok, Rep. Woo Sang-ho and chief policymaker Kim Tae-nyeon met with representatives of associations representing local merchants in the “special tourist zone,” as well as the Korea Association of Travel Agents and the Korea Tourism Association, to discuss ways to boost tourism in the area.

At the suggestion of the tourism association chairperson, Rep. Lee contacted Culture, Sports and Tourism Vice Minister Roh Tae-gang and pitched a proposal to “turn the Myeongdong Theater into a performance complex for K-pop concerts to draw more visitors.” The vice minister responded affirmatively.

On Jan. 7, the ministry asked the government-funded National Theater Company of Korea to devise “ways of coexisting with Myeongdong’s businesses,” sparking debate over the future of the theater.

The performing arts community struck back instantly.

Lee Sung-yeol, the National Theater Company of Korea’s artistic director, came to the defense of what said was the Myeongdong Theater’s raison d’etre, saying the venue was a cultural asset that kept Myeongdong alive as a center for arts and culture.

“Turning it into a K-pop concert hall would inhibit it forever from (elevating itself) to a status such as that held by Covent Garden of London,” he argued.

The National Theater Company’s 2018 production “Oslo” (National Theater Company of Korea)
The National Theater Company’s 2018 production “Oslo” (National Theater Company of Korea)

The Myeongdong Theater “exists not to turn a profit for the local economy, but to vouch for the people’s right to enjoy culture as a performance space dedicated to theater,” Lee added. “You can’t order around art with the logic of capitalism.”

Opposition parties jumped into the debate. Rep. Choung Byoung-gug of the minor opposition Bareunmirae Party and a former culture minister, issued a statement on Jan. 15 calling on the Democratic Party of Korea to immediately retract its proposal to convert the theater into a K-pop concert hall.

In a statement, Rep. Choung said it was “a physically (and) commercially impossible idea to turn a medium-sized, 558-capacity theater into a pop concert hall.” Saying it was the government’s role to support neglected fine art forms and to open up a conduit for their popularization, he called on Rep. Lee and the ruling party to “recall once again the basis of arts and culture policy, which is to ‘support without interfering.’”

In response to the backlash, the Democratic Party of Korea denied that Rep. Lee had taken any concrete steps to commercialize the theater, saying it had only been a suggestion from the tourism association and that neither the lawmaker nor the party intended to follow through.

On the same day, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism likewise clarified that the ministry had no plans to “re-examine the alteration of the Myeongdong Theater’s purpose,” explaining that the theater was exclusively for dramatic arts and the ministry intended to keep it that way.

The Culture Ministry added that it was working with the National Theater Company of Korea to “inspire a boom of dramatic performances at the Myeongdong Theater and actively seek measures to attract more visitors and tourists.”

While the matter has been settled for the time being, there is no guarantee the theater won’t face similar challenges in the future.

Lee, who was appointed the theater company’s director in November 2017, says he has spent the past year “trying to build a system upon which works of theater can last longer.”

“It is our aim to lower the theater’s walls and reach out to a wider audience,” he said, promising to strengthen the national theater company’s brand as “a laboratory for experiments in dramatic arts and a stage for diverse productions.”

By Kim Arin (
Korea Herald Youtube