It would be awfully clichéd to call Seoul, where I live, a place of contrasts between old and new. And yet that texture really does manifest everywhere in Korean life, most palpably on the streets of the capital. In my favorite neighborhoods, one passes through a variety of different eras walking down a single alley. “Third-wave” coffee shops and “newtro” bars coexist with family restaurants unchanged for decades and even small industrial workshops. Those workshops produce clothing, plumbing fixtures, printed matter, electronics, and much else besides, in many cases late into the night. For all its reputation as a high-tech “Asian Tiger,” this remains, clearly and presently, a country that makes things.
You can see just how Korea makes things on the Youtube channel All Process of World, which has drawn tens of millions of views with its videos of factories: factories making forks, bricks, sliced tuna, sheepskin jackets, bowling balls, humanoid robots. The scale of these Korean industrial operations ranges from the massive to the artisanal; some products are unique to twenty-first century life, and others have been in use for centuries.
On the traditional side, All Process of World has provided close-up views of the making of ceramic teapots, wooden window frames (as you would see in a classical Korean hanok), handheld percussive moktak to aid Buddhist monks in their chants, and even jeogori, the distinctive jackets worn with hanbok dresses.
Judging by the comments, All Process of World’s many viewers hail from around the globe. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, given Korea’s newfound worldwide popularity. But that so-called “Korean wave” owes less to the appeal of Korea’s traditional culture than its modern one, less to its rustic yet elegant pottery and brilliantly colorful formalwear than to BTS and “Gangnam Style,” Parasite and Squid Game — whose “robot girl” appears on a rug made in one All Process of World video. Another shows us the production of an equally modern item, the face masks seen everywhere in Korea during the past two years. Just a few weeks ago, the government gave us the okay to take those masks off outdoors. While hoping for the arrival of fully post-COVID era, we’d do well to keep in mind how the past always seems to find its way into the present.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.