A friend of mine based in Bukchon, the pretty neighborhood in Seoul noted for its hanok, or traditional cottages, recently told me she was considering instituting a walking tour of the area for foreigners.
It is a decent idea. Bukchon is built on a human scale, so is appropriate for footwork, and preserves ― albeit in an ersatz manner ― much traditional architecture. And she would be an ideal guide. She is smart, outgoing and attractive and as an entrepreneur, has ideas to market it.
So what about content? I was surprised, when I suggested talking about the ghosts reputed to walk the area, that she had not considered this for her spiel. And I was gob-smacked, when I suggested that she benchmark ``London Walks," to find she had never heard of them.
"London Walks" are a series of guided, themed walking tours of various city districts. Rated among London's top tourist attractions, they are world famous.
Walks currently advertised tour the West End, the glamorous theater district; take in the sights of Shakespearian and Dickensian London; seek out Harry Potter and Sherlock Holmes; and wander the plush precincts of Kensington, the capital's poshest district.
Yet the most popular walk does not extol "Cool Britannia," showcase the haunts of England's literary greats or tour the neighborhoods of the rich and famous.
The top tour in the U.K.'s capital takes walkers to dank back alleys and shabby pubs, following in the footsteps of a 19th century serial killer who butchered booze-addled prostitutes in Victorian London's foulest neighborhood. He was never caught, but as the first "serial killer" in popular imagination, became iconic: He is known as Jack the Ripper.
The other consistently popular walk is the Ghost Walk. This after-dark promenade takes visitors through unlit passageways and medieval graveyards, past plague pits and execution sites and even into the cellar of a haunted pub which used to be a cell in London's most notorious prison.
What is my point?
People are naturally fascinated by the grimmer aspects of folklore and social history. Hollywood has long known that sex and violence sells, but to return to London, walking tours are not the only attraction to market historical blood and guts.
In the waxwork museum Madam Tussauds, the most famed exhibit is the Chamber of Horrors. Inhabitants include such figures as Vlad Dracul and the wife murderer Dr Crippen; exhibits include a bloody guillotine and a torture wheel.
At the Tower of London, the 11th century fortress on the Thames, visitors find the torture instruments and chopping block as fascinating as the crown jewels, and are regaled by gory and ghostly tales by the Yeomen Warders who guide tourists.
And one of London's most popular (and expensive) attractions is the London Dungeon, which portrays plague epidemics, the Great Fire of London, pre-modern surgery and the Ripper murders. The attraction's concept has been replicated (and localized) in Edinburgh, Hamburg and Amsterdam.
Korea's history is a rich pageant through which monarchs strut, rebels plot and villains scuttle. Yet tourism operators and guides here seem reluctant to present the grimmer, gorier aspects of Korean history, bar atrocities carried out by the Japanese.
This is particularly true in the palaces. Their pillared halls were once the settings for inter-clan feuds and poisonings, for sibling rivalries and sexual dalliances. Yet among the reams of publicity material presenting the palaces and their architecture, there is precious little information on this fascinating stuff.
Who killed who? How? What were the harshest aspects of Joseon justice? Who were the eunuchs? What was the surgical procedure? Who chose the concubines? What did their lives consist of? Etc, etc, etc.
Beyond Joseon palaces, recent history offers plenty more bloody meat. The horrors of counterinsurgency and war; the brutal activities of state enforcers during the authoritarian years; the sufferings of the laboring class who created the "economic miracle"; and so on.
None of this is well presented or packaged. Is sex and violence undignified? Do tales of disease and destruction, of bloodshed and oppression, besmirch the national image?
Not necessarily. As the London examples show, displays of gruesome facts and folklore do not denigrate the capital, rather they add another layer to its multi-faceted attractions.
Moreover, a focus on the gruesome is one way to interest children in history, a subject that is poorly taught and presented. Witness the extraordinary success of the "Horrible History" children's books: Over 25 million have sold in 30 languages. Their titles ("Vile Victorians," "Loathsome London," "Rotten Romans," etc.) suggest their approach: Present history using horror and humor.
Of course, the London tourist attractions described above are not for children; they are "adults only." But this is an opportunity, not a complication: Segmentation of historical attractions implies wider potential.
Summer is over. When it comes to next year's presentation of Korean historical attractions, I'd respectfully suggest that the nation's tourism czars should examine sex and violence, and consider the promotion thereof.
Andrew Salmon is a Seoul-based reporter and author. His latest work, "Scorched Earth, Black Snow," was published in London in June. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Picture of Buck's Row Whitechapel in London's East End (now Durward St) - site of Jack the Ripper's first murder on 31 August 1888. Mary Ann "Polly" Nichols' body was discovered 3 metres back from the corner of the tall brick building.
Take a Ripper virtual tour from the first murder scene. Click on the map below to view all 5 murder scenes and other key locations in the hunt for the world's first recognised serial killer.
Jack the Ripper's London 1888
This link will take you to the key points in London where Jack the Ripper carried out his 5 murders
over 71 days from 31 August 1888 to 9 November 1888. You can use this map to make your own Jack the
Ripper walk around London or to trace the movements of the Whitechapel killer whose identity has
never been established.