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Geographic Gateways to seeing and Understanding Korea

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This article introduces what I call a “Gateways” approach to teaching about places, and uses Korea as its example. I developed the Gateways approach around the assumption that popular support for geography in the schools is, and always has been, rooted in its ability to reproduce in the classroom the vicarious experience of geographical exploration. I take the mainstays of the popularity of geographical exploration to be a combination of human curiosity and mobility. On this basis, I suggest that teaching geography in the classroom might try to be more of a “moving” experience as it seeks to increase its popularity and effectiveness among contemporary students. My model for the Gateways approach to teaching is a hypertext environment, for example, that complex hypertext world created by tens of thousands of people with home pages on the Internet. The Internet has motivated curious students everywhere to enter into those infinitely digressive explorations we term “surfing the web,” and it is this type of journey through hypertext-like Gateways that I explore in this article.

Of all the senses that can be exploited by a teacher during a class on place geography, the most underrated and underutilized may be the sense of movement itself—the kinetic sense. The Gateways approach to teaching about places, therefore, is characterized best by its attempt to annihilate as much as possible the distance between the student in the classroom and another place. The Gateways approach to teaching about places creates an illusion that a student can not only experience another place firsthand without leaving the classroom, but that the student is also in control of the experience as it unfolds.


What is the Gateways approach, and how does it create this illusion? For an inspirational insight into the idea behind the method, we can turn to that great poetic ode to exploration, “Ulysses,” by Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809–92), in which he writes:

For all experience is an arch
where through
Gleams the untravell’d world
Whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.

Tennyson’s “arches” are enticements to discovery; Gateways through which a teacher can lead a room full of curious students toward vicarious and participatory experiences in imaginary places. The teacher’s challenge is to offer to take students somewhere interesting—for example, to the Korean peninsula—and to facilitate a classroom conversation that can keep them moving on the momentum of their own sustained curiosity.

Since humans are naturally curious, the potential already exists to get the class motivated, that is, moving. To do this, the teacher need not tell the student that he or she is entering a strangers’ world, for that might cool their curiosity by triggering their unwanted and unnecessary caution and hesitation. One reason that exploration on the Internet is so enticing to students is that it creates a romantic illusion that they themselves are the strangers; invisible strangers moving from place to place. This illusion advantages a sense of anonymity and immunity that empowers Internet users to enjoy a more enriching journey in cyberspace. However, using the Internet is not the same as learning from the Internet. Gateways empower teachers in classrooms


The classroom has something important that the Internet still lacks as a learning environment—the teacher. Adapting the hypertext environment to a classroom situation is a real challenge and opportunity for geography teachers. This is because the traditional classroom, though it persists as the standard institutional learning environment, is being rapidly reshaped by social and technological change—as are the role and autonomy of the teacher within it.

The Gateways approach reinforces the need for geography teachers in classrooms, while offering them more choice and flexibility in constructing knowledge. At minimum, the classroom geography teacher can facilitate place knowledge acquisition from within and between Gateways. S(he) can choose to do so in both expected and unexpected ways: for example, by helping students to think critically about the nature of geographical information and knowledge (and the need to sort out valid and authoritative geographical facts from misinformation and “noise”), by offering and soliciting explanations and interpretations, and by elaborating (with forethought, or ad hoc) on student experiences during their journeys through Gateways to other places.

In particular, the Gateways approach offers teachers and students the opportunity to learn to understand and appreciate a place “conditionally” as well as “with certainty.” This opportunity to enrich teaching through the Gateways approach as an interpretive art as well as an explanatory science is appropriate to the spirit of infinitely digressive explorations. It gives geography teachers more creative flexibility than if they preoccupied themselves mainly with teaching “the geography of a place” using more traditional and straightforward approaches (for example, rote memorization).


The Gateway approach is an especially timely and effective teaching tool in a multicultural classroom because it aims at educating through empowering students. The worst of geography classroom lectures, no matter how profusely illustrated with media materials, have usually disseminated knowledge in an inflexible linear fashion, proceeding on the assumption that students “don’t know what they don’t know” about places. In such classrooms students were never asked to teach others about places based on their own backgrounds and experiences. Today, in contemporary multicultural public school classrooms in the United States, students have multiple place backgrounds and experiences to share with others. Place knowledge can be constructed in the classroom by drawing these multicultural students as invaluable repositories of knowledge resources. The Gateways approach taps into their place knowledge randomly as the classroom “journey” proceeds, Gateway by Gateway. Now I will turn to the Korean example to demonstrate how the Gateways approach works.


The Gateways approach is humbly inquisitive to the extent that it assumes any place like the Korean Peninsula is not a complete, knowable entity, but a mysterious “black box” about which interesting stories can be told. This does not mean that Korea—though long stereotyped by outsiders as a “Hermit Kingdom”—is any more or less mysterious or scrutable than other places. Rather, it implies that any place is approachable through myriad Gateways as a mysterious and exciting exploration. In each case the teacher “enters” the black box through selected Gateways of his or her own choosing, enticing the students in the classroom to follow “as if” on a journey, and to make comments and ask questions along the way. My own choices of Gateways to seeing and understanding Korea are inspired by my studies of and experiences in Korea over a period of three decades.

In my example, I have created thirteen Gateways—thirteen peepholes and creep-holes in the black box called “Korea”—in order to entice students to look inside and wander about and discuss. These Gateways reveal and advantage my own long-term interests, experiences, and research proclivities as a student of Korean geography. However, teaching about Korean geography by entering through Gateways facilitates digressions into conditions and issues that most traditional systematic or topical geographies of Korea also cover, e.g. physical, social, economic, cultural, political, environmental, and so on. My Gateways approach has no strong intention of comprehensive coverage of Korea, nor of a beginning or end to the learning project. Its more modest goal, its weaker intention, is to create a sense of classroom community through enticing students to join in conversations about Korea and Koreans. This learning process is driven by the cooperative interplay of questions and responses that the vicarious Gateways journey generates. Knowledge acquisition through my selected Gateways is linear only to the extent that its first Gateway is located at one end of the Korean peninsula, and its last Gateway is located at the other end of the peninsula. The classroom conversation that constructs geographical knowledge about Korea along the way is a journey that can take many unexpected twists and turns, depending on the types of questions and responses generated by the Gateways themselves.

It is the casual conversation about Korea, not the rigor, significance, or veracity of its content, that means everything to the success of the Gateways approach. This reveals it as a somewhat radical teaching method insofar as its “as-if” or “virtual” journey through Korea is idiosyncratically investigative rather than carefully planned out. Moreover, the Gateways approach exploits the teaching potential in pluralistic methods; for example, in the contentious realm of “counterfactual geographies” (e.g., “Let’s imagine and discuss a Korea without mountains”) by challenging the assumption that learning the geography of Korea is a lesson that can be reduced to discerning right from wrong answers (see Langer [1997], who discusses common learning “myths” across the disciplines).


I will briefly introduce here my thirteen Gateways to seeing and understanding Korea. Their locations on the Korean peninsula are indicated on Figure 1. A few of the Gateways are conversations that begin with photographic images or drawings. Due to space limitations, I have provided here only a few of these as examples. There are many supplements to lantern slides with which to begin Gateway conversations, including: videotapes, Internet homepage materials, newspaper clippings, and souvenirs that can be passed around in class.

GATEWAY #1: Halla Mountain; in translation: “The Peak that Pulls Down the Milky Way.” Cheju Island (which, to mainland Koreans translates literally as “That Place Over There”) is a volcanic island formed by the successive eruptions of Halla Mountain over many millenniums. Mount Halla is a long-dormant volcano, last active in A.D. 1007. Cheju Island was once regarded with awe. Early Chinese histories and legends describe Halla Mountain as inhabited by “immortals.” The name of the mountain is related to the legends, as is “White Deer Lake,” a shallow pond located within the crater at the peak of Halla Mountain. From the peak of Halla Mountain the “Old Man Star” was once viewed above the southern horizon during annual pilgrimages. Sógwip‘o City is on the south coast of Cheju Island. Its name means “Port of Return to the West” and derives from a time when early Chinese emperors sent voyagers into the East China Sea in search of the “Blessed Isle” and its plants of immortality (which were once believed to grow on Halla Mountain).

GATEWAY #2: An ancestral tomb in a strawberry field on Cheju Island. Should the farmer move the tomb and grow more strawberries? Traditional “wind and water geographical theories” persist in East Asia, including Korea, and their advocates argue that tombs whose locations were selected by traditional geographers (geomancers) should not be moved. Modern geographers argue that traditional theories for grave siting are just superstitions, and that such tombs should be moved if they interfere with economic growth.

a tractor
A walking tractor. This photo is by the
author, and copies are available on request.

GATEWAY #3: A walking tractor (Figure 2). On Cheju Island, as throughout South Korea, the systematic introduction and rapid spread of the walking tractor led to rapid Korean modernization and industrialization. The farmer still walks behind the plow, though the modern internal combustion engine has replaced the traditional biological engines of the ox (on the mainland) and horse (on the island). The walking tractor is a catalyst of change, both a symbol of the “miracle” of Korean economic growth after 1960, and the simultaneous tragedy of rural depopulation and the rapid decline of Korean village self-sufficiency. This story of the walking tractor is published (Nemeth, 1988), and I will provide copies of this photograph to teachers by request.

a brick pillar
Figure 3. Ch’òmsòngdae, an old star-gazing pavilion.
Drawing by Jim Ashley.

GATEWAY #4: The Cheju Island pigsty privy. Traditional islanders and their pigs were once essential parts of a functioning biological community. Pig-keeping in privies has been banned by the South Korean government as a health hazard, but the government’s argument seems spurious in parts (Nemeth 1989). Rather, privy-pig keeping seems a good example of an efficient waste recycling system, and provides an interesting Korean Gateway for exploring issues in cultural geography, economic geography, environmental geography, and medical geography.

GATEWAY #5: The Hae’nyò (diving women) of Cheju Island. The woman diver tradition is dying in South Korea. It is a remnant of an isolated example of gender equity in traditional Korea’s male-dominated society, and provides a unique Korean Gateway for discussing issues in gender geography.

GATEWAY #6: Ch’òmsòngdae (Old Stargazing Pavilion) near Kyòngju City in South Korea (Figure 3). This is the oldest astronomical observatory extant in East Asia. It is approximately thirty feet in height, and was built in the seventh century by Queen Sòndòk of the Silla Kingdom (57 B.C.–935). Premodern Koreans—like the Chinese—were obsessed with heavenly objects, especially with the Pole Star. Contemporary South Koreans are obsessed instead with watching the “Gold Star” (a brand-name Korean television, that is). Ch’omsòngdae is also a cosmological model of the universe; the number and placement of every brick has cosmic meaning. For example, the number of bricks in the construction is the same number as the days of the year (366 bricks/days). Also, the structure has a height of twenty-eight rings of bricks; one ring for each constellation in the firmament. A spirited conversation in religious geography might begin with this Korean Gateway.

a bird
Figure 4. The Korean magpie. Drawing by Jim Ashley.

GATEWAY #7: The Korean magpie (Figure 4). Magpies are often associated with tigers in Korean folk tales and art objects. The discussion of the magpie as a cultural icon offers this Gateway’s insight into Korean history and behavior. The song of the magpie in the morning is supposed to bring good luck. Comparative scientific studies on magpies from industrial cities and from rural village sites can also be researched and discussed by geography students to reveal some of the ravaging effects of urban air and water pollution on bird life in Korea. For example, the egg size of the city magpie is smaller than the egg size of the country magpie. Also, a smaller percentage of magpie eggs hatch in cities than hatch in the countryside.

GATEWAY #8: Kimch’i pots. Some Korean traditions change more rapidly than others. Evidence on Korea’s kimch’i (spiced and pickled foods) culture is still everywhere throughout South Korea. Ubiquitous Kimch’i pots, as a traditional style of Korean pottery, combine the useful functions of pantry and refrigerator to store sauces, pastes, peppers, grains, and dried fish—as well as kimch’i. Some pots are as large as six feet tall! Kimch’i is now mass produced for a global market, but Korean clay kimch’i pots are rarely found in households outside of Korea. As a Gateway, these pots can entice students into free-wheeling conversations about such diverse things as Korean climate, folk and popular geography, and international marketing. To view images of the pots, and learn the traditions of their manufacture and details about what is stored within them, consult “Things Korean” on the Internet, at

GATEWAY #9: A condominium on Yòido Island, in Seoul, located in the middle of the Han River. In contemporary Seoul, the primate city of South Korea, even the richest apartment-dwelling residents cannot look upriver without anxieties. Urban apartment towers are Korean Gateways to geographical discussions about population, resources, economic growth, location theories, pollution, and relations with North Korea.

GATEWAY #10: The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). There is more to discover about the DMZ than the significance of its political and military geography. This particular Gateway (Figure 5) inspires a conversation that explores beyond the “38th parallel” to discuss the DMZ as a temporary natural wildlife refuge unintentionally created in demilitarized space. A Korean proverb that might be introduced in class during a conversation about the biogeography of DMZ is: “The sun shines even in a mouse hole” (Ha, 1970). Figure 5 is an example of anonymously mass-produced and distributed “protest art” drawn—probably by a South Korean college student—during the early 1980s.

GATEWAY #11: P’yòngyang City. Figure 6 is a contemporary North Korean painting of the capital city. The site and situation of P’yòngyang was so advantageous in ancient times that it has the longest history of all Korean settlements. P’yòngyang is an inland city located at the convergence of several rivers, but is accessible by river to sea-going ships. According to geomantic theory, P’yòngyang itself is shaped like a ship. The artist may have attempted to capture the traditional sense of confidence and tranquility that political leaders in the North have proclaimed as at the heart of North Korea’s stridently self-sufficient industrial society. Students exploring this Gateway might be encouraged to discuss topics like Korean reunification, historical geography, or the social, political, and economic implications of a strict policy of national self-sufficiency in an era of global trade and expanding markets.

GATEWAY #12: Tan’gun’s shrine. Tan’gun is the legendary founder of Korea. His shrine is located near P’yòngyang. The Tan’gun myth and shrine can be exploited by contemporary North Korean leaders to argue their continuous bloodline from Tan’-gun, thereby validating their own “Greatness” and authority. This Gateway can lead to a conversation about the role of founding myths in the construction of Korean national identity and sense of place.

GATEWAY #13: Paektu Mountain. The highest peak on the Korean peninsula, located at the northern margin of North Korea. Traditionally, Paektu Mountain was thought to be the conduit for heaven’s life force into Korea. Today, Mt. Paektu is a North Korean tourist mecca.

picture of a sign with coordinates
Figure 5. The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Anonymous linoleum print, circa 1980. Copies are available from the author on request.

By the time the class has explored and discussed these thirteen Gateways, the Korean peninsula and its peoples are better understood and appreciated, even though most issues in Korean geography are irresolvably ambiguous and tentative. Teachers and students through their cooperative journeys have learned to see many things, from many points of view. This humbly inquisitive Gateways experience can satisfy geography teachers and their students by leaving them humbly knowledgeable about Korea and Koreans. Their knowledge about Korea and their ability to think critically can be assessed and enriched through further conversations. Of course, the knowledge about Korea constructed by one geography class using the Gateways approach may differ from the knowledge constructed by another class. But this only demonstrates that what constitutes Korea as a place is the diversity in the many interesting and informative stories told about it. The conversation always continues, and the absolute truth about Korea remains quite elusive.


I have successfully used the Gateways approach in my regional geography classes, and have presented the approach successfully to teacher workshops sponsored by Geographic Alliances from California to Florida. Teachers have told me time and again that successfully enticing students to move vicariously through and beyond Gateways into places, and discussing these places as they journey along, offers a memorable learning experience for them. This is mainly because the Gateways approach seeks to avoid the tedium that students often suffer from when they are immobilized in the classroom by a lecture format; that is, by having to “learn about a place, in place.” Teachers who make “mindful” choices about their Gateways are those who may be able to use this approach most successfully (Langer, 1997). To conclude with a caution: A student in a geography class that offers the Gateways approach to learning about a place is not unlike a tiger in a circus ring who, reluctant at first, is enticed to jump through the hoop and is rewarded by the experience. After all, if the tiger doesn’t jump through the hoop, then the circus is over.

black and white photo
Figure 6. P’yòngyang, North Korea. Source: Pak, 1984: 20.

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