Axis Mundi: the City and Geographies of Identity in Cheju Island, South Korea

This dissertation explores an emerging tourist destination’s transition from a former rural periphery into one of Korea’s fastest growing urban centers. In less than half a century, Cheju City, the capital of Cheju Island, grew from a sleepy provincial seat into a bustling tourist city with metropolitan ambitions. A central concern is how do residents of an emerging city become “urban”? Cheju Island has long been a curiosity in Korea due to its real and exoticized cultural differences from the mainland, but its present urban reality is often underadressed. The findings in this dissertation examine how the “Free International City” project begun since 2002 fundamentally altered ways of life and thinking and provoked complete reinventions of tradition and a rural Cheju imaginary. The new spaces of the city offered unprecedented means to organize resources and ideas. Cheju islanders developed their own urbanisms with local idioms that synthesize imported ideas to a Cheju-specific situation that also differs – and, at times, rejects – mainland Korean urbanisms. A further paradox of unprecedented contact with and interdependency on mainland Korea is that mainland-island divides have persisted rather than diminished. In the face of destruction, rural traditions and communities have also acquired a new vitality and definition as they become markers of island identity. Cheju City, as a constantly shifting geographical form and concept, functions as an axis around which islanders construct their everyday spaces and interactions amongst each other and with the wider world. From a combination of historical, statistical, and ethnographic perspectives, this dissertation analyzes the ways people of multiple walks of life articulate, imagine, enact, create, and resist the city.
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