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Airport Modern: The Space between International Departures and Arrivals in Modern Korean National Imaginings


Challenging the Eurocentric discourse of Modernization, Modernity and Modernism and the reified notions of space that underpin them and which linger in contemporary theories of globalization, this dissertation argues that the examination of the historical, social and political economic processes and experiences of modernization and modernity at the intersection of particular national sites and the uneven geography of the global capitalist system is fundamental to grappling with how we can begin to talk about globalization in South Korea or East Asia and its corresponding social and cultural changes. In an attempt to read what is new about South Korea's Incheon International airport (2001) and the symbolism of the new `global' aesthetic that prominently shapes the sensational form of this strategic social space, I situate Incheon airport within the historical lineage of modern South Korean airports from the first International Style Kimpo terminal (1960) to the subsequent two traditional-styled kiwa Kimpo terminals (1980, 1988), which preceded the development of Incheon in 1989 as the largest-scale expansion of Kimpo airport. In addition, I trace back the historically produced cultural imaginary of the airport as a crucial space and symbolic marker of a highly ambivalent and contradictory experience of modernity to its linkage with early colonial era railroads and railway journeys. Like the contradictory character of modern postcolonial airports and air travel, the colonial railroads, appearing at the turn of the 20th century Korea, functioned as a significant international gateway and modern technology of long-distance transportation which doubled as the vehicle of the repressive and exploitative processes of colonial statecraft, as well as the vehicle of Korean nationalists seeking to re-appropriate modern ideas and technologies in anticolonial struggles for national independence.

I thus situate the new turn to `globalization' within the historically changing cosmopolitan-national discourses, practices and landscapes of Korean modernity from late 19th century `enlightenment and civilization,' to postwar Cold War internationalism, and developmental national capitalism--linked through the commanding modern trope and technology of railroads and airports. In part a rejoinder to the view of airports as `non-places' vacated of historical meaning or `flow spaces' homogenously aligning airports and cities from Tokyo to New York, I argue that the postcolonial airport in South Korea, like other airports in East Asia I would imagine, are embedded within situated historical-geographies of modernization and development which inscribe the airport not only as a product of uneven global processes but also a vehicle with which to maneuver the uneven terrain of global capitalism.

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