He's opened a window to Korean culture

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He's opened a window to Korean culture

Fourteen years as a journalist with the Yonhap News Agency taught Kim Hyung-geun a few things: how to write, the importance of humanities and that substance matters.

So when he retired his pen at the Culture Desk on March 22, he decided to apply these lessons toward a new endeavor, presenting Korean art and literature in a foreigner-friendly format that also stayed true to the form. So began Seoul Selection, a bookstore, cafe, viewing center and gallery of all things Korean.

Mr. Kim, better known as Hank, first decided that Korean culture needed to upgrade its image among foreigners in 1996 when he visited a folk village in Andong, North Gyeongsang province. His 2-year-old daughter picked up a souvenir pencil in a gift shop that did not reflect traditional Korea, but read "Made in China." Similarly, when he walked through the main drag of Insa-dong, Seoul's prime traditional tourist neighborhood, and found mostly gaudy key chains and imitation relics, his concerns grew. These "keepsakes" hardly depicted Korean culture.

Seoul Selection, however, does. English translations of Korean novels, poetry and guidebooks line one wall of the small shop, located in the basement of a building across the street from Gyeongbok Palace. A few French, Italian and German books can also be found on the shelves.

On another bookcase, the latest Korean CDs and DVDs are for sale, all with English subtitles. Korean sketches and fans, a coffee bar and a flat-screen TV occupy the rest of the wall space, while a few small, glass tables sit in the middle of the room.

"I thought that maybe we had to provide some more intellectual and cultural products," explained Mr. Kim, who says he knows the title of every Korean book that has been translated into English. "Seoul Selection acts as a window to Korean cultural things."

But the tiny Seoul Selection cannot meet Mr. Kim's lofty goal of introducing Korea to mass foreign audiences. His current efforts have concentrated on weekly movie viewings, a handful of social events and a weekly bulletin that now reaches more than 1,500 subscribers.

Most days, his shop sees just 20-30 patrons. Many Seoul Selection events are free, based on Mr. Kim's belief that people will only buy Korean products after they are exposed to them. A note by the door reads, "Buy something, keep Hank in business."

Mr. Kim's real objective, however, is not focused on Seoul Selection, but exporting Korean literature. Hence, his network of translators.

Mr. Kim believes that if the English translations are good enough, Korean stories and screenplays will sell overseas. So far, he seems to be right. A local film production company recently approached Mr. Kim to have his staff translate a Korean screenplay titled "Silmito." After Columbia Tristar pictures read it, officials there agreed to begin production on the film.

Seoul Selection's interpreters are also in the process of translating a children's book titled "The Mother Hand," expected to come out next year. After that, who knows? Maybe one day Korean culture will become an international commodity and Mr. Kim will smile, knowing that he was a part of it.

by Daniela SantaMaria

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