5, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 22
This Nazi-themed bar in Seoul promised months ago to tone down the
Hitleresque imagery in response to protests.
troubling fascination with Third Reich regalia elevates the Nazi look
to what's chic in South Korea
By DONALD MACINTYRE Seoul
A small photo of Adolf Hitler adorns the entrance to the Fifth Reich,
an upscale watering hole in Seoul's Shinchon university district. A larger
picture of the Führer hangs across from the bar, where waiters and waitresses
with swastika arm badges mix drinks that have names like "Adolf Hitler"and
"Dead." Young people chat at booths surrounded by statues of golden eagles,
romanesque columns and large glass display cases of SS insignia. Nazi
pins and Iron Crosses are on sale beside the cash register. It almost
looks like a quiet shrine to the man who sent 6 million Jews to their
deaths in the Holocaust. But this isn't a neo-Nazi hangout. Some of the
patrons aren't even quite sure who Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were. Others,
like regular patron Chung Jae Kyung, 22, are aware of the evil the Nazis
did but not especially moved by it. "I don't hate them, I don't like them,"
says Chung, a neatly dressed English-lit student with an easy smile. "But
at least they dressed well."
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is Nazi chic, Korean-style. An unthinking fascination with the icons and
imagery of the Third Reich is a small but troubling trend in South Korea,
a country that suffered enormously under the harsh colonial rule of Germany's
ally, Japan. The Fifth Reich is one of at least three bars in Seoul that
have decked themselves out in Nazi regalia over the past year. A big confectioner,
meanwhile, used Hitler's image in a television advertising campaign. And
the subways carry an ad, for a popular online community, that features
a young man dressed in leather Nazi garb. The ad's slogan: "We just want
edition's table of contents
It wasn't long ago that Korea shook off its own authoritarian past. But
the flirtation with things Nazi doesn't reflect an attraction to such
politics. Nor does Korea, with no Jewish community to speak of, have an
anti-Semitic streak. For many of the young people at the Fifth Reich,
it's simply a fashion statement, with part of the appeal being the taboo
nature of the symbols. What is puzzling is the seeming lack of outrage
at the commercialization and trivialization of the Holocaust. While
Koreans still feel resentment and anger toward Japan, few make a moral
jump of empathy with Hitler's victims. "It just doesn't ring bells," says
Cho Hae Jung, an anthropologist at Yonsei University in Seoul. "It was
a war in the West, not here."
The Fifth Reich did trigger protests earlier this year, but they came
from Korea's foreign community. Following complaints from the German and
Israeli embassies, the government pressured the bar, which was originally
called the Third Reich, to shut down, although no Korean law restricts
the purchase or display of Nazi memorabilia. Amid the controversy, the
bar changed hands and the new owner, Kim Kwang Tae, promised to redecorate.
He did, sort of: the big Nazi flags came down and Hitler's Third Reich
morphed into the Fifth Reich. But the Nazi theme still dominates, and
the menus and matchbooks carry the old name beneath an image of a menacing
black eagle. Kim still hangs the Hitler portrait because, he says, "I
don't have anything to put in its place." Anyway, he adds: "It's just
for decoration." (He hung three new Hitler photos in recent weeks.)
Nazi interior design is also the look of another Seoul bar, where outsized
wall paintings of Jim Carrey, Marilyn Monroe, Whoopi Goldberg and Adolf
Hitler adorn the entrance. Inside is an eclectic mix of Nazi and American
memorabilia and an uncaptioned photo of dead bodies sprawled on the ground.
("The secret to a good interior is making a place that is agreeable to
everyone," says owner Kim Jie Tae.) Across town, posters advertising a
high-end bar in the Itaewon entertainment district recently featured a
young man dressed in a black Nazi outfit doing a Hitler salute. The owner
denies it ever had a Nazi theme: the ads, he says, must have been put
up by a waiter who called himself Hitler. "Hitler the waiter," says Kim,
"has changed his name."
And what was Crown Confectionery thinking when it kicked off an ad campaign
for chocolate covered cakes? Inspired by Charlie Chaplin's Hitler in the
1940 movie The Great Dictator, the ad featured one of Korea's top comics
as the Führer. After taking a bite, Hitler suddenly switches from German-sounding
gibberish to fluent Korean and his mood mellows. The campaign was pulled
after the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles protested to Korean diplomats
in the U.S. Stylist Koh Jung Won, who designed Hitler's wardrobe (she
used an East German army uniform and sewed on Nazi patches bought in Seoul)
says the ads weren't meant to offend. "It was a fun thing," she says.
"We were trying to portray Hitler in a funny way."
The German and Israeli embassies, which have worked closely on the issue,
aren't laughing. They thought they had won a promise from Seoul to pressure
the Third Reich to shut down or de-Nazify, according to a German spokesman.
They plan to investigate the bar's latest incarnation. That's probably
not what Kim of the Third, sorry, Fifth Reich wants to hear. Already annoyed
at the fuss and media attention, he asked a recent caller: "Do you know
anybody who wants to buy this place?" Maybe somebody could just recommend
a new interior decorator.
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