It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that Seoul has changed in drastic ways over the decades. Going from a third-world nation to a first-world powerhouse over the course of one generation does that to you. It would be much quicker to write about ways the city hasn’t changed, but that list would be a little less thought-provoking.
After facing near-total destruction in the Korean War, Seoul was a wasteland for the majority of the ’50s, eventually being rebuilt by the ’60s (a process that still continues to this day). We’re going to look at the way the city has developed in recent history, mainly starting from the ’60s when reconstruction was in full swing, but also going back further to the Joseon Dynasty.
Expansion of Seoul’s territory
A while ago, I discovered a photo set on Flickr of Korea in the late ’50s to mid-’60s run by Bill Smothers, an American who spent several years of his childhood in Korea. His pictures, mostly taken by his parents, reveal a radically different landscape, including many of an undeveloped Itaewon. But perhaps most visceral is the caption of this photo, which reads: “June 1960_Bill Smothers at his New Itaewon Home, South of Seoul, Korea.”
Surely that’s a typo? After all, most people would place Itaewon in the northern side of Seoul, south of downtown but north of the river. Well, in 1960, Itaewon still hadn’t been absorbed into Seoul, as unthinkable as that may seem now.
Actually, the original boundary of Seoul was marked quite clearly by city walls. If you look at an ancient city map, the Seoul of antiquity existed between Namsan to the south and Bugaksan, Inwangsan, and Naksan to the north. Everything outside the city walls was not Seoul. If you exited through Heunginjimun in the east, you’d find not a huge fashion district but rather farmlands.
Yongsan had merged with Seoul during the Imperial era, along with the then-rural districts Mapo, Seongdong, Seodaemun, Dongdaemun, and Yeongdeungpo. The reason why Mr Smothers seems to consider his home south of Seoul seems to be less based on jurisdiction and more based on urbanisation.
The city has expanded steadily since then, swallowing up neighbouring territory. Gangnam was added in 1975, followed by Gangseo in 1977, Eunpyeong and Gangdong in 1979, Guro and Dongjak in 1980, Yangcheon, Seocho, Songpa, Jungnang, and Nowon in 1988, and then Gwangjin, Gangbuk, and Geumcheon as recently as 1996.
Thanks to preservation of the city walls, we can see the traditional boundaries of the city, but it’s hard to imagine.
Development of Gangnam and Yeouido
On January 21, 1968, a 31-member commando unit from North Korea infiltrated the South in an attempt to assassinate Park Jung-hee, making it as far as a checkpoint 100 meters from Cheongwadae. As a result, President Park became increasingly paranoid, leading to the founding of Unit 684 (as depicted in the movie Silmido with a few discrepancies) and less dramatically but certainly more significantly, the decision to refocus urban development south of the river. More specifically, Gangnam and Yeouido, now two of Seoul’s most powerful districts.
Yeouido was originally an island, hence the “-do” suffix. Originally used for pastures for livestock, the land was considered worthless due to the high risk of flooding. The name itself apparently even refers to its lack of value. The first major construction there was an airport built by the Japanese Imperial government in 1924. Then President Park’s plan called for a bridge to be built connecting Yeouido to Yeongdeungpo, which was completed in 1970, and development proceeded rapidly. In order to better fill in the land and connect the island with the mainland, earth was dredged from the nearby island of Bamseom, now an urban wildlife preserve.
Architect Kim Swoo-geun was given the opportunity to create the Yeouido Master Plan, intended to convert the island into the Manhattan of Korea. His plan called for the construction of both the National Assembly and City Hall on the island, which would be connected to each other by a long transportation corridor lined with megastructures. Ultimately the plan fell through and Yeouido was built with a more traditional city grid structure.
For more pictures of Yeouido’s development in the ’70s, follow this link.
Gangnam, now certainly best known for the omnipresent “Gangnam Style,” was once pretty much a wasteland. Now, it’s awash with glistening highrise projects, wide roads, and celebrities. For a closer look at Gangnam throughout its development, check out this gallery.
Seoulites move into highrises
Up until the ’60s, almost all the buildings in Seoul over a couple stories high were foreign-built, and not for use by Koreans. When residential highrises first started being built, nobody wanted to live in them. Koreans, who had spent their entire lives in one- or two-story buildings, felt it was unnatural to be so high off the ground. The government carried out a propaganda campaign linking tall buildings with success and development, and decades later, a majority of Seoulites live in highrises.
The first apartment complex in Seoul was Mapo Apartments, located in — you guessed it — Mapo. They were only about eight stories tall, and rather than use traditional Korean ondol heating they experimented disastrously in western-style space heating. You can read more about the Mapo Apartments here.
The first elevators were built in the Seun Arcade complex that ran north-south through the eastern border of downtown Seoul.
The first highrises were built prominently along the slopes of mountains, where they could be seen from far away and would herald the rush of urban growth that would follow. Some of the oldest complexes in Seoul are Okin Apartments on the eastern slope of Inwangsan (demolished recently to make room for parkland) and Hoehyeon 2nd Public Apartment on the northern slope of Namsan.
Today, the highrises that remain from this era seem dwarfed next to their modern descendants.
Streams are covered, then reuncovered
As Seoul was originally composed mainly of the Jongno and Jung districts, that means the river that originally flowed through the middle of the city was not the Han — which would have been a comfortable distance to the south — but Cheonggyecheon.
In short, Cheonggyecheon was once the main body of water of Seoul, but from 1958 to 1976 it was paved over to make way for roads. For most of modernity, Cheonggyecheon was a hidden tunnel under the city.
Then in 2005, it was uncovered again to create a public recreation space. But the Cheonggyecheon of today has little to nothing in common with the Cheonggyecheon of the ’50s and earlier.
The Cheonggyecheon of yore was a canal for drainage and required massive dredging projects every couple of years. After the Korean War, it was inhabited by a shantytown, leading to a buildup of garbage and sediment. The stream was covered to improve transportation infrastructure as well as evict the shantytown dwellers.
Today’s Cheonggyecheon is not a natural body of water, instead relying on water pumped in from the Han and its tributaries, as well as groundwater from subway stations. As well, the Cheonggyecheon we know is noticeably narrower than the original, as the stream has not been unearthed in its entirety, with narrow sections still buried underground.
Cheonggyecheon has been restored as a public park, as well as many other streams around the city including Hongjecheon, Jungneungcheon, and Seongbukcheon.
Reforestation of the mountains
Looking at the Seoul cityscape today, you can’t help but notice the numerous green peaks throughout the city. Actually, these trees are all part of a relatively recent reforestation plan that took place beginning in the ’50s, and is considered to be one of the most significant reforestation projects of history.
Those lush green hills were once bald red hills, as documented by the foreign troops fighting in the Korean War. But the Seoul that they saw was plagued by poverty, scarcity, and war, and the trees had been wiped out either by overlogging or war damage, leaving the peninsula barren.
After decades of reforestation, South Korea has grown its forests back even stronger and thicker than they were before. Still, the forests are young, with only 25 percent of trees older than 31 years, and the country still relies heavily on wood imports. Today, Korea’s reforestation expertise is world-renowned as a result of this process.
To read more about reforestation, check out this article by Michael Breen.
Arguably the most iconic symbol of Seoul, Gwanghwamun is the massive palace gate that sits at the north end of Gwanghwamun Plaza.
But during the Japanese Imperial era, the entire palace was disfigured to make way for the Japanese General Government Building, a big neocolonial structure situated on palace grounds to symbolise Japan’s domination over Korea. After liberation, the building remained in use as the National Assembly and later the National Museum of Korea. Then in 1995, it was demolished to make way for a palace restoration project.
This project is still underway — in 2009, it was estimated that only 40% of the original structures had been restored. The amazing thing about Seoul is how quickly it changes.