Seoul Sees Rapid Growth as Global Metropolis

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Seoul Sees Rapid Growth as Global Metropolis

Aug 16, 2005

Seoul, the nation's capital, which more than 10 million of the country's 48 million citizens call home, has grown into a global metropolis housing a bigger portion of its country's population than New York, London or Tokyo.

Sixty years ago, Seoul was just another partially industrialized town of Kyonggi Province, having lost long ago its luster as a city that was home to the royal family and its ancestral shrine of Chongmyo for more than 500 years before Japanese occupation.

In August 1945, at the end of 35 years of Japanese colonial rule, Seoul had less than 1 million inhabitants, of which 200,000 were Japanese citizens and soldiers.

The capital has since emerged as a mega-city as a result of four decades of rapid growth and industrialization.

"Seoul has grown from a small, unknown capital to one of the world's largest cities. It's hard to think of any other city in the world that experienced such a rapid transformation," said Kim Kwang-joong, a researcher at the Seoul Development Institute.

Seoul is now the undisputed center of Korea's politics, economy and culture. Currently 21 million people live in Seoul and its five satellite cities of Ilsan, Pundang, Sanbon, Pyongchon and Chungdong, about 47 percent of the population of the country.

This represents a higher population density than metropolitan areas of other countries. People living in the metropolitan area in and around London or Paris comprise less than 20 percent of the total population of either of those countries. And people living in Tokyo and its surrounding areas account for about 32 percent of Japan's population.

Also, the metropolitan area around Seoul currently houses about 84 percent of government bodies and institutions, 88 percent of Korea's 30 largest companies, and 65 percent of the 20-most popular universities in the nation. More than 65 percent of all bank transactions, both savings and lending, take place in Seoul.

However, the excessive concentration of the nation's life _ in politics, economics and culture _ in Seoul has caused a large number of urban problems, including housing, transportation and environmental degradation.

Critics say heavy reliance on Seoul is hurting balanced regional development. Last year, the government pushed a plan to move the country's capital out of Seoul, a key pledge of President Roh Moo-hyun during his 2002 presidential election campaign.

However, the Constitutional Court blocked the capital relocation project in October last year.

Seoul After Independence, Korean War:

It could be argued that Seoul started its transition to a modern industrial city during the 1910-45 Japanese colonial rule, with increasing commercial activities and factories and heavy industrial facilities being constructed in the city's outlining areas.

However, urbanization was not a result of natural development. The colonial government used a planned design to adjust administrative boundaries and impose an infrastructure on the city to accommodate an influx for Japanese residents and soldiers.

"It could be argued that Seoul's growth into a modern, industrialized city was "suspended" by Japanese occupation. The colonial government was more focused on developing port cities and industrial towns in the northern part of the peninsula for wartime mobilization," said Chang Kyu-shik, a historian at Yonsei University.

"Unlike in the case of many other planned cities in colonies that grew rapidly, Seoul never developed into a "primary city" during its urbanization process," he said.

It was clear that Seoul, than named Kyongsong by the colonial government, did not play the role of a traditional capital. Seoul's population increased an average of 4.9 percent from 1914 to 1944, lower than the 6.8 percent of Korea's other cities during the same period. The growth of its population at that time resulted from an increase in Japanese residents.

In 1910, about 46,000 Japanese lived in Kyongsong, accounting four about 18.7 percent of city's total population. The number of Japanese residents jumped to 124,000 by 1935, accounting for 28 percent of the population, and 200,000 in 1945, the last year of the colonial period.

After liberation, the city's name was changed to Seoul, and in 1946 was separated from Kyonggi Province to become its own entity. Seoul became the capital in 1948, following the inauguration of the then President Rhee Syngman's government of the Republic of Korea.

With the return of Koreans who had resided abroad, including forced laborers conscripted by the wartime Japanese government, and others coming from North Korea, Seoul saw explosive growth in its population,despite the departure of most of its Japanese residents.

Seoul's population jumped from 980,000 to 1.43 million between 1944 to 1949, an increase of 45 percent. Seoul also saw an expansion of its administrative boundaries, from 135.9 square kilometers in 1945 to 267 square kilometers in 1949.

Seoul's urbanization was held up once again by the 1950-53 Korean War. The war resulted in a severe destruction in the city. About 30 percent of homes, 70 percent of factories and many commercial buildings and public facilities were demolished.

It was not until 1955 that Seoul's population recovered to its pre-war level. By 1960, its population had increased to 2.4 million, accounting for 10 percent of the population.

Seoul's Rapid Growth:

Under the Third Republic, a military regime led by Park Chung-he in the 1960s and following authoritarian governments, Seoul was pushed as the nation's manufacturing center.

Unemployed workers from the countryside flocked to the city. This was the time when the population and facilities, which used to be concentrated in areas north of the Han River, began to spread to the southern side of the river.

The type of housing began to change from the detached houses to apartments, and new subway transformed the bus-centered public transportation system.

"It could be said that Seoul's transition to a modern, industrialized city was completed by the changes wrought in the 1960s and 1970s under the military governments. It was at this time that the country saw its emergence as a true mega-city," said Yonsei University's Chang.

"Seoul's explosive growth reflected the economic disparity between urban and suburban areas, an ever-widening gap grew during this industrialization process," said Chang.

Korea saw its gross national product (GNP) grow annually at an average of 5.5 percent through 1962 to 1966. Entering the 1970s, Korea was making great leaps in economic growth, with per capita GNP increasing to $1,000 in 1977 from $250 in 1970, and Seoul was at the heart of this accomplishment.

In 1950, agriculture, forestry and fishing accounted for 42.3 percent of the country's total gross product, compared to mining and manufacturing with 14.1 percent and tertiary industries at 43.6 percent.

However, in 1969, agriculture, forestry and fishing accounted for just 28.3 percent of industrial production, compared to mining and manufacturing with 25.9 percent and tertiary industries with 45.7 percent. Korea's export total, which was less than $20 million in 1959, exceeded $700 million in 1969.

People continued to flow into Seoul in search of work. The population of Seoul reached 5.5 million in 1970 from 2.4 million in 1960. Seoul's population exceeded the 6-million mark in 1972.

The rapid growth of Seoul came amid industrialization and urbanization, and brought with it a variety of problems. The number of substandard houses increased, spreading over the hilly and low-lying areas of the city where there was weak enforcement of building regulations.

According to official statistics, these "illegal" houses accounted for 38 percent of Seoul's 360,000 houses in 1966.

Slum clearance and the redevelopment of illegally settled areas became an important government project at that time.

From 1966 to 1970, the Seoul city government began to renovate hillside slums, building four-to-five floor "citizen apartments" to replace shanties.

From 1969, at 32 sites where the shantytowns had been demolished, 426 citizen's apartments were erected re-shaping Seoul's cityscape. This was also the time when the Chonggyechon stream in the downtown area was filled in and paved over for development.

Another change was the government's promotion of the development of Yoido, an island in the Han River that often flooded during the rainy season. In addition, the government also dispersed population and facilities south of the Han River.

Many apartment complexes were built in Kangnam through land-adjustment projects. The construction of large bridges connecting the northern and southern parts of the city, including the Chamshil Grand Bridge, the Tongjak Grand Bridge and the Yongdong Grand Bridge, also facilitated Kangnam's growth.

Beginning in 1967, the government embarked on an ambitious project to build a 10-meter-high, 7.6-kilometer embankment around Yoido.

In the 1970s, Yoido was being transformed into a planned residential and commercial district dubbed the "Manhattan" of Seoul.

In 1973, the administrative boundaries of Seoul expanded to 605 square kilometers, which is about the size it is now. The expansion of the city was accompanied by changes in pubic transportation.

Seoul saw its first subway line, the No.1 line, completed in 1974; the opening of No. 2 line in 1984; and, No.3 and No.4 lines in 1985. Eventually, below-ground transit shifted the public's primary means of mobility from bus to subway.

Global Metropolis:

Seoul became a metropolis of 8.5 million people in 1980, accounting for about 22.3 percent of the country's total population and a mega-city of 10.8 million in 1989.

With the country's economic engine in full stride, policymakers began to focus more on beautifying the city and improving its cultural image.

During the 1986 and the 1988 Olympic Games Seoul showcased itself to the world. The construction of a new international airport and the emergence of convention centers reflected Seoul's development into a global metropolis.

For the 1988 Olympics, the government build sports stadiums, athlete villages and other related facilities in Chamsil. The government also started a project to clean the polluted water of the Han River.

The natural waterfront was replaced with concrete blocks and drainpipes were laid along both sides of the river to filter out dangerous pollutants. A highway was built along the riverbank to connect Kimpo Airport to the city center and Olympic stadiums.

Though intended to relieve Seoul's chronic traffic problems, subway lines were also expanded in preparation for the Olympics. No. 2 line circles the city and No.3 and No.4 lines form an "X", criss-crossing Seoul's center. Subway lines 5, 6, 7 and 8 were added during the 1990s.

Also in the 1980s, the government pushed a city redevelopment project that significantly changed the face of Seoul. To meet the demands of a growing middle class, massive housing projects were constructed in agricultural and forest areas such as Mok-dong, Kodok-dong, Kaepo-dong and Sanggye-dong.

In 1989, the government constructed five satellite cities _ Ilsan, Pundang, Sanbon, Pyongchon and Chungdong _ to ease Seoul's housing shortage. Seoul no longer was an independent city, but the center of a metropolitan sprawl of more than 20 million people.

Seoul continued its rapid change during the 1990s. The industrial foundation of Seoul changed from a labor-intensive one to a technology-intensive, capital-centered one.

The high-tech industries that sprang up in the 1990s played a pivotal role in preparing Seoul to be an information-based city.

The rapid development of information and communication industries in Soeul has been the base for the country's recent economic growth and has led to an increase in foreign technology investment.

The construction of the Incheon International Airport provided a network infrastructure that elevated Seoul to a major transportation hub.

On its current diverse and firm foundation, Seoul is now aiming to strengthen its global role with policymakers looking to develop Seoul and its surrounding areas as a Northeast Asian hub of finance and trade.

To enhance its role as an international city, Seoul has been developing its information and communication infrastructure and promoting high-tech industries to increase foreign investment and lure more multinational companies here.

However, following the financial crisis of the late 1990s, Seoul had to confront urban problems such as unemployment and social welfare.

The introduction of a newly revived system of local autonomy is a departure for Seoul. The direct election of the mayor and city council also brought fundamental changes in local politics, allowing citizen participation in municipal administration and urban planning.

"Seoul is now at a crossroads between local development and globalization. While it is strengthening its position as a global city, it also seeking a cultural life of its own. Seoul is now more a microcosm of the whole country, than a unique character," said Chang.


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