Considering the explosion of interest in Korean cuisine, the ubiquity of K-Pop, and media attention devoted to the recently concluded Winter Olympics, it seems outlandish to think of South Korea, and by extension the megacity of Seoul, as a nation isolated from the developed West. Yet as recently as the mid-1990s, Seoul remained a mystery for international observers. A 1994 article in the Financial Times featured the headline “Seoul tries to throw open the door,” noting that the nation sought to “overcome its legacy of isolationism and to push for economic liberalization.” Other observers commented on Seoul’s persistent if undeserved relative obscurity. “Stereotypes about the Far East, dominated by images of China and Japan, leave Korea in a vague limbo, of acronyms or bestiaries: NICs or Little Tigers,” Perry Anderson wrote in the London Review of Books. A great deal can happen over the course of two decades, and indeed today Seoul feels almost like the standard bearer for East Asian urbanity.
International Trade and Japanese Occupation
Seoul’s trajectory from isolated metropole to international megalopolis spans three centuries, including Japanese occupation, post-Korean War destruction and authoritarian rule, and democratic emergence in the 1990s. From Korea’s earliest days, Seoul served as “a symbolic place of national feeling and political power, and it was the distinctive premier city” on the peninsula historian Wonsik Jeong noted in 2001.
Even before the Japanese occupation in 1910, external forces shaped the Korean city. Trade arrangements functioned to pry open the once isolated capital of the “Hermit Kingdom.” The Korea-China Land and Sea Commercial Activity Treaty of 1882 resulted in imperial competition in the city, particularly between the U.S., Great Britain, Germany, Japan and China. Therefore, when the Financial Times claimed that 1994 represented the first time that Korea had attempted to open itself to “full international competition,” one might note a caveat or two.
International mercantile trade birthed modern Seoul; it not only brought increased contact with other Asian and Western nations but physically remade the city. “With the opening of Seoul, the city wall was torn down, and the boundaries expanded to include the old market towns and lower class areas outside the city,” Jeong points out. The construction of the Seoul Pusan Railroad in the early 1900s further consolidated the city’s position and inaugurated “modern urban growth in Korea.” Improved transportation networks furthered the nation’s place in the growing capitalist international economy.
Though never colonized or occupied by a Western power, Korea did endure decades of Japanese rule over the peninsula beginning in 1910. For better or for worse—and it was a great deal of worse and a far smaller measure of better—Japan enacted numerous economic, political, and infrastructural reforms that reshaped the city. Japanese reforms resulted in demographic expansion of the city, largely the result of three trends: natural increase, rural decline (and migration to Seoul), and Japanese immigration to the peninsula. Notably, public health measures – “prevention of infectious diseases, sanitation improvements, vaccinations, regulation of public space, and enforcement of sanitary regulations” – did ultimately result in a growing population. During the 1920s, death rates also declined by significant margins. However, as historian Todd Henry argues, the new public health regime put into place discriminatory policies toward most Koreans such that Japanese residents in Seoul were better equipped to fight off infectious disease than their Korean counterparts. Moreover, Koreans resisted police enforcement of public health policies, which stunted the system’s effectiveness and delayed the emergence of a viable and effective infrastructure until the 1920s.
Japanese immigration accounted for over 350,000 new arrivals to the peninsula between 1910 and 1921, but in the years after, improved sanitation and public health also helped boost the city’s population from 250,000 in 1910 to 677,241 in 1936.
Unsurprisingly, Japan viewed Seoul as little more than a market for its manufactured goods and as a source of raw materials. As industrialization took hold, Japanese zaibatsus (Japanese industrial and financial conglomerates) dominated business at the expense of local entrepreneurs. As war often does, Japan’s 1937 military efforts in Asia and later in WWII boosted economic opportunity even for local Koreans, as the number of factories and Korean owners increased. “In 1939, 42 percent of the gross value of factory production was attributed to Korean-owned establishments, compared to 14 percent in 1924,” writes Jeong.
The legacy of Japanese occupation manifested itself in the built environment. “[M]any spatial features of urban development during Korea’s industrialization, such as radiating and gridded street patterns, reflect those implemented during the Meiji Restoration and Taisho periods,” writes Sanghoon Jung, and “land readjustment adopted by the Japanese remained as the main means of urban development in Korea.” Though Japanese land policy implemented a “modern private landowning system,” it subordinated all residents to the colonial state bureaucracy and established a trend of state control over development that would expand well past occupation as a political culture of centralization and authoritarianism became ensconced in national politics.
During its occupation of the peninsula, Japan attempted to regulate public space, utilizing it as a means to “assimilate” Korean subjects into the Japanese empire. City infrastructure, public health initiatives, the construction of Shinto shrines, and other efforts served as Japan’s means of transforming Korean nationals into “reliable subjects of self government.” However, this did not always go as planned. Public spaces might carry the strong whiff of Japanese imperialism, but Koreans used them for their own ends and purposes “many of which did not converge with the state,” writes Henry.
Japan’s defeat in World War II removed it from the peninsula, but did not spare Korea from military conflict. The Korean War erupted in the early 1950s and devastated Seoul. Still, as Anderson reflected decades later, the legacy of imperial rule complicated Korean existence; it undoubtedly subjugated Koreans under a totalitarian, racist regional power but one that at least built transportation networks and raised literacy above the regional average while reparations required of Japan for the occupation enabled the expansion of national and municipal finances. “The toll of empire was huge,” Anderson noted, “but privileges perversely went with it.” To be fair, Anderson included U.S. influence in this metric—noting that after the Korean War, America imposed needed land reforms and “bank rolled reconstruction.” The Vietnam War did not hurt the Korean economy either, as U.S. allies helped Korean firms establish industrial contracts in Southeast Asia; firms later harnessed this experience to strike similar deals in the oil-rich Middle East during the 1970s.
Post-Korean War Politics
After the Korean War “[m]ost of Seoul lay in ruins,” Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent Malcolm W. Browne wrote in his memoir. “The poverty was ubiquitous and obtrusive, and there was a constant danger of losing a wallet or camera to thieves.” Under the rule of Syngman Rhee, who Browne described as an “autocratic old Methodist who brooked no dissent from any quarter,” Koreans enjoyed few freedoms. “During my year in Korea I could see the seeds of rebellion sprouting, as my student friends grew ever more angry at the repressions they suffered at the hands of the police, university administrators, and military authorities,” Browne remembered years later. Add to this “the demeaning aspects of American military occupation” and the student uprisings that came in 1960, sometimes referred to as the April Revolution, hardly seem unexpected. Student protests ousted Rhee in 1960, but the government quickly lapsed once again into authoritarianism under Park Chung Hi in 1961.
Under Park, the state undertook massive economic development, an approach that persisted until the early 1990s. This sort of state centered development required draconian levels of repression; security forces known as the KCIA numbered over 350,000. Yet, as has proven consistent throughout Korea’s history, students refused to fully relent. They overthrew Rhee in 1960 and revolted again in 1979-1980, leading to Park’s assassination by his intelligence chief. Chun Doo Hwan took over for Park but encountered student resistance less than a decade later, in 1987, after a student activist at the University of Seoul was tortured and killed under police custody. After three weeks of unrest and some 350,000 canisters of tear gas, Chun had to concede free elections.
Planning for Postwar Seoul
From the end of World War II through the 1980s, urban planning in Seoul drew from two primary influences: Japanese policies established under occupation, in terms of “planning culture, system and legislation,” remained influential. Moreover, numerous bureaucrats from occupation held over through independence. A second influence arose from Western planners like American Oswald Nagler.
After the war, the dearth of planning experts and the persistence of the Japanese model throttled attempts at redevelopment. However, foreign technical aid brought planners like Nagler to the fore. Working for the Asia foundation, later renamed as the Housing, Urban and Regional Planning Institute (HURPI), Nagler “introduced, applied and localized Western planning principles to Korea in an earnest manner,” argues Jung. Nagler also recruited numerous individuals such as Kyu Sung Woo, Hongbin Kang, Jinkyun Kim, Wan Yu and others; all would spread HURPI’s influence further in Seoul planning circles. Several HURPI members were chosen from the architecture department at Seoul National University.
From Japanese occupation forward, housing in Seoul remained a problematic issue. Seeing the city and peninsula as a market for its goods and a source of raw materials, little attention was paid to building housing for residents. However, mobilization for war forced Japan to build homes for its soldiers and workers. Yet, even with this burst of construction, by 1944 housing shortage rates rested at 44 percent.
By the mid-1950s, Seoul’s population had expanded to over 1.5 million and would continue to increase—surpassing 10 million by 2000—thereby furthering housing’s importance. Recognizing housing’s centrality to the city’s fortunes, Nagler believed in approaching urban planning from the household level and even inserted “Housing” into HURPI’s official title, which had previously excluded the term. Nagler utilized an interdisciplinary approach to design and planning that emphasized architecture and civil engineering. This more comprehensive method broke from trends at that the time that focused exclusively on infrastructure development and eschewed architectural considerations.
Due to the centralized business friendly approach to development, a growing population needing housing, and rapid urbanization, developers increasingly turned to higher density apartment complexes. High rise apartments, anything more than five stories, accounted for over 20 percent of construction permits issued by the central government in 1975. Fifteen years later, the percentage had more than tripled to 66 percent. A significant portion of the new housing created from the early 1970s and after arose from large-scale redevelopment projects, particularly urban renewal efforts directed at the ad-hoc communities and housing that cropped up in the 1960s. From 1973 to 1995, notes Hyun Bang Shin, about 17 percent “of all dwellings … were the result of the redevelopment of urban slums and dilapidated neighborhoods.” Unsurprisingly, these new units were subject to rampant speculation, which further victimized poor and working class residents and persisted for nearly three decades. 
With democratic government emerging in the late 1980s and early 1990s, so too did organized opposition to unfettered real estate construction. This led to vocal civil society. For example, in 1990 the National Coalition for Housing Rights (NCHR), an umbrella organization consisting of various social organizations, progressive religious groups, housing activists, and evictees, formed to organize growing dissent. “Rapidly disappearing affordable housing stocks and the sharp increase in housing rents due to megadisplacement of poor tenants led to a growing awareness of housing as a basic right,” writes Shin.
The efforts of civil society, and its increasing use of the “right to the city” concept, coincided with the expansion of democratization in Seoul and across South Korea; reforms included the establishment of local assemblies (1991), the election of Korea’s first civilian president (1993) and the direct election of mayors and provincial governors (1995). This opened up more space for public protest and organization, but democratization also fueled speculation and gentrification as localized government fell victim to “growth politics.” The few concessions accorded by the municipal government to displaced citizens functioned to legitimize the city’s redevelopment plans. Korea’s growing civil society remains committed to enacting reforms, but change comes slowly.
Still, regardless of the odds, if there is one thing that the people of Seoul have demonstrated, it is the ability to enact major change and resist in ways large and small. We hope our bibliography captures that aspect of the city. As always, it is not comprehensive—far from it. Think of it more as a jumping off point. On Monday, Stanford PhD candidate Russell Burge is going to provide an addendum with ten annotated selections of his own.
Judging from correspondence with historians working in the field, there has yet to be a definitive history of Seoul written in or translated into English (@UrbanHistoryA if I am wrong, we’d love to add it to the list). That being said, be sure to check out work on Seoul by Elle Choi, Russell Burge, Jini Kim Watson, Hyun Bang Shin, Nan Kim and Jieheerah Yun all who have helped us with the Metropolis of the Month.
Featured image at top: Seoul – street scene toward East Gate, lantern slide, William Henry Jackson photographer, 1895, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
——–, Seoul, Twentieth Century: Growth and Change of the Last 100 Years, Ed. Kwang-Joong Kim (Seoul Developmental Institute, 2003).
Isabella Bird Bishop, Korea and Her Neighbors (Revell, 1898).
Russell Burge, “The Prison and the Postcolony: Contested Memory and the Museumification of Sŏdaemun Hyŏngmuso,” Journal of Korean Studies (Spring 2017): 33 – 67.
Im Sik Cho and Blaz Kriznik, Community-based Urban Development: Evolving Urban Paradigms in Singapore and Seoul (Springer, 2017).
Elle Choi, “Yi Kwangsu and the Post-World War I Reconstruction Debate in Korea,” The Journal of Korean Studies (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015).
Bruce Cummings, The Korean War: A History (Modern Library Chronicles, 2011).
David Fedman, “The Ondol Problem and the Politics of Forest Conservation in Colonial Korea,” Journal of Korean Studies, forthcoming (Spring 2018).
Tristen R. Grunow, “Western Urban Planning and Imperial Space from the Streets of Meiji Tokyo to Colonial Seoul,” Journal of Urban History 42.3 (May 2016): 506-556.
Todd Henry, Assimilating Seoul: Japanese Rule and the Politics of Space in Colonial Korea (University of California Press, 2016).
Shelia Miyoshi Jager, Brothers at War: The Unending Conflict in Korea (W.W. Norton, 2017)
Sanghoon Jung, “Oswald Nagler, HURPI, and the Formation of Urban Planning and Design in South Korea,” Journal of Urban History 40.3 (May 2014): 585-605.
Richard Child Hill and June Woo Kim, “Global Cities and Developmental States: New York, Tokyo, and Seoul” in The Global Cities Reader, Eds. Neil Brenner and Roger Keil (Routledge, 2006): 170 – 178.
Nan Kim, Memory, Reconciliation, and Reunions of Separated Families in South Korea: Crossing the Divide (Lexington, 2017).
Keith Pratt, Old Seoul: Images of Asia (Oxford University Press, 2002)
Hyun Bang Shin, “Urban Movements and the Genealogy of Urban Rights Discourses: the Case of Urban Protesters against Redevelopment and Displacement in Seoul, South Korea,” Annals of American Geographers 0.0 (2018): 1-14.
Hyun Bang Shin, “Living on the Edge: Financing Post-displacement Housing in Urban Redevelopment Projects in Seoul,” Environment and Urbanization 20.2 (2008): 411 – 426.
Hyun Bang Shin and Soo-Hyun Kim, “The Developmental State, Speculative Urbanisation and the politics of displacement in gentrifying Seoul,” Urban Studies 53.3 (2016): 540-559.
Jini Kim Watson, The New Asian City: Three Dimensional Fictions of Space and Urban Form (University of Minnesota Press, 2011).
Jeong Wonsik, “The Urban Development Politics of Seoul as a Colonial City,” Journal of Urban History 27.2 (January 2001): 158-177.
Jieheerah Yun, Globalizing Seoul: The City’s Cultural and Urban Change (Routledge, 2017).
——, Postwar Korean Short Stories, trans. Kim Chong-un, 2nd ed. (Seoul: Seoul National University Press, 1983).
Se-hui Cho, The Dwarf, trans. Ju-Chan Fulton and Bruce Fulton,(University of Hawaii Press, 2006).
Ch’oe Inho, “Another Man’s Room,” in Ten Korean Short Stories, trans. by Kevin O’Rourke (Yonsei University Press, 1981).
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas, (Random House, 2004).
Yoojin Grace Wuertz, Everything Belongs to US, (Random House, 2017).
 John Burton, “Seoul tries to throw open the doors”, Financial Times, June 23, 1994, Anthony Lewis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress
 Wonsik Jeong, “The Urban Development Politics of Seoul as a Colonial City”, Journal of Urban History 27.2 (January 2001): 158.
 Wonsik Jeong, “The Urban Development Politics of Seoul as a Colonial City”, Journal of Urban History 27.2 (January 2001): 159-160.
 Todd Henry, Assimilating Seoul: Japanese and the Politics of Public Space in Colonial Korea, 1910-1945, (University of California Press, 2016), 19-20.
 Jeong, “The Urban Development Politics of Seoul as a Colonial City”, 160-161.
 Jeong, “The Urban Development Politics of Seoul as a Colonial City”, 164.
 Sanghoon Jung, “Oswald Nagler, HURPI and the Formation of Urban Planning an Design in South Korea: The South Seoul Plan by HURPI and the Mok-dong Plan”, Journal of Urban History 40.3 (May 2014): 587.
 Jeong, “The Urban Development Politics of Seoul as a Colonial City”, 171.
 Henry, Assimilating Seoul, 4.
 Malcolm W. Browne, Muddy Boots and Red Socks: A Reporter’s Life, (Times Books, 1993), 53-54.
 Browne, Muddy Boots and Red Socks, 55.
 Jung, “Oswald Nagler, HURPI and the Formation of Urban Planning an Design in South Korea”, 586-587, 589.
 Jeong, “The Urban Development Politics of Seoul as a Colonial City”, 166; Jung, “Oswald Nagler, HURPI and the Formation of Urban Planning an Design in South Korea”, 589.
 Jung, “Oswald Nagler, HURPI and the Formation of Urban Planning an Design in South Korea”, 590.
 Hyun Bang Shin, “Living on the edge: financing post-development housing in urban redevelopment projects in Seoul”, Environment and Urbanization 20.2 (2008): 411, 422; Hyun Bang Shin and Soo-Hyun Kim, “The developmental state, speculative urbanization, and the politics of displacement in gentrifying Seoul”, 546-547.
 Shin, “Urban Movements and the Genealogy of Urban Rights Discourses: The Case of Urban Protesters and against Redevelopment and Displacement in Seoul, South Korea, 8.
 Hyun Bang Shin, “Living on the edge: financing post-development housing in urban redevelopment projects in Seoul”, 553; Hyun Bang Shin and Soo-Hyun Kim, “The developmental state, speculative urbanization, and the politics of displacement in gentrifying Seoul”, 544