The Origins of Seoul

Seoul, the capital of South Korea, has become one of the most recognized cities of the world. Its vibrant energy and beauty has caught the eye of so many around the world that, in 2016, a record 13.5 million tourists are said to have set foot in the city. Although there are many reasons for one to visit Seoul today – the city, at a certain point in history, was not the capital we know of today. Through the many changes that have shaped Korea, Seoul emerged above them all a beloved gem, forged in the heat of rapid development and construction.

© Three Kingdoms of Korea, Ashraf Kamel, 06.05.2019, Ancient History Encyclopedia

From around 57 BC to 668 AD in Korean history, Korea had three kingdoms called “삼국시대”. The three kingdoms consisted of Baekje (백제), Silla (신라) and Goguryeo (고구려). At times these three kingdoms would fight among themselves for political and/or economic reasons, however after several wars the three kingdoms united and became known as 후신라 or Later Silla. Seoul was a strategic region for the three kingdoms, hence why many people came to live within the area. However, it did not become the capital of South Korea until later. It was some time after during the Joseon dynasty (1392–1897) that Seoul was designated as the capital of Korea. During the colonisation of Korea by the Japanese Empire in the early 1900s however, Seoul was renamed as 경성 or Gyeongseong by the Japanese. In 1945, after World War II, the city again became what it was known as before and renamed Seoul. After World War II and the Korean War, which ended in 1953, Seoul was left in shambles and most of the city was destroyed. However, through great economic strides and fast development, Seoul was able to become one of the fastest developing cities of the world.

© Street and city gate in old Seoul (late 19th century), Otto Ehrenfried Ehler, 05.13.2019, Otto F. Ehlers: Im Osten Asiens

After the Korean war had ended, Korea was left divided into two parts; North Korea and South Korea. With the country left in ruins, America aided in the development and reconstruction of South Korea. The period of development after the war was named, “Miracle on the Han River” or 한강의 기적, due to South Korea’s rapid economic growth. One of the major steps taken to push the economy forward was led by South Korea’s third president, Park Chung-hee (박정희). Park Chung-hee was a leader in the military before he became the president. He initiated a coup d’état and formed a military dictatorship. During his rule he initiated a plan called the “Five-Year Plans of South Korea” or 경제사회발전 5개년계획. This plan was primarily developed to boost South Korea’s economy, however, Park Chung-hee also had the desire to become independent of America’s aid. This plan was put into action from 1962 to 1966 and focused on expanding the energy and agricultural industries. Later, South Korea started to gain more economic power as the government supported electronics and steel industries. Well-known Korean companies like Samsung and Hyundai greatly benefited from this and grew to become global brands in the 21st century. By the end of 1995, South Korea was deemed as the eleventh largest economy in the world and many were awed by this achievement. On the other hand, North Korea had fallen behind in its development and many compared the two countries. It is stated by some that this development was achieved by the exploitation of cheap labor of the South Korean people with workers working long hours on little pay, thus adding a dark chapter to South Korea’s long history.

© Namsan View, Song Y Yoon, 06.05.2019, Inspire Me Korea

From 1961 to 1996, South Korea underwent a great phase of development built on educational investment and land reform. The rebuilding of the city’s infrastructure was greatly aided by economic relations with the U.S, and as a result of an initiative launched by the government of South Korea providing packaged cement to remedy its crumbled state. By the 1960’s, illiteracy was all but relegated to the past and the country set its goals on quickly educating its workforce; a strategy built on the adage that every developed nation is founded on human capital and the long-term investment in education. Stringent land reforms soon followed wherein Japanese land owners were effectively forced out, in part, with the aid of the U.S with land being heavily distributed and consequently giving way to a large middle class now benefiting from better educational infrastructure. Some time thereafter, market reform followed with South Korea opening up to a more global market, creating deeper ties with the U.S and Japan.

The Seoul of today is one of towering skyscrapers flooded with offices, coffee brands and luxury stores; a towering monument to The Miracle on The Han River. The Han, or 한강 is situated a little south from the city and today, along its coast, there are multiple parks inundated with trendy, middle-class teens dressed in American brands, drinking coffee and immersed in the Hallyu wave, the global explosion of Korean music and entertainment, now alive in a time unrecognizable from that of their parents, and certainly of their grandparents.

Many in South Korea are proud of their accomplishments and how far the country has progressed, achieving great success in a short span of time. If one were to look around the city of Seoul today, they might find it hard to reconcile its impressive and distinctly modern and trendy vibe with the image of an impoverished, wire-crossed and fragmented Seoul over half a century ago.

Seoul’s visible collision of old and new is a reminder of its not-so-distant past, with multiple historic sites like Gyeongbokgung or the Bukchon Hanok Village pushed up against churro outlets and fashionable stores. These sites offer a taste of Korea’s distinctly visible past and present; a testament to South Korea’s determination to preserve its roots and to never forget the history of its now beloved and thriving capital.

Though South Korea has long been and continues to be a homogeneous country far from the reach of the wider world, today, it is no less a country that has been greatly marked by globalization, hinting at different cultures throughout the city of Seoul that continue to grow. Unlike its early 60s counterpart, made home by few foreigners beyond those from mainland China and posted U.S army personnel; as of 2015, South Korea is now home to over 1.8 million foreigners – some 3.4% of the total population, and of those, only 20,000 are said to be Chinese. Thus, the influx of foreign culture is mostly the product of ambitious overseas investment by western brands, and an increasingly trend-attentive generation who, through the internet, have become exposed to western cultural brands and content.

With a population of nearly 10 million people nestled in the world’s 11th largest economy, Seoul has survived through war and the great financial crash of 2008, proving as tenable as a fortress as it continuously grows and changes with the times. With all its charms and history, Seoul and South Korea have proven that despite war and destruction, one can still create great things out of broken pieces.

Featured Image Source: © Seoul, 05.05.2019, InspireMeKorea

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