Seoul, South Korea
The capital of South Korea, Seoul is also the country’s biggest city. If the contiguous suburbs beyond the city boundary are included, Seoul houses 31% of South Korea’s population. The city lies in the far north-west of the country, on the Han River some 37 miles (60 km) from the sea. Because much of Seoul was destroyed during the Korean War (1950–53), the city is largely modern.
The Han River basin was settled by the first century BC. The area was in the ancient Korean kingdom of Paekche, but was near the border of the other two kingdoms: Koguryo and Silla. In the eleventh century the king of Koguryo built a palace and a city near present-day Seoul.
In 1394, Yi Song-gye, the founder of the dynasty that ruled united Korea from 1302 until 1910, built a new capital for his kingdom. Seoul was the ideal site for a capital because it was at the centre of Korea, on a navigable river and with good natural defences. Known as Hanyang, the name was soon changed to Hansong, but the Korean capital was popularly known as Seoul.
City walls were constructed, and shrines, palaces and forts were built by the Yi dynasty over four centuries. The walls were rebuilt and extended in 1422. As the administrative centre of a highly centralized state, Seoul grew quickly. Within 50 years of its foundation, the city had more than 100,000 inhabitants. But the growth of Seoul was not continuous. In 1529 Japanese forces sacked the city, destroying much of the royal palace and the fortifications.
Seoul saw much reconstruction in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but because the kingdom was so reclusive, with no trade or diplomatic relations with other countries, its growth was slow. By the turn of the twentieth century Seoul had fewer than 250,000 inhabitants. Development began anew in 1876 when Korea was obliged to open up to the outside world. Western commerce and diplomats arrived, but so did the Japanese who took over the country, deposing the Yi dynasty, in 1910.
Under Japanese rule the city was renamed Kyongsong but remained the administrative centre of the country. Most of the walls were demolished, streets were widened and paved and Western-style buildings constructed. Industrial suburbs developed. When Japanese rule ended in 1945, the city became the capital of an independent Korea and its name was officially changed to Seoul.
The city was near the border that divided a partitioned country into a Communist North and a pro-Western South. That proximity to the North cost Seoul dear when, in 1950, Communist forces swept in. The invasion and subsequent bombing devastated the city, which was in ruins when the Korean War ended in 1953. Since then, Seoul has more than doubled in area and population. A modern city has emerged with skyscrapers, wide highways and large satellite cities, some of which have more than 1 m inhabitants.
Seoul is the principal cultural and political centre of South Korea and also the country’s main industrial centre. The city has South Korea’s main international airport (Kimp’o) and, despite being situated in a corner of the country, is a hub of road and rail routes. Seoul houses many foreign financial institutions as well as Korean banks and one of the world’s dozen largest stock exchanges. Industries include textiles, chemicals and petro-chemicals, electrical and electronic engineering, and food processing. The regular street pattern of the ancient city focusing on the four major (surviving) gates, has been retained. Much development preceded the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games.
Places of Interest
Namsan Hill, the highest point in the city centre, is only 243 m (797 ft) high, but above it rises N Seoul Tower, at 480 m (1,574 ft). Below the tower lies Namsan Park, lined on one side by the remains of the city walls. The park, which can be reached by cable car, contains botanical gardens and a village of reassembled ancient Korean houses.
The former royal palaces are among Seoul’s major tourist attractions. Changgyeonggung, the secondary palace, adjoins Jongmyo royal shrine, which contains memorials of all the Yi kings except two who were considered unworthy. The Changdeokgung palace and gardens are nearby.
The main palace, Gyeongbokgung, was largely destroyed during the Japanese occupation and the Korean War. A few buildings, including a towering pagoda, remain, but in 1995 wholesale reconstruction began. In the grounds of Gyeongbokgung is the National Folk Museum. Beside Gyeongbokgung is Cheongwadae, popularly known in English as The Blue House, the official residence of the President of South Korea.
Of the remaining city gates, fourteenth-century Namdaemun (South Gate) is the most impressive. The Daehanmun Gate is the site of a changing of the guard ceremony.