Megacity Seoul
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Megacity Seoul

Urbanization and the Development of Modern South Korea

Yu-Min Joo

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Megacity Seoul

Urbanization and the Development of Modern South Korea

Yu-Min Joo

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About This Book

In Asia, there are a growing number of gigantic megacities, accompanied by a series of speculative and extravagant megaprojects. Amid the fast-paced urban and development challenges, many Asian governments have been searching for replicable and inspirational cases in Asia. South Korea and its capital city, Seoul, are among frequently referenced models. However, South Korea's "economic miracle" in the late twentieth century has been mostly studied through an economic policy lens. This book revisits the development of South Korea by looking at its urban dimension and exploring the city of Seoul as a developmental megaproject.

Offering an alternative to the focus on economic policies when it comes to explaining South Korea's development successes, Joo looks at the urbanization that took place under the guidance of the strong developmental state. She provides empirical evidence of the "property state" at work, both complementing and supporting the developmental state. She also analyzes why and how Seoul was able to emerge as an important Asian global city and a global front-runner in terms of ambitious and pioneering urban investments, despite its relatively recent history marked by massive slums and urban poverty. This book provides an analytical framework for studying South Korea's modern development under capitalism as a precursor to East Asian urbanism and development. It paints a comprehensive story of how cities have been politically and economically important to Korea's development experience and are increasingly becoming a new mode of development.

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1 Introduction

Urbanization, development, and globalization


The world is rapidly urbanizing today. According to data in 2016, over half (54.5 percent) of the world’s population lives in cities, and this global urbanization is projected to reach 60 percent in 2030 (UN 2016). A remarkable rate of urbanization is observed particularly in Asia, a region where six out of ten of the most populous cities in the world are located (UN 2016). The term “megacity” is generally defined as an urban agglomeration area of more than ten million inhabitants, and out of the 31 megacities globally, 17 are located in Asia, with six being situated in China alone (UN 2016). Looking across the years from 1970 to 2014, it can be seen that the number of megacities in Asia jumped from two to sixteen, while this number increased from zero to three in Europe and from one to two in North America (UN 2015). In the coming years, the number of megacities present in both Europe and North America is expected to remain the same until the year 2030, whereas it is expected to further increase from 17 to 24 for the Asian region (UN 2015). Furthermore, the speed of urban growth within key cities in Asia has also been unprecedented. For London, it took 130 years for the population to reach eight million from one million; for the same population change, Bangkok took 45 years, and Seoul took a mere 25 years (UN Habitat 2004, p. 62). As such, it can be seen that Asia is undergoing contemporary urbanization at a scale and speed that far exceeds those of the old industrial core of the West.
As indicated by the presence of megacities in the region, Asia’s urbanization is marked by the formation of mega-urban regions (Douglass 2000). The entrepreneurial efforts of governments have been placed on consolidating around a major (often capital) city, fostering it as the globally connected node and a gateway to the global economy. According to Ong (2011), “Major cities in the developing world have become centers of enormous political investment, economic growth, and cultural vitality, and thus have become sites for instantiating their countries’ claims to global significance” (p. 2). Through an accompaniment by a series of speculative and extravagant urban megaprojects, these major cities attempt to jump-start their economy by partaking in world-city image making (Ren 2011), a phenomenon which Roy and Ong (2011) termed as “worlding” cities. Therefore, the rapid and concentrated urbanization of Asia is not only a result of increasing economic growth in the region but also, and perhaps more notably, the outcome of proactive and intentional world-city-making efforts in an attempt to catch a share of the new global economy.
In these attempts at city building, governments have been searching for successful urban models to replicate and are finding more relevant urban development inspirations outside of Western Europe or North America – regions which have typically been associated with antecedent cities in modern development. Rather, the urban development experiences of a few Asian global cities in particular are gaining attention as referencing points for developing countries that are undergoing fast and massive urbanization (Roy 2011; Roy & Ong 2011; Bunnell 2015). These referential Asian global cities are the ones that have managed to solve Third World city problems and showcase aspirational world-class urban achievements. An example of this would be “the Singapore model,” where urban planning innovations of the city-state are packaged and marketed, as a popular model among emerging economies in Asia (Chua 2011). Seoul, the capital city of South Korea (hereafter “Korea”), is also capturing attention at an increasing rate due to its quick rise into an Asian global megacity from its relatively recent past of underdevelopment. There is a high contrast between the city 50 years ago, when it barely managed to keep up with the population increase and was flooded with informal settlements and urban poverty, and its current state as a well-run megacity with a population of ten million – or a population of more than 25 million, if one were to consider its surrounding metropolitan area. This juxtaposition often leads to the question of how the city managed to modernize and implement efficiently run urban infrastructures, along with vastly improved living and working environments. The answers to this question are starting to be sought after by rapidly urbanizing countries. Seeing this interest, the World Bank signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the government of Seoul in 2014, an agreement that allowed the sharing of the city’s development experiences and urban policy successes with developing countries.
This book thus analyzes the development experience of Seoul as the city that is rising to prominence amid the ascendency of intra-Asian networks and interurban referencing. It is an inquiry into urbanization during and after the Korean developmental state, as Korea transforms from a poverty-stricken country into one of the world’s economic powerhouses in less than a half century. To illustrate this clearly, the book has three main purposes.
The first aim is to elaborate on the making of a global city, Seoul, and to study the political economy behind its growth and its significance in the development of Korea. It explores why and how Seoul was able to emerge as an important Asian global city and a global front-runner in terms of ambitious and pioneering urban investments, and how it overcame its relatively recent history, which was marked by massive slums, informality, urban poverty, and underdevelopment. Instead of assuming that the urbanization and modernization of Seoul was a by-product of the nation’s stunning economic developmental success, this book explores Seoul’s transformation as a result of Korea’s overall strategies, which focused on city building and connecting urban and economic priorities in tandem.
Second, this book aims to introduce an element that has been neglected in development studies literature: The politically and economically driven urban development and spatial policies of different regimes, along with their state capacities and macroeconomic priorities. In addition to its industrialization, there was an equally impressive urbanization that occurred under the guidance of the strong developmental state in Korea. The book offers an alternative angle to Korea’s development process – particularly that of urban centers – and paints a comprehensive story of how urbanization is of importance to the development experience, along with how it is increasingly becoming a new mode of development.
Specifically, it introduces property development as a key engine of urban development and economic growth in Korea, in addition to industrialization. The concept of the “property state” is applied to explain the urbanization and political economy of developing Seoul with a series of megaprojects. The book thus provides empirical evidence of the property state at work, with an overarching tone that highlights Korea’s development as the outcome of the intertwining actions of the developmental and property state over a period of time.
Last, but not least, the book provides a relatively long analytical framework that studies Korea’s modern development under capitalism, featuring the interactive and evolving relations that occur between the urban and national dynamics. How has the Korean state guided urban development across consecutive stages since the late 1960s while having to deal with increasingly pertinent issues, such as accommodating citizen concerns about consumption, property rights, and democratization? What sets of policies were deployed to create a synergy between the urban investments and macroeconomic priorities, and what outcomes were produced, across different development stages?
In its entirety, the book paints a comprehensive story of how cities have been both politically and economically important to Korea’s development experience and how city building is increasingly becoming a new mode of development. It also addresses the increasing critique that is occurring in urban scholarship, one that focuses on how its theory building and analyses have been rather narrowly based on selected cities of the advanced capitalist Western societies, especially amid globalization (Robinson 2002, 2006). Following the call to “de-colonize” urban scholarship and to expand its geography (Robinson 2002), this study examines the fast development of the megacity Seoul and its role as a precursor to the East Asian urbanization under both state intervention and global capitalism.

Megacity and development

The megacity Seoul is one of the key global cities in Asia today, ranking 12th in the A.T. Kearney 2018 global city index (Hales et al. 2018). While the city houses approximately one-fifth of the nation’s population, when taken together with its surrounding metropolitan area, the capital region1 amounts to approximately half of the nation’s population, despite comprising less than 12 percent of the national land area. It also produces half of Korea’s gross domestic product (GDP), by far exceeding “the rest” in terms of size and economic importance (Joo & Park 2017). According to the city profile of Seoul that was published in Cities (Kim & Han 2012), the capital region has a concentration of command and control functions, excellent urban infrastructure, and rich culture. Since the 2000s, the Korean government has sought to foster the capital region as a competitive global city mega-region, envisioning Seoul as a first-class city in the global economy (Kim & Han 2012).
Despite the current positive overtone of the megacity (and mega-region surrounding) Seoul, its overconcentration of economic activities and dense population had long been considered a major problem by the Korean state. Seoul’s population, which had drastically increased from 1.6 million in 1955 to 10.6 million in 1990, made it highly challenging for the city to provide adequate urban infrastructures and public services for the explosive population growth (Kim & Han 2012). Slums were rampant, filled with the huge migration into the city, and the existing formal housing stocks were of substandard quality: In the late 1970s, 40 percent of housing stock did not have bathrooms and 90 percent lacked central heating systems (Gelézeau 2007). In addition, the overconcentration was negatively conceived to cause an unbalance in regional development, as it was viewed to be diminishing economic growth opportunities in rural and other cities and regions (Kim & Han 2012).
Megacities generally have a positive connotation in globalization, often being viewed as competitive economic engines (e.g., New York, London, Tokyo, and Seoul). However, the image of megacities in developing countries can also carry large-scale urban, social, environmental, and even economic problems as their governments struggle to keep up with ballooning migrations into the city. In fact, a number of megacities in rapidly urbanizing Asia are viewed as simultaneously portraying the contrasting images of global competitiveness and a rise in development challenges and problems. This dual façade of megacities in developing economies is not surprising. Indeed, it was only with the arrival of the global city thesis in the 1980s and 1990s that large cities began to receive a positive light in urban scholarship (Davis 2005). Prior to that, they were usually associated with one or two dominating cities – “primate cities” (Berry 1961) – which were thought to produce unbalanced urban systems in developing countries and were inexorably linked to their underdevelopment. As such, they were often interpreted as representatives of overurbanization (i.e., excessive urbanization in relation to employment growth), with large urban informal sectors in cities and a lack of urban-rural connections – typical problems that were identified in the urbanization and development of developing countries (McGee 1971; Friedmann 1973; Timberlake 1987; Davis 2004). In fact, secondary cities under a more equal distribution of cities – which could be found in the developed economies of the West – were considered to be related to more advanced national development (Rondinelli 1983). One or two large dominating cities were often seen “as fetters on the national development of their host countries” (Davis 2005, p. 99).
With the challenges of megacities still relevant, a closer look at them in the Global South, with a historical understanding of their development, could be worthwhile. During colonization, key cities in the periphery (i.e., Third World) had foreign investments in their urbanization process and became the platforms for the core (i.e., First World) to extract resources and to control Third World markets (Abu-Lughod & Hay 1977). As such, these cities were more closely linked to, and dependent on, the motherland metropolis situated in Europe than to their own hinterlands (Slater 1975). Furthermore, the dependency theory argued that the narrow economic and political objectives of colonial control distorted urban labor markets and impeded the comprehensive economic development of the periphery (Timberlake & Kantor 1983; Smith 1996). This led it to differ from the development process of the First World during the eighteenth century, in which industrialization took place within a boundary of regions, developing strong urban-rural backward and forward linkages. In the case of the dependent urbanization of the Third World, the process of urban growth did not occur as part of a natural transition from a traditional agrarian society to a modern industrial nation (Bradshaw 1987; Davis 2004).
As colonial countries gained independence around the world, they manifested the continuation of the unbalanced colonial urban structures (Roberts 1977; Slater 1975). The nationalist governments often relied on the existing colonial infrastructures, which were built with the aim of extracting resources from the hinterland for the colonial city. With concentrated resources and populations, the key cities of each country became the central political platform where various urban-based groups, such as industrialists, capitalists, and urban workers, pressured the national state to make urban-biased policies, such as the populist economic development policies (Friedman 1973).2 In this “urban bias” (Lipton 1977), the national state focused its economic and social investments on the key urban center and left the countryside largely outside the state’s agenda, which inadvertently caused a further push (by neglecting the agricultural and rural development in favor of urban economies) and pull (by increasing the perception of more economic opportunities in the city) of rural peasants to the city (Bradshaw 1987). The rural-urban migration that ensued was often beyond the economic and infrastructural capacity of the emerging megacity and thus only exacerbated its urban problems, such as marginalization and informal settlements (Cornelius 1973; Germani 1980). Urban scholars in the U.S., particularly those who studied the Latin American urbanization in their backyard, had long considered large dominating cities to be detrimental to both the economic and social development of a nation.
This perception of large cities as an obstacle to national development quickly shifted in the recent era of globalization, with new attention being given to them as the key engines of the global economy. The concept of cities’ being globally connected across national borders is nothing new; consider the aforementioned periphery-core connection under imperialism (King 1990; Davis 2005). What has been noticeably unique in contemporary globalization has been the rapid movement of capital across the globe due to technological developments, saturated markets, and increased competition from capitalism. Cities are now viewed as playing more important and active economic roles amid this international geographical dispersion of capital. “The world city hypothesis” (Friedmann & Wolff 1982; Friedmann 1986), for instance, puts certain key cities on the map, particularly those that were closely tied to the changing organization of the global economy and acted as “basing points” of the globally circulating capital. Sassen (1991) brought specific attention to the advanced capitalist core metropolitan cities of New York, London, and Tokyo, which became the main centers of financial and advanced producer services – what transnational firms depended on to control their activities around the globe. Although the new perspectives did not fail to notice the preexisting problem involving the socioeconomic polarization of global cities (Sassen 1998; Fainstein 2001), they turned the whole connotation of big and dominating cities, and their relationship to the economic development around, changing them from obstacles to main drivers.
Indeed, the positive outlook of large cities in development was not limited to the global command and control centers that were housed in the advanced capitalist countries of the West. Compared to imperia...

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