Seoul on the cusp of transformation

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Seoul on the cusp of transformation

Several years ago I visited North Korea for the first time. I entered the country from China, crossing the Tumen River, and spent a couple of days in the city of Rajin, where the North Koreans were trying at that time to develop an international free-trade zone.

One of the things that initially struck me was how similar in many ways the country seemed to South Korea in the late 1960s and 1970s, when I had lived in Seoul.

The poverty in both cases was palpable, and there was a certain shabby, gray, improvised quality to people’s dress and architecture, which often looked broken down or half-finished. Even though Seoul was of course the capital of the South and a far more cosmopolitan place than Rajin, in the 1960s and 1970s many parts of it were even dirtier and more dilapidated than anything I later saw in that northern city.

Indeed, Seoul in the late 1960s still had the feel of a city trying to recover from the ravages of the devastating war that had ended in 1953. Jeeps left over from the war were still being used for private transportation, and beggars, some maimed or missing limbs, visible victims of the war, were not uncommon sights on the streets in those days.

Despite such similarities, the two places were very different. In the North the economic crises of the 1990s have taken their toll, and Rajin was a grim, almost somnolent city.

One had the sense of a people with little to look forward to and little enthusiasm or energy to tackle even the routine aspects of daily life. The general impoverishment appeared deadening and hopeless, a depressing, pitiful sight to behold.

But the poverty of the South never seemed deadening or hopeless. Quite the opposite.

For the vast majority of the people who were not directly engaged in the political struggles of the period, the 1960s and 1970s offered new opportunities and enticements. Hope and change were in the air.

The fact was that Seoul, as well as the rest of South Korea, was undergoing a profound transformation in the 1970s. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the country was experiencing the most far-reaching socioeconomic transformation in its long history, and one of the greatest socioeconomic changes in the history of the world itself.

The contours and statistics of this great transformation have been studied by many scholars and are well known. Here I only briefly note the impact of some of these changes on the landscape and everyday life of the capital city, as I personally experienced them between 1969 and 1977.

Until the late 1970s, Seoul’s everyday life was concentrated north of the Han River. The area we know as Gangnam today was to a great extent still countryside, largely fields and paddies. The main business district was centered in Mugyodong, with many bars and restaurants catering to the business community running along the Chonggyechon street, where today the beautifully restored Chonggye Stream begins its eastward flow.

Myeong-dong, as it had been for decades even in the colonial era, was the main gathering place for intellectuals and artists of many stripes, as well as for the city’s most sophisticated residents.

Today, with the city having expanded not only south of the river but virtually all the way to the port of Incheon, it is hard to grasp how small and compact the city of the early 1970s was. All the areas mentioned above are roughly contiguous with each other, and one could without too much effort traverse the whole center of the city in a single long walk.

Only the few and the wealthy had private cars, and there were as yet no subways, so for longer distances within the city most people relied on the bus system or shared taxis with others going in roughly the same direction (hapsung).

Getting from one place to another, especially by bus, could be a daunting and messy business. Bus and taxi queues did not exist, and the appearance of a bus or taxi often unleashed a stampede of social Darwinian proportions, as everyone rushed and struggled to board at the same time.

During the summer rainy season bus rides became even more of a challenge. As one moved away from the center of the city, many streets in those days were still unpaved, and both buses and passengers had to contend not only with pounding rains but with streets that were thick with mud.

Unpaved streets were not a problem in the city’s center, but lighting was another matter. Seoul in the 1970s was still a relatively dark city at night. To conserve electricity, the larger office buildings turned off most of their lights at night, and neon signs were scarce. On the outer margins of the city, as in much of the deep countryside, one found places with virtually no lights at all, where candles were still used in place of electricity.

Only when a North Korean Red Cross delegation made an historic visit to Seoul in the early 1970s were all the lights of the city, including all the central office buildings, left on at night as part of an official strategy to impress the North Koreans with the South’s high level of economic development. Even though the lighting was contrived and temporary, at the time it was astonishing to see the city so brightly lit. Today, of course, even that level of urban brightness would pale in comparison to the glittering night lights of contemporary Seoul.

There are many other aspects of Seoul in the 1970s that one might cite to highlight the great transformation of the city that has since taken place. Seoul in those days, like the country as a whole, had few trees and green areas to clean the air and add color to what was essentially a black and gray city.

This was reinforced by the pervasive militarism of the time, visible in periodic air-raid drills and anti-communist banners strung across the streets, the ubiquitous presence of uniformed soldiers and students in military drill clothes.

Women were by no means absent from the city scene, but their roles were far more limited than today, and relations between the sexes were also considerably more formal and restricted.

Foreigners were even more difficult to find than women on the streets of Seoul in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Like today, the large American military presence at Yongsan was seldom seen or felt in the city’s center, and there were at that time still few foreign tourists or businessmen coming into South Korea on a regular basis. Japanese visitors, so common a sight today, were particularly rare.

In 1970 the old colonial Chosun Hotel, originally opened in 1914, was renovated and re-opened as Seoul’s first international luxury hotel. Its opening was a grand affair, presided over by President Park Chung Hee and First Lady Yuk Young-su, and it was a watershed event in South Korea’s growing internationalization.

At the time, however, the new Chosun stood out from its humble surroundings like an alien spacecraft that had happened to land in the middle of Seoul. Inside the Chosun Hotel in 1970 one found many of the goods and conveniences of modern life that were for the most part still not available to most South Koreans, including such things as telephones, air-conditioning, refrigerators, music systems, and private baths.

Public baths in those days, for example, were for most Seoulites a necessity, not the optional and luxurious health-spas they are today, and they also provided beginning jobs for poor and relatively uneducated young Koreans from the countryside seeking employment in the capital.

Korean-made commodities were only just starting to appear in stores, and still had none of the appeal or status for Korean consumers held by foreign-made products (especially American or Japanese).

It is impossible to pinpoint a precise moment of change in the 1970s that marked the development of what we know today as the modern, contemporary city of Seoul. The changes were all too numerous, swift, and simultaneous. But the movement in population from the center of the city to the areas south of the Han River in the mid-late 1970s seems in retrospect a clear harbinger of things to come.

The development of Kangnam coincided with the growth not only of the economy per se but also of a new, increasingly affluent middle class that would, a decade later, also help transform the authoritarian political landscape and secure South Korean democracy.

Some of the first new middle-class apartment complexes to arise were on the islet of Yeouido in the middle of the Han River, and living there in the 1970s one could see before one’s eyes the socioeconomic transformation that was taking place. As the apartment complexes developed and the apartments began to fill rapidly with more and more Korean-made goods and appliances, so too did new communities develop with their own shops and stores, including what were Seoul’s first supermarkets.

For the first time one began to see large numbers of children who could be described as chubby, and leisure activities and fads such as bicycling, swimming, and bowling began to proliferate in quick succession within the new communities.

By the time I returned to the United States in 1977, the new communities were spreading rapidly south of the river, and their residents were just beginning to acquire their own Korean-made Hyundai cars for personal use.

Occasionally on trips back to Seoul, I find myself in the Chinese restaurant on the top floor of the Chosun Hotel, whose great glass windows look out across the city, as they did in the 1970s.

But the view before me is now utterly different. The basic gridlines of the old city are still there, marked by the ancient palaces and old neighborhoods. But the skyline has been totally altered by gleaming towers of steel and glass, and the stark ambience of the 1970s city has been softened by affluence, colors, greenery, and a more open political atmosphere.

Looking out the windows, I am able for a fleeting moment to recapture in my mind’s eye the cityscape I remember from the 1970s, but it quickly dissolves before the overwhelming reality of the present.

I feel humbled by the power of time, but also grateful to be able to feel that power and to be able to chronicle it as an historian of this remarkable country.

*Carter J. Eckert is Yoon Se Young Professor of Korean history at Harvard University. For eleven years, from 1993 to 2004, Eckert served as the director of the Korea Institute at Harvard and presided over a major financial and academic expansion that transformed the Institute into one of Harvard’s most active and respected international studies centers. Eckert is the author of a number of books and articles, and co-author of “Korea Old and New: A History,” a widely-used university textbook on Korean history.

by Carter J. Eckert
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