Benefits of leaving apartmentsOn my first day in Seoul, I was asked to meet a friend of a friend over in Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam District. I didn’t know back then I would be visiting a “fancy” area; I just got off at Cheongdam Station and based my impression on what I saw. All around me stood high-rises, 20 floors here and 30 floors there. In my native England, the image of the apartment block is usually associated with deprivation and council-owned housing. Maybe this is a tough neighbourhood, I wondered.
My naivete seems rather amusing now. I was unaware that virtually everyone in Seoul lived in apartments. And I could never have imagined that those little shoeboxes in the Cheongdam-dong sky would be worth 100 million won ($91,533) or 200 million won each.
I was shocked again upon visiting the countryside, where apartment buildings formed a grey canopy over the fields below. Though it was obvious why people in Seoul might have to live stacked on top of each other, I was mystified as to why the same had to be true in rural areas. Korea has beautiful countryside, but so much of it is obscured by gigantic concrete boxes. What kind of magic spell had apartment living cast over this land?
Whenever I ask people, I am told that apartments are easy to maintain and very convenient. You don’t even need to clean your own windows. You’ll have good access to public transportation and have a convenience store in or around your building. For a land where work took up an unnatural percentage of waking hours, I’m sure this was a godsend.
Apartment living also went hand-in-hand with Korea’s property boom. The apparent lesson of the boom years - buy an apartment and get rich doing nothing - is one that is hard to shake. Bizarrely, I still sometimes see people who believe that buying apartments will make them big money. Apartments can still make big money for construction companies, as they are quite cheap to build (per unit) and generate high sales prices. For the buyer though, the get-rich days are over. And maybe the apartment itself has had its best days.
The population of Seoul has started to decrease. Because people aren’t having kids, education mania-driven areas like Gangnam will suffer disproportionately. And the baby-boom generation is just starting to retire. Many of them do not want to retire and would struggle to pay their way if they remained in the capital. It will be natural for them to sell their Seoul apartments and move to rural areas - perhaps their home towns. Some will start small businesses, making Seoul’s loss the countryside’s gain.
The way people work will also change. Work hours, though still high, are decreasing. And everyone knows that large companies cannot or will not create jobs as they used to. We will see a large rise in the number of freelance workers, independent creative types and other “lone rangers” - people who generally lack security but have the advantage of being able to work anywhere. We may even see a trend toward “rural sourcing” as an alternative to outsourcing. Technology will make all of this more and more possible.
People will begin to see the benefits of living outside the city - and of living in houses rather than apartments. Those who grew up in hanok (Korean traditional house) may remember houses as drafty and difficult to maintain, but that certainly doesn’t have to be the case today, with either “modernized” hanok or ordinary houses. A friend of mine recently acquired some land near South Yangju and had a two-story house built. He and his wife now have a lovely house with a garden and can be at work in Seoul in about 45 minutes - making them no worse off than, say, Cheongdam-dong dwellers who work in Yeouido.
The whole thing cost them a fraction of the price of a “luxury” apartment in any district of Seoul. Their new baby will grow up breathing fresh air, a priceless commodity. He will also be able to play outside in his own garden. The whole family will benefit from a more relaxed, slower way of life - but still be able to get into the city whenever they need to.
For the time being, I still live in an apartment - rather, an “officetel.” I can see my refrigerator when I wake up. I’ve no idea who my neighbors are. I feel bored and uncomfortable just being there. I don’t know when I’ll be able to move, but when I do, it won’t be to another box in the sky.
*The author is former Seoul correspondent for The Economist.
By Daniel Tudor