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"Seoul was not simply Korea's largest town; It was Korea."
Gregory Handerson, former US Foreign Service Officer
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Seoul (Korean: 서울) is the capital and the largest city of South Korea, and it was the capital of the preceding Joseon dynasty for five centuries before the annexation by the Imperial Japan. Before that, it was the capital of one of the three ancient kingdoms of Korea. Thanks to this continued prominence as the capital of the peninsula, the city throughout history was recognized as the pollitical and cultural center of Korea. This is why even decades after the The Korean War and the subsequent divison, North Korean constitution specified their capital as Seoul. This explains why most of the work taking place in Korea whether they were made by Koreans or not mostly feature Seoul as their setting. It is also the birthplace of Korean Pop Music.

The name of the city is a Korean noun for "Capital city" (as in, the seoul of US is Washington DC), but due to the city being named this way after independence, the word 'seoul' is rarely used to describe a capital city and it mostly refers to this specific city, especially after the '90s.

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After it was devastated during the war, the city saw an exponential growth in terms of size, which led to a lot of urban problems. This was caused by the rapid influx of the population from rural areas looking to find a job in the city which was backed by high economic growth. The city's administration tackled these issues through modernization of infrastructure and the construction of housing estate in forms of apartments. Due to the aforementioned reasons, a lot of the city's historic architecture and traditional housing was lost, although quite a few of them managed to survive this and a lot of them were restored.

The population growth of Seoul is something worth taking note of, as it was exceptional even among the entire country which boasted a high birth rate back then, as it grew five times in a mere 4 decades before being stagnant after the '90s. Although the number of settlers dwindled, people all over the country still saw Seoul as the biggest source of opportunities and jobs within Korea, leading to an urban sprawl that resulted in smaller towns becoming part of the Seoul metropolitan area and a large number of commuter townsnote  being formed around the city even after the expansion stopped. These cities (the largest example of them being Incheon and Suwon, although they existed before modern times) are virtually the continuation of Seoul, and because of this, the Seoul National Capital area became one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world in terms of population (25 million), effectively making it a Mega City.

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The city is formed on a plain, but since the Korean Peninsula is generally a rocky area, there are about 40 mountains doted across the city. Some of them are National Parks, like the Bukhansan National Park in northern Seoul.

A "Brief" History

People have occupied the area now known as Seoul since the Paleolithic Age. They began to lead a settled life during the Neolithic Age. Prehistoric remains that are 3000 to 7000 years old were discovered in Amsa-dong in Gangdong-district. The introduction of bronze ware allowed the settlers to stretch their settlements from the river banks to inland.

In 18 BC, the Kingdom of Baekjae founded their capital inside the borders of modern Seoul, known as Wiryesong (위례성, 慰禮城). Multiple structures constructed at that time were excavated in the Songpa-district, including the Pungnap Toesong, an earthen wall believed to be the main structure of the city. These structures are located south of Han river, outside of the Historic city of Seoul that is the Jongno-district. The Three Kingdoms competed to control this area which was of great strategic value, and the territory was fallen under the rule of Goguryeo and then Silla, which cemented its dominion on the region once it finished conquering and unifying the other two kingdoms through the military assistance of Tang Dynasty of China.

Goryeo Dynasty, the successor of Unified Silla, built a city called Namgyeong (남경, 南京) or Southern Capital in this region south of its capital Kaesong (Now in North Korea), which grew into a city with significant political power.

In its initiation, the Joseon Dynasty moved its capital to Seoul, then known as Hanyang (한양, 漢陽) or Hanseong (한성, 漢城), which means the fortress city on Han River. The city was named this way because originally the city was surrounded by a stone wall that no longer exists minus a small portion, while some of the gates still remain in downtown Seoul.

In the late 19th century, Joseon opened its gates to foreigners after centuries of isolation and begin to modernize. It also proclaimed its status change as an empire in an attempt to paint itself as an independent state on par with its neighbors the Qing Dynasty and Imperial Japan which were constantly fighting over gaining influence on the peninsula. King Gojong, who became Emperor Gojong, built the Wongudan Altar near what is known today as Seoul City Hall to perform the rite of heaven, something only reserved for the emperor of China in the old East Asian international hierarchy system. The rite was abolished soon after the annexation by Imperial Japan and the altar was demolished with one of the building surviving. This change was also an attempt to modernize Korea, similar to what Japan did decades ago. Due to this, Seoul became the first East Asian city to have electricity, trolley cars, telephone and telegraph, albeit not in a huge scale. This was all made possible thanks to the trade with foreign countries, as most of them were joint operations between Korea and foreign companies.

During the Japanese Annexation of Korea, Seoul was called Gyeongsong (경성, 京城, けいじょう or Keijo in Japanese) and became the colonial capital. This is the era that started the dramatic changes of the administrative divisions involving the city. The Government-General Building was constructed as the seat of the colonial government in front of the main Gyeongbok Palace on the demolished site of its main gate, just to spite Koreans. After independence the building was used as a governmental pffice and then the National Museum, before finally being torn down in 1995 both as a political stunt and an effort to restore the Palace to its original state. In general, the era saw major destruction of the old dynastic legacies, especially after the initiation of the Second Sino-Japanese War which sped up the military support base aspect of the colonized peninsula.

The era is also responsible for some of the modern historic landmarks of Seoul, including the Old Seoul Station, a Neo-Renaissance train station modeled after the Luzerne Station with similarities to Amsterdam Station in the inside (Similar to how Tokyo Station was modeled after Amsterdam Station) which now serves as a culture center after it was restored, the old City Hall which is directly in front of the new City Hall and now became a library, and the old Bank of Korea which is located near the current Bank of Korea and is now a museum.

After the liberation, the US Army Military Government that took over made the city 'Seoul Independent City', a city akin to a province. In National Liberation Day of Korea, 1949, The city officially became Seoul Special City as we know it. During the Korean War, the city had fallen under the rule of North Korea and cities of Daejeon and Busan had to be temporary capitals for a while. The city regained its status as capital city after the armistice in 1955.

After the destruction of war, the city planners thought of an idea to abandon the destroyed old downtown Seoul and plan a new one south of the river which is now the Gangnam area and parts of Gyeonggi Province. The plan was scraped, however, as the limited resources and manpower of a war-torn third world state that was South Korea at that time couldn't afford a luxury like that.

The 5.16 Coup in 1961 put the city under the direct control of the prime minister, and in 1963 the city went through a massive expansion, including the areas from the surrounding Gyeonggi Province. This expansion was responsible for the smooth development of the Gangnam area. This measure was proved to be essential as the population increased from 2.5 million to 5.5 million during the '60s.

Throughout the next decades, the city didn't swallowed neighboring counties like the '60s but it still did went through a lot of administrative changes, including splitting up of districts, adding neighborhoods to a district by separating it from another district.

The '80s was the time of great economic growth but also the time of the democratic movement, and Seoul played a major part of it. The height of it was the June Democratic Uprising, which forced the government to promise its citizens full voting rights, which led to the first democratic presidential election in Korea.

1988 was the year the city hosted the 88 Summer Olympics. This event was highlighted as the height of its economic success and rags to riches story that cemented Korea's status, and the event made it clear which of the two Koreas was the winner of ideological competition. Seoul, as the main site of the Games, tried its best to give a positive impression on the global audience, which included shutting down dog meat restaurants for the time being. This was also the year its population reached 10 million, and 1992 was when it reached the peak of 10.9 million. After that, the population slowly decreased. 1995 was the last year of a major expansion or an administrative change. Since then, the city remains relatively unchanged in terms of its size and the layout of its districts. This was also the year the city first elected its mayor, who were assigned by the government until then.

In 2002, Korea co-hosts the 2002 World Cup with Japan. The city was the main site as they have built the World Cup Stadium. The vigorous cheering of the crowd near the city hall made a lasting impression. This was the first and only co-hosted World Cup to this date. The same year the city elects its 32nd mayor, Lee Myung-bak. He is remembered for his Cheonggyechon restoration project, a project that restored the Cheonggyechon stream that flow through northern Seoul including the downtown, which was buried to make way for a highway during '58~61. The project was hailed as an ecological achievement during his time, but his critics complained about various problems, which includes the artificial state of the stream which was basically a pretty concrete basin, the disregard for historic ruins excavated during the project such as the bridge that was used during the Joseon Dynasty, and hasty construction that seemed like the mayor was hurrying to build a legacy before his term was over. The stream is still controversial, but it received generally favorable response from the citizens and became one of the top attractions of the city. The mayor then became the 10th president of South Korea, and some like to think it was because of this project.

His successor who took office in 2006, Oh Se-hoon, is known for the Design Seoul Projects, which included the massive design overhaul of the city's public spaces and facilities which includes the subways and sidewalks, construction projects for new landmarks and generally ordering the city's numerous signs to look more unified. The project both had its fans and critics, the fans praising his policies for making Seoul look more modernized and on par with its economic reputation and the critics calling it a colossal waste of money, especially regarding the Sevit Islands on the banks of Han river which serves no real purpose and also the city government dictating what its people should do and reducing the quirky charms of the city. After being re-elected in 2010, the mayor lost his job when he called for a referendum on whether the city should adopt the policy of having free subsidized school lunches for every school in the city or the policy of free lunches for a selected few who need them. He promised to resign if the votes cast were minuscule compared to the number of all voters, which was what happened in 2011.

Mayor Park Won-soon, who used to work for a rights oriented non-governmental organization before, is the current mayor of Seoul. He was elected to his second term in 2014 and then his third in 2018.

The two major international sports events and the rapid modernization, globalization and economic development of the city fueled its rise as a global and major world city (as well as a Skyscraper City, too.), with a lot of studies and lists considering Seoul as one of these of Asia alongside the likes of Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Singapore. The Hallyu or Korean Wave was able to bring more and more tourists anually and as of 2013, the visitors to the city reached 10 million.

The Han River

The Han River is one of the major rivers of the peninsula and it devides the capital in half with a considerable width. The northern part of the river is called Gangbuk while the southern half of the river is called Gangnam (no, not the district), and they both have districts with the same name. Gangbuk is associated with the old Seoul since it was where the original Seoul started. Gangnam, especially the Gangnam 3 gu (the three gu's south of the river) is considered to be a more upscale area and is associated with newly built skyscrapers, fancy boutiques and restaurants, various institutes and amenities. The song featuring the aforementioned name is partly a social commentary on area. But Gangbuk is where most of the tourists go to enjoy the "authentic Korea experience" and it is still a major political, cultural and commercial center where most of the government agencies, embassies, and corporate headquarters are located.

Approximately 30+ bridges are connecting the two parts of Seoul.

The river banks are maintained to prevent flooding during the monsoon season, and most of them were transformed into strip of parks.

The 25 "gu"s or districts

Seoul is consisted of 25 gu's (구 in Hangul, 區 in Hanja), each of them having hundreds of thousands of citizens. Each gu elects its own mayor. The gu's are then divided into "dong"s or neighborhoods, of which 423 of them exist.

  • Dobong
  • Dongdaemun The district got its name from Dongdaemun, the East Great Gate of the old Seoul City Wall. Ironically the gate in question is in Jongno. It is the east of Jongno ,south of Seongbuk, and west of Jungnang. It has the second highest population density after Yangcheon and thereby the district with the least green space per capita.
    • Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, Kyunghee University, and the University of Seoul, three major universities, are located in the area.
  • Dongjak
  • Eunpyeong
  • Gangbuk
  • Gangdong
  • Gangnam Probably the most famous district in Seoul after the release of a hit song featuring the same name by PSY. The most prominent of the three affluent districts, Gangnam is synonymous with wealth to a lot of Seoulites and most of the nation. The area, which used to be a bunch of rice paddies outside of Seoul only decades ago, has seen a massive growth ever since the military dictatorship government at that time and the businessmen saw the area fit for development and private investors flocked to hype the market. This was because any expansion north of Seoul would be impossible since that would just be adding additional target for the North Korean Military to threaten.
    • The Teheran-ro is a street in Gangnam, named after the capital of Iran when the cities exchanged street names before Iran was mired in the revolution which cut all ties with American allies. The street aligned with skyscrapers represents the economic boom that made Korea what it is now. It intersects with the Gangnam main street, another fancy street, forming a secondary downtown.
    • Samseong-dong has nothing to do with Samsung. The neighborhood has the Coex Mall and Trade Center complex, and the Trade Tower is one of the landmarks of Seoul. Bongeunsa, a Buddhist temple, is located hear of all places, which makes a great spot for photos contrasting old and new. Also the location of Plus One Animation.
  • Gangseo A district in western Seoul, its name means west of Han river. It is the second largest district after Seocho at 41.42 square kilometers or 6.8 percent of Seoul. It is also the second most populous district after Songpa, boasting a population of 589,257 as of November, 2015. It is also the only district in Seoul to cultivate rice plants, albeit in a small scale.
    • Gimpo International Airport, which is ironically not in Gimpo city in the surrounding Gyeonggi Province but in Gangseo, is the secondary airport of South Korea after ICN (that was, until it was surpassed even by Jeju International Airport). It wasn't always like this. In fact, the airport served as a major hub for decades before the ICN was built. It is now mostly a domestic airport with some flights to neighboring Asian nations. Since the airport is a major facility, a military corps is stationed nearby and a height restriction prevents the district from building anything tall.
  • Geumcheon A southwestern district, it is located west of Gwanak. The district is the only district to have a major manufacturing scene as most of the city moved on to service sectors. The history of the district revolves around the manufacturing industry as the first national industry complex was built here in the '60s and after the dwindling of the industrial sector it managed to pull itself out through the IT bubble of the '00s.
  • Guro Not to be confused with guro, the district west of Gwanak got its name from Guro-dong where the district office is located, which got its name from a legend that nine wise old men enjoyed longevity in the neighborhood.
    • The district is known for the Guro Industrial Complex, which contributed immensely to the country's economic development, although there were negative implications that accompanied it including poor worker's rights. Despite its dark past, the district now enjoys a reputation as one of the most liveable area in the country after its successful transition to the digital era.
    • The area houses Sindorim Station, the most crowded subway station in Korea.
    • Also the location of Dong Woo Animation, DR Movie, Heewon Entertainment and Sunwoo Entertainment.
  • Gwanak The district got its name from the mountain with the same name. The area had 'daldongne's or shanty towns until the '80s before the area saw great development like the bulk of Seoul. It is still an area for low income citizens, mostly young newlyweds and college students and old natives.
    • The area also has Seoul National University, the nation's equivalent of Oxbridge and Ivy League.
  • Gwangjin
  • Jongno Jongno is the historic city of Seoul, featuring the palaces and temples of the Joseon dynasty. It is also the political center of South Korea, where multiple embassies, government offices and the "Blue House", South Korea's presidential resident stands.
    • Of the Five Grand Palaces of Seoul, Gyeongbok Palace and Changdeok Palace are considered the most important. The former is the main palace, and while the latter lacks the grandeur and the size of the former, it is more well preserved and is a UNESCO World Heritage. In the site of Gyeongbok Palace is the National Palace Museum of Korea and the National Folk Museum of Korea.
    • The Jongmyo Shrine is a Confucian shrine dedicated to the dead kings and queens of the Joseon dynasty and a UNESCO World Heritage. It is the oldest surviving Confucian shrine ironically located outside of China due to obvious reasons. The shrine still performs the rituals and its accompanying music to this date annually, which itself is the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity of UNESCO.
    • Also the previous location of Seoul National University before it was moved to Gwanak. The Seoul National University Hospital remains.
  • Jung The name of the district literally means middle, as in the middle of Seoul. This is the city hall district, and with Jongno-district they form the main downtown of Seoul. Namsan (mountain in the middle of Seoul) sits on the border between Jung-district and Yongsan.
    • Myeongdong is a major shopping district and tourist attraction equivalent to Shibuya. The commercial history of the area dates back to the Japanese annexation era, when the neighborhood was a major Japanese residential area. The avenues are full of foreign shoppers and tourists most of the time, many of them from other Asian countries, buying clothing and cosmetic products. Nearby is the Myeongdong Cathedral, which is the highest Roman Catholic prelate within the religion in Korea and a major site of the pro-democratic movement during the 70s and 80s.
    • Chungmuro is a name of an avenue named after Admiral Yi, and is synonymous to the Korean film industry as this was where it started.
    • Dongdaemun Design Plaza, the work of the late Zaha Hadid, is a new attraction of the area. The architecture was criticized by some as being so out of place and defiling a historic site of the city as it was built upon the demolished site of Dongdaemun Stadium, a major spot in modern Korean Sports history, and the remains of the old City Wall. The construction budget that surpassed the original estimate was also criticized. After completion, the building was adored by the foreign press as well as the general public that visited the place frequently. The architecture still remains a controversial subject.
  • Jungnang Located east of Dongdaemun, the area is thought of as the most probabale location of Wiryesong, the capital of Baekjae. The area was of great strategic importance during the Three Kingdoms Age. The area was known for its orchards and ranches, all of which are nowhere to be found (the orchards moved to the surrounding Gyeonggi Province). The district lacks a commercial area or downtown of sorts, but the situation seems to be improving as of late.
    • The district is also known for having quite a few churches, the most notable one being the "Kumnan Methodist Church", the largest Methodist church in the world in terms of number of registered believers.
  • Mapo Named after Mapo, an inlet famous for its status as a major river transport hub back in the Joseon Dynasty, which lost its prominence as river transport lost its value and the downstream of Han river was lost after the Korean War. It is placed west of Yongsan and Jung, north of Yeongdeungpo and Gangseo, south of Eunpyeong and Seodaemun.
    • Notable facilities include Hongik University and Sogang University (which the current president graduated from), two major universities, Seoul World Cup Stadium which co-hosted the 2002 World Cup, and the World Cup Park.
    • Aforementioned Hongik University is famous for the street near it which is a major downtown area. The area is synonymous with the Korean youth culture, particularly with the street performances and small theaters featuring college graduates, at least before it was gentrified.
    • Sangam-dong houses a bunch of media companies and major broadcasters which were previously in Yeouido. A media cluster known as "Digital Media City" (not to be confused with works with the same abbreviation) is located here.
  • Nowon
  • Seocho One of the three more affluent areas of Seoul, Seocho is adjacent to Gangnam-district, and is a wealthy residential area where most of the residents are upper middle class, or at least middle class. This is the largest district in Seoul, with a size of 47 square kilometers.
    • The district also includes the National Library, the supreme court, the supreme prosecutors office, Seoul Arts Center and Samsung headquarters.
    • The district is the site of the notorious Sampoong Department Store collapse, which was the largest non-terror related building collapse in terms of casualties before 2013 Savar building collapse that happened in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The site in question is now a luxury residential high rise.
    • Also the birthplace of PSY.
    • The offices of Big Star, Digital eMation, Saerom and the Korean branch of Rough Draft Studios are located here.
  • Seodaemun A district in the north west Seoul and west of Jongno, the district's name comes from the great gate of west, one of the four great gates of the walled city of Seoul during the Joseon dynasty. The original gate doesn't exist anymore. The Sinchon area is one of the major college town and one of the lesser downtown areas formed near the prestigious Yonsei University and the Ewha Womans University along with a few others.
  • Seongbuk Located east of Jongno and north of Dongdaemun, the district's name translates to "north of the city wall". The district is a college town as it includes Korea University, one of the three most prestigious universities of South Korea, Kookmin University, Seokyeong University, and Korea National University of Arts. However the commercial area that thrives on college students aren't as developed as that of other college towns.
    • Seongbuk-dong is where a lot of "Chaebol" (family owned conglomerates) mansions stand, making it more affluent than most of Gangnam, but since they stand next to ordinary housings, they look more like Urban Segregation. The neighborhood also houses a lot of embassies and official residence for ambassadors.
  • Seongdong
  • Songpa One of the three affluent districts south of the river along with Gangnam and Seocho, Songpa is less noticeable among the three despite having the most population (658,021 as of February 2016) not just among the districts of Seoul, but the entire country. The area isn't as orderly developed as the other two districts, but is still an upper-middle class area. This is where the ancient capital of Baekje stooded.
    • In more recent history, this is where the Olympics complex used during the 1988 Summer Olympics is located, now turned into a park.
    • Other attractions include Lotte World, a theme park featuring the world's second largest indoors theme park managed by the retail giant Lotte (whose founder was a bit too fond of a certain novel), and the Lotte World Tower built by the same corporation, soon to be completed in late 2016 and would be the highest tower among the member states of OECD at 555 meters.
    • Also the location of AKOM and Yeson Entertainment.
  • Yangcheon The district with the highest population density of 28,945 per square kilometer (much higher than that of Seoul average 16,000) is located west of Seoul.
    • Mok-dong is an affluent neighborhood known for its good school district and housing market bubble notable outside of the Gangnam 3 gu's, forming part or the core of west Seoul. Also the result of massive development and urban planning during the '80s. Outside the neighborhood, however, isn't as developed.
  • Yeongdeungpo Major district of southwest Seoul. This district includes Yeouido, the Korean equivalent of Manhattan, albeit much smaller. What used to be an empty sandbank in Han river, Yeouido became one of the downtowns of Seoul where the Korean stock market and three major broadcasters had their bases before two moved out, and where the National Assembly and other corporate offices such as LG are located.
    • Landmarks includes the 63 Building, one of the first skyscrapers of the country which is named after the number of the floor it has and the IFC Seoul. The island is also a famous spot for cherry blossom picnics.
  • Yongsan Located south of Jung-district, this centermost part of Seoul is also the center of the Korean military and where its HQ is located. This is also where the US military base is placed. Itaewon, which is a neighborhood in Yongsan, is the largest expat area in Seoul.
    • The area is also known for housing one of the most notable landmarks of Seoul, the N Seoul Tower (shown in the image above) which is built atop Namsan (mountain near downtown Seoul.).
    • The area houses quite a few museums, too, including the National Museum of Korea, which is one of the largest museum in Asia and the largest in Korea, possessing a bulk of the National Treasures ranging from prehistoric eras to as recent as the Japanese occupation period, the War Memorial of Korea, and the Hangul museum, a museum about the Korean Alphabet.
    • The aforementioned Itaewon and and the Hannam neighborhoods in Yongsan is also famous for having the mansions of most of South Korea's ultra-rich, such as the leaders of conglomerates like Samsung.
    • Seoul Station, the largest train station in the nation which is a major transportation hub that connects the city from the rest of the country, is located here.

Seoul in media

In general, the portrayal of South Korea is pretty rare due to it having two influential neighbors, which makes Seoul pretty obscure in comparison to other East Asian cities such as Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. Even if the city is portrayed, it tends to come with gross inaccuracies. But luckily, as of 2010s, the situation is getting better as the city is getting more coverage and recognition, which includes being the setting of various works.

Film

Literature

  • In Snow Crash, Seoul is mentioned as one of the places Hiro's father(a military man) was stationed at and where Hiro spent a part of his youth.
  • World War Z featured Seoul briefly during the interview that took place in South Korea.

Television

  • A torture scene took place in Seoul in 24.
  • Seoul was featured in Lost when the series showcased the previous lives of Jin-Soo Kwon and Sun-Hwa Kwon.
  • Seoul is a major setting for one of the characters, Sun Bak in Sense8. The city was given a rather in-depth look.

Video Game

  • Agents of Mayhem is set in a futuristic version of Seoul.
  • Seoul was featured in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare during the opening missions when the city was attacked by North Korea. The landing pod landed on what seems to be a fairly accurate reconstruction of the Gangnam area especially around the Coex Mall and the Global Trade Center, but it quickly mixes up various landmark areas not adjacent to this place, such as the Cheonggyechon stream in downtown Seoul north of the river.
  • The fourth installment of the Parodius series, Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius, features Seoul as its first stage.
  • The second installment of the Rainbow Six Series, Rainbow Six: Rogue Spear, features Seoul in its exclusive mission for the Korean release.
    • The company that released the game in Korea, Kama Digital Entertainment, also developed their own installment, Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Take-Down – Missions in Korea, which was set for global release. It featured Seoul in a lot of its missions. However, the game was never released outside Korea.
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