Scramble for the 11th floor

29th September 2000 at 01:00
Seoul has expanded tenfold since 1953 - no wonder it is so polluted and congested. No wonder people seek their private haven in the sun, writes Keith Howard.

The city of Seoul is home to 11 million people - a quarter of the South Korean population - and choked by millions of cars. Set in a basin and bordered by mountains, it covers an area a fifth of the size of London and the only way to cram so many people in is upwards, in densely packed high-rise blocks.

In the 1980s, laws were introduced to prevent a person from owning more than one apartment in the city but, like demand, the prices kept rising. The average block is 18 floors high but, curiously, apartments on the 11th floor are said to fetch the highest prices.

Seoul was founded in 1394. It was favoured for the mountains to its north and the Han River to the south. By 1910 just 279,000 people were living there, while 96.7 per cent of Korea's population was rural. Even after the Korean war in 1953, barely a million people lived in the capital. But migration from the farmlands brought rapid expansion and industrialisation.

By 1966, 13 per cent of South Korea's population lived in Seoul, and those in the capital had an average per capita income that was 88 per cent higher than for the country as a whole. Korea is now one of the most urbanised countries in the world, with around nine out of ten people living in cities of more than 100,000 people.

But Koreans have not taken urbanisation to their hearts. Many feel that their roots lie in the villages. In Seoul, almost 60 per cent of inhabitants have migrated there from the countryside, and at every New Year and harvest festival the expressways virtually grind to a standstill as millions attempt to travel back to their parents' rural homes.

Tickets must be booked well in advance and every weekend queues form at the bottom of the surrounding mountains as thousands of people - all kitted out in full hiking gear - try to get away from it all.

As a metropolis, Seoul's development was managed through a 1966 master plan, which envisaged that industry ministries would be moved out of Seoul, while government ministries would be relocated to a new town, Kwachon. The plans also included a green belt around Seoul to inhibit construction as well as the introduction of a massive building programme.

In 1953 the entire population lived north of the Han River, but by 1990 the majority lived in new apartments south of the river, although the city remained accessible via the 16 bridges that span the Han river. From the beginning of the 1980s, conglomerations of high-rise apartments were built by the green belt to create a number of satellite cities.

In Seoul there is a standard way to buy an apartment. First, a hefty deposit is needed before construction. At various stages in the building, further instalments are paid. Demand and house price inflation is so high that by the time the owner takes possession of a new freehold property, its value is much higher than the price paid for it. This system has the advantage of spreading costs and allows developers to raise capital to invest in other building projects. To make way for massive apartment blocks, in Ssangyedong to the north of Seoul and Moktong to the south, shanty towns were bulldozed as owners and tenants looked on in disbelief. Many refused to mov and some died in the ensuing conflict. Elsewhere, owners of houses scheduled to be torn down were offered money for new apartments, but such offers were rare; often, those left homeless would camp nearby until they were forcibly removed by the police.

In the past, Koreans typically lived in extended families, with several generations living together in a single one-storey house. They lived where their forebears had lived and worked on the land of their ancestors. Family, clan and village were central to their lives. But in Seoul, space is at a premium and nuclear families are the norm. The shift resulted mostly from the effects of the Second World War and the Korean War, as several million Koreans were displaced. In Seoul today, relations formed at school have replaced the cousins of the extended family, and an association of workmates or membership of congregation replaces the village groups of old. Apartment blocks are social microcosms, with groups of housewives buying and selling cheap vegetables, and local fraternities organising local projects.

In the 1960s, the majority of those migrating to Seoul came for work; typically these were poorly paid unskilled labourers who settled around factories. In the 1970s, more people came for education or to retire, often settling with relatives who were already in the city. Education, valued very highly within this Confucian society, gave access to skilled jobs, and in turn the more highly educated were absorbed into an expanding service sector. The high costs of housing in Seoul meant that by 1990 almost half of the city's families shared a household as sub-tenants. People in Seoul are used to being mobile and around 20 per cent of families move house each year.

Today Seoul suffers from chronic traffic congestion, even though the 1966 master plan called for 10 per cent of urban space to be given to roads. To avoid congestion, the city has built eight underground railway lines in the past 25 years, but to do this the city authority has gone into huge debt and will have to repay the cost for decades.

But not all commuters like to travel like sardines from their distant homes to work, especially since the car has become a great symbol of affluence. Car ownership has risen to 8 million nationally - four times as many as ten years ago. Traffic often grinds to a halt and road accident figures remain very high. Exhaust fumes are also a problem and as Seoul sits in a basin, the pollution tends to get trapped, leaving a haze over the city that blocks out the sun.

Another big problem for the capital is waste disposal. Recycling is much encouraged now, with exorbitant fines for anyone refusing to comply with the separation of rubbish into seven different categories. Refuse has created a real mountain of rubbish that can be seen across the Han river from Seoul's airport. The city's water supply comes primarily from this river, which until recently also received most of the city's untreated sewage.

These conditions may help to explain the popularity of 11th-floor apartments in Seoul. After all, if residents can live halfway between the swarm of cars below them and the haze of smog above, they might avoid a little of both.

Keith Howard is a senior lecturer in Korean studies and music at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)

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