Seoul City icon

Seoul
Metropolitan City

Take a tour of Korea's largest, most celebrated city, from facts, to history, to notable neighborhoods.
The Stats
  • Seoul Metropolitan City (서울특별시; Seoul-si)
  • 605 km² (234 sq mi)
  • 9,588,711 people (1st of 162)
  • 15,843 folks per km² (41,035 per sq mi)
Seoul Metropolitan City
A view of Seoul Namsan Tower from the Jung Province in Seoul, South Korea.

Seoul Special City (서울특별시; Seoul-si) is the gravitational center of Korea. Like London to the U.K., Paris to France, everything flows to and from the megacity.

It:

  • is the capital of South Korea.
  • is Korea’s most populous city.
  • claims the headquarters of most Korean corporations.
  • houses the biggest K-Pop labels.
  • boasts the most awe-inspiring cultural relics.

Though it hasn’t always been the capital, Seoul’s history also summarizes Korea through time. Let’s take a tour of Korea’s densest city.

Quick Facts

Before diving into Seoul’s past and notable neighborhoods, let’s get our facts straight.

Location

Seoul sits on the upper western edge of South Korea. Sixty (60) kilometers (37 miles) east of the Yellow (West) Sea (황해). Fifty (50) kilometers (31 miles) south of the DMZ, the well-guarded border to North Korea.

Except for Incheon to the west, Gyeonggi Province (경기도; Gyeonggi-do) surrounds the capital. The province’s satellite cities of Goyang (고양) and Suwon (수원) hang out just north and south of the capital.

The wide Han River bisects the heart of the city. However, only recreational boats use the waterway because the mouth of the river sits on the DMZ.

Bike Paths

Seoul boasts hundreds of kilometers that spread throughout its waterways, parks and sidewalks. However, the major certification bike path is the Hangang Bicycle Path.

The Hangang Bicycle Path starts where the Ara Bicycle Path ends, on the eastern edge of Incheon. It flows along both sides of the Han River in Seoul and continues into Hanam City.

Seoul Skyline and National Assembly from Yanghwa Hangang Park (양화한강공원) along the Han River in Seoul.
A view of Yeouido Island and the National Assembly Building from Yanghwa Hangang Park in Seoul.

Seoul, Special City

Seoul’s official title is Seoul Special City (서울특별시). What does that mean?

Like states in the U.S., Korea has nine provinces (do; 도). Each province holds counties (gun; 군) and cities (si; 시).

Cities with over a million people can apply for a metropolitan city designation. The title liberates them from provincial oversight. Metro city mayors wield power equal to provincial governors. And metro cities can set their own infrastructure and bureaucratic agendas.

If you look at a map, you’ll see small territories punched from the province’s boundaries. These are Metropolitan Cities, including:

Seoul does one better. It’s the only city with the title “Special City.” What does it mean? Well, it has the most people, money, and powerful politicians. Why not give yourself a fancy title?

Population

People trickled out of the city in the past decades. But Seoul ranks first in population and density, with 16,000 souls packed into every kilometer.

But Seoul claims all the best jobs and cultural highlights. Why has it sprung a people leak?

Greenbelt Tourniquet

Seoul absorbed more and more outlying cities as it ballooned during the Miracle on the Han years (1961~1997). To prevent the concrete blob from spreading further, beginning in the 1970s city leaders tied a greenbelt around the outside of the city. 

The greenbelt established protected natural spaces along the perimeter of the city. It also fixed the boundaries of Seoul.

What happens to a commodity’s price — home/apartment prices, in Seoul’s case — once it becomes fixed, but necessary? It spirals every upward.

Bed Towns

Like America, the people who can’t afford, or don’t possess a sleepless city temperament, move to the burbs.

These burbs aren’t your prototypical cul-de-sacs, picket fences, and green lawns. They often look like any other apartment block in Seoul. What’s the difference? Price. 

Koreans call these smaller commuter cities “bed towns” (베드타운). As in, Seoul is your office town. And Suwon (수원시; Suwon-si), or Seongnam (성남시; Seongnam-si) or Hanam (하남시; Hanam-si) is where you keep your bed.

Over the years, these “bed towns” formed the Seoul Capital Area (수도권). Including Seoul, Incheon, and Gyeonggi Province, this Homo sapien hotspot holds over 26 million, 51% of South Korea’s total population (51 million).

The Seoulites

Most Seoulites come from Korea. Like 97.4%. However, Seoul holds 20% of Korea’s foreigners. 

Around 264,000 expats live in the capital. Many are laborers from close-by nations. A good chunk are English teachers from native English-speaking countries.

Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul.
Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul's Myeongdong Neighborhood houses the diocese for the Korean Catholic Church.

Religion

Many Koreans classify themselves as non-religious. However, Confucianism and Buddhism guide cultural and social norms. Here are the approximate stats (from 2015):

  • 4,400,000 (46%) of about 9,400,000 are religions.
  • 1,000,000 (11%) practice Buddhism.
  • 2,300,000 (24%) follow Protestant Christianity.
  • And 1,000,000 (11%) attend Catholic Churches.

Protestant Christinas in Seoul only make up a quarter of the population. However, they are the most dedicated to their religion. They often have an outsized influence in politics and business.

Catholicism takes a big bite out of the population, as well. Throughout the country you’ll find cathedrals. Seoul’s Myeongdong Cathedral (명동대성당) is the country’s flagship Catholic Church.

If you travel to the Itaewon (이태원), Seoul’s largest immigrant neighborhood, you’ll spot a mosque atop one hill and a church atop another. 

Economy

Seoul’s economy is the whale in South Korea’s bathtub. It accounts for 22.3% of the nation’s overall GDP. Let’s run through the numbers.

Cost of Living

A picture of the Bank of Korea Money Museum (한국은행화폐박물관), completed in 1912, was the headquarters of Korea’s Central Bank.
Bank of Korea Money Museum (한국은행화폐박물관), completed in 1912, was the headquarters of Korea’s Central Bank. Now its a currency museum.

Yearly, Seoul places in the top tier of the world’s most expensive cities. While vegetables, water, and public transit are cheaper, dairy, meat, and gasoline sit well above other metropolises.

Why? It’s hard to find oil wells and expansive pastures when you rank 107th in size and 24th in population.

Because of cheap interest rates and dwindling land, the average price per square meter of home is 10 million won ($8,600). That’s out of reach for most middle-class Seoulites, who rake in about 3.27 million won ($2,900) per month.

Office Space

Most of Korea’s chaebols (재벌) — giant, family owned corporations — call Seoul home, including:

  • Samsung (삼성) — electronics, appliances, insurance, ($221 billion revenue in 2019)
  • LG (주식회사 엘지) — electronics, chemicals ($56 billion revenue in 2019)
  • Hyundai (현대자동차) — car manufacturing ($88 billion in revenue in 2019)
  • SK Group (SK그룹) — energy, telecommunications ($96 billion revenue in 2019)
  • Lotte (롯데 그룹) — food, shopping, entertainment ($3.4 billion in revenue in 2019)

Many of these headquarters fall in the glitzy, Psy-enhanced district of Gangnam (강남구). 

However, Yeouido Island (여의도) claims the title of Korea’s mini-Manhattan or “Korean Wall Street.” Sitting near the southern banks of the Han River, Yeouido hosts a secondary office for the Korea Exchange (KRX) and the headquarters of Korea’s largest banks.

The National Assembly Building (국회의사당), Korea’s national legislature, sits on the northwestern tip of Yeouido.

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

Seoul once boasted a strong blue-collar workforce. Rows of shoe, textile, and fabrication factories filled neighborhoods. However, as Seoul’s fortunes increased, so did the whiteness of everyone’s collars.

Today Seoul’s workforce sits in office buildings. Armed with years of schooling and diplomas, they toil in service jobs, including finance, information technology, and international business.

However, Seoul still makes room for traditional industries, like printing, and food and beverage processing. The headquarters of Oriental Brewery (오비맥주), Seoul Milk (서울우유), and Nongshim (농심) settle in the city.

Technology

Which country boasts the fastest internet? South Korea and Seoul often reach the top of the list.

  • South Korea — Mobile: 186.06 Mbit/s (2nd); Broadband: 241.58 Mbit/s (2nd).
  • United States — Mobile: 82.04 Mbit/s (18th); Broadband: 191.97 Mbit/s (11th).
  • China — Mobile: 149.40 Mbit/s (4th); Broadband: 172.95 Mbit/s (16th).
  • Germany — Mobile: 67.74 Mbit/s (29th); Broadband: 120.93 Mbit/s (35th).
    • *Figures from 2021

Why? Two reasons.

The Korean government views internet access as a utility. Not a luxury. So they dump gobs of capital building out gigabit networks and enabling free city-wide Wi-Fi hotspots.

Second, most of Seoul lives in high-rise apartments. It’s simpler and cheaper to string fiber optic cable up a wall to congregate units than connecting single-family houses via underground pipes.

City buses line up to accept passengers in Ulsan, South Korea.
There are more than one type of city bus in Korea. Don't worry! They're color coded!

Transportation

Seoul has an extensive network of easy and economical public transportation. Roads, however, live in perpetual rush hour purgatory.

Roads

About every other Korean citizen owns a car. And though roads dominate almost every terrestrial meter, Seoul’s high population often equals traffic apocalypse.. 

When is it the worst? Weekends. And weekdays. Heading into Seoul on the Gyeongbu Expressway Friday at 2 PM? Your grandpa, bad knees and all, pass you and get most of his shopping done in Gangnam before you reach city limits.

That’s why we recommend exploring Korea by Bike.

Expressways

All expressways lead to Seoul. The city claims the first and widest express in South Korea:

City Buses

Subways may be the pride of Seoul’s public transit. But city buses are its true workhorse: reliable, flexible. They carry passengers (not bikes) to every destination in and around Seoul for reasonable rates

Seoul color codes its buses.

  • Yellow Buses (Circulation) run on main roads and follow a circular route, stopping at most stations. (₩1,200 cash; ₩1,100 with transportation card)
  • Red Buses (Rapid) are the fastest category. Designed to speed commuters to satellite cities, they make only a few stops. (₩2,400 cash; ₩2,300 card. Late night buses: ₩2,250 cash; ₩2,150 card).
  • Blue Buses (Mainline) also carry passengers to “bed towns,” but make more stops than red buses. Private companies operate them. (₩1,300 cash; ₩1,200 card)
  • Green Buses (Branch) run short routes from subway stations to connecting bus stops. (₩1,300 cash; ₩1,200 card).
  • Small Buses (마을버스; Maeul Bus) are community buses that scoot along smaller, neighborhood roads. They run circular routes through less serviced areas. (₩1,000 cash; ₩900 card).
A picture of the inside of a subway in Seoul, South Korea.
The best way to get around Seoul? The capital's clean and efficient subway system skips all the nightmare traffic.

Trains

Seoul Station (서울역) is the largest passenger rail hub in Korea. Trains of all ilk — KTX (high-speed), ITX (medium speed), mugunghwa (무궁화; slow-speed) — flow from the center of the city on the Gyeongbu Line (경부고속철도) down to Busan (부산시).

Yongsan Station (용산역) is the origin station for the Honam Line (호남고속철도) in Seoul. It carries KTX, ITX, and mugunghwa trains to Gwangju (광주시) in the southwest.

Want to ride the SRT, the other high-speed train? Head to Suseo Station (수서역) south of the Han River.

Taxi

Seoul regulates taxi service. All charge standard fees. None will offer “off-meter” rates.

  • Regular taxis cost ₩3,800 for first two kilometers.
    • 758 every additional kilometer.
  • Deluxe and jumbo taxis start between ₩3,900 and ₩6,500.
    • Between ₩1,220 and ₩1,401 every additional kilometer

Riding between 12 AM and 4 AM? Expect a 20% surcharge for regular taxis. (Delux taxis don’t charge extra for late night.)

(There’s a 0.01% chance your friendly (screaming) taxi driver opens his trunk for your greasy bike.)

Subways

Seoul maintains the longest subway system in the world. It includes eighteen (18) subway lines and four regional trains that extend into satellite cities.

  • Single journey tickets cost ₩1,350. 
  • You’ll pay ₩1,200 if you use a T-Money or Cashbee transportation card.

Culture

Where is the epicenter of Korea’s culture? Which city has all the top-tier museums and performance spaces. Do you need to ask?

The Old

Seoul has been the capital of the peninsula since 1392. It holds countless cultural treasures, from UNESCO designated sites, to museums with the largest budgets. 

Japan burned down many of Seoul’s grand palaces — Gyeongbok (경복궁) and Changdeok (창덕궁) — during the Imjin War (임진왜란; 1592~1598). And the Korean War (한국전쟁; 1950 ~ 1953) reduced Korea’s other architectural relics to rubble.

However, dedication and a booming economy helped Korea build back better. Seoul’s historians, architects, and artists recreated these cultural treasures.

The New

A picture of the Lotte World Tower in the Songpa District in Seoul.
Lotte World Tower in Seoul is the tallest building in Korea, and fifth in the world.

K-Pop propelled Korea into the international spotlight in recent years. While BTS, Twice, Blackpink appear on every platform, from the U.S. to Vietnam, they live in Seoul. 

Where do fans hunt down their favorite celebs?

Visit the Gangnam district south of the river. Attached to the COEX Mall, the SM Entertainment complex offers a museum, multi-story gift shop, and holographic concert.

Drop by Korea’s walk of fame: K-Star Road (K스타로드) in the Apgujeong Neighborhood (압구정동). They don’t have stars and handprints. Instead, three-meter tall GangnamDol statues with oversized heads display the name of famous bands.

Check out our breakdown of Seoul’s notable neighborhoods below.

A picture of the statue of King Sejong in Gwanghwamun Square (광화문광장).
Korea's greatest leader, King Sejong, sits before Gyeongbuk Palace in the old Jongno District in Seoul.

History of Seoul

The history of Seoul mirrors all the important bits of Korea’s history.

For millennia, the city crowned the peninsula’s most important natural infrastructure: the Han River. Seoul passed between political enemies, suffered through wars, and then reborn into one of the world’s densest and wealthiest metropolises.

Open your books. Let’s take a spin through the history of the Korean capital.

Prehistory

In the 1970s, Archaeologists discovered remnants of settlements in Seoul dating back 4,000 years. Those who populated these villages lived as fisher people and foragers.

Around 700 BCE bronze tools, fishing nets, and farming practices invaded the region. These innovations stabilized food supplies, allowing the ancient people to build larger communities and gain disposable time to try pottery and painting.

The Amsa-dong Prehistoric Site (암사동 선사주거지) just off the Hangang Bike Path in eastern Seoul displays is one of the best preserved sites displaying of Korea’s prehistory.

Discovered in the 1970s, the area produced 5th and 6th century BCE artifacts. Archaeologists even recreated an ancient village to exhibit these ancient peoples’ cribs.

Hangang Bike Path at Sunset in Seoul.
The Han River, which flows through Seoul, provided food and transportation for Seoul's early settlements.
Timeline Korea

Here’s a quick list of Korea’s political timeline.

Han’s First Kingdom

Near the start of the first millennium, kingdoms and clans organized on the Korean peninsula. One of the original groups, the Kingdom of Goguryeo (고구려; 37 BCE ~ 668 ACE), occupied the territory where North Korea lies today.

What about Seoul? What political group was the first to settle this area. Keep reading!

The Two Princes

According to legend, just before the era of three kingdoms era (삼국시대; 57 BCE ~ 668 ACE) in Korea, the founder of Kingdom of Goguryeo, King Dongmyeong, had three sons: Yuri (유리왕), Biryu (비류), and Onjo (온조왕). As the oldest, Yuri was the heir to the throne. 

What about Biryu and Onjo? Their desires reached beyond an endless line of concubines. They had ambitions of their own.

So both headed south until they reached the Han River.

The Two Capitals

Seven-kilometers upriver from the Yellow (West) Sea, Onjo founded Wiryeseong (위례성), the capital of his new Kingdom of Baekje (백제; 18 BCE ~ 660 ACE).

(Onjo named the kingdom Baekje (백제) after the one hundred (백; baek) vassals that followed him south.)

Biryu settled downriver just on the Yellow Sea. He called his capital Michuhol (미추홀), where present-day Incheon sits.

A photo of the Lotte World Folk Museum (롯데월드 민속박물관) in Korea.
Lotte World Folk Museum (롯데월드 민속박물관) is an exhibition hall featuring the history of Korea. In addition to an extensive miniature scenes, the museum features life-size reenactments.
Dueling Brothers

Biryu soon discovered sea salt tainted the soil around his new settlement, killing crops, starving citizens.

Biryu marched upriver to Wiryeseong and demanded the throne to Onjo’s thriving kingdom. Onjo refused. So Biryo said sorry. Then asked for help.

Joking. War!

The battle did last long. Onjo’s troops fought with full bellies. Biryu’s troops’ gullets rattled empty.

In defeat Biryu committed suicide. And Onjo’s Kingdom of Baekje cemented its status as a major power for hundreds of years.

Master and Commander

The Han River was more than fertile farmland for Baekje. The Kingdom expanded and grew by taking advantage of their access to the Han River and Yellow (West) Sea.

Baekje’s maritime power and prowess let the kingdom forge connections with Japan, annex smaller tribes, and chip away at Goguryeo, their mother kingdom. 

North and South Settlements

Archaeologists found Wiryeseong (위례성) fortifications on either side of the Han River. They concluded pressure from local clans forced Baekje to move a few times during its reign.

The most prominent of Baekje’s ruins sit on the southern banks. To fortify against invading kingdoms, you can find the earthen walls of:

Three Kingdoms

As the Kingdom of Baekje rose and pestered the mighty Kingdom in Goguryeo in the north, another kingdom grew strong in the southeast: the Kingdom of Silla (신라; 57 BCE ~ 935 ACE).

For hundreds of years, these three kingdoms wrestled for control of the Korean peninsula.

  • Kingdom of Goguryeo (고구려; 37 BCE ~ 668 ACE) is, as legend says, the kingdom from which Baekje sprang. They controlled much of the northern Korean peninsula and modern day China.
  • Kingdom of Baekje (백제; 18 BCE ~ 660 ACE) is the first major Kingdom to settle the Han River. Known for their naval fleet, they controlled the southwestern part of Korea.
  • Kingdom of Silla (신라; 57 BCE ~ 935 ACE), the weakest of the three kingdoms, used diplomacy to gain strength. They held the southeastern tip of the peninsula.

Both the kingdoms of Goguryeo and Silla looked upon Baekje with hungry eyes. Why?

The Han River basin. This natural resource had:

  • thousands of acres of fertile soil.
  • trade routes to China and Japan.
  • a centralized location on the peninsula.
  • and a network of tributaries that extended deep into the peninsula.

And pretty soon the covetous kingdoms came a-knockin’.

A photo of the Lotte World Folk Museum (롯데월드 민속박물관) in Korea.
A scene of a Joseon Dynasty era royal court in the Lotte World Folk Museum.

Here Comes Father Goguryeo

King Jangsu (장수왕) of the Kingdom of Goguryeo (고구려) made the first move in the 5th century ACE. His troops invaded the eastern reaches of the Han River and cut Baekje off their inland villages.

Starved of taxes and food, Goguryeo’s armies pounding at its gates, Baekje abandoned its capital, Wiryeseong. They retreated south into the mountains around Gongju (공주).

The balance of power shifted on the peninsula when the Han River changed hands. Baekje shrank. Goguryeo leveled up.

Silla Says, What?

In the peninsula’s southeast, humble Silla watched Goguryeo’s gains. They not only took the Han River and neutered Baekje, they were kicking butt in Manchuria (Northern China).

Silla worried. But Silla waited.

Soon enough, civil scuffles erupted between Goguryeo’s local lords. Northern nomadic hordes nipped at Goguryeo’s spongy flesh.

So Silla extended a hand. They approached the wounded Kingdom of Baekje, hiding in the western mountains, and offered a deal: “Band together. Push Goguryeo back north. Share the Han River basin.” Baekje agreed.

In 551 ACE, the unified forces of Silla and Baekje punctured Goguryeo’s southern borders. Baekje reclaimed their old capital, Wiryeseong (위례성). And Silla bit off a chunk of upriver Han basin.

Silla Says, Hey!

Though the Baekje reclaimed their home turf, a wave of relief didn’t wash over. And they wanted more.

Assuming Goguryeo weakened, Baekje sent troops north to wrest more land.

Silla waited. Silla watched.

When Goguryeo beat back Baekje’s advance, Silla sent reinforcements downriver. However, orders didn’t instruct Silla’s troops to aid Baekje. They served a notice of eviction.

In 553 ACE, two years after their alliance, Silla took Wiryeseong (위례성) and sent Baekje packing back south.

With complete control of the Han River, Silla rushed diplomatic ships across the Yellow (West) Sea (황해) and allied with the Tang Dynasty in China.

Silla promised the Tang tribute. What did the Tang Dynasty send? A massive force of soldiers that helped Silla overwhelm the other two maimed kingdoms. 

In 668 ACE, Silla defeated Baekje and Goguryeo and became the first political power to unite the Korean peninsula.

Capital No More

Silla abandoned Wiryeseong, Baekje’s old capital. Why?

  1. When a new dynasty gained control, it was bad Feng Shui to build the new regime’s capital on top of the old defeated one.
  2. And, Silla already had a capital: modern day Gyeongju (경주) in the southeast.

However, Silla and the succeeding Kingdom of Goryeo maintained military outposts up and down the Han River basin. They knew whichever kingdom controlled the waterway, controlled the peninsula.

A picture of Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul.
Gyeongbokgung Palace is the Joseon Dynasty's first and, today, most visited royal palace in Seoul.

Goryeo and the Summer Palace

By the 900s, civil war weakened the Kingdom of Silla. So the descendants from the two defeated kingdoms (Baekje and Goguryeo) started grassroots movements to regain power.

The new Kingdom of Goryeo (고려; 918 BCE ~ 1392 ACE), which claimed direct lineage from Goguryeo, seized power from Silla and took control of the Korean peninsula in 935.

Goryeo and the Three Capitals

Goryeo learned from Silla’s mistakes. They knew that, while the peninsula appeared unified, their citizens’ allegiances remained fractured.

Southeastern folks had a Silla heart. Westerners tattooed Baekje upon their souls.

So, what was their solution? Three extra capitals.

Goryeo’s governing capital was in Kaesong (개성시), just a hop north of present-day Seoul. However, they supported and nourished all three of the past kingdoms’ capitals:

  • Pyongyang (평양시) was Goguryeo’s old capital; Goreyo called it the “Western Capital.”
  • Gyeongju (경주시) was Silla’s ancient capital. Goreyo declared it the “Eastern Capital.”
  • Wiryeseong (위례성) was Baekje’s capital. Goreyo named it the “Southern Capital.”

In 1068, King Sukjong of Goryeo built Namgyeong Palace (남경궁궐) on the northern banks of the Han River. Close to Baekje’s Wiryeseong (위례성), he named the new settlement Namgyeong (남경; Southern Capital).

The population in the region stagnated in the years following Baekje’s downfall. However, builders, bureaucrats, bankers followed the royal presence and supercharged the area.

The structures near Changdeok Palace display the Joseon Dynasty's traditional architecture.
Changdeok Palace includes many structures that display the Joseon Dynasty's architecture.

Joseon Dynasty

Wiryeseong was the first major settlement in the Seoul area. However, it didn’t survive the death of Baekje. Time and wars left the ancient settlement in ruins.

The Joseon Dynasty (대조선국; 1392 ACE ~ 1897 ACE) planted the seeds from which modern Seoul sprung.

The Founding

In 1392, Taejo of Joseon (태조) captured the Goryeo Dynasty’s crown. First on his to-do list, he needed new capital. Superstition dictated that new capitals shouldn’t sit on the ruins of old ones.

After consulting his military and Feng Shui practitioners, King Taejo chose a little spot just above the Han River, between four mountains. He named it Hanyang (한양) or Hanseong (한성).

Location, Location

Why choose this site? This spot nestled against a bend in the Han had two geographical advantages:

Han River at sunset in Seoul.
The first Joseon King seated his new capital near the Han River to access upriver farms and to send trade ships to outer kingdoms.
The Han River

Mentioned above, the Han River shaped Korea’s political and social destiny. It provided three keys to whichever kingdom dominated its waters:

Centralization

Like Silla and Goryeo Kingdoms before, ruling a peninsula amongst warring parties ain’t easy. Kings often sent troops or bureaucrats throughout the state.

Enter the Han River.

The waterway sits in the middle of the Korean peninsula. And its networks of tributaries reach deep inland and spread to Korea’s many rugged nooks and crannies.

Crops & Taxes

Like almost every past civilization, the Joseon Dynasty’s economy relied on crop surpluses to survive and expand. And what’s almost as important as growing food? Transportation.

The Han River was the Joseon Dynasty’s Highway 1. After the harvest season, rice, beans, and barley flowed towards the capital from upriver farms.

In Hanseong, ports and granaries popped up along the Han to accept the goods. These ports grew to neighborhoods that specialized in certain products.

Dongbinggo (동빙고) and Seobinggu (서빙고), near Ichon Hangang Park, earned fame for ice-making. Ttukseom (뚝섬) stored timber and munitions. And Songpa (송파), near Jamsil Hangang Park, kept rice, wood, and other products from all over the country.

Soon the city swelled with the privileged. Landowners and members of the royal court moved to Hanseong and built estates.

Diplomacy & Trade

Though the Joseon Kingdom fell “Hermit Kingdom” mode and isolated itself, it also relied on trade and tribute with nearby China and Japan to protect its borders and top off their coffers.

The Han River allowed the Joseon Kings to maintain diplomats and shiploads of goods into the Yellow (West) Sea.

The Bukchon Hanok Village in the old Jongno District sits just below Bugaksan Mountain.
The Bukchon Hanok Village in the Jongno District sits just below Bugaksan Mountain, the northern peak that helped protect the old Joseon capital.
Natural Defences

When King Taejo chose didn’t choose Hanseong’s site just for money and diplomacy. He trusted neighboring kingdoms as much as a hungry tiger. So he picked a spot with natural advantages.

What were some criteria? Glad you asked.

  • Flat.
  • Nearby river.
  • Natural barriers.

Natural barriers?

City planners found a perfect spot a couple kilometers north of the Han. The site sat in a basin surrounded by four 300 meter (1,000 ft) mountains. One to the north, south, east, and west:

The rocky peaks created a natural redoubt, or surrounding defensive structure. The Joseon military leaders dropped lookouts and artillery atop each mountain.

This inner basin today holds the Jongno (종로구) and Jung (중구) Districts and forms the heart of the Seoul’s old city.

Outer Districts

Beyond the inner mountains, four more barriers created a buffer zone:

The royal quarters and government buildings dwelled inside the four mountains. Hanseong’s outer districts, including Yongsan (용산), pushed against the secondary boundaries.

Seoul, Fortress City

It’s hard to envision today. 20th century Seoul exploded beyond its founding boundaries. But like Washington D.C., architects planned and built Hanseong, from roads and to palaces.

And what was central to the plans? D-fence! 👏👏👏 D-fence! 👏👏👏

The new capital didn’t just rely on a few glorified hills for protection. Centuries of wars and struggle for the Han River bred paranoia. So the new Joseon leaders built some fortifications and earn the title: Hanseong (한성).

  • Han River (Han; 한)
  • Castle (seong; 성).
The Wall
You can still spot parts of Hanseong's old fortress walls in Namsan Park.
You can still spot parts of Hanseong’s old fortress walls in Namsan Park.

Even before builders broke ground on the royal palace, city planners erected wall fortifications that encompassed the new capital.

Called Hanyangdoseong (한양도성), brick, wood, and stone form the walls. They stretched 18.6 kilometers between and up the spine of each defensive mountain.

Tigers!

The walls weren’t just for human predators. They kept nature’s most dangerous creation out.

Tigers have deep roots in Korean culture. They appear in the nation’s founding myths and countless minhwa (민화) or folk paintings.

However majestic; however wondrous; however pitiful today; imagine a hundred years ago. Sunset robs the day of light. You and your little ones hike Namsan Mountain’s dim trails. 

Stop! Notice something? Yes. A pair of reflective eyes track you from the brush. Three hundred kilograms (600 lbs) of muscle behind them.

You can’t run. You can’t scream. Hindsight washes over you. Should’ve built that wall.

Today's Fortress Walls

Twelve (12) kilometers of walls still surround Seoul’s old districts. Designated a Historic Site, you’ll find them in parks and along hiking trails.

The most visible sections of the wall lies in Namsan Park (남산공원), near Namsan Seoul Tower (N서울타워), and Heunginjimun Park (흥인지문공원).

Like the Bike Certification System? Can’t get enough of those stamps? Seoul created a stamp tour that runs along six trails.

 Get a booklet. Walk the trails. Collect stamps. Bask in glory.

The Gates
Heunginjimun (Dongdaemun) was the large eastern gate along the Joseon capital's eastern fortress walls.
Heunginjimun (Dongdaemun) was the large eastern gate along the Joseon capital's eastern fortress walls.

That’s a lot of wall! How did people get in and out? Gates!

Seoul built eight (8). Four big gates. Four small gates.

The big four sat on the north, south, east, and west of the city. The smaller four tucked into the minor cardinal directions: northwest, northeast, southwest, southeast.

At dawn guards opened the gates and let citizens pass. But come sunset, large bells warned residents of the gates’ imminent closure. Commoners didn’t have to go home, but they couldn’t stay there.

The Big Gates
The Small Gates
Sungnyemun (a.k.a. Namdaemun) was the old Joseon capital's Big South Gate. Today it sits in the heart of the Jung District.
Sungnyemun (a.k.a. Namdaemun) was the old Joseon capital’s Big South Gate. Today it sits in the heart of the Jung District.

While almost all the gates fell to wars and arson, the city rebuilt six and designated them national treasures.

Two popular traditional markets — Namdaemun (남대문시장) and Dongdaemun (동대문시장) — borrow their names from Sungnyemun (South Big Gate) and Heunginjimun (East Big Gate).

The Old City

What dwelled inside the fortress walls? The seat of power of the Korean peninsula, from the royal palaces to bureaucratic offices. 

But architects didn’t just toss buildings in the inner sanctum like carrots into a stew. They employed a little geographical Feng Shui (풍수).

They:

Seoul preserved the core elements of Joseon’s old capital. Let’s flip through the countless shrines, palaces of immeasurable importance.

The Five Palaces

The Jongno and Jung Districts today form the core of the old city. They contain Five royal palaces which once housed Korea’s kings and princes.

Gyeongbok Palace was the Joseon Dynasty's first palace. Today it's the most photographed and visited in Seoul.
Gyeongbok Palace was the Joseon Dynasty's first palace. Today it's the most photographed and visited in Seoul.
Gyeongbok Palace

Gyeongbok Palace (경복궁; Gyeongbokgung; 1395), Korea’s most photographed royal residence, creates one of the major focal points in the Jongno District. It rests at the end of Sejong-ro (세종대로), with the bare-faced facade of Bugaksan (북악산) rising behind.

Gwanghwamun acts as Gyeongbokgung Palace's entrance gate.
Gwanghwamun acts as Gyeongbokgung Palace’s entrance gate.

Gyeongbok was the Joseon Dynasty’s first palace. Construction started when King Taejo founded Hanseong.

Japan burned the palace to the ground during the Imjin Wars (1592~1598). The king moved into Changdeok Palace, leaving Gyeongbok in ruins for a few hundred years. After a partial rebuild, Japan demolished the complex again during their occupation (1910~1945).

Korea’s economic emergence (1960s~1990s) freed historians and architects to restore the palace. The site today also holds The National Folk Museum of Korea (국립민속박물관).

Changdeok Palace

Changdeok Palace (창덕궁; Changdeokgung; 1405) sits a kilometer east of Gyeongbok Palace. The only palace designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the structures gained renown for harmonizing with its natural surroundings.

After Japan destroyed Gyeongbok in 1592, Changdeok became the royal family’s primary residence for 270 years.

Changdeok is the only palace designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Changdeok is the only palace designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Changgyeong Palace

Simple yet elegant architecture forms Changgyeong Palace (창경궁; Changgyeonggung; 1483).

The palace shares the same site as Changdeok. King Sejong (조선세종) built it for his father. However, no king lived in its halls. Just princes.

During their occupation, Japan leveled most of the complex and built a zoo. Korea reconstructed the palace in the 20th century.

Deoksu Palace

Deoksu Palace (덕수궁; Deoksugung) rests a few kilometers south of Gyeongbok, along Sejong-ro in the Jung District.

Built to be a common royal house, the king conscripted the buildings following the Imjin Wars. Japan had destroyed Gyeongbok, and he needed a temporary residence. 

Succeeding kings used Deoksu as a secondary palace. Today, visitors drop by for its changing of the guard ceremony and the complex’s mix of Eastern and Western-style architecture.

Gyeonghui Palace

At one time over a hundred buildings formed Gyeonghui Palace (경희궁; Gyeonghuigung; 1623). Known as the “Western Palace” because it sat west of Gyeongbok, the vast compound acted as an auxiliary palace.

Accidental fires and the Japanese Occupation destroyed many of the original structures. But Korea restored many of the halls and added premier museums.  

A Shrine, A Stream, and Some Houses

The old city offers more than palaces. Let’s wade through a few more of Seoul’s Joseon Era wonders.

Jongmyo Shrine

Jongmyo Shrine (종묘; 1394) hangs south of Changdeok and Changgyeong Palace. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the shrine holds the royal ancestral tablets of past Joseon kings.

Like Gyeongbok Palace, King Taejo, Joseon’s founding king, built Jongmyo Shrine when he founded Hanseong. The shrine is the oldest Confucian shrine in Korea.

And like Gyeongbok, Japan destroyed it in the Imjin War (1592~1598). But unlike Gyeongbok, the emperor rebuilt the complex (1601) after Japan skedaddled.

Jongmyo remains a central cultural monument. Korea still performs yearly rituals at the shrine.

Cheonggye Stream crawls along the historic Jongno District in Seoul.
Cheonggye Stream crawls along the historic Jongno District in Seoul. Nearby sit Jongmyo Shrine, and Changdeok and Gyeongbok Palaces.
Cheonggye Stream

Cheonggye Stream (청계천; Cheonggyecheon) flows below Jongmyo Shrine. It branches off Jungnang Stream (중랑천) — a Han River tributary — and runs eleven (11) kilometers (6.8 mi) until it collides with Sejong-ro (세종대로).

During the Joseon Dynasty, city planners dredged, widened, and lined the banks of the stream with stones. This drained flood water from the old city center.

After the Korean War, Seoul poured concrete into the ancient stream and built a raised highway.

In 2003, the mayor of Seoul removed the concrete and restored water flow. Now, adorned walking paths, cranes, and fountains, tourists and Seoulites alike stroll the steam.

Hanok Villages

A few ancient Hanok villages live in Jongno District. These neighborhoods of traditional Korean houses provide unique views of the country’s past architecture and life. 

Some neighborhoods feature newer hanoks (1910s). Some boast structures dating back to the Joseon Dynasty.

Bukchon Hanok Village sits between Gyeongbok and Changdeok Palaces in the Jongno District of Seoul, within the Joseon Dynasty's old city. It housed the bureaucratic elite.
Bukchon Hanok Village sits between Gyeongbok and Changdeok Palaces in the Jongno District of Seoul, within the Joseon Dynasty's old city. It housed the bureaucratic elite.

The most famous, Bukchon Hanok Village (북촌한옥마을), nestles in the streets between Gyeongbok and Changdeok Palaces.

Because the village sits above Jongmyo and Cheonggye Stream, its name translates to “North” (buk; 북) “Village” (chon; 촌). Upper-class government officials resided in the old neighborhood.

Today entrepreneurs converted swaths of the old hanoks into galleries and cafes. However, many of the houses… houses. Real people, with bills and screaming kids, live in them. On busy days you’ll spot professional shushers with yellow vests warding off loud gawkers.

The Imjin Wars

Hanseong’s natural and artificial fortifications did their job for the first two hundred years. They protected the seat of the Joseon Kingdom.

However, in 1592, Toyotomi Hideyosh, a lord who unified Japan, got that imperial itch. So he gathered an army and invaded Korea, thus sparking the Imjin Wars (1592~1598)

Toyotomi’s goal? First, conquer the peninsula. Then chip away at the Ming Dynasty’s territory in China.

Unstoppable Force

Within four months, the Japanese army — hardened by continual years of internal conflicts — marched from Busan all the way to Hanseong (Seoul).

The towns who resisted along the way? Generals ordered everyone, everything slaughtered. Men, women, and children. Cats and dogs.

Having heard of the invaders’ brutality, the Joseon King, his royal subjects, and most of the capital grabbed anything not tied down and fled north.

Absolute Destruction

How did the Japan take the capital?

When the Japanese forces reached Hanseong’s gates, they found them barred shut. No one home. So they jimmied open a floodgate, crawled inside, and hit the unlock button.

Japanese troops occupied the Hanseong for much of the war. During that time, they tried to erase Korea’s legacy. They razed:

Mighty Ming Stirs

Once Japan seized Hanseong, they continued marching northward, crossing the Imjin River (임진강). However, by the time they reached Pyongyang, a mighty empire stirred.

The Ming Empire in China received regular tribute from the Joseon Dynasty. In return, they promised military support. And now that Japan controlled half the Korean peninsula, Ming mustered a few thousand troops and drove them south.

It’s always better to fight a war on foreign soil than domestic. And with Japan’s unchecked advance, Ming turf was next.

A Stalemate
Admiral Yi's statue in Gwanghwamun Plaza in Seoul commemorates the seaman's bravery, military strategy, and technological innovations during the Imjin War.
Admiral Yi’s statue in Gwanghwamun Plaza in Seoul commemorates the seaman’s bravery, military strategy, and technological innovations during the Imjin War.

Japan captured Korea’s major settlements. However, with Ming’s Chinese troops competing in the battlefield, a mix of equal powers stalled progress on all sides:

  • Japan dominated the land war. +10
  • China sent several thousand reinforcements. +4
  • Admiral Yi Sunsin’s (이순신) commanded a swift and superior Joseon Navy that included Korea’s famed turtle boats. +4
  • The Korean townspeople did not capitulate the invaders. They fought back, with both hard and soft force. +3

Let’s do the math. 10 10 = Stalemate.

For four years, the Joseon Navy attacked and cut off Japanese reinforcements along Korea’s south coast. Chinese troops engaged Japanese. But no territory changed hands.

And more and more Koreans died. Infrastructure, farms, heritage sites, burned.

Peace

Japan, the Ming and Joseon Dynasties reached a shaky truce in 1596. However, a year later Japan invaded a second time. Same result: stalemate.

In 1597, Japan’s Toyotomi kicked. Japan rethought their imperial policy and pulled out.

When Japan left the peninsula, they poured salt in Korea’s fields. They torched civil and tax records, upending social order. And they level most of Korea’s identity-defining treasures.

Korean Empire

Later Joseon Dynasty kings grew suspicious of the outside world. They limited foreigner access to the peninsula, earning Korea the moniker “Hermit Kingdom.”

By the 1800s, however, the outside world insisted.

Joseon Dynasty’s last ruler, King Gojong (고종), watched and worried. He saw mega powers from the east and west wield advanced military and civil technology.

So he ended the antiquated and corrupted dynastic rule, changed his title to Emperor Gwangmu (광무제), and establish the Korean Empire (대한제국; 1897 ~ 1910).

Emperor Gwangmu instituted reforms (광무개혁) that broke Korea out of its hermit prison and brought it into the light of the modern world by:

  • Abolishing the formal class system.
  • Creating government run public and technical schools.
  • Hiring U.S. surveyors to map the country and grant lawful land deeds. 
  • Modernizing factories.
  • building never-before-seen infrastructure set-pieces.
Walking and bike path along the Han River in Seoul. The Hangang Railroad Bridge spans the river in the background.
The Korean Empire built the first modern bridge across the Han River: the green Hangang Railway Bridge (한강철교), completed in 1900.
Bridges and Streetcars and Electricity, Oh My!

Hanseong won the flagship infrastructure projects.

Japanese Occupation

Japan began encroaching into Korea’s economy and politics towards the end of the 1800s. By 1910, they drew the noose tight and annexed Korea.

Why? Since the Imjin War and during World War II, Japan developed a strong case of colonial fever. The imperial guard sought to explode off their humble islands and into mainland Asia.

So Japan started with their closest neighbor: Korea.

Step One of the Colonizer Handbook

Want to colonize a nation? What’s the first step? Exploit its resources.

Once Japan installed a puppet government, they took the reins from the Korean Empire and continued modernizing Korea’s infrastructure and industries.

They installed thousands of kilometers of paved roads. They expanded Korea’s railroad network and erected more bridges across the Han in Hanseong.

Korean farms and fisheries, Japan mandated they adopt modern technology and techniques. This multiplied Korea’s fish and crop output.

Wow! Not too bad!

Well, Japan didn’t update transportation networks and lend their agrarian expertise to fill the wallets and bellies of your average Korean.

The roads and railroads flew the boosted production to the ports, where boats waited to export back to Japan.

The result: Japan’s coffers overflowed. Korea’s bowl sat empty.

Step Two of the Colonizer Handbook

Manufacture an identity crisis.

Japan remembered the Imjin Wars four hundred years earlier. They still felt the thousand cuts from Korea’s insurgency.

So the imperial overlords dismantled Korea’s heritage. First, they renamed the capital “Keijo” (京城) or “Gyeongseong” (경성). Then they began taking things down.

Bye, Bye Royalty

Japan started by erasing the royal palaces.

Jongmyo Shrine, and Changdeok and Changgyeong Palaces occupied a continuous royal exclusion zone. Sacred walking paths led between the Shrine and palaces.

When Japan remodeled, they demolished the sacred paths and severed the royal zone with a road (Yulgok-ro; 율곡로).

Bye, Bye Walls

From 1429 until 1910, the population of Hanseong (Seoul) increased from 100,000 to 250,000. 

Wow! It more than doubled! Let’s compare those numbers with other famous cities:

  • Hanseong: 1400s = 100,000; 1910 = 250,000 — 150% increase
  • Paris: 1400s = 280,000; 1911 = 2,888,110 — 930% increase
  • London: 1400s = 50,000; 1911 – 4,997,741 — 9,900% increase
  •  

What held Hanseong back? The wall! While its outer boroughs buzzed with trade, the old, Joseon-era fortress walls halted growth and development.

So Japan pulled a Regan. They tore down the walls and gates. This accomplished two goals: erased cultural property and unbuckled Hanseong’s belt, giving room to breathe and grow.

Step Three of the Colonizer Handbook

Subjugate the People.

Japan occupied Korea for thirty-five (35) years, till the end of WWII. During that time, they conscripted Korean men into the army and forced Korean women into sexual slavery.

Comfort Women

Japan kidnapped between 200,000 and 500,000 Korean women between 1932 and 1945.

First, officials forced the women into brothels catering to the Japanese Imperial Army. Later, they lost their salaries and lived with daily systematic rape.

Japan shipped these “Comfort Women” throughout Japan’s colonial outposts, including Burma, Thailand, and Vietnam. As the war worsened, soldiers often brutalized and killed the women.

Korean Laborers

In 1939, Japan conscripted hundreds of thousands of Koreans. During the six years of war, in factories and mines, these laborers toiled in unbearable conditions. Lack of food and medical care killed 60,000 out of 670,000 workers. 9%.

The Korean War

The Korean War (6.25 전쟁; 1950 ~ 1953) defined the Korean peninsula’s landscape from the middle of the 20th century till the present. It:

  • created the North and South Korea divide,
  • devastated Seoul,
  • and killed millions, citizens and combatants.
Statues of Korean War soldiers at the War Memorial of Korea.
The War Memorial of Korea commemorates the soldiers who fought during the Korean War.

Prelude

Japan’s defeat at the end of WWII liberated the Korean peninsula. However, the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union (1947~1991) heated up soon after.  

In the late 1940s, the two superpowers carved up the freed world. Communist forces took Eastern Europe, China, and middle Asia. Democratic powers claimed western Europe and Japan.

What happened to Korea? Well, America and Russia divided the peninsula along the 38th parallel, roughly where today’s Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) snakes today.

In the northern half, communist China and Russia helped Kim Il-sung (김일성) found a socialist state. The U.S. propped up a capitalist state led by President Syngman Rhee.

Both north and south leaders claimed to be the legitimate government of Korea. Both disagreed over the other’s legitimacy.

In 1950, tensions boiled over. The North Korean military (KPA or Korean People’s Army; 조선인민군) swooped south across the 38th parallel.

The Upper Hand

The KPA outmanned and outgunned the South Korean Army (ROK or Republic of Korea Army; 대한민국 육군).

Today most recognize North Korea as one of the world’s poorest. At the dawn of war, however, they had more troops, land, and natural resources than the South.

Plus, the Soviets Army supplied the KPA with modern tanks and artillery. And Communist China lent them their proven military strategy.

South Korea wasn’t so close with the United States, their superpower backer. America used the nation as a buffer between Japan and the communist bloc. They didn’t station many troops on the peninsula, nor equip the ROK with the latest in defense hardware.

When the KPA stepped over the 38th Parallel, much of the U.S. military infrastructure were pulling up their pants across the East Sea (동해; Sea of Japan).

Lost Seoul

June 25th, 1950, the North Korean Army (KPA) blitzed through the South’s (ROK) lines. Armed with modern tanks and artillery, they reached the outskirts of Seoul within two days.

June 27th, South Korean President Syngman Rhee abandoned Seoul and fled south to Daegu (대구시; Daegu-si). 

June 28th, panicked ROK leaders demolished the main bridge across the Han River. This killed 500 to 1,000 refugees and trapped an entire division of ROK soldiers on the wrong side.

The bridge’s destruction didn’t slow the KPA’s advance, though. They hopped over the river the same day and kept their tanks rolling south.

Late to the Game

When the Northern Army crossed into the South, President Harry Truman concluded that if Korea fell, Japan might be next.

Truman ordered General Douglas MacArthur, stationed in Tokyo, to assemble and lead the United Nations Command, the world’s first multinational military force (majority ROK and U.S. troops).

As Macarthur scrambled to send troops and equipment over the East Sea, Truman went to congress and asked for money. He drained his budget building up a nuclear arsenal.

The Surge South

July 5, 1950, just outside of Oson (오산시; Oson-si) U.S. troops met the North Korean Army (KPA) for the first time.

The forces:

  • United States: 540 soldiers. Zero tanks. Zero anti-tank matériel.
  • The KPA: 5,000 soldiers. 36 tanks.
  • No contest.

August 1950, the KPA rolled southward. They blasted through UN Command’s ever descending front lines, their pew-pew-puny caliber rounds bouncing off tanks like bugs on a windshield.

Pusan Perimeter

The KPA reached their limit near the Nakdong River (낙동강; Nakdonggang).

North Korea’s Kim Il-sung, dictator and military leader, convinced himself he’d dominate the peninsula by August. So, even as the KPA’s supply chain stretched thin, he ordered his army to keep rolling south.

The UN Army dug in, however. General MacAuthor ordered thirty-two (32) bridges along the Nakdong River (낙동강) destroyed.

Then he let the dogs loose. The U.S. AirForce and Navy bombarded roads, supply depots, and railways. Anything that moved or enabled movement.

The KPA stalled.

From August to September 1950, South Korea fortified a new border: the Pusan (Busan) Perimeter. This 230 kilometer (140 miles) battlefront, loosely defined by the Nakdong, fell under constant attack by KPA forces.

Battle of Incheon

A fog of bleakness rolled over South Korea. It maintained a pinky toenail grip on the peninsula. 

However, General MacAuthor had a plan. 

Most of the KPA concentrated their forces along the southeastern Pusan Perimeter. So why not swing around the peninsula? Slip into an undefended spot. Maybe the coastal city Incheon (인천광역시; Incheon-si), right next to Seoul.

September 15th, 1950, two U.S. divisions (Marine and Army Infantry) landed on Wolmi Island. Meeting weakened resistance, they advanced into the Gimpo and took its airfield.

September 16th, 1950, armed with tanks and artillery, the UN Forces blasted out from behind the Pusan Perimeter. KPA forces turned and dashed back north.

Late September 1950, UN troops from the Incheon landing and Pusan Perimeter converged on Seoul. They retook the capital within six days.

The Surge North

With the South’s capital retaken, the UN Forces matured into the peninsula’s dominant army. And with great power comes great reciprocity.

October 1, 1950, UN Forces hopped over the 38th Parallel into North Korea.

The Northern Army had lost hundreds of tanks and hundreds of thousands of men in their initial invasion. Fatigued in body and spirit, the KPA’s lines resisted like soaked newspaper.

October 19, 1950, UN Forces captured Pyongyang (평양시), North Korea’s capital.

Like the KPA, they didn’t stop. They marched towards the Yalu River (압록강), the Chinese border. And like the KPA commander, General MacAuthor’s grew hungry eyes. He made plans to invade Communist China.

China Enters the Chat

China advised North Korea during the war’s opening stages. Now, they watched and worried. 

Kim Il-sung squandered his advantage. Now the poked American boar galloped north unimpeded. They knew they’d need to put troops on the Korean peninsula before the UN ripped Manchuria to meat scraps.

October 19, 1950, Chinese Communist Forces (PVA; People’s Volunteer Army) snuck across the Yalu River, ambushed UN Forces in the night, then retreated into the mountains.

General MacAuthor believed these attacks an anomaly. The PVA retreated to China. Glory lay up ahead. He’d unite the Korean peninsula then send his troops home to eat Christmas dinner with their families.

Late November 1950, UN Forces puttered northward. An overwhelming force of PVA soldiers crouched and waited. With Soviet airplanes dropping bombs overhead, the PVA overwhelmed the UN and pushed them back to the 38th Parallel.

January 4, 1951, the combined Chinese and North Korean armies recaptured Seoul. The UN army retreated to Suwon (수원시; Suwon-si), south of Seoul. General MacAuthor considered nuclear weapons.

The combined KPA and PVA forces doubled their efforts to rid the peninsula of capitalist dogs. However, just like the year before, the rapid southern advance broke their logistical capabilities. Meter-deep, pockmarked roads kept fresh men and munitions far from the front lines.

Between February and March 1951, UN Forces regathered, surged north and kicked the KPA and PVA out of Seoul. The city’s fourth and final regime change.

Stalemate

Throughout the spring and summer of 1951, Northern and Southern troops battled between the Han and Imjin (임진강) Rivers. Minor bits of territory changed hands.

By July 1951, the war’s front lines settled along the … 38th Parallel. The original border.

The war churned for two more years. Day and night, the U.S. AirForce bombed North Korea. Battles broke out along the border. Not a nation gained an inch.

The End

July 27, 1953, the UN Command, North Korea, and China signed the Korean Armistice Agreement (한국정전협정).

The armistice didn’t end the war. It ended the fighting and set the perimeters of the demilitarized zone (DMZ).

Empty Sums
The dome and two soldiers embracing at the War Memorial of Korea symbolizes the North/South Korean split.
The dome and two soldiers embracing at the War Memorial of Korea symbolizes the North/South Korean split.

What three apocalyptic years fighting sow?

South Korea:

  • 137,899 soldiers killed450,742 wounded; 32,838 missing.
  • 373,599 civilian deaths229,625 wounded; 303,212 missing.

United States:

  • 36,574 soldiers killed103,284 wounded; 3,737 missing; 4,439 POWs.

North Korea:

  • 508,797 soldiers killed226,000 injured; 120,000 missing and imprisoned.
  • 406,000 civilians killed1,594,000 injured; 680,000 missing.

China:

  • 197,653 soldiers killed383,500 injured; 25,600 missing or imprisoned.

The United Nations Command included seventeen counties, from Luxembourg to Ethiopia. Every nation lost troops.

Civilian Massacres

About 2,730,000 non-combatants died over the Korea War’s three years. Why?

Both the North and South Korean forces wiped entire sections of the populace.

A Leveled Capital

Between 1950 and 1951, Seoul lived through five battles, changing hands four times. Each succeeding skirmish ground more of the city’s neighborhoods and infrastructure into dust.

The war’s collateral included:

  • 191,000 buildings.
  • 55,000 houses.
  • 1,000 factories.

The Miracle Years

After the war, Seoul found itself in the middle of a dark ocean. The twin sharks of poverty starvation circled below. The only way to survive? Swim.

  • Seoul lay in ruins.
  • An obliterated economy robbed citizens of their jobs.
  • The wartime president’s old-school ideas slowed the county’s progress.
  • And the capital’s population ballooned with refugees and returning expats.

However, a miraculous wave formed below the surface. When it crested, it would bring rapid economic expansion to Seoul and Korea.

Let’s take a dip into The Miracle on the Han (한강의 기적; 1960~1997).

A New Kind of Dictator

South Korea’s first leader, President Syngman Rhee, was the old-school leader the nation needed during the War. He hated communists and silenced opposition with blanket massacres.

But life during peacetime revealed his flaws. His policies stagnated the economy. His father-leader-knows-best attitude led to rigged elections and corruption. 

In 1960, a group of university students protested stolen elections. Rhee ordered police to open fire, killing 186. This ignited more protests and led to Rhee’s resignation only a week later.

The next year saw a revolving door of unpopular replacements and untrusted politicians.

May 16, 1961, Park Chung-hee, a general in the South Korean Army, organized a coup d’état. He declared himself president… and military dictator.

Economic Steroids

Park Chung-hee had a clear vision of Korea’s future. Beginning in 1961, he instituted a Five-Year plan to dig Korea out of its economic ditch.

What were the goals of the plan? Industrialize, educate, and employ. The military junta leader:

  • built roads, railroads, ports.
  • improved agriculture output.
  • developed core industries, like oil refinement, cement, iron, and steel.
  • created schools to teach both the young and old basic trades.
  • tried to give everyone a job.

By the 1970s, Korea soared past agriculture and simple manufacturing. They developed into producing complex goods, like electronics and ship building.

Money Injection

How did Park Chung-hee pay for these massive economic and social programs? Wasn’t South Korea one of the poorest nations on earth? 

The nation had two advantages: people and a dark past.

First, Japan and Korea signed a treaty to normalize relations after Japan’s brutal occupation. Japan forked over $300 billion in grants and $500 billion in loans to Korea.

Second, in 1965 the United States entered another proxy war against communist forces: Nam. And though the military draft began in 1969, many of America’s volun-tolds lacked fighting experience.

So Park Chung-hee offered his experienced, communist hating troops. From 1964 to 1973, Korea sent 350,000 troops to Vietnam.

What did South Korea get? Over $235 million in aid.

Lotte World Tower dwarfs twenty story apartment buildings. The Seoul Sports Complex peaks from behind a concrete bridge support.
The 123-story Lotte World Tower forms the flagship structure for the Lotte chaebol empire.

Chaebol Champs

Japan abandoned the Korean peninsula after they lost WWII. One thing they couldn’t take with them? The businesses Japanese entrepreneurs built.

Blessed by (and patronage paid to) Syngman Rhee, South Korea’s first president, enterprising Koreans erased the Japanese company names and scribbled their family name overtop.

These family-owned businesses later became known as chaebols (재벌; rich family).

Trickle Down Love/Hate

When Park Chung-hee rose to power, he vilified and prosecuted chaebols. He labeled them a part of the Rhee’s corrupt regime.

Chung-hee was no communist, though. He knew South Korea’s drowning economy needed that competitive, go-go-capitalist spirit only private companies can excite.

So, he fined the family businesses… Then he gave them tons of money.

Money Well

Where did the money come from? 

Chung-hee helped chaebols secure foreign loans. And if they couldn’t pay their debts, he put up Korea’s treasury as collateral.

Meaning, the largest chaebol’s money pipes tapped into South Korea’s reserves. They drank their milkshake.

Five-Year Plan-o-rama

What did these chaebol’s do for such economic benefits? They followed Chung-hee’s succeeding Five-Year Plans.

South Korea’s economic policies mandated when chaebols moved into more complex and profitable businesses.

  • 1st Five-Year Plan (1962~1966): build electrical infrastructure and improve agricultural output.
  • 2nd Five-Year Plan (1967~1971): pivot to steel and petrochemical manufacturing.
  • 3rd Five-Year Plan (1972~1976): grow electronics, machining, shipbuilding industries. Continue petrochemicals and advanced metals production.
  • 5th Five-Year Plan (1982~1986): expand beyond chemical and heavy manufacturing and into consumer electronics (TVs & camcorders), semiconductors, and precision machinery.
  • 7th Five-Year Plan (1992~1996): punch through into top-tech industries, including microelectronics, advanced chemicals, biotech, and aerospace.
Competitive Edge

Chung-hee gave more than just money to chaebols.

First, he closed the door to foreign businesses. Tariffs and heavy regulations placed on foreign companies made it impossible for international competitors to enter the South Korean market.

Then, to speed up Research & Development, he encouraged chaebols to acquire foreign tech and expertise. Often, companies paid Japanese engineers fistfuls of dollars to hop over to Korea on the weekends to lend their know-how.

Whales in a Kiddie Pool

Chaebol’s today they make up half the Korean stock market (KRX). Korea’s five largest account for over half of the Korean Exchange (2018 numbers):

  • Samsung — 30%.
  • Hyundai — 8%
  • LG — 6%
  • SK —  8% 
  • Lotte — 2%

With all that wealth and power, typical companies employ boards of directors to meld minds and make responsible decisions.

What about chaebols? Most kept trillion won (billion dollar) resolutions within the family. (Remember, chaebol means “wealthy family.”)

Seems risky? You bet. Don’t even think about inheritance. It could ruin the country.

Miraculous Numbers

From 1962 to 1997, South Korea’s economy went from dead last to just outside the top ten.

Here’s some numbers:

  • In 1960, GDP per person was $158.25 (or $1,366.81 in 2019).
  • In 2019, GDP per person was $31,846.22 (a 2,230% increase).
  • Korea’s population went from 25 million (1960) to 51 million (2019).
  • In the 1960s, South Korea received billions in foreign aid.
  • In 1996, South Korea joined the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and began donating foreign aid to other countries.

The Great Seoul Expansion

Seoul reinforced itself as the epicenter of the nation during Korea’s massive economic overhaul.

But local leaders didn’t drive the city’s destiny. President Park Chung-hee stole Seoul’s policy making keys and transformed the post-war city under federal control.

Population Explosion

At the start of the Joseon era, 100,000 citizens lived in Seoul. Hemmed in by isolationism and fortress walls, Seoul’s population only doubled by the time Japanese took over (1910~1945).

The count multiplied after Japan tore down Seoul’s walls and increased Korea’s industrial output. By World War II (1939~1945), the city reached 900,000.

During the Korean War (1950~1953), however, Seoul’s five city-leveling battles whittled the population below 200,000.

A people bomb exploded in the capital once the war cooled. Yes, Seoulites returned to their pre-war hometown. But also:

  • An overwhelming number of expats returned to Korea and settled in Seoul.
  • North Korean refugees that escaped across the DMZ filtered into Seoul.
  • Homeless South Koreans migrated to Seoul looking for opportunity.

By 1960, Seoul’s population ticked over two-and-a-half (2.5) million. That’s an eleven-fold increase in just seven years.

The population big bang didn’t stop in the post-war world. Like a magnet, Korea’s rapid industrialization brought hordes to cities.

In 1990, Korea’s premiere metropolis reached its high mark. Ten million souls. A quadrupling in only thirty years.

Swamp Style

How did Seoul deal with the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses?

Seoul kept to the north side of the Han River until the mid-1900s. However, under Chung-hee’s orders, the city transformed into The Blob in the 1960s.

Its borders burst. It hopped over the Han and snatched chunks of territory to the east and west, grabbing parts of:

Much of Seoul’s purloined land remained rural for years. However, in 1966, Seoul turned its sights on the swampy swath below the river, a.k.a. Gangnam (강, gang: river; 남, nam: south).

Throughout the 60s and 70s, the city built roads and bridges to Gangnam. Then they moved government institutions, including the National Assembly, and threw up rows of apartments.

People and developers followed. The extra leg space allowed speculators to erect the best 20th century consumerism offered: department stores, skyscrapers, convention centers.

By the 2000s, these southern districts came to represent affluence. They account for half the population and tax base of Seoul.

Someone even made a song to commemorate the area.

A picture of overpasses along the Hangang Bike Path in Seoul.
Seoul's road infrastructure includes twin high-speed roads along the Han River and thirty-two bridges.
Infrastructure Breakdown

The downpour of people in the 1960s almost broke the city’s infrastructure.

But two things saved Seoul in the early days.

  1. Korea’s rapid economic development.
  2. Park Chung-hee’s Five-Year Plans redirected money to the roads, sewers, and electric grids on the verge of collapse.

The upgraded infrastructure kept the lights on. But the government prioritized economic progress over ecological conservation.

By the 1980s the land and waterways around Seoul choked with pollution.

Olympic Tasks

In 1981, the Olympic Committee chose Seoul to host the 1988 Summer Olympic Games.

Seoul was a mess. Upriver farms and factories dumped every unmentionable into the Han River. Wetlands around Seoul withered and died.

To prepare for the international audience, the Korean government instituted the Han River Development Plan (한강종합개발).

Besides constructing Olympic facilities, the plan banned dumping, built better sewage systems, and gave first aid to the collapsing ecology.

Green Belt

Seoul’s progress brought another demon into the light: ever-devouring urban sprawl. So in 1971 Seoul laid a Green Belt (그린벨트).

This green space limited development on 452 square-kilometers (175 sq mi) of terrain around the perimeter of Seoul, including hills and mountains taller than a hundred meters. It also:

  • protected natural environments from the ever expanding metropolitan city.
  • forbade development of factories and high-rise apartments on the land.
  • provided space for parks, farms, forests, and fisheries.

By 1977, every metropolitan city in Korea installed some version of a Green Belt around their city limits.

However, over the years Seoul’s green belt restrictions grew unpopular. Why?

  • Less land for development skyrocketed real-estate prices.
  • Urban sprawl just hopped over the Green Belt into Seoul’s satellite cities.

Korea’s president relinquished parts of the Green Belt to build Olympic venues in 1988. 

Just Another Renaissance
A picture of the Hangang Bicycle Path through Seoul in South Korea.
The Hangang Bicycle Path flows through Yanghwa Park, one eleven Hangang Riverside Parks, in Seoul.

As cost-of-living climbed into a low-oxygen atmosphere, public pressure on elected officials cut larger slices off the Green Belt.

But, Seoul hasn’t abandoned green spaces.

In 2007, the city started the Hangang Renaissance Project (한강르네상스 사업). This ongoing effort revitalizes the Han River by:

  • continuing the Han River cleanup.
  • redeploying wetlands to regulate the river and support wildlife.
  • creating parks and landmarks along the river in Seoul to attract citizens outdoors.
Dongdaemun Design Plaza (동대문디자인플라자; DDP) is a neo-futuristic exhibition hall with a voluptuous, curving aluminum and steel facade in the Jung District in Seoul.
Dongdaemun Design Plaza (동대문디자인플라자; DDP) is a neo-futuristic exhibition hall with a voluptuous, curving aluminum and steel facade in the Jung District in Seoul.

Notable Neighborhoods

Like New York, London, and Paris, Seoul’s breadth and diversity make the mega-city feel like an entire nation.

Overwhelming? Let’s take a quick tour of Seoul’s most notable neighborhoods.

First, we’ll explore the districts North of the Han River; then the districts on the Southern Banks.

Small City Cluster

Seoul is special. In fact, it’s named “Seoul Special City” (서울특별시). Let’s look closer.

Seoul has two of administrative categories:

  • Gu (구) are districts.
  • Dong (동) are neighborhoods within districts.

There are twenty-five (25) districts in Seoul. They range from small (Jung-gu; 9.96 km²) to large (Seocho-gu; 47 km²).

Seoul’s districts behave like tiny cities unto themselves:

  • Residents elect district mayors and legislators.
  • They have their own flag and logo.
  • They partner with sister cities around the world.

Districts are further divided into dongs (동) or neighborhoods. Seoul has 424 total.

Neighborhoods or “dongs” arise if an area’s population swells. Then new civil service offices, police stations, and schools open.

Here’s a quick list of Korea’s political timeline.

North Han Districts

You can refer to the territory north of the Han River in Seoul as Gangbuk (강북). The name translates to:

  • Gang (강) — river.
  • Buk (북) — north.

While Seoul has a district named Gangbuk (강북구; Gangbuk-gu), we’ll be looking at all the districts north of the river.

Most of old Seoul — historic Joseon structures, relics, and fortifications — haunt the regions above the Han River. But you’ll also find some uber-trendy neighborhoods.

Let’s slip comfortable shoes!

Jongno District

Jongno District (종로구; Jongno-gu) is one half of old Seoul. (The Jung District is the second piece of the puzzle.)

Jongno was once the northern part of of Hanseong (한성), the ancient Joseon Dynasty capital.

Though Japan tore the walls down in the 1910s, Jongo still holds a bundle of historic treasures in its borders.

Gyeongbuk Palace crowns the historic Jongno District in Seoul. Behind it rises Bugaksan, or north mountain.
Gyeongbuk Palace crowns the historic Jongno District in Seoul. Behind it rises Bugaksan, or north mountain.
Namesake

Jongno District’s name refers to Jongno (종로), the old capital’s main east/west thoroughfare.

Bosingak (보신각), the largest bell in Hanseong, provided Jongno Road’s namesake, which translates to “Bell Street.” During Joseon’s reign, the bell announced the opening and closing of the fortress gates at sunrise and sunset.

Palace Center

Jongno’s historical architecture includes four of the Joseon Dynasty’s Five Palaces. Attracting millions a year, their facades are must-post social media sweet-cream. 

A reverse view from Changdeok Palace's main hall shows the palace's central location in Seoul.
A reverse view from Changdeok Palace's main hall shows the palace's central location in Seoul.
Quaint Hanoks

Seoul’s best known Hanok Villages reside in Jongno. Rows of Korean traditional, wooden hanok (한옥) houses adorn these neighborhoods.

Today families occupy a few. Cafes and trendy clothing shops retrofitted others.

  • Bukchon Hanok Village (북촌) is a village of Joseon-era hanoks between Gyeongbok and Changdeok Palaces. It’s Seoul’s most popular Hanok Village.
  • Insa-dong (인사동) is a hanok village just north of Cheonggye Stream. Many tourists visit for its art, crafts and antique stores.
  • Ikseon-dong (익선동) is a trendy neighborhood west of Jongmyo Shrine. Brunch spots and hip shops transformed these 1920s era hanoks into contemporary hangouts.
More Ancients

Check out more must-visit highlights in Jongno.

Cheonggye Stream runs through the heart of the Jongno District in Seoul.
Cheonggye Stream runs through the heart of the Jongno District in Seoul.

Jung District

Jung District (중구; Jung-gu) sits just under the Jongno District. It forms the bottom half of the old Joseon Dynasty capital (a.k.a. Hanyang or Hanseong).

While the district is both Seoul’s smallest (9.96 sq km; 3.85 sq mi) and least populated (124,477), it might have one of the largest economic footprints.

Why no people, though? Two reasons:

  1. Businesses and shopping streets crowd out many apartment buildings.
  2. Namsan Park (남산공원) where Nam Mountain (남산) makes an oversized presence on the southern portions of the district.

Jung () translates to “central.” Why? It sits in the geographical center of Seoul, houses many company headquarters, and a full deck of new and old highlights.

Spectators watch the changing of the guard ceremony at Deoksu Palace in the Jung District of Seoul.
Spectators watch the changing of the guard ceremony at Deoksu Palace in the Jung District of Seoul.
Old Jung

Like the northern Jongno, the Jung District offers a grab bag of invaluable monuments.

Gates Galore

Several of Seoul’s historic gates populate the Jung District. These well-preserved monuments also lend their names to local markets and designer areas.

Shopping, Shopping

Jung boasts Seoul’s most famous shopping district and markets.

Myeongdong

Myeongdong (명동; Myeong Neighborhood) is the most (in)famous shopping neighborhood in Korea. Many Korean businesses pay a pretty penny to keep their flagship stores in the area. You’ll also find endless vendors slinging (overpriced) street food.

The Myeongdong Neighborhood in Seoul's Jung District is one of Korea's most popular shopping areas.
The Myeongdong Neighborhood in Seoul's Jung District is one of Korea's most popular shopping areas.
Dongdaemun Market

Dongdaemun Market (동대문시장) is a traditional market nestled next to the ancient Dongdaemun (East) Gate. Open 24-hours, it’s Korea’s largest wholesale market, with producers pumping out everything, from Supreme knockoffs to sizzling mandu.

Namdaemun Market

Namdaemun Market (남대문시장) sits near the old Namdaemun (South) Gate. Dating back to the 1300s, the market is one of the country’s largest. Not only does it supply locals with daily staples, many small restaurants serve traditional dishes to curious tourists.

Cultural Institutions

Korea’s most well-funded cultural facilities fill-out the district’s borders. From futuristic structures, to museums, to cathedrals, here are some more important highlights.

Dongdaemun Design Plaza sits on the edge of the Jung District. It's curving face attracts visitors to the fashion area.
Dongdaemun Design Plaza sits on the edge of the Jung District. It’s curving face attracts visitors to the fashion area.
Dongdaemun Design Plaza

Dongdaemun Design Plaza (동대문디자인플라자; DDP) is a neo-futuristic exhibition hall with a voluptuous, curving aluminum and steel façade. The hall serves as the ultimate monument to the Dongdaemun Fashion Town, a hub of nearby clothing manufacturers and distributors. 

National Theater of Korea

National Theater of Korea (국립극장) sits on the eastern edge of Namsan Park (남산공원). Built before the Korean War, it is Asia’s first national theater. Four separate performance spaces run programs from ballet to pansori, a traditional Korean musical.  

Seoul Museum of Art

Seoul Museum of Art (서울시립미술관) is Korea’s premier art museum. It has many annexes, but the main building hangs south of Deoksu Palace and Seoul City Hall. The exterior of the building was the facade of Korea’s Supreme Court.

Myeongdong Cathedral

Myeongdong Cathedral (명동대성당) houses the nation’s archdiocese. Completed in 1898, it claims a spot on the border of the Myeongdong. The cathedral runs a daily mass and holds the remains of Korea’s martyrs

Seoul Station

Seoul Station (서울역) is Korea’s flagship rail station. Serving more daily passengers (100,000) than any other in the country, the station runs KTX, saemaul, and mugunghwa trains.

Seoul City Hall

The curving walls of Seoul City Hall (서울특별시청사) resemble waves of glass. The hall contains exhibition and public spaces, and runs the city’s day-to-day operations. Next door, the city converted the old city hall into Seoul Metropolitan Library.

Yongsan District

Yongsan District (용산구; Yongsan-gu) sits between the northern Jung District and the Han River, near the middle of Seoul.

Though outside of Hanyang’s fortress walls and city limits, during the Joseon era Yongsan held a port. It acted as the gateway for goods and foreigners entering the old capital.

In times past, many foreigners settled in Yongsan. To this day, the Itaewon and Haebangchon areas house and entertain a hefty chunk of Seoul’s foreign population.

A picture of Namsan Tower from the Hangang Bike Path in Seoul, South Korea.
Above the Yongsan District hangs Namsan Mountain (South Mountain), one of the four mountains that protected Hanseong, the Joseon Dynasty's capital and precursor to Seoul.
War Town

From the end of the Korean War till 2021, satellites had a hard time penetrating a green patch of land in the center of the Yongsan District. Why?

The area housed the United States’ military headquarters.

The Yongsan Garrison

Yongsan Garrison (용산수비대; a.k.a. Dragon Hill Garrison) began as Japanese Imperial Army garrison during Japan’s occupation (1910~1945). Since the end of the Korean War, the United States Armed Forces Korea (USAFK) inhabited this oversized acreage in the middle of Seoul.

In 2018, however, U.S. military command picked up and moved the garrison to Camp Humphreys, south of Seoul. Except for a few bits and bobs, like Dragon Hill Lodge, Seoul reclaimed the land. The city plans to develop the space into parks and housing.

The courtyard of the War Memorial of Korea holds a couple dozen decommissioned military vehicles from the Korean War.
War Memorial of Korea

The War Memorial of Korea (전쟁기념관) stands on the western edge of the Yongsan Garrison. Free to the public, the museum’s courtyard displays close to a hundred decommissioned Korean War military vehicles. Inside, the museum presents exhibits on the Korean War and the nation’s military history.

National Museum of Korea
National Museum of Korea is Seoul's premier art museum located on the south side of the Yongsan Garrison.
National Museum of Korea is Seoul’s premier art museum located on the south side of the Yongsan Garrison.

The National Museum of Korea (국립중앙박물관) moved to the bottom tip of the Yongsan Garrison in 2005. Korea’s premier museum, the modern facility is one of Asia’s largest and most visited. It holds art galleries, traveling exhibitions, and countless cultural relics.

The Tower, the Mountain, and a Park

What adorns almost every skyline postcard of Seoul? A spiky tower atop a mountain.

Namsan Seoul Tower (남산서울타워) (a.k.a. N Seoul Tower) crowns Nam Mountain (남산; Namsan) in Namsan Park (남산공원).

While most of the park lies in the Jung District, the tower falls in Yongsan’s borders.

Namsan Seoul Tower
Love locks adorn the plaza below Seoul Namsan Tower on Namsan Mountain.
Love locks adorn the plaza below Seoul Namsan Tower on Namsan Mountain.

Namsan Seoul Tower (남산서울타워) rises 237 meters (777 ft). Factor in the height of Nam Mountain, its true height tops 480 meters (1,574 ft) above sea level.

Completed in 1975, the tower transmits radio and TV broadcast waves to Seoulites. Since 1980, Namsan Tower has been the nation’s most famous vantage point.

Daily thousands of travelers hike or ride the cable car up Nam Mountain, buy tickets, then ascend elevators to the tower’s observation decks. (The men’s room view is unparalleled.)

Nam Mountain

The Joseon Dynasty settled its ancient capital in a “natural bowl,” between a northern, southern, eastern, and western mountain. Each peak provided defense against invading armies.

Nam Mountain (남산; Namsan) was the southern mountain. Its name means South (nam; 남) Mountain (san; 산).

While the mountain flows into the Jung district, its 271 meter peak (889 feet) crests in Yongsan. Portions of the old fortress wall, which defines the Yongsan/Jung District border, crawls up the mountain’s spine.

Namsan Park
The Namsan Cable Car takes passengers to the top of Namsan Mountain and N Seoul Tower.
The Namsan Cable Car takes passengers to the top of Namsan Mountain and N Seoul Tower.

Namsan Park (남산공원) is the largest park in Seoul. But it holds more than just the Nam Mountain and Namsan Seoul Tower. Within the park, you’ll find:

The Jung District holds most of the park.

Foreign Neighborhoods

During the Joseon era, Yongsan sat just south of the old capital. Because it held Seoul’s major river port, Joseon king’s allowed [tolerated] foreigners to dwelled in this outer district

Today Yongsan hosts Seoul’s most diverse and vibrant foreigner neighborhoods.

Itaewon

Itaewon (이태원동; Itaewon-dong) is Seoul’s premier foreigner neighborhood.

The neighborhood’s low-rising buildings ride an upward sloping landscape from the Han River to Nam Mountain in the north. 

Itaewon Road (이태원로) is the neighborhood’s major thoroughfare. It travels from Yongsan Garrison in the west to Itaewon’s eastern border. Seoul Subway Line 6 runs parallel underground.

The Hamilton Hotel (해밀턴호텔) marks the center of Itaewon. From its lobby, nightclubs, restaurants, and bars buzz to the north, south, east, and west every night of the year.

Itaewon possesses Seoul’s most diverse restaurant scene. Native restaurateurs run everything from South African eateries to kebab shops.

The neighborhood also grew famous among tourists and locals for its knock-offs. Manufacturers and retailers offload high quality leather and Korean souvenir shops at negotiable prices.

Itaewon’s foreigner population skyrocketed when the United States opened the Yongsan Garrison. Soldiers flowed out from the base, filled local bars, and drained their paychecks.

Overtime, however, a more diverse international community sank their roots in the area. Today workers, from Native-English teachers to Muslim families, gravitated towards Itaewon.

Some more unique spots in Itaewon:

  • Home Hill (호모힐) is a group of bars and clubs south of Itaewon Road. It’s one of the few safe places in Seoul for open LGBTQ+ establishments.
  • Seoul Central Mosque (서울중앙성원) is the only mosque in the Seoul Capital Area. After it opened in 1976, the holy site multiplied the Muslim population in Itaewon. Its traditional architecture attracts hundreds of worshipers every week. A local market specializing in Halal food buzzes around the site.
Haebangchon

The Haebangchon (해방촌) area doesn’t own the same reputation as Itaewon. Not an official neighborhood, the area nestles in the hills between Yongsan Garrison and Namsan Park.

A big bite of HBC’s (as the locals say) population hail from foreign lands. They own coffee shops, live in permanent dwellings, and raise children in this quieter part of Seoul.

More Highlights

Yongsan has a few more highlights in its kit.

Bike Paths

The Ichon Hangang Park (이촌한강공원) travels along the Han River, which forms the southern border of the Yongsan District. The park carries part of the Hangang Bike Path, one of Korea’s twelve certification bike paths.

Mapo Districts

The Mapo District (마포구; Mapo-gu) occupies a stretch of land on the northern banks of the Han in western Seoul. It’s elongated form touches Yongsan and Jung Districts in the east and Goyang City (고양) in the west.

The district lingered outside the old capital during the Joseon era. However, the outer region held an important Han River port called Mapo (마포), the district’s namesake.

While Mapo today doesn’t own many historical treasures, the district claims some famed neighborhoods and an assembly of lush riverside parks.

Trendy Treads

Several well-known liberal arts universities populate trendy neighborhoods in Mapo. They attract artists and hip patrons from all over Seoul and Korea.

The Hongdae area in the Mapo District offers Seoul's trendiest atmosphere.
The Hongdae area in the Mapo District offers Seoul's trendiest atmosphere.
Hongdae

Along with Itaewon, Hongdae (홍대동) is one of Seoul’s trendiest areas. Its main street (홍대거리) is the third most traveled in Seoul, behind only Gangnam and Myeongdong.

Hongdae isn’t an official neighborhood, though. It describes the buildings and streets winding from Hongdae Subway Station (홍대입구역) to Hongik University (홍익대학교).

What makes the area swing? Like any urban renewal spot around the world, young people. And where do the coolest of the cool youths hang? Universities.

The Hongdae area has two prestigious institutes. Sogang, the oldest Jesuit institution in Korea, and Hongik. 

Hongik University is a prestigious architecture and design college. It functions both as the area’s capstone and namesake.

  • Hongik (홍익) Dae-hak-gyo (대학교; University)

Hongdae gained its reputation as grassroots music, art, and indie venues — and graffiti covered playgrounds (홍익문화공원) — rose around the university.

The artsy atmosphere swelled with nightclubs, pricey restaurants, and designer stores. Waves of wallet-heavy sightseers followed.

Sinchon

The Sinchon Neighborhood (신촌동; Sinchon-dong) isn’t in the Mapo District. It buzzes just over the northern border in the Seodaemun District (서대문).

However, a common spirit ties Sinchon Neighborhood and neighboring Hongdae area. Their ethers and geography blend seamlessly.

Sinchon claims three prestigious universities:

This concentration of collegiate essence generates a buzzing, retail and nightlife focused district similar to Hongdae. Countless noreabongs (노래방; Karaoke room), PC Rooms (PC방; PC Bang), and nightclubs crowd the neighborhood’s streets.

Mangwon

The Mangwon Neighborhoods (Mangwon-dong; (망원1동; 망원2동) rest along the Han River in Mapo. They gained a reputation when Hongdae’s trendy spots branched out and infected their borders.

Today sightseers flock to the photogenic cafes and store fronts along Mangridan Road (망리단길). Mangwon Traditional Market (망원시장) attracts locals and outsiders alike.

Mangwon Battleship Park hosts three retired worships on the banks of the Han River in Mangwon Hangang Park.
Mangwon Battleship Park hosts three retired worships on the banks of the Han River in Mangwon Hangang Park.
World Cup Park

The World Cup Park (월드컵공원) sits on and around Nanji Island (난지도) along the Han River.

During the Joseon Dynasty, the island’s fertile soil grew peanuts and other crops. But in the last half of the 20th century, 92 million metric tons of trash stunk up the site.

What turned around the island’s fortunes? The 17th FIFA World Cup in 2002.

Like the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, when FIFA selected Korea and Japan to co-host in 1996, Korea knew it needed to do some house cleaning.

Billions would watch b-roll of both Korea and Japan. The split-screen treatment. Korea wanted to prove parity with their former pillagers and occupiers.

So around Seoul World Cup Stadium (서울월드컵경기장), Korea’s main World Cup venue, Seoul built four parks.

Twin Pyramids

World Cup Park features twin flat top, side-by-side pyramid plateaus. Just north of Gangbyeon Expressway (강변북로), each rise about a hundred meters.

Why pyramids?

The city decided it wouldn’t just toss 92 million metric tons of garbage somewhere else. Instead, they buried the toxic rubbish deep, sealed it, and mounded tons of soil on top.

Today, when you walk the elevated grounds of Haneul & Noeul Parks, you can spy small pipes sticking out of the earth. These vents release underground methane buildup.

Dropped between the plateaus an incineration plant uses the buried landfill’s excess gases to burn Seoul’s current waste flow.

Four & More Parks

World Cup Park comprises four parks clustered near the Seoul World Cup Stadium. Here’s a quick glance at each.

  • Pyeonghwa Park (평화의공원; Peace Park) is World Cup Park’s premier park. Connecting to the Seoul World Cup Stadium via a concrete bridge, the park holds Nanji Pond, a plaza, and picnic area.
  • Haneul Park (하늘공원; Sky Park) is one of two flat top pyramid parks. The most popular park, the late summer brings thousands to the park’s ripened grass fields. The 291 steps ascending the plateau is a popular photo-zone. A nearby electric car whisks passengers to the park’s top.
  • Noeul Park (노을공원; Sunset Park) is the other of World Cup Park’s highrise parks. Although a nine-hole golf course takes up much of the park’s area, visitors can also enjoy a sculpture park, silkworm and firefly habitats, and bookshop.
  • Nanjicheon Park (난지천공원; Nanji Stream Park) flows along the Nanji Stream at the base of Haneul and Noeul Park. It offers walking paths, playgrounds, and more.

Other than the World Cup Park’s four, you can also find two more notable parks.

Bike Paths

Two of the Hangang Park system’s eleven parks occupy snake along the Han River in the Mapo District:

Nanji Hangang Park features many unique elements, including a wetland area, riverside pool, mirror fountain, and concert area.

Mangwon Hangang Park hosts Seoul Battleship Park (서울함 공원), a naval museum with a frigate bobbing in the Han and a submarine jammed through the museum’s glass wall.

Both Hangang Parks contain portions of the Hangang Bike Path.

South Han Districts

Like Gangbuk, you can group the districts south of the Han River as Gangnam (강남).

  • Gang (강) — river.
  • Nam (남) — south.

(Gangnam also refers to a specific district, which we explore below.)

Gangnam Districts don’t hold as many cultural landmarks as the north. Most of the space remained undeveloped until the 1970s.

When the Miracle Years exploded Seoul’s boundaries, many developers chose Gangnam’s cheap and empty land to build department stores, office buildings, and high-rise apartments.

Gangnam’s gleaming investments snowballed. Now, the streets south of the river run with wealth. Let’s take a brief tour through some of the glitzy glow.

Gangnam District

Gangnam District (강남구; Songpa-gu) is the wealthiest in Seoul. How wealthy?

In 2021:

  • One square meter of apartment nationwide cost ₩4.1 million ($3,600)
  • One square meter of apartment in Seoul cost ₩8.5 million ($7,500)
  • One square meter of apartment in Gangnam cost ₩23 million ($20,300)

Yeah, apartments in Gangnam cost four times Seoul’s average, already Korea’s most expensive city. And nationwide: five-and-a-half times the average.

A picture of the Starfield COEX Mall in the Gangnam District in Seoul.
The Starfield Library in COEX Mall offers shoppers an opportunity to sit, pick a book, and read the day away.

Why so expensive? When Korea began developing south of the river, they started in Gangnam.

Beginning in 1966, Seoul improved access to the district by building the Hannam Bridge across, and the Gyeongbu Expressway along, the Han River. Then the city threw up new apartments and moved the ministries of commerce and industry in Gangnam’s borders.

People followed. The infusion of governmental infrastructure and investment birthed speculation. By the 2000s, prestigious schools, high-end shops, and office towers took hold of the swampy countryside. Not to mention a little-known K-Pop song.

Let’s look at the neighborhood’s highlights.

Upscale Streets & Neighborhoods

Upscale department stores, haute couture shops, and restaurants fill Gangnam’s neighborhoods.

Don’t have a bottomless bank account? Don’t let that stop you. Then there’s fun to be found in Gangnam if you enjoy gawking at shameless displays of wealth.

Apgujeong & Cheongdam Neighborhoods

The Apgujeong (압구정동; Apgujeong-dong) and Cheongdam (청담동; Cheongdam-dong) neighborhoods sit side-by-side on the northern edge of Gangnam against the Han River. Together they form the Beverly Hills, the 5th Avenue, the Ginza of Seoul. Rich. Rich. And rich.

Both neighborhoods boast both the city’s priciest real estate and upmarket (ultra-rich focused) department stores.

Cheongdam Fashion Street

Cheongdam Fashion Street (청담패션거리) follows Apgujeong Road (압구정로) across the Apgujeong & Cheongdam neighborhoods. Along it your typical gaggle of luxury brands (Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Prada) make an appearance.

The twin EAST and WEST Galleria Department Stores mark the center of the thoroughfare. Outward from them, you’ll spot beauty shops, plastic surgery clinics, and more boutiques serving celebrities and customers with triple-platinum-diamond cards. 

K-Star Road

K-Star Road (K스타로드) occupies the same road as Cheongdam Fashion Street: Apgujeong Road.

What is K-Star Road? Think the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Celebrity paraphernalia embossed into pedestrian infrastructure. Except K-Star road doesn’t embed gold stars with celebrity names and handprints into the sidewalk. They went big!

Dotted throughout the street you’ll find three-meter tall GangnamDol statues with jumbo heads. Each figure lists the names of famous K-Pop personalities, including PSY, BTS and Twice.

Apgujeong Rodeo

Apgujeong Rodeo Street (압구정 로데오거리) is a net of streets on the border of Sinsa, Apgujeong, and Cheongdam Neighborhoods. Its main entrance hangs opposite the Galleria Department Stores on Cheongdam Fashion Street.

Rodeo? Like Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills? Yes. The area borrowed its name and spirit from California’s monument to money and gluttony.

Daily, capital infused known and unknown young and youth-positive folks buzz around the boutiques, cafes, and surgery clinics in Apgujeong Rodeo’s fanciful backstreets.

Garosu Street

Artists and small business owners fled to Garosu Street (가로수길; Garosu-gil) in the Sinsa Neighborhood (신사동; Sinsa-dong) to escape rising rents in the pricier parts of Gangnam.

This 700 meter-long stretch of ginkgo-tree-lined street hums a quieter tune than other parts of Gangnam. Most vibrant in the fall, strollers discover unique cafes, designer stores, and art studios.

Tehran Boulevard

All these little neighborhoods and shopping districts are fine and dandy. But where does the business happen?

Tehran Boulevard (테헤란로). This mega-road travels from east/west from:

Tehran Street earned the nickname Tehran Valley. Why? Not because of its gleaming valley of skyscrapers. But because an oversized portion of Korea’s venture capital and IT industries hold some stake on the street. 

You can find major offices for:

  • Samsung Electronics — the largest division of Korea’s largest chaebol.
  • Naver Corporation — Korea’s largest search engine and tech company.
  • Kakao — Korea’s largest messaging platform and second largest search engine.
  • SK Hynix — an SK Corporation division that manufactures semiconductors.
  • POSCO — Korea’s largest steel manufacturing company.

Tehran. Recognize the name? Isn’t that the capital city of Iran? Yes, in 1977 Tehran’s mayor proposed to Seoul’s mayor they name a street after one another’s capitals. Today Seoul has Tehran Road. Tehran has Seoul Street.

A Little Old and a Little New

While districts north of the Han River claim most of Seoul’s ancient buildings, Gangnam offers two important cultural relics alongside a premier retail outlet and convention center.

COEX Mall

The Starfield COEX Mall (코엑스) is one of Asia’s largest underground malls. It’s also a major shopping and social hub in Gangnam, seated on Tehran Boulevard.

A picture of the COEX Mall in Seoul's Gangnam District.
The COEX mall is the shopping heart of the wealthy Gangnam Neighborhood.

Underground mall? What sits above it?

While the subterranean mall opened in 2000, a convention and exhibition center thrived above ground since 1979. In fact, it’s where the COEX name comes from: COnvention & EXhibition.

Connected to Seoul Subway Line 2 and Line 9, Starfield COEX Malls’s looping hallways present a premium assortment of storefronts and restaurants. However, the mall includes some notable, photogenic facilities.

  • Starfield Library (별마당 도서관) occupies a large atrium in the mall. Millions of amateur photojournalists visit its two story tall bookshelves, lit at sundown by strips of mellow LEDs. At this literary mecca, visitors may rest, check out a book for free, and read a few pages.
The Gangnam Style Statue adorns the courtyard outside COEX Mall in the Gangnam District.
The Gangnam Style Statue adorns the courtyard outside COEX Mall in the Gangnam District.

COEX is also a center for live performances. The mall features plazas and event spaces for music performances, Esports contests, and more.

Bongeunsa Temple

Bongeunsa Temple (봉은사) is an oasis in the heart of Gangnam. It sits across the street from COEX Mall.

A picture of the tall Buddha at the Bongeunsa Temple (봉은사) in Seoul.
A picture of the tall Buddha at the Bongeunsa Temple (봉은사) in Seoul.

Founded in 794 during the Kingdom of Silla, the temple suffered through centuries of Buddhist oppression, and rebuilt twice after a devastating 1939 fire and the Korean War.

Today, because of its central location and accessibility, thousands of religious and agnostics journey to the temple and snap terabytes of pics.

Bongeunsa is a compound. Its wooden temples, thousands of Buddhist scriptures, and ancient ceremonies put into sharp relief Gangnam’s wealth and tech. Notable sights include:

Bongeunsa also offers Temple Stay and Temple Life programs. Both immerse folks of all cultures in a Buddhist Monk’s lifestyle, from eating, to sleeping, to meditation. Temple Stays span two or more days. A Temple Life program lasts one day. 

Royal Tombs Seonjeongneung

Like Bongeunsa Temple, the Seonjeongneung Royal Tombs (서울선릉과정릉) rest in the middle of Gangnam, amongst skyscrapers and day/night traffic.

The Royal Tombs Seonjeongneung hold the remains of two Joseon Kings and one queen.
The Royal Tombs Seonjeongneung hold the remains of two Joseon Kings and one queen.

First built in 1495, the site contains the remains of two kings and one queen.

  • Seolleung is the tomb for King Seongjong (조선성종; 1457~1495), Joseon Dynasty’s 9th King, and his second wife Queen Jeonghyeon (정현왕후; 1462~1530).
  • Jeongneung is the tomb for King Jungjong (조선중종; 1488~1544), Joseon Dynasty’s 11th King.

The name of the site is a compound of both tomb names: Seon (for King Seongjong) + Jeong (for King Jungjong) + Neung (릉; meaning tomb).

Inside the ticketed gate, you’ll find perfected green lawns and all the classic features of Joseon royal tombs:

  • A Hongsalmun (홍살문) is a decorated wooden gate. It marks the entrance to the tomb site.
  • Chamdo (참도) are two sacred stone paths that lead to the Jeongjagak Shrines: a raised path for the dead kings to travel (신도; sindo), and a lowered path for living kings (어도; eodo).
  • Jeongjagak Shrines (정자각) are wooden houses that sit at the base of the tomb. Mourners prepare offerings and perform ceremonial rituals to the dead kings here.
  • The Bangbun (봉분; a.k.a. tumulus) is a mound of earth that holds the king or queen’s remains. Stone lanterns and Chinese zodiac statues surround the tombs.

UNESCO classified all the Joseon Dynasty’s Royal Tombs — forty (40) tombs in eighteen (18) locations — World Heritage Sites, including Seonjeongneung.

Bike Paths

Jamwon Hangang Park (잠원한강공원) is part of the Hangang Park system. One of the smaller parks, it contains basketball and volleyball courts, soccer fields, and an outdoor pool.

Jamwon also accommodates part of the Hangang Bike Path, one of Korea’s twelve certification bike paths.

Songpa District

Songpa District (송파구; Songpa-gu) has more people than any district in Seoul. Some regard it as an outgrowth of their wealthier neighbor, Gangnam District. However, Songpa possesses its own history and highlights.

Like Hanam City to the east, the Kingdom of Baekje’s (백제; 18 BCE ~ 660 ACE) capital, Wiryeseong (위례성), once sat in Songpa. You’ll find its remains at Pungnaptoseong near the Han River and Mongchon Fortress in Olympic Park.

The district received an adrenaline shot to their economic heart when the 1988 Olympics came to town. Seoul sailed catamarans of capital south to Songpa, building Olympic Boulevard (올림픽대로) along the Han, and several world class sports facilities.

The Lotte Lot

The Lotte Corporation may rank 5th among Korea’s largest chaebols, with ₩121.5 trillion ($107 billion) in assets and 86 affiliates. However, their gaudy garb, their towers and department stores, speak “corporate behemoth.”

A picture of Lotte World Tower at night in Seoul, South Korea.
Day or night, Lotte World Tower (롯데월드타워), the 123-story mega-skyscraper (5th tallest in the world) makes an impression on Seoul's skyline.

Many of Lotte’s businesses fall under the retail and entertainment category. So it makes sense Lotte built a premier shopping destination to boost its brand. 

So where is this Lotte mecca? In the heart of Songpa. Lotte structures commandeer two large city blocks and one artificial lake in the middle of the district.

You can break down the Lotte metropolis into two sides.

Want to cross between the two? Head to the first basement level. An underground walk connects the eastern and western complexes, as well as Jamsil Subway Station (잠실역).

West Lotte Complex

Lotte’s western complex first opened in 1989, making it over twenty (20) years older than the eastern complex. 

Lotte World, the world’s largest indoor amusement park, forms the center of the complex, with a department store, supermarket, hotel, and more encircling.

A picture of Lotte World in the Songpa District of Seoul.
Lotte World in Seoul’s Songpa District is the world’s largest indoor amusement park. Above a skating rink a smorgasbord of kiddy rides buzz.

Its notable facilities include:

East Lotte Complex

Lotte’s eastern complex first opened in 2014. It includes Korea’s tallest building linked and two department stores filled with the latest in shopping and entertainment. 

Lotte Tower rises 123-stories above the Songpa District in Seoul.
Lotte Tower rises 123-stories above the Songpa District in Seoul.
  • Lotte Tower (롯데월드타워) opened in 2017. Measuring 555 meter tall (1,821 ft) with 123 floors, the building is Korea’s tallest (fifth highest globally). Korean ceramics inspired the building’s downward bulging facade. Observation decks, open to the paying public, occupy the top three floors. Apartments, a hotel, and businesses claim other sections.
  • Lotte World Mall (롯데월드몰) is a 244,000 square meter retail space first opened in 2014. It’s 11-story tall main building holds a mall, movie theater, concert hall, and more. A separate 8-story structure hosts a duty free department and AvenueL, an upmarket brand for shoppers unaware of the word “budget.”
  • Lotte Aquarium (롯데월드 아쿠아리움) sits in Lotte World Mall. It claims Korea’s largest tank and underwater tunnel. The aquarium hosts animals from all five oceans and freshwater ecosystems.

Just south of the Lotte complexes ripples Seokchon Lake (석촌호수), twin bodies of water connect by a small canal under Jamsil Lake Bridge (잠실호수교). 

Seokchon Lake Park encircles the lakes. Open to the public, the park fills with cherry blossoms and tourists in the spring. It’s walking paths offer views of Lotte World Tower and Magic Island.

Sports, Sports, Sports

The 1988 Summer Olympic Games were a boon for Songpa. Seoul centralized most of the Olympic’s venues in the district, including the games’ main stadium and an expansive park.

Olympic Park

The city created Olympic Park (올림픽공원) for the 1988 Olympic Games. It covers around 1.4 million square meters (270 American football fields; 203 soccer pitches).

That’s a lot of park. What’s inside

You can divide the park into three unique areas:

In the park’s eastern regions, Seoul constructed six (6) Olympic venues. Half the buildings remain sports-focused. The city converted the others into music and performance spaces.

The western area of the parks keeps many arts and culture facilities.

Pristine lawns, walking paths, and flower gardens inhabit a big bit of the park’s middle. 

Walk down to Mongchon Lake (몽촌호) and glance at green expanse. Notice, it sits on a hill. It doesn’t rise on a dirt foundation, however.

What’s underneath? The Mongchon Fortress (몽촌토성), a military installation built for the Kingdom of Baekje’s capital, Wiryeseong (위례성).

Before the Olympics, Seoul sent archeologists to excavate and help preserve artifacts from one of Korea’s founding kingdoms. A few park museums display their findings.

Jamsil Sports Complex

Jamsil Sports Complex (잠실종합운동장; a.k.a. Seoul Sports Complex) towers over the intersection of the Han River and Tan Stream (탄천).

Seoul constructed this group of nine (9) facilities to host both the 1986 Asian Games and 1988 Summer Olympics.

A picture of Jamsil Sports Complex (잠실종합운동장) near Jamsil Hangang Park in Seoul.
Jamsil Sports Complex (잠실종합운동장) was the main stadium for the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul.

The centerpiece of the complex is Jamsil Olympic Stadium (잠실종합운동장올림픽; a.k.a. Seoul Olympic Stadium). Seating 100,000 (today 69,950), it held both the opening and closing ceremonies for the 1988 Olympics. 

Though they are under renovation, all of Jamsil Sports Complex’s facilities remain active. Some allow the public. Others house professional sports teams.

Bike Paths

Two of riverside parks fill the Han River banks in Songpa:

Jamsil Hangang Park rests western edge of Songpa on the Han. With its open fields, rec courts, and swimming pools, families with youngins flock to the park for picnics and to check out the fish bridge. Nearby the Jamsil Sports Complex rises. 

In Gwangnaru Hangang Park you can walk two eco-parks, fly around an in-line skating rink, or check out an under-bridge observation platform. However, Gwangnaru gained fame for its bicycle park, which rents a cornucopia of bikes, from typical to rail to eccentric. 

Both parks run portions of the Hangang Bike Path.

Yeouido Island

Yeouido Island (여의도) is an 8.4 square kilometer (3.2 sq mi) island sitting on the southern banks of the Han River in the Yeongdeungpo District (영등포구).

Seoulites often give the island New York analogies: the Manhattan of Seoul. Korea’s Wall Street. Why? First, some context.

Hedges in a sculpture park on Yeouido Island in Seoul.
Building 63 crowns Yeouido Island. This gold clad tower, built in 1983, overlooks Yeouido Hangang Park.
History

The currents of Yeouido’s history run shallow. Before weirs and dredging, the big bad Han River often huffed and puffed and flooded any settlement perched upon the island’s shores.

So, during the Joseon Dynasty, green grass grazing cattle occupied the sandy delta.

And from 1916 until 1971, Yeouido Airport dominated the island. Its humble landing strips landed most Seoul-bound flights until Korea upgraded the airport in Gimpo.

In the 1970s, the “Han River Development Plan” tamed Han River and then exploded nearby Bamseom Island (밤섬). They used its remains to Yeouido’s banks.

Now safe for habitation, the city began developing the blank-slate island. They laid down infrastructure and erected a series of affordable apartments. 

In 1975, Korea completed the National Assembly Building on the western edge of the Yeouido. This political mecca attracted the national’s top broadcast networks, including:

Adding to the island’s prestige, Hanwha Life Insurance finished Building 63 (63빌딩) in 1983. Excluding North America, its 63 floors (60 usable) were the world’s tallest.

Building 63 became the symbol of Korea’s economic emergence. The structure’s gold-clad facade took center stage in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. 

Soon companies invaded Yeouido. The island represented status and progress. By the 1980s, Yeouido Neighborhood (여의도동; Yeouido-dong) became the wealthiest in Seoul and Korea. 

Today Yeouido ranks second behind Gangnam District. But it still holds some of the nation’s most powerful institutions.  

Institution Powerhouse

Yeouido holds two of Seoul’s most elemental forces: money and politics.

Governing Body

On the western edge of the island lies the National Assembly Building (국회의사당): Korea’s Capital, or Westminster. It houses Korea’s national legislature, the country’s law forging body.

National Assembly in Seoul.
The National Assembly building on Yeouido Island in Seoul houses Korea’s federal congress.

The National Assembly is actual a complex of buildings, including: legislator offices (국회의사당의원회관), a memorial hall (헌정기념관), and library (국회도서관).

The National Assembly’s main building covers 81,000 square meters (270,000 sq ft) and stands six (6) stories tall. And the total complex controls an eighth of the island’s total area.

Korea designed the assembly’s chambers with space to expand. Why? The never ending hope for reunification with North Korea.

Here are some more interesting design features:

  • Twenty-four (24) octagonal pillars surround the building, representing Korea’s traditional lunisolar seasons (절기; jeol-gi).
  • A sixty-four (64) meter wide dome stretches across the Assembly’s roof. It symbolizes the convergence and compromise of democracy.
  • Architects envisioned the Assembly’s dome to match the matte white of the building’s facade. However, rainwater and nature painted it a pastel green.
Yeouido Island is home or Korea's National Assembly building. It's unmistakable concrete dome welcomes you to this famous island.
Yeouido Island is home or Korea's National Assembly building. It's unmistakable concrete dome welcomes you to this famous island.
Money Street

Why is Yeouido Island called Korea’s Wall Street? Simple.

What occupies Wall Street? The New York Stock Exchange. What lies on Yeouido? The Korea Exchange (KRX), Korea’s stock market.

Two Stock Exchanges

The KRX today operates two offices: one in Busan (한국거래소). The other on Yeouido.

Why two? In 2007, the government merged Korea’s futures exchange with the stock and bond markets. The Busan office, which handled futures, received the title “headquarters.”

However, most of KRX’s day-to-day trading remained in Seoul’s Yeouido office.

Seoul’s stock exchange value — north of ₩2.6 quadrillion ($2.1 trillion) — attracts many banks and brokerage firms to Yeouido, including NH Securities (NH투자증권), Shinhan Investment (신한금융투자), SK Securities (SK증권).

Tall, Tall Towers

With all that money, Yeouido can’t help but spread its peacock feathers. The small river island accounts for five of Seoul’s tallest, most the strut-worthy structures:

A thin coat of gold covers the façade of Building 63 on Yeouido Island in Seoul.
A thin coat of gold covers the façade of Building 63 on Yeouido Island in Seoul.
Parks-R-Us

Yeouido might have a mummified nightlife. But the island offers more than money, politics, and skyscrapers. The undersized island fits four parks within its borders.

Yeouido Hangang Park

Yeouido Hangang Park (여의도한강공원) claims the banks of the Han River. It might be the most popular of the Hangang Park system’s eleven total parks.

Why? Location and amenities.

A picture of a chain with a broken chain in Seoul.
The I•Seoul•U sign in Yeouido Hangang Park attracts selfie-seeking tourists.

The park gives excellent views of the National Assembly, Building 63, and the Han River. Park goers can also enjoy:

How about a bike ride? Yeouido Hangang Park carries a few kilometers of the Hangang Bike Path. It connects with Yanghwa Hangang Park (양화한강공원) and Banpo Hangang Park (반포한강공원).

Yeouido Park

If Yeouido Island is Korea’s Manhattan, Yeouido Park (여의도공원) is Central Park.

The rectangular patch of green runs from the riverfront park, through the heart of the island, and ends at Saetgang Ecological Park.

Yeouido Airport (여의도공항), which blanketed the park from 1916 to 1971, holds a bit of history.

The year: 1922. The day: December 5th. Frost tipped wind nipped at 50,000 gawkers. They cheered as An Changnam’s (안창남) prop plane came into view. When he landed on Yeouido, he became the first Korean pilot to fly over and on Korean soil.

Saetgang Ecological Park

When you glance at Yeouido on a map, it’s difficult to spot its “island-ness.” It looks more like a bump on the riverbank’s forehead. Not Hawaii, surrounded by a vanishing ocean.

The Saet Stream (샛강; Saetgang) cuts off Yeouido from the mainland. Once a mighty tributary, years of remodeling on Yeouido tamed the stream. Now its banks measure between seven (7) to twenty-five (25) meters across.

Saetgang Ecological Park (여의도샛강생태공원) follows the Saet Stream (샛강) as it courses through the backside of Yeouido Island. The park provides wide green spaces, tree-lined paths, and lush vegetation that filter the river’s water.

Walkers and bike riders can dawdle along paths or cross the Hangang Saetgang Bridge (한강샛강다리), a pedestrian bridge resembling a pair of flying cranes.

Bamseom Island

Yeouido Neighborhood (여의도동; Yeouido-dong) is the island’s administrative district. Its border doesn’t stop at the riverbank. The neighborhood reaches over the Han and grabs one of Bamseom’s (밤섬) two small islet’s.

(Mapo District’s Seogang Neighborhood (서강동; Seogang-dong) claims the other islet.)

Bamseom Island once held an active town: buildings, a port, and a thousand souls. However, in 1968 government officials blew up the island. Acme dynamite and all.

Why? Two reasons.

  1. Beginning in the 1960s, Seoul tamed the Han River. Engineers calculated that erasing Bamseom Island would improve water flow and calm the river.
  2. Seoul’s then-mayor had a problem: Lots of people. No land. So he saw an opportunity. Take Bamseom’s rocky remains and expand nearby Yeouido Island. The new land would be cheap and lack voters opposed to development.

The island demolition proved successful and the earthen transplant gave Yeouido a few square kilometers. However, Bamseom’s bedrock remained just under the Han’s waters.

Over the years, silt from the river’s currents rebuilt the broken island and formed its present-day shape: two islets divided by a sandy inlet.

Today Bamseom is a protected ecological park. Only birds, swaying reeds, and sandy beaches inhabit it. No humans allowed

Two-legged, takeout coffee grippers can view the park from Bamseom Ecological Experience Center (밤섬생태체험관), an observatory on the Mapo Bridge (마포대교).