Jun Myung-jin thought he saw the future.
Now a professor of urban studies at Chung-Ang University in Seoul, Jun was a graduate student in the United States from 1988 to 1993. He was studying at University of Southern California in Los Angeles—a place more like a patchwork of neighborhoods than a city, beset by traffic but stocked with roomy single-family homes. That was totally different from South Korea at the time. Koreans were flooding into Seoul to live in apartments next to factories, offices, markets, and everything else.
Korea wasn’t the world’s 11th-largest economy yet, but it was quickly getting there. Jun predicted that Koreans would use their growing incomes to move out of the ultra-dense Seoul. Then property values in the suburbs would surge. After all, that’s what happened in the U.S., Canada, Japan, and many other parts of the world.
So when Jun returned to Korea in the mid-1990s, he bought an apartment in Osan, a suburb some 22 miles south of Seoul. A colleague of his bought a place in Seoul—foolishly, Jun thought.
Fast-forward two decades: “My expectation was completely wrong,” Jun says. His colleague’s Seoul apartment has soared in price; Jun’s place in Osan, not so much. “Our statuses are completely different. [My colleague] is now a very wealthy person,” Jun says. Buying a place in the suburbs “was a one-time miscalculation, mis-expectation.”
Seoul dominates South Korea. It is home to a fifth of the country’s population, its president, its top colleges, nearly all Korean company headquarters, and its gargantuan pop culture industry, as well as the best Korean food, art, and fashion. But it’s not the easiest place to live. Parks are few, and the ubiquitous gray buildings make it look drab. Air pollution forces everyone to wear masks. Renting a dingy studio apartment requires a security deposit of about 5 million won, or $4,400.
Still, few are keen to leave Seoul. The Korean Dream is a three-bedroom apartment in the center of a 10-million-person metropolis.
The so-so suburbs
Choi Tae-young moved to Cheongna two years ago. His wife works as a nurse in a hospital in Cheongna, and housing is cheaper out here. “Seoul is my hometown,” he told me, “but it’s just a memory now.”
I visited Cheongna on a recent afternoon. Because I don’t have a car, the almost two-mile jaunt from Cheongna’s subway station to its downtown was more time-consuming than the long subway ride there from my home in Seoul. I waited for a downtown-bound bus on the side of a freeway until the bus drove right past my stop; the next one wouldn’t be coming for another 30 minutes.
A middle-aged woman asked me where I was going. I showed her my phone and she said, “Oh, same bus.” We waited together. I asked her in broken Korean if she enjoyed living in Cheongna. Her smile became more strained. “Geu-nyang geu-lae.” (“It’s okay.”)
I began to understand her. Cheongna is definitely easier on the eyes than Seoul, thanks to its abundant green spaces and streams. Korea’s finance ministry approved Cheongna’s development in 2006 as an alternative for foreign investors and tourists and to relieve Seoul’s housing shortage. Eleven years later, it still has a sterile, ghost-town feel. The parks I admired were practically empty. The town has few unique businesses, just the standard Korean chains. As Le Monde recently described a similarly “impersonal” Korean development project, it’s a “ghetto for the affluent.”
Although the seamless public transportation and constant excitement of Seoul are missing, any American would describe Cheongna as a city, not a suburb. The downtown area is dense and walkable. And most strikingly, everyone lives in soaring apartment buildings.
In both Seoul and Gyeonggi Province, which surrounds Seoul, 85 percent of people live in apartments, according to the Korean Statistical Information Service. About 60 percent of those apartments are high-rise. Nationwide, only 16 percent of Koreans live in “ordinary detached dwellings,” and just three percent of Seoul residents do.
Jun of Chung-Ang University explained to me why Koreans prefer apartments. They have good security, parking, doormen, janitors, and plentiful access to public transit (bus stops are often named after the nearby complex). One needn’t worry about a broken sink or light fixture—just call the building manager. The buildings were all constructed within the last 40 years, so are relatively up-to-date.
In contrast, detached houses are associated with substandard living, because few of them have been built since Korea’s economic miracle of the 1960s-1990s. Kim Kyung-hwan, a professor of economics at Sogang University in Seoul, remembers visiting the first apartment building in Seoul in 1962. He was a child, and his aunt lived there.
“It was certainly different from the house I was living in,” Kim says. “Modern kitchens, toilets, and hot bath facilities were pretty unheard of in the 1960s, until apartments were first introduced. The expansion of apartments as a housing type certainly improved the quality of housing, because all the apartments were equipped with these modern facilities.”
Today, even rural Koreans prefer apartments to detached houses. According to a 2009 study, a mere 5.9 percent of Koreans want to live in a house in a suburb. Nearly three-quarters, though, lust for a “high-rise apartment.”
Are you going up?
Despite the proliferation of ritzy apartments, department stores, and parks, few are excited by the suburbs. There’s the commute, for starters. Choi, who recently moved to Cheongna, said he drives an hour and a half to get to work. The average commuter who lives in Seoul’s surrounding province but works in Seoul commutes for 2.5 hours every day; two-thirds of them use a car or pay considerable public transit fares. “The commuting experience is a very stressful activity,” says Jun, who is writing a paper to request that the government address this problem.
The government aimed for these suburban developments not to turn into bedroom communities, Kim says. But so far, that’s what they largely seem to be.
South Korea is smaller by land mass than Iceland, with a high population density. That helped lead to the emergence of a singular urban giant, and in this respect, the country is similar to Hong Kong or Singapore. Korea’s uber-urbanization is great for sustainability: Apartments have been lauded as the most efficient housing option for the expanding global population, while Seoul’s public transportation system is perhaps the world’s best. But unlike the two city-states, South Korea has upwards of 26 million people outside of Seoul and its thriving economy. When it comes to housing, employment, and education opportunities, some say provincial South Koreans practically live in a different country.
It’s challenging to make a better life for yourself without living in Seoul. Seoul alone has all of the resources: white-collar jobs, your children’s half-dozen after-school academies, and the chance to launch a business in a global city. The Korean verb for going to Seoul is ollagada, literally “going up,” as Colin Marshall remarked in The Guardian in 2014. And to leave is naeryeogada, which translates to “going down.”
All of these are reasons why Korean suburbs have little allure for city folk. I noticed as much when I visited a suburb near the mammoth Incheon International Airport with my boyfriend, a native Seoulite. I felt happy at its slower, easier mood—no onslaught of aggressive pedestrians! No cars! A view of the sky and mountains and sea!
He looked nauseated. His eyes were searching for something to do. How about the arcade? Should we grab a coffee?
But the cafes were already closed.