The story and transformation of Seoul as a political theater and of its public spaces during the 20th century: The mirrors of Korea (PART 2)

Section V: Seoul during the Korean War (1950-1953)

Seoul during the Korean War was contested battle ground between both fighting sides of the conflict. Even if no physical political change was carried out within the public landscape itself, we can observe that the imaginary gravitational meaning and pull that Seoul had among both sides played out explicitly in the War. I will even go as far as to argue that the war was to obtain control of the city itself. Because with Seoul you can gain Korea. To understand the pulling of Seoul between two sides and her subsequent mirror image of Korea, I believe it is best to analyze and observe the four times she changed hands in the course of less than three years. Luis A. DiMarco in Concrete Hell tells us that Seoul had a population of 1 million people when the war broke out, and many were still trapped in the city unable to leave[1].  The Korean War: An encyclopedia, informs us that Seoul under North Korean hands after it fell on June 27th, 1950 saw the confiscation of property, the purging of South Korean officials and citizens, the placing of Stalin posters everywhere as well as a people’s court held in the streets where children were put to choose who would be killed and who would survive. It also informs us that the citizens who had remained behind or were trapped in the city were forced to resupply any losses the North Korean army had suffered[2].  Adding to this, in Korean War: Almanac and Primary Sources informs us that North Korea had established a communist government in Seoul and that North Korean soldiers paraded the streets demanding rice from door to door. Additionally, she states that Christian missionaries were arrested and sent to P.O.W camps and that there were 20,000 North Korean troops in Seoul[3].

The mirrors of Korea


DiMarco’s Concrete Hell gives us a pretty detailed explanation of the first allied retaking of Seoul. He starts by stating that when the North Korean military force launched its offensive on June 25th, 1950, the South Korean army was nothing more than a large military police force and thus within six weeks they were cornered along with the American forces in the Busan Perimeter. The forces under General MacArthur and the General himself understood that they needed to strike an offensive that would turn the tide and eliminate the pressure on the Busan Perimeter, and of course, retake Seoul. He sent his staff to study an offensive and surprise attack in an amphibious landing along the western coast, and they came up with a landing at the port city of Incheon near Seoul. Even if the landing was fraught with problems including the difficulty of launching the offensive as a surprise and a lack of decent beaches to land on, the mastering of these meant a successful recapture of Seoul. This, according to DiMarco was the ultimate objective, since Seoul possessed a significant geographical location and because control of Seoul which meant control of the capital would therefore imply control of the peninsula which would in turn mean victory for the allies. The plan was giving a green light and a creation of special unit to proceed with the plan was carried out: The X Corps. The surprise offensive at Incheon was confronted with 2,000 North Korean troops. On September 15 in the afternoon two teams landed at Inchon (the 1st marines and the 5th marines) and the next day began making their way on the 18-mile trek to Seoul. The 1st marines made their way to Yongdungpo (southwest of Seoul right across the Han River, nowadays a highly modernize area of Seoul) and the 1st marines made their way to the Gimpo Arfield (northwest of Seoul right across the river). On September 18, the X Corps landed at Incheon whose main purpose was taking control of the highway between Seoul and Busan, and thus commenced the plan to retake Seoul. The first step was taking control of the west bank of the Han and securing a bridgehead on the east bank. Then they both entered Seoul, and cleared away North Korean barricades on the main streets of Seoul. This “Battle of Seoul” or “Battle of the Barricades” was expanded in September 25. Two days later the majority of the city was cleared of the North Korean forces.

The mirrors of Korea


On September 29, General MacArthur and Syngman Rhee arrived in Seoul while there was still fighting amongst the streets, and the city was declared completely secure 90 days later. As an end note, DiMarco establishes that the drive and subsequent victory in capturing Seoul meant psychological and political advantage, prestige for the South Korean troops and legitimacy for the South Korean Government[4].  How Seoul turned to the Chinese Wave in the second part of the Korean War, as well as details of Rhee’s anticommunist massacre after the allies took Seoul is narrated by Russel Spurr in Enter the Dragon. During the holding of Seoul under the allies, Spurr tells us that Syngman Rhee had prepared a death squad who had orders to liquidate “communists” and political prisoners (who so happened to be against him and not necessarily communists). These people’s hands were tied behind their bodies with wire and ordered to kneel on the ground as authorities shot them dead from behind. A British soldier witnessed the massacre of 23 men and women, while a BBC correspondent witnessed another similar killing. On to the third changing of hands of Seoul, Russel Spurr starts by stating that the allied troops had no hope of holding Seoul on Christmas in 1950 but that the newly appointed General Matthew B. Ridgway, planned to lure the enemy south of Seoul and ensure a decisive victory, and that the Chinese were massing to attack the north and northeast of the city. Time proved to be an enemy, as the Eight Army had few of it to move its headquarters out of Seoul and few of it to plan a secure defensive strategy even if the terrain was to their favor. On New Year’s Day; 1951 the Chinese launched their attack on the city and nine divisions protected by artillery fire, slipped right past the defensive lines with explosives and grenades. The defense was shattered and the troops were forced to retreat, and General Ridgway saw no positive outcome from trying to defend the city[5].  The aftermath of the third changing of Seoul was largely summed up in the evacuation of troops and refugees.

The mirrors of Korea


The retreating troops of the UN had trouble crossing the Han river’s bed. Because of the multitude of refugees fleeing from the city as well as the flimsy bridges crossing the Han. The bridges were eventually closed, denying access to the citizens still on them to safety. The Military Police who were stationed along the Han’s edge were ordered to shoot and if necessary kill any restless citizen who dared cross the line, and then blow up the bridges to prevent any Chinese to cross the Han. Inside the city itself, a fire had sprung and a BBC correspondent captured the freshly put up signs across the streets that read “AMERICANS GO HOME”. The correspondent was present in the final showdown on the south bank (the “safe” one), ready to capture the scene in front of them. Said scene was of people trying to make their way across the semi frozen Han river, all bridges except one being blown to smithereens. Children were lost, animals fell and broke their limbs, families were separated, and the retreating military police had to force the people off the river. When it was finally cleared, the ice on the river was blown up along with the last bridge. On January 5th, Seoul was in the hands of the Chinese[6].  After their retreat, the allied forces would begin a new offensive and retake the city of Seoul in March 14-15[7 .  The city was liberated through Operation Killer, Operation Ripper[8]  and Operation Courageous. Even if some of these Operations weren’t directly involved with or in Seoul, the totality of their plans and consequences led to the 4th occupation of the city. Operation Ripper was launched approximately on March 7th with the purpose of recapturing Seoul and eliminating all North Korean and Chinese troops in and surrounding Seoul up to point known as “Little Idaho” near the 38th parallel, and it is also known as the Fourth Battle of Seoul. It was followed by Operation Courageous which was designed to corral the retreating NK and PVA troops from Seoul between the Han and the Imjin River (north of Seoul). Seoul was officially back in Allied hands between March 14-15, 1951. It almost changed hands again in April, but the Chinese and North Korean offensive did not break through[9].  


The mirrors of Korea


Section VI: A brief view of Seoul in Modern Times (1960-)

I do not intend in the absolute to recapture all of Seoul’s modern transformations following the Korean War but to provide a general view of the city’s changes through the eyes of urban reform, architecture, “koreanization” and Sports in Seoul including the 1986 Asian Games and the 1988 Olympics. We can say that during this time period (which is still undergoing) Seoul was and is subject to the new rising political agenda’s plans for the city, a “modernization progress” process, and the search for identity and retaking of the past not only through the landscape but also through Sports. Inha Jung’s Architecture and Urbanism in Modern Korea tells us that the reconstruction of Seoul and South Korea in general following the Korean War relied heavily on monetary aid from foreign help, and the southern peninsula did not see any booming activity as of yet. However, all that changed when the Military Government took control over South Korea in the 60s, and they pushed the country to develop itself into an export industrial base. This radical change oversaw the much more sudden burst in population in South Korean cities (even more so than during colonial times) particularly the capital Seoul, whose population jumped from 2.24 million in 1960 to 6.88 million in 1975. The housing supply in Seoul was not enough to catch up with these increasing numbers, and the percentage of it dropped to 59.7% in 1985. Illegal housing (approximately 180,000) and shantytowns developed in the outskirts or within the city. Riots broke out because the government could not supply housing for the citizens. Due to this, the military government realized that they needed to undergo a large expansion urban plan that would focus on providing high-density housing to this population via large scale apartment complexes or jipjangsajip (a spec house, a single-family unit built on speculation that a buyer would turn up[10]). This urban reformation would also imply the division of urban space in neighborhood-unit theory models and the expansion of already existing urban demarcation lines. This large expansion urban plan for Seoul, eventually resulted in the construction of 5 new towns around the city[11],  including Ilsan, Jungdong, Bundang, Sanbon and Pyeongchong[12]  In 1989 due to the worse housing shortage ever reported in the city of Seoul (due that the city had 10 million inhabitants in 1988[13]), plans to expand Seoul were drawn in the Dosi Gibon Gyehoek, and in the New Seoul Plan, both commissioned in 1966. The Dosi Gibon Gyehoek envisioned was very much inspired by Sir Patrick Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan from 1944, and involved the division of Seoul into three concentric circles surrounding the historical nucleus of the city in the center, along with four ring roads and thirteen bisecting arteries[14].  The New Seoul Plan, the first theoretical urban scheme devised in Korea, was drawn by Byung-Joo Park and transformed Seoul into a Mugunghwa or rose of Sharon shaped city with individual sites for legislative, judiciary and administrative centers and enough space to hold one million inhabitants within 13,200 ha. The plan echoed Washington D. C’s city structure and Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse[15].  The urban sections and districts of Seoul which include Gangnam[16] (which is subdivided into Seocho, Gangnam, Songpa and Gangdong Gu), Jamsil[17], Yeongdong[18], Sanggye, Mokdong, and Gwacheon[19]  underwent an extensive urban reformation, which included the dividing of them in so called “superblocks”. The superblocks included an outside perimeter of commercial industry while the interior including housing[20].  It is also important to point out that while South Korea was under the military government between the 1960s-1980s, the main concern of the administration was to seek a national identity that mirrored itself in the architecture of Seoul. Historic works were restored in ardent fashion, and the study of traditional architecture was fomented, adding to this, any new public building built had to echo or follow traditional architecture. Any style that even hinted at Japanese architecture was forbidden. Examples of these are the National Folk Museum of Korea in Seoul, the Buyeo Museum in Seoul[21], Sejong Cultural Center, Independence Hall, the Freedom Center, the French Embassy in Seoul based and inspired on the Muryangujeon temple and Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh, and the UN Memorial Cemetery in Busan[22].  When South Korea saw itself rid of the military government and thrust into a democratic system during the late 80s and mid 90s the focus of export industry shifted to one of distribution of economic gains, and therefore the administration sought to renovate the already existing areas of urban centers, restore urban ecology that was destroyed during the 60s and halt the developing of new urban spaces[23].  However, when the new millennium came around, South Korea was thrust into the globalization effect, and urban discourse in the southern half of the peninsula became highly focused on establishing communication lines in urban spaces between different groups and the renovation of existing traditional and historic areas into public spaces and the creation of new ones. Let’s review some of these. In Seoul, empty land was turned into parks, an overhead pass that enclosed Cheonggyecheon stream was opened and converted into a 6-kilometer park. In 2017, an overhead pass park called Seoullo (something similar to New York City’s highline) opened. Seoul’s streets were seen as stages for varied cultural activities and interaction, while the city’s spaces were fomented as arenas that could oversee urban growth and change.[24]  Standing out is the renovating of the Myeongdong cathedral Complex, with the intention of converting it into a massive large public space that would serve as a place for mass gatherings,[25]  and the building of Seonyudo Park on an island on the Han River that used to hold a filtration plant, and the restoring and creation of the traditional market called Namdaemun[26]


The mirrors of Korea


The world famous Namsan Tower was built in 1971. Namsan Tower overlooks the Namsan park which takes up most if not all of Namsan Mountain. Families can go hiking, have a bite to eat at the foot of the tower, visit traditional Korean Houses (Hanok) at the foot of the mountain and couples can hang love locks in many places at the base of the tower. The traditional Gwangjang Market and Namdaemun Market (located surrounding Sungnyemun, one of the old gates of the city) slowly became places filled with traditional food stalls, traditional shops, general shopping of clothes and other goods and Hanbok tailor shops where South Koreans and tourists can experience a fusion of old and modern Korea. Gyeongbokgung Palace began a rebuilding process (that still hasn’t been completed) with the purpose of transforming it back to its original state, and it opened its doors to the public and became popular as a host for national activities. The Government General building that the Japanese had left behind inside the grounds was demolished completely. Even today Gyeongbokgung Palace is closed on Tuesdays for renovation purposes, when I visited they were restoring Hyanwonjeng Pavilion specifically. The renovation work has been careful to use as many authentic materials as possible but at the same time ensure its longevity. The first step in the rebuilding process of the palace began in 1996 and ended in 2010, with a cost of 180 trillion won. The five palaces of the Joseon Dynasty in Seoul were restored an opened to the public.

The mirrors of Korea


The revering of national historic heroes like Admiral Yi Sun-sin (who defeated the Japanese invasion of Korea in the 16th century) and King Sejong (the king from the Joseon Dynasty who created Hangeul) manifested itself in Seoul’s public spaces. Two monuments to each figure arose in Seoul in the famous Gwanghwamun Plaza in front of Gyenongbokgung Palace and the former Kōkamon Boulevard was renamed in King Sejong’s honor. King Sejong was also used as a symbol of national identity and unity, and his coronation ceremony was staged in front of the Hungnye Gate in Seoul every Saturday for two months. When the Gwanghwamun Gate plaza was rebuilt in front of the newly restored and reconstructed Gwanghwa Gate (which is in front of Gyeongbokgung Palace) a 6.7 bust of Sejong was placed, with a museum below of and dedicated to him and to Admiral Yi Sun-sin. [27] I had the opportunity to visit the plaza, and the museum many times during my stay in Seoul, the impression of both figures is deeply awe inspiring. Sports also played a big part in the changing of Seoul’s landscape. In 1986, the Asian Games were staged in Seoul and the Olympics in 1988 [28]. The Korean Annual of 1984 informs us that in 1983, South Korea’s Government created the Ministry of Sports to ensure that the Asian Games of 1986 and the Olympics of 1988 would run smoothly. A gymnasium was added to Seoul’s Taenung Athletic Training Camp.[29]  The Olympic Main Stadium of the Seoul Sports Complex was opened on September 29 of 1984 and was used for both the Asian Games of 1986 and the Olympics of 1988. The inauguration of the 100,000-seat stadium was accompanied by many colorful festivities and programs. The 132,000-square meter stadium (280 meters long and 245 meters wide) took seven years to build at a cost of 49.1 billion won. [30] The Korea Annual of 1987 includes colorful pictures of the 1986 Asian Games, including of the Olympic Stadium, and the whole sports complex around it (which would be used for the 1988 Olympic Games), and the newly build Olympic freeway along the bank of the Han River.[31]  The Annual also includes a whole section dedicated to the sites of the Olympic complex (which includes the stadium, the athletes’ and press village and others) and of the Olympic Games in general. It announces the proposed schedule for the games as published by the Seoul Olympic Organizing Committee and the hoisting of 150 Olympic flags bearing the Seoul games symbol and the mascot; Hodori across and around the City Hall of Seoul. Seoul would also host various festive Olympic games through the newly established “Olympic Week” starting from June 29. It also announces that the Olympic flame will depart Greece and pass through Busan, Gwangju, Gaegu and other cities until finally arriving in Seoul on September 17. The Olympic Complex itself is 291 hectares, with venues for cycling, fencing, tennis and other sports. The Annual also points out that the design of the Olympic Stadium was reminiscent of the Joseon Dynasty porcelain vases. 3.5 kilometers away from the Olympic Park, stands the Seoul Sports Complex, which is connected to the Incheon International Airport by the Olympic freeway/highway. A list of some of the venues constructed in Seoul for the Olympics are the Chamsil Gymnasium, the Student’s Gymnasium, the Chamsil Indoor Swimming Pool, the Chamsil Baseball Stadium, the Tongdaemun Stadium, and the Tennis Center. The Universities in Seoul also held venues for the Olympics, including Seoul National University (SNU, where I took the summer program), Hanyang University and Sun Kyun Kwan University.[32]

The mirrors of Korea


Seoul during the 20th century was a political theater that witnessed first-hand the changes that were occurring in the Korean peninsula and echoed them in return. Changes that still hang in the air above the city and are visible. The landscape of the city and its public spaces became arenas and stages from where change, reformation and struggles, played out in dramatic or subdued fashion. After spending centuries as the capital of the isolated Hermit Kingdom, the city saw its landscape change after Korea was thrust into the imperialist theater of the moment. Electricity and railways ran through the city, streets were widened and European legations rose among the hanok roof tiled houses. Military men with different uniforms who spoke different languages roamed the streets with their arms and white men engaged in political disputes to gain power over trading and economic rights in courts. Seoul saw itself converted into an imperial city after the King proclaimed Korea to be the Great Han Empire, and its spaces were converted into meeting points for the people and into independent proclamation sites. During the colonial period, Seoul was turned into the arena for cementing the nation/empire building process of the Japanese Empire. A radical process of “Japanization” was carried out in public spaces that threatened the loss of Seoul’s identity. Processes that, especially the religious one, would take on a more sinister turn after World War II. After liberation, Seoul witnessed a period of brief confusion, and the city’s landscape was dotted with power struggles, quests to reclaim identity or as foundation ground that legitimized rising politician’s power. During the Korean War, Seoul was contested battleground that was pushed and pulled between the sides of the conflict and that witnessed political bloodbath. After the war Seoul existed in a withheld state of survival, and it wasn’t until the 1960s under the military government that the city began to transform itself again, mostly due to the fact that the new order wished to turn South Korea into an export industry base country. Population in Seoul burst, housing was inadequate and most of the changing landscapes of the city were focused on equalizing these numbers, however the building of public buildings across the city reflected the quest of the government to determine and established what was truly Korean, as a way to search for national identity and eliminate traces of the colonial past. After the military government ended and a democratic political entity took the seat of power, Seoul was seen as a space where different groups of the urban population could come together and participate in cultural activities. Seoul was also seen as the arena from where to venerate national heroes, restore the past and bring it to the future as a solid identity. Sports in Seoul were used as a way to project national identity, progress and insert South Korea in the list of modern countries. Today, when we observe Seoul we can clearly see traces of the city’s multilayered and multifaceted environment, that sprung from all the different periods that Seoul suffered during the 20th century. These changes that sprung might not have been so happy, some were very dark and sinister, while others were deemed as “necessary” or based on “improvement”. Nevertheless, the city that survived and still grows to this day wouldn’t be what it is without all of its moments and scenes that played out amongst her streets. The city’s mirror might have cracks, it might have a few missing pieces, it might even have one solid line coming down right the middle or glue seeping from the polished base holding delicate pieces of glass together, but no matter how damaged Seoul’s mirror might be you can observe if you look closely, and hear if you listen, the strong beating heart of Korea who guards the peninsula’s long, winding and never-ending story. A sound that I gladly received in my own heart during my visit, and a sound that I know I will hear again and invite you to listen for yourself.

The mirrors of Korea


*Special Thanks to my father, my brother and my mother who was brave enough to travel to Seoul with me and fall in love with the city as I did, and my mentor and advisor; Professor Jorge Lizardi Pollock.

(images 2,9 and 2,10)

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Benson, Sonia G. Korean War: Almanac and Primary Sources. The United States of America: UXL, 2002.
Benson, Sonia G. Korean War: Biographies. The United States of America: UXL, 2002.
DiMarco, Luis. Concrete Hell. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2012.
Dudden, Alexis. Japan’s colonization of Korea: Discourse and Power. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2006.
Henry, Todd A. Assimilating Seoul. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.
Holborn, Hajo. A History of Modern Germany 1840-1945. New Jersey: Princeton University Press,     1969.
Hutton, Patrick H. Historical Dictionary of the Third French Republic 1870-1940 M-Z. Westport:     Greenwood Press, 1986.
Jung, Inha. Architecture and Urbanism in Modern Korea. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University     Press, 2013.
Korean Overseas Information Service, Ministry of Culture and Information. A Handbook of Korea. Seoul: Samwha Printing Co., Ltd., 1979.
Kang, Hildi. Under the Black Umbrella: Voice from Colonial Korea, 1910-1945. New York: Cornell University Press, 2001.
Sandler, Stanley. The Korean War: An encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.,1995.
Seth, Michael J. A Concise History of Korea. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.
Spurr, Russel. Enter the Dragon: China’s undeclared war against the U.S. in Korea, 1950-1951.     New York: Newmarket Press, 1988.
Walker, Brett J. A Concise History of Japan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
Yonhap News Agency. Korea Annual 1984. Seoul: Yonhap News Agency, 1984.
Yonhap News Agency. Korea Annual 1986. Seoul: Yonhap News Agency, 1986.
Yonhap News Agency. Korea Annual 1987. Seoul: Yonhap News Agency, 1987.

*All pictures belong to the author: Carolina E. Santiago Álvarez

The mirrors of Korea


[1] Luis DiMarco, Concrete Hell, (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2012), 67-71

[2] Stanley Sandler, The Korean War: An encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.,1995), 314-316.

[3] Sonia G. Benson, Korean War: Almanac and Primary Sources (The United States of America: UXL, 2002), 39.

[4] Luis DiMarco, Concrete Hell, (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2012), 72-80.

[5] Russel Spurr, Enter the Dragon: China’s undeclared war against the U.S. in Korea, 1950-1951 (New York: Newmarket Press, 1988), 275-280.

[6] Ibid, 281-282.

[7] Ibid, 313.

[8] Stanley Sandler, The Korean War: An encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.,1995), 314-316.

[9] Stanley Sandler, The Korean War: An encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.,1995), 314-316.

[10] Inha Jung, Architecture and urbanism in Modern Korea (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2013), 70.

[11] Ibid, 51-52.

[12] Ibid, 56.

[13] Ibid, 68.

[14] Ibid, 53.

[15] Ibid, 57.

[16] Ibid, 55.

[17] Ibid, 60.

[18] Ibid, 62.

[19] Ibid, 67.

[20] Ibid, 62.

[21] Ibid, 83.

[22] Ibid, 85-87.

[23] Ibid, 112.

[24] Ibid, 127.

[25] Ibid, 138.

[26] Ibid, 140.

[27] Todd A. Henry, Assimilating Seoul (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014), 210-215.

[28] Yonhap News Agency, Korea Annual 1984 (Seoul: Yonhap News Agency, 1984), 237.

[29] Ibid, 238-239.

[30] Yonhap News Agency, Korea Annual 1985 (Seoul: Yonhap News Agency, 1985), 215-216.

[31] Yonhap News Agency, Korea Annual 1987 (Seoul: Yonhap News Agency, 1987), 32-36.

[32] Ibid, 62-101.