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



Cities and their public spaces are the mirrors of their nations. Take for example European cities like Paris, and Rome. Their multilayered facets and landscape paint a real reflection of their imaginary nation. Seoul, the capital city of South Korea and its public spaces are also the arenas and theaters from where Korea as a whole is mirrored to the world. I (and my mother) had the opportunity to reside in Seoul during the summer of 2019 because I had the honor of attending a 3-week intensive language program at Seoul National University (SNU). I quickly fell in love with the city piece by piece. Every street and every corner offers an exciting new adventure and its public spaces filled my eyes with wonder. Public Spaces such as; the traditional markets of Gwangjang and Namdaemun to the palaces of Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung, to the monuments of King Sejong and Admiral Yi Sun Sin that watch over Gwanghwamun Plaza, and the world famous Namsan Tower, all of them filled me with a sense of belonging and inclusion in Korean History, Tradition and Culture and left a lasting deep impression in my soul. Public spaces, as we know them today by their western outlook, began appearing during the French Revolution in Paris. Open spaces, parks and streets were used by the French in order to become French, during the rise and fall of the Republic, the Reign of Terror and during the Second French Empire where Baron Haussmann rebuilt Paris. After this, public spaces in cities were also used by other European nations like Rome in Italy under Mussolini and the two Berlins after World War II, in order to convert the people into people of the nation. I understand that it is a delicate situation comparing Seoul to the European cities whom mirror their own nations. Edward Said in Orientalism, makes it very clear that the oriental world must not be understood or comprehended as western. However, it cannot be ignored that Seoul, much like European Cities was fundamentally present in constructing the Korean nation as we know it. This being said, I would like to point out that it followed its own pattern and its own panorama, quite different from the western example. Academically, western cities and public spaces are observed and studied more than Asian cities. Due to lack of popular interest, fear of implementing Orientalism or the sheer amount of overwhelming information that surrounds Asia. Likewise, I believe that Asian cities and their public spaces, deserve more than our current attention. For Seoul and its public spaces, like them, are also mirrors of their nation. 

The city of Seoul and its public spaces during the 20th century, were political theaters that witnessed first-hand the changes that were occurring in the Korean peninsula and echoed them in return. The landscape of the city and its public spaces became arenas and stages from where change, reformation and struggles, whether wrong or right, played out in dramatic or subdued fashion. This short research will present just how much from Seoul’s time as a colonial city under the Imperialist Theater, to after the Korean War. Section I; discusses how Seoul was torn up in hunger by the Imperialist Powers. Section II analyzes Seoul’s participation during the colonial period of Korea under the Japanese Empire. Section III presents the short period before the Cold War where Seoul witnessed confusion and detachment. Section IV discusses how Seoul suffered from being torn apart and juggled back and forth. Finally, Section V, discusses how Seoul developed in the modern world just like a multifaceted and multilayered city would. 

Left photo: The Monument to King Sejong and the entrance tothe King Sejong and Admiral Yi Sun Sin Museum inGwanghwamun Plaza
Right photo: The Monument to Admiral Yi Sun Sin in Gwanghwamun Plaza.


Seoul has had many names throughout Korea’s past, and each corresponds to different periods in its history as it was ruled by different dynasties or kingdoms.  During prehistoric times, Seoul was a village established on the Han River. After a while came the Three Kingdoms Period, in which the kingdoms of Goguryeo, Baekche and Silla ruled over the peninsula. During this period, Seoul was named Wiryeseong. At first, it fell under Baekche and served as its capital. Later on, Goguryeo took control of the territory and of the city. Silla however, absorbed both her neighbors and Seoul was named Hanyang and remained an important center, fortress and a small capital city on the Han River. Next came the Goryeo Dynasty, who unified the peninsula, and renamed the city Namgyeong . It served as the southern capital, and flourished as a political center with its own summer palace.  During the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), Seoul was renamed Hanyang and served as the capital for almost 600 years. Joseon’s first king, Yi Song-gye rebuilt Hanyang and incorporated an oval wall surrounding the whole city with four gates corresponding to each cardinal point. He also built the main great palace of the Joseon Dynasty; Gyeongbokgung. Hanyang became a strong political center with a dense population by the 17th century.  

Gwanghwamun Gate, the main entrance to Gyeongbokgung Palace as seen from Gwanghwamun Plaza.

Left photo: Me and my mother dressed in Hanbok and the Throne Hall of Gyeongbokgung Palace.
Right photo: The Throne Room and the throne of Gyeonbokgung Palace, the main seat of power of the Joseon Wang..


Section I:

Seoul in the Imperialist Theater (1840-1905). During 1840-1905, Seoul and her spaces were the centers from where China, Japan, Russia, the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany and Korea’s own Joseon Dynasty carried out their colorful imperial interests that mirrored their intentions on Korea. Seoul was used during this time period as a stamping ground from where power could be exerted upon Korea. The western powers along with Japan did so by pushing a rapid modernization and changing of social, economic and political aspects and appropriating themselves of it, while China tried to seize Seoul and Korea to integrate the country once again as a vassal state. Joseon used Seoul and her public spaces in a failed attempt to proclaim itself an independent Empire as a way to break tradition and fight against the imperialist western agenda. Seoul is the face in the Korea’s mirror and this is where she first takes on her façade.  Russia, the United States, Great Britain, France and Germany tried their best to force Korea to open up its shores for trade, and many times through Seoul. For example, France sent a letter to the King in the Seoul court asking about trade, while a German Merchant called Ernest Oppert sailed to Korea in order to steal the body of the King’s grandfather (which was buried in Seoul) to use it to force the royal court to open trade. The United States made an attempt by sending to Kangwha island (an island near Seoul) 1,200 men and 5 ships demanding the Seoul court to explain what had happened to the U.S.S General Sherman, a ship that had been previously sent to open trade and that the Koreans had burned and sank. Meiji Japan was successful with another aggressive attempt carried out from Kangwha island in 1875, and the Treaty of Kangwha was signed. This increased Japan’s power in Korea and China, jealous that her long accustomed vassal state was in Japan’s hands, began intervening more in Seoul, where Japan had a tight grip. Tensions built between them, and fighting broke up in the streets of Seoul which ultimately led to the first Sino-Japanese War, of which Japan resulted victorious. The rest of the western powers took an interest in checking the island empire’s power and became more involved in Korea and Seoul. Seoul suddenly became filled with European white men who did not only arrive for political reasons, but also to establish their own businesses, and to live in. They also started controlling every “modern” aspect of Seoul, with the trains being financed, built and controlled by the United States, Russia and Japan. Buildings were built with western facets, such as the embassies and legations of the different countries. It even went so far that Russia (who grew extremely close with the crown) built an underground passageway connecting Gyeongbokgung Palace to the Russian Legation.  The landscape of the city was changing and not necessarily because Seoul wanted to. After the assassination of the Queen at the hands of the Japanese, King Gojong ruled from the Russian legation and decided to fight back the tearing apart of the city by imposing his own measures in the landscape. Two years after her death, King Kojong proclaimed a new Empire, the Korean Empire, and made himself Emperor. Seoul became Hwangseong  , an imperial city. It is important to point out that he did so in a more or less desperate attempt of cleaning and shaping Seoul to project that Korea was capable of taking care of herself and building, in a certain way, “nationalist symbols” that were meant to legitimize Joseon’s role in history and her history as well.  Hwangseong, was cleaned, its streets widened and electrified and filled with railway cars. An American, James Morse, was responsible for building a railway that led from Hwangseong to Incheon. The city was being modernized, and not only that, but its public spaces were changing as well. One of the gates of the city, the Yeongeunmun Gate, which was the gate that the Chinese used to enter Korea, was replaced with a newly built Independence Gate, to symbolize Korea’s position as an independent Empire. The gate was used for later rallies of the newly formed Independence club, who also funded the creation of the gate.  The China Adoration Hall, was proclaimed to be the Independence Hall, and held debates every Sunday on Joseon national affairs.  Seoul was soon ringing with telephones, typewriters, and telegraphs.  It seemed that Seoul would rise and triumph as the capital of the Empire, but  after Japan took control of Gyeonbokgung Palace in Seoul, the trumpets of the Russo-Japanese war, the turning of Korea into a protectorate and later colony under Japan, left Seoul in the hands of a colonial, imperial and nationalist regime.  

Section II:

Seoul during the colonial period (1910-1945). Seoul’s role and that of her public spaces during the colonial era were the seat of colonial power from whence Japan could carry out a process of nation/empire building using assimilation that mirrored and extended through Korea. Japan erased all traces of Hangeul (Korea’s own unique highly scientific and efficient writing system developed by King Sejong in the early Joseon Dynasty, a writing system that Korea is very proud of), forced the use of the Japanese language and removed all Korean names from streets, places, and Seoul itself (the city was renamed Keijō). Japan forbade Korean religion and established the Shinto shrines and the Japanese Emperor as a deity. They built Japan’s Government Building in front of the Throne Hall in Gyeongbokgung Palace, from where Joseon Wang (kings) had ruled, overshadowing it completely. We can see how Seoul’s public spaces played out in the colonial period through Todd A. Henry’s work: Assimilating Seoul. In a general overview, he states that Keijō became the Japanese Empire’s showcase city, and that its public spaces were written for establishing Japanese rule and control. Keijō’s infrastructure, shrines and palaces became targets and contact zones for Japanese rule. In order to convert Keijō into a showcase city for the Empire, it had to be redesigned. The colonial government tried to remake the skeletal and aesthetic frames of the city and clean the city’s main arteries. The transformation of the city began with the reconstructing or repurposing its palaces. Changgong Palace was turned into a royal empire museum and zoo, the Kyong’un Palace housed a western art style museum, Gyeongbokgung Palace was turned into the Government General Building while the sacred Ring Hall altar was converted into the Chosen Hotel. The Resident Governor General’s building was built in front of the Throne Hall of Gyeongbokgung Palace, in front of this palace, a new plaza was constructed: Kōgane-machi and a new boulevard: Taihei. Kōgane-machi and Taihei had the purpose of connecting the Japanese resident centers in Keijō to the main commercial area. The Japanese resident centers were to the south of Keijō, across the Han river, while most of the native Koreans lived in the north. The Taihei was extended southward and a bridge was built in 1917 for the benefit of the Japanese, but little to nothing was done to improve the conditions of the northern section of the city were the Koreans lived. Out of the 42 new roads that Japan planned to build, only 15 were done, all with interlocking system of centers which privileged the Japanese residents. They used France and Germany as antecedents. In Tokyo, the Urban Research Association was formed as well as the Urban Planning Research Association and the Keijō City Planning Research Association. In order to accomplish their plans, an enormous land readjustment was done, people were torn from their homes, lands were re-divided and parks were uprooted from the ground, all to create organized blocks. On top of Namsan Mountain in southern Seoul they built an elaborate Shinto Complex with two Shinto Shrines; the Seoul Shrine and the Korea Shrine. This is very important, for Namsan Mountain was and is considered sacred by the Korean people. From 1931 onwards there was an annual Shinto procession revolving around the two shrines. Schools had to bring their students to the shrines and they had to bow down to the goddess Amaterasu and to the Emperor of Japan. During the Second World War colonialism period in Seoul (1938-1945) the use of public spaces for religious assimilation cut deeper. Japan during War time colonialism, wanted to rule Koreans and Japans as one body, as one people. Which automatically implied turning them into “one people”, and “one nation”. Mi religión es su religión. My religion is your religion. Therefore, since you worship my emperor, my deities, and practice my religion you are one of my people (this is part of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities ). Take for example, the Sacred Torch Relay. In the Sacred Torch Relay 56 children, out of which 41 were Korean and the rest Japanese, carried a torch flame from Ise Shrine in Japan to Korea Shrine on top on Namsan in Seoul.   

Public Spaces were also used to create displays of modernization and the Empire’s benefits to Korea. Three of these displays that played out in Seoul were the Keijō Exhibition of 1907, the Exhibition of 1915, and the Korea Exposition of 1929. All of them had two purposes; to expose the full range of the colony’s economic development and present the participation of Koreans as subordinated subjects. The Keijō Exhibition of 1907 took place on Kōgane-machi Avenue. Its exhibitions favored heavily on the Japanese settlers, as it had only 23 Korean displays and the participation of 160 Japanese merchants. The Exhibition of 1915 took place on Emperor Meiji’s birthday at the grounds of the Gyeongbokgung Palace. Japanese flags and martial arts performances dotted the hallways, displays of Japanese superiority over backward Korea were present everywhere. The Japanese destroyed 123 palace buildings and presented them to the crowds as ruins and made a spectacle of the new buildings, modeled after western architecture they had constructed for the Exhibition. The Korean past was closed, while the Japanese industrial future was open. Promotional posters for the exhibition were many, and schools were “invited” to attend. The Korea Exposition of 1929 took place in the finished Administration Complex built in 1925 built inside Gyeongbokgung Palace. It focused on showcasing 20 years of colonial “progress” and on promoting the industrial education of the population. The Japanese invited important Tokyo officials so they could see the products made by the colony’s industries and encouraged Japanese entrepreneurs to invest in Korea. 

During the Second World War, Seoul’s population increased from 375,000 in 1936 to 1.1 million in 1942, due to the fact that suburban areas of Seoul were incorporated into the city. Seoul also saw more transformations and events play out due to wartime mobilization. In 1940, a great birthday celebration was held to commemorate the Japanese Empire’s 26,000 year and 11,000 events were carried out to celebrate this birthday. One of the events was the Great Keijō exposition, held in a suburban location inside Seoul. The most impressive site of the exhibition, was a tower mimicked after the Miyazaki Tower in Kyūshū (where supposedly Amaterasu’s grandson Ninigi, the ancestor of Japan’s imperial line descended from). The Miyazaki tower was meant to “unify the eight corners of the world” (including Korea) under Japan. Also present were dioramas presenting the reconstruction of the ancient city of Puyo (the last capital of ancient Baekche in Korea) as a Shinto city. A war memorial was also part of the exhibition, were items of deceased Japanese soldiers who had fought in the invasion of China and the second Sino-Japanese War were put on display. Such items were weapons and bloodstained uniforms. Also included in the exposition was the Military Rationing Hall and the Outdoor Display of Military Weaponry. In the first one, charts were used to explain the superiority of Japanese food rations in China during the war compared to the low-quality food of their western enemies. In the second, a great show of Japanese weaponry of tanks, aircrafts and cannons was put on display, along with lectures given out to mandatory schoolchildren visits. The 1941 festival in Seoul, included a new dance that payed homage to the three Japanese Imperial symbols: the sword, the mirror and the jewel, and a warrior procession.  Namsan became the center of war time colonialism and mobilization. This peak hosted 500 military organizations. The Government General created the Domestic Affairs Bureau in Seoul in order to support the building of Seoul Nation- Protection Shrine on Namsan, which was dedicated to entertaining memorial services for all the fallen soldiers. The building, which began in 1940, was carried out by military personnel, sixty thousand students and members of neighborhood associations for three years. The opening ceremony in 1943 invited the surviving families from all over the peninsula on a complete expense paid trip of the 549 fallen Korean men installed in the shrine and elevated them to national heroes. In 1939, Namsan became the home of a seventeen-meter imperial subject oath tower, which was constructed by “schoolchildren donations”. The tower had 1.4 million copies of the oath written by Koreans, as a sign of “their loyalty”.  The oath, established in Hildi Kang’s Under the Black Umbrella, says: “We are the subjects of the great empire of Japan. We shall serve the emperor with united hearts. We shall endure hardships and train ourselves to become good and strong subjects of the Emperor.” 

Section IV:

Seoul during the Intermediate Era (1945-1950). We now reach the second half of the 20th century. Korea was free of its colonial chains in August 15, 1945 after Japan surrendered unconditionally and the peninsula was plunged into a period of uncertainty. Nevertheless, one fact remained certain; that Seoul was Seoul. In other words, that the political entity that Seoul had been, and was, was still very well understood.  Even if the 38th parallel separating North and South Korea was drawn arbitrarily by the US forces after the Soviet Union began penetrating the peninsula at the end of WWII, Seoul was purposely kept in the South. The U.S military forces and later the USAMGIK stationed themselves in Seoul in order to assume control in the South. The exiled Korean government along with future president and exiled nationalist Syngman Rhee purposely arrived in Seoul after the War was over. The multiple political parties created in Korea, all had their headquarters in Seoul, even those political parties created in North Korea. The Soviet Army and the communists in North Korea, sought to turn Pyongyang into a mirror of Seoul. Also as an interesting fact, Seoul was written as the official capital city in North Korea, not Pyongyang. The United Nations established their little assembly and their commission in Seoul. It was also in Seoul that the American-Soviet commission formed by the United Nations met to solve the division problem. It is in Seoul that a National Assembly and a President is established and it is from where they exercise their power. Thus, among all the chaos, the only entity that remained solid was Seoul itself. 

The physical changes that the city underwent are due to the rise of Syngman Rhee as the first president of South Korea and the flourishing of nationalist sentiment in the newly established South Korea. Todd A. Henry in Assimilating Seoul, tells us that immediately after Korea became independent, the remaking of Seoul quickly began. This process started with none other than the complete elimination of the Shinto shrines on top of Namsan Mountain. However, this wasn’t by angry Koreans mobs, it was done by the Shinto Priests themselves, who were worried that Koreans would tear down the temple, as demonstrations in the streets built up against the shrines and burning of them was promulgated throughout the city. In place of the shrines on Namsan, a Korean music school stood for a while. Namsan also became the home of anti-colonialism, anti-Japanese and national monuments. For example, memorials to An Chung-gun (a Korean independent activist who killed the Japanese Governor-General Itō) sat on top of the mountain. Syngman Rhee, in a similar agenda to Napoleon Bonaparte, sought to place himself in history, and he unveiled an 80-foot statue of himself to celebrate his eightieth birthday in Seoul. Coincidentally the opening ceremony of this statue ran parallel to the celebrations of National Foundation Day (October 3th) and Liberation Day (August 15th).  Another of Seoul’s contested spaces and problems was the Government-General Building smacked right in front of Gyeongbokgung’s Throne Hall. The building was an eyesore, but removing it was incredibly costly. Debates also circulated on whether to destroy it or not. For some destroying the building could mean a setback in restoring the whole of Seoul, while others argued that eliminating it meant eliminating all the other Japanese buildings built during colonial times, which was (according to critics) quite unwise when the buildings could be used and repurposed for creating own Korean (South Korean now) national sentiment. Nevertheless, the Government-General building was converted into Seoul’s Capitol Hall from where Syngman Rhee and South Korea’s following leaders till 1986 governed. Gyeonbokgung Palace, which revolved around this new Capitol Hall was now turned into a space to advocate and celebrate nationalist activities. It was here that the first-year anniversary of South Korea’s constitution was celebrated, as well as yearly festivities revolving around Liberation Day and National Foundation Day. Echoing the exhibitions held by the Japanese during colonial times, these festivities included cultural and traditional activities. 

Panmunjeom, the site where the two Koreas meet, looking toward North Korea.


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