- After rapid, industry-led growth over the past sixty years, the city of Seoul is now focusing on creativity, engagement and citizen happiness
- Its new culture plan, ‘Seoul Culture Vision 2030,’ aims to use cultural participation to tackle broader social issues
- Through the popularity of the ‘Korean Wave,’ Seoul is now exporting its culture to the world
City data: Key facts
Geographical area: 605.2 sq. km
Total population: 10,143,645
Total national population living in the city: 20 %
Education level – with degree level or higher: 36.60 %
GDP (PPP) million: US$ 362,128
Creative industries employment: 9.4 %
Seoul is an ancient city. Two thousand years ago, the capital of the Baekje Kingdom was located in the Seoul area. Seoul has been the capital of Korea since the end of the 14th century.
Yet few cities have experienced such dramatic and rapid changes in the last hundred years as Seoul. It was transformed first by the Japanese colonisation of Korea from 1910–45 and then by the Korean War of 1950–53, whichleft the country divided and Seoul itself in ruins. Yet out of the ashes grew one of the most remarkable economic success stories of the twentieth century. Driven by rapid industrialisation and rural migration, Seoul’s population increased from 2.5 million in 1960 to over 10 million in 1990.
Now Seoul is a megacity, with just under 10 million inhabitants and 25 million in the Seoul Capital Area. Like many world cities it faces the challenge of an ageing population; unusually, the population of the city of Seoul has been shrinking since the early 1990s. For a world city it is unusually homogenous, with around 99% of the population ethnically Korean. However, the number of residents born abroad has more than quintupled since 2000. Seoul now faces the challenge of integrating new migrants amidst concerns about its ‘multicultural transition.’
Much of Seoul’s built cultural heritage was lost in wartime and during its rapid modernisation process. Because of these past losses, the city is particularly conscious of the need to preserve a legacy for the future. Its ‘Future Heritage Project,’ started in 2012, aims to protect sites from the past century that will become part of the city’s built heritage. In addition to this, Seoul has three sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List, with a fourth – the Seoul City Wall – under consideration.
Although rapid industrialisation led to prosperity for Seoul, it also caused major problems for the environment and for quality of life. Now the city is aiming to diversify its economic base through a new focus on design and the creative industries. Its new long-term cultural plan, ‘Seoul Culture Vision 2030,’ focuses on the cultural engagement and happiness of citizens.
Seoul is in the midst of a creative renaissance as its cultural production becomes more a reflection of the contemporary city. Hallyu, or the ‘Korean Wave,’ began to gather force at the beginning of the twenty-first century, partially spurred by government funding of the creative industries in order to cope with the challenge of the twenty-first century cultural economy. Both K-pop and K-dramas have become internationally-known genres, with Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ becoming a global smash hit in 2012. Its hybrid influences are characteristic of modern Seoul culture.
One of the arenas used for Seoul’s 1988 Olympic Games is now being redesigned as a major K-pop concert venue. Another innovative way that K-pop is responding to audience demand is through hologrammatic performances. Several venues in Seoul offer hologrammatic versions of K-pop concerts, less expensive and more intimate than a live concert.
Seoul Metropolitan Government’s Headquarter of Culture is responsible for culture in the city. It operates the Seoul Museum of Art and the Seoul Museum of History, as well as funding affiliated organisations which deal with cultural policy. One of these is the Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture, an arms-length cultural foundation created in 2004.
Festivals are another part of the city’s cultural life supported by the Seoul Metropolitan Government. In order to increase citizen engagement, and to provide seasonal attractions for visitors, it promotes one festival during each season: Seoul Drum Festival, Seoul Culture Night, Seoul Street Arts Festival and Seoul Kimchi Festival.
The Seoul Arts Space programme, launched by Seoul Metropolitan Government in 2009, turns disused former industrial spaces and government buildings into new arts and cultural facilities. The aim for these spaces is to use cultural participation to tackle broader social issues, turning citizens into creators of art rather than simply consumers. For example, SAS Jamsil supports disabled artists, whereas SAS Seongbuk has run projects focusing on healing through art.
Seoul is placing a priority on new cultural infrastructure as a way of encouraging creativity, with several venues having opened in 2016. The Seoul Donhwamun Traditional Theatre, near the historic Changdeokgung Palace complex, is an intimate venue for performances of Korean traditional music. Platform 61 Changdong is a multi-purpose arts centre made up of 61 shipping containers, located in a former industrial area in northeastern Seoul. It is the first phase of Seoul Metropolitan Government’s ‘Program of Creating a New Central Business District in Chang-dong and Sanggye,’ which focuses on the creative industries. Future plans for the area include Seoul Arena Changdong, a 20,000 seat performance venue.
In the twenty-first century Seoul is reinventing itself again, moving from the industrially-led economic miracle of the late twentieth century to a new phase of development. This new phrase focuses on using creativity and culture to create a city which is happy as well as economically prosperous.