Seoul Is on the Bumpy Road to Modernity


Seoul is a crowded place, which explains all those signs advertising "rooms" of every kind.

There are "song rooms," "video rooms," "comic-book rooms"--even "sleeping rooms" where harried businessmen can take a nap in a box barely bigger than a coffin.

Gazing at this vast expanse of concrete, the broad boulevards, expressways and skyscrapers, it's hard to imagine that only 50 years ago the capital was flattened in the Korean War and changed hands four times between Western and communist armies.

An old saying says a newborn horse should go to Cheju Island, home of Korean horse breeding, but a newborn man should go to Seoul. An awful lot of men and women have followed that advice.

Seoul had fewer than 1 million people during the Korean War. Now it has 10 million. That's a million less than eight years ago, because the government has encouraged population dispersal. But the 607-year-old capital and its bedroom communities now have 17 million inhabitants--37% of the population on 1.2% of the land.

Seoul's growth is typical of cities in the Asia-Pacific region, 46% of whose population will be urbanized by 2020, according to a report written for Habitat II, the special U.N. session on the state of the world's cities earlier this month.

Living in Seoul isn't easy. People gripe about overpriced housing, traffic jams, constant political protests, crime, pollution, bad manners and a string of tragedies caused by bad construction during the nation's rush to economic growth.

In 1994 a bridge across Seoul's Han River collapsed, killing 32 people, many of them schoolchildren on a commuting bus. That year, 13 people were killed and 150 others made homeless when an underground gas tank exploded.

In 1995, Seoul's ritzy five-story Sampoong department store collapsed like a stack of pancakes, killing 501 people.

The mall's owner was sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison for negligence. Twelve city officials went to jail for up to three years for receiving bribes to approve illegal design changes and slipshod construction.

The disasters led to national soul-searching about the human price of economic development, and authorities have tightened building standards and safety regulations, but hazards persist. In March a two-story burning building collapsed and six firefighters died while colleagues struggled to bring in rescue equipment through an alley congested with illegally parked cars.

Traffic remains a constant ordeal, with 27 million people on the road each day. Each day 2,000 new drivers are licensed, 10 times more than a decade ago. And each day 270 new cars join the traffic.

Bad driving has spawned a cottage industry of "hidden-camera men" who make a living photographing violators and reporting them to police for 3,000 won ($2.30) a picture.

Seoul people are a tough breed, exemplified by a woman who was buried in the rubble of the department store and survived for 16 days, drinking rainwater.

And they complain. A lot. Just ask Lee Yoon-jong, one of Seoul's 700 telephone directory assistants. Their work entails not just giving numbers but soothing frustrated citizens.

"Seoul citizens are very sensitive to news. When they see bad news on television, they call us demanding the president's direct number. When the national soccer team loses, they demand the head coach's number," she says.

"The numbers are not registered, and they curse me as if it's my fault that the team lost the match."

Seoul's phone book, by the way, lists 2.5 million names, 190 of whom are Kim Dae-jung, including South Korea's president. The book gives the number of the Blue House, his official mansion.

And yet for all the complaining, pushing and fighting over parking spaces, Seoul people tend to be friendly, straightforward and helpful to strangers. The streets are relatively safe. And the gray modernity is leavened by hidden gardens, Buddhist shrines in the shadow of skyscrapers, women wearing rich, flowing dresses on national days, and cherry trees that burst into majestic bloom even before the last winter snow has melted.

Color of a more contemporary nature is provided by Seoul's hordes of affluent kids driving expensive cars and dropping fortunes at nightclubs, much to the dismay of the older generation, which has dubbed them "the orange tribe"--supposedly because of their taste in hair dye.

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