Written by Justin Stern, Junior Researcher ’12-13

Anyone who has visited Korea after the 1970s is familiar with the uniform concrete housing blocks that repeat themselves ad infinitum across the country’s landscape. From major cities, such as Seoul and Busan, to the industrial towns of Pohang and Ulsan and even across the countryside in otherwise bucolic villages, apartment towers punctuate Korean cityscapes with a ceaseless regularity, their concrete facades displaying the insignias of the country’s most recognizable corporate conglomerates: Samsung, Hyundai, SK, LG, Lotte, GS and so on.

As a Fulbright junior researcher, I came to Korea to examine some of the elements that have enabled Korea to transform, during a very short period, from a largely rural nation into one of the most urban countries in the world. What has surprised me the most about urbanization in Korea is the role of chaebols (a type of large-scale, diversified and family-owned corporate conglomerate unique to South Korea) in helping to determine the physical form and regional planning of the country’s vast urban network.  Although much of the debate on South Korea’s rapid economic growth has centered on the chaebols, such a framework of analysis is largely absent from the discourse on urban development. To this affect, I ask: How have the chaebols influenced the spatial dynamics of Korea’s cities, ranging from Seoul’s rapid expansion south of the Han River to the predominance of particular architectural typologies like those large-scale concrete apartment blocks, within the capital region and beyond?

Bbali Bbali Urbanization

In the aftermath of the Korean War, roughly one-half of Seoul’s urban landscape was rendered either heavily damaged or completely razed to the ground. At the same time a substantial number of repatriates to the Korean Peninsula and refugees from North Korea adopted South Korean citizenship, many of them choosing to reside in the overburdened capital. In a bid to accelerate development, the dictatorial regime of President Park Chung Hee (1961-1979) diverted domestic and foreign investment and expertise almost exclusively to industrial development, heavy infrastructure and defense. As early as the 1970s, these homegrown policies manifested themselves spatially in the form of sprawling manufacturing centers, vast networks of industrial infrastructure and entirely new cities dominated by factories and apartment towers.

In many regards, the contemporary urban form of Korea’s major cities is representative of this severe, production-oriented approach to development; it is also very much linked to the chaebols–powerful companies such as Samsung and Hyundai, typified by a relatively consistent set of characteristics, including: numerous independently operated firms under a single holding structure, concurrent branding, a business strategy of extensive diversification into unrelated industries and a dynastic management structure overseen by the head of the family. The bbali bbali (loosely translated as “quickly quickly” or “double quick”) expansion of the Korean economy and the government’s interventionist role in regional development trickled down to restructure the physical shape of the country’s major cities and reposition the role, global positioning and design of the Seoul Metropolitan Region.

Chaebol Territories

The privileged relationship between the chaebols and the state, along with their sheer economic diversification, has enabled the largest conglomerates to effectively compress the construction period of major urban projects and, in many cases, single handedly reimagined entire neighborhoods. Perhaps nowhere is the territorial domination of a single chaebol more pronounced than in Lotte’s takeover of Jamsil-dong in southeastern Seoul. First established in Japan by Shin Kyuk Ho, a Japanese citizen of Korean descent, Lotte Corporation (Lotte) has grown in less than 50 years from a small manufacturer of chewing gum to Korea’s fifth-largest chaebol and one of the largest property developers in the country. Since opening as a hotel just days before the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics, what is today known as “Lotte World” has expanded into a dense and interconnected cluster of retail stores, residential towers, entertainment complexes, museums, office space and a hotel.  Today, Lotte continues to reshape the neighborhood with the construction of Lotte World Tower, a 123-floor, 1,824-foot skyscraper, which will be the second tallest building in the world upon completion and will include a Lotte Department Store, Lotte Hotel, Lotte residences, Lotte offices and, at the tower’s pinnacle, the personal art collection of Lotte Chairman and Founder Shin Kyuk Ho. What sets the Jamsil project apart from urban development in other cities, both in Asia and beyond, is the ability of a single company to take a “master builder” approach in which virtually every aspect of project development, from construction to financing and operation, is an in-house affair.

Chaebols also play a principle role in spatial planning outside of the Seoul Metropolitan Area. This phenomena is most pronounced in Ulsan, where Hyundai and SK Group, the second and third largest chaebols respectively, established many of their production-related operations as early as 1962.  A rural fishing village until the 1960s, today Ulsan boasts the highest GDP per capita in Korea. The city is home to the world’s largest assembly plant and shipyard, operated by Hyundai Motor Company and Hyundai Heavy Industries, along with the world’s largest oil refinery, operated by SK Energy. Hyundai alone operates five independent manufacturing facilities with roughly 34,000 employees spread across 1,215 acres. Beyond manufacturing, Hyundai has established a hotel, hospital, department store, community center, art gallery and two professional football teams in Ulsan, all of which bear the company’s iconic brand insignia. Far more than just a “company,” Hyundai has emerged as a determining factor in the social services, urban form and quality of life in Ulsan.

Chaebols Today

Although the Korean government has actively sought foreign direct investment in real estate over the past decade, chaebols continue to play a decisive role in urban development. Beyond Lotte World Tower, examples include Samsung’s role in the redevelopment of Gangnam District, including the construction of three separate skyscrapers, each of which houses the corporate headquarters of one of the chaebol’s largest subsidiaries: Samsung Electronics, Samsung C&T, and Samsung Life Insurance. The company is also planning the 133-story Seoul Lite tower at Seoul Digital Media City in Sangnam-dong, which, if completed, will house the corporate headquarters of LG Construction & LG Telecom; and proposals for a 110-story “automobile themed” supertower near Seoul Forest to house the corporate headquarters and flagship showroom for Hyundai-Kia Automotive Group. In other examples, such as the Doosan Bears baseball team, the centrally located and architecturally iconic corporate headquarters of Hyundai Development, or in the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art or Lotte World Amusement Park, the chaebols continue to infiltrate Korea’s vast urban network and treat the city as a stage on which to construct and reconstruct brand value over time.

This timeline begins to unpack the complex relationship between the city, urban form and the chaebols themselves—a reciprocal interrelation which continues to play a determining role in the shape and quality of urban life in Korea’s cities. The top section of the timeline (page 30 – 31) indicates the top 10 chaebols over time, shedding light on the competition among the largest conglomerates for market dominance, as well as the bankruptcies, acquisitions and restructurings of various companies. The middle section of the timeline includes images of some of the most significant urban interventions undertaken between 1960 and 2010, as well as a chart documenting the rate of population growth in the Seoul Metropolitan Area during the same period. The bottom portion outlines the urban footprint of Seoul over the years.

Although chaebols have not been independently responsible for all of the projects highlighted, they have participated in their development through construction, project financing and political posturing.


Justin D. Stern is a 2012 – 2013 Junior Researcher and a Ph.D. student in Architecture and Urban Planning at Harvard University.