SEOUL — WHEN reminded that their city is just 30 miles from the border with communist North Korea, people in Seoul sometimes tell this joke: If North Korean tanks ever tried to invade, they would get stuck in Seoul traffic.The joke became popular two years ago when the number of cars on the city's streets suddenly jumped by one-third in a national fit of "me-too" consumerism that caused rush hour to stretch from two hours a day to almost anytime at all. In fact, during last August's thanksgiving holiday, traffic jams were so atrociously long in Seoul that 10 helicopters were used to lift vehicles that had stalled or were smashed up. "The government doesn't want Seoul to be a mega-city," says Chung Jong Hwan, a national transport policymaker, "but the reality is otherwise." While their northern cousins have languished under a Stalinist regime, South Koreans have pushed themselves pell-mell toward the status of a newly industrialized country. Along the way they have raised their nation's capital, phoenix-like, from the ashes of destruction in the 1950-53 Korean War into a world city - but with world-class problems. Just three decades ago, Seoul did not even rank as one of the 25 biggest cities. But by the year 2000, it is expected to be seventh in size with 22 million people in the metropolitan area, or 45 percent of the nation's population. By then, Seoul could also be on its second boom as the capital of a reunified Korea, or so officials in the South hope. History hangs over Seoul's features much like the 770-foot observation tower that now dominates South Mountain, the city's main peak. For most of this century, Seoul has been shaped or unshaped by the Japanese occupation, the Korean War, the presence of the United States military, a long dictatorship, and rapid economic growth. The modern capital region is now home to 14 million people, with an estimated 500 more added each day. Seoul is one of the most densely populated places on the planet, with 137 people per acre. "We have been busy pursuing a single most important goal: economic development. The consequence has been a lack of planning," says Kang Hong Bin, the city's policy and planning director. "But by and large, the city is not in too bad a shape," he adds. Compared to most mega-cities, Seoul has done well in moderating its growth, mainly because of the national government's efforts to distribute industrial investment, develop "satellite" cities, and keep basic services from falling off. About half of all manufacturing jobs are in the Seoul area and city incomes are about 30 percent higher than the national average, but these are not considered wide disparities by third-world standards. The vestiges of urban poverty - such as beggar children on the street - have slowly disappeared. Common laborers can make about $50 a day. A welder or greengrocer has been able to afford a car recently. "Seoul is a relatively better mega-city," says Choe Sang Chuel, an urban planning professor at Seoul National University.
Rapid expansion At its fastest rise during the late 1960s, the city's population went up almost 10 percent a year. And until 1975, Seoul proper grew faster than its suburbs. But in the last 15 years, the rates have reversed and the surrounding provinces are now expanding more rapidly. By hosting the Asian Games in 1986 and the Olympics in 1988, the city's population growth temporarily revived. After that, however, downtown Seoul began to lose its appeal and its affordability as a residential area. The city registered the first net out-migration in 1990 as people moved to avoid congestion, pollution, and rising costs. In the late 1980s, national economic growth ripped along at 10 to 12 percent a year, bringing a boom in wealth for some, a strong resentment among the rest. The flaunting of new opulence violated a Confucian ethic against the kind of conspicuous consumption that divides society. "Land ownership in Seoul is strongly skewed to the extent that about 72 percent of households do not own a piece of land," says Dr. Choe. The fact that the top 10 percent of people in Seoul own two-thirds of the land is threatening the social fabric of Korea, he says. The government took steps in 1990 to curb rampant land speculation, placing a tax on unused land and a cap on the size of residential lots. It also ordered that 2 million new apartments be built in so-called "bed towns" on the city's outskirts. Still, the ratio of households to the number of apartments and homes is only about 50 percent, causing a "housing deficit" that has contributed to a tripling of apartment prices in four years, with some going for $250,000 or more. Land prices have become so high that the government now finds it cheaper to put new roads and shopping malls underground, rather than buy land on the surface. Underground shopping is also popular when Siberian winds hit Korea. The government also has had to deal with another inequity: Seoul south of the sinuous Han River has become trendy, modern, and high-rise, while the northern part is run-down and socially less desirable since its growth is constrained by hills. Until 1970, land south of the Han was mainly used to grow vegetables. But then Yoido, an islet in the river, was made into a mini-city with the stock exchange, the National Assembly, and a 63-story life insurance building.
Unequal growth At last count, 19 bridges crossed over the Han to reach the many new apartment blocks in the south. The government encouraged elite schools to move south, which drew away families seeking the best education for their children. The grounds for the Olympics were also put on the southern banks. "There are strong political pressures to upgrade services in the north," says Mr. Kang. One solution is a government mandate to preserve historic homes in certain northern areas. A US Army base, including a golf course, is also being handed over for use by the city. And part of South Mountain is being restored to its original beauty. Growth has been skewed somewhat by the imposition of a "greenbelt," introduced in 1971 aimed at preserving a ring of natural habitat about 10 miles outside the city center. While the greenbelt has been seen as a worthwhile idea, it has concentrated development, like a tight belt on a fat man. "You can't control your weight with a belt, and Seoul is getting fatter and fatter. The greenbelt is actually distorting the city's growth," says Choe. But Seoul's new wealth has also created a new pride for Koreans. World prices for antique Korean art have soared as the newly rich buy back pieces taken abroad. Last year, Sotheby's auction house opened an office in Seoul. "In the minds of many people," concludes Kang, "we are entering a new era of the city's history where we can chart a vision for urban culture as a source of revitalization."