The Seoul we know today is a dazzling city of neck-cramping skyscrapers and head-spinning change. It's the capital of a country often held up as the ultimate Asian success story: South Korea's GDP per capita of $32,000 per year ranks its citizens among the richest in the world. It's the pop culture capital of the region, pumping out soap operas enjoyed from Japan to Afghanistan, and K-pop superstars known on every corner of the planet. And, with almost 95 percent of its residents on broadband, it's the most wired city in the world.
Present-day Seoul so exudes frantic modernity -- this is the country that pledged to have a robot in every household by 2020 -- that it's easy to forget how recently its residents were desperately poor. By some estimates, South Korea's GDP per capita in 1960 was just $1,765. Just 40 years ago, the Han River -- now lined with cafes and pedestrian walkways -- was flanked by rice paddies and villages of tiny shacks. The country was just emerging from decades of Japanese colonial rule when the 1950-1953 Korean War reduced practically the entire peninsula to rubble. It was only the industry-promoting, democracy-repressing governments of the 1960s and 1970s that set South Korea on the path toward becoming an economic powerhouse.
For all the benefits economic development has brought, the speed of change has left some Seoul residents feeling a little woozy. The frenetic pace and cramped quarters of the capital can be stressful: South Korea has one of the world's highest suicide rates, and Koreans are famously heavy drinkers. There's a wistful nostalgia among some for the traditional values and sense of community that existed before the boom. Here, in pictures mainly from the 1940s and 1950s (courtesy of the website koreaBANG), Foreign Policy goes back to simpler times, before Seoul was transformed into a booming metropolis.
Courtesy of koreaBANG