There are not many people who would argue that North Korea will make a comeback and outshine their Southern brethern, but once, this wasn’t the case. During the war, both Koreas were raped, pillaged and flattened by waves of Chinese soldiers or American bombers. The North had more reminents of Japanese industry, the South (except for Seoul) had been used by the Japanese as a rice-basket.
By the early 1960s South Korea was heading the same way as the US backed Banana republics of Central America, or the Banana Republic of Asia, the Philippines. There was little or no industry, life, as the historians like to quote (Mills, I think) “was savage, brutal, and short”. This goes well for the architecture as well. The other night I was flipping through my old Lonely Planet guide for SK with a student, and my student was complaining that all the photos were 50 years old. They weren’t, but they only showed the most rural aspects of the country. If you were to browse the book in a shop, you would get an image of Thailand’s North, or Laos.
South Korean cities, until recently, were much like their Northern counterparts. Filled with awful public buildings and horrific Eastern European apartment blocks. The two countries couldn’t possibly be more different now. In the North there are virtually no cars on the street, and people have even forgotten how to look for traffic, cars are so rare in the countryside. In the South, this isn’t the case. With car ownership reaching North American levels (almost 82% of people, compared to 89% in the US). This causes problems, as Korea is 70% mountainous, there just cannot be enough tunnels or bridges to handle the masses of cars.
The beauty of average Korean cities, on either side of the DMZ leaves a lot to the imagination. Both countries were rushing to build nations, not to build quaint neighbourhoods for strolling around on a Sunday afternoon. The military-industrial complex that Kim Il Sung and Park Jung Hee developed in the 1960s helped create a ‘quantity over quality’ mindset in their respective people. Of course, today nobody in the North has anything, but in the South the ‘Quantity’ mindset is slowly being replaced by the ‘Quality’ one. The endless white towers of the 1990′s and first half of this decade aren’t being built as much. Newer, larger towers (that usually end up painted a shade of white) are springing up around the country. The architects are finally being allowed to build more interesting projects. Space is still at a premium, but the parking lots crowded out with cars are being buried beneath inlaid brick paths and small parks.
The newest generation of Korean apartments are spacious and well designed on the inside, and much more community oriented on the outside. The old ‘domino’ apartments had only space for cars, not for people, but the human is being thought about now, and children play in playgrounds, rather than in carparks in the new complexes.