Influence of Chaebols on Korean Cities

Everybody, who visits South Korea, will be surprised by the strong presence of certain companies. They are called Chaebol and among them are internationally famous conglomerates like Samsung, Hyundai and LG. It’s almost impossible to imagine that they are active in so many different, totally unrelated business areas if you have never saw it with your own eyes. But how does their power manifests in the urban surroundings in Korea?

Justin D. Stern wrote a master thesis in the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University about this topic. The title of his research is: “Chaebol Urbanism: Diversified Corporate Conglomerates as Agents of Urban Transformation in the Seoul Metropolitan Region“. It’s the first time that someone tried to do a discourse on the influence of chaebols on urbanism.

This description by him explains the issue and result of the study:

In this thesis, I set out to critically assess the connection between chaebols (a type of large-scale, family-owned corporate conglomerate unique to South Korea) and urban development in Seoul.

A relatively small but growing body of scholarship has sought to explain Seoul’s transformation into a sprawling, polynucleated metropolitan region. Although an implicit theme of much of the debate on South Korea’s rapid economic growth relates to the ascendancy of chaebols, such a framework of analysis is absent from the urban development discourse. Further, practically all studies on Korea’s economic development overlook urbanization and the predominance of Seoul as a primate city, instead focusing narrowly on macro-economic and sectoral data. The purpose of this project was to critically assess the ways in which chaebols and the scale of industry in South Korea have factored into Seoul’s contemporary spatial morphology. By grounding this study within a multidisciplinary framework that straddles architecture, urban planning and political economy, it wass possible to demonstrate that the reorganization of the Korean economy implemented by President Park Chung-hee in the early 1960s set in motion a similar reorganization of the country’s dominant urban centers. The underlying hypothesis of the paper suggests that a unique and reciprocal relationship exists between the chaebols and urban development, producing what I refer to as a ‘chaebol urbanism’ marked by distinct urban characteristics, spatial hierarchies, and developmental trajectories. The study revealed that whereas the chaebols once served as a powerful technology of urban development, they have since become an impediment to productive growth.

I also found a presentation about his research. The first topic about special economic zones in China is also very interesting but if you want to jump to the presentation about chaebol urbanism, you can skip to 32:30 (and it ends at 1:06:30, followed by a Q&A with both presenters).

Corporate Urbanism from HKUSSC on Vimeo.

About This Author

<p>Co-Author of Kojects. Interested in Sustainable Transportation, Urbanism and Korea.</p>


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  • I like that the guy who presented on Korea emphasized the need for a paradigm shift in the political economy of the country. He’s absolutely right that worked for Korea in the 1970’s-90’s isn’t working now, and isn’t going to work in the future. If Korea wants to avoid Japan’s fate, it simply must change.

    Luke 3 years ago Reply

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