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If you travel to Asia, you will be hard-pressed to find a city that is as modern, and futuristic as Seoul. Seoul is one of the largest cities in the world and is arguably the cultural capital of all of Asia!
But as awesome as the present (and future) is for Seoul, we are equally fascinated by its past, which is why we wrote this guide of the history of Seoul!
Our guide is written to make the history of Seoul come alive, so you can understand how it came to be. By the end of this list, you’ll see Seoul in a completely different light…
Let’s get right into it!
Table of Contents
Seoul was first established as a city in 18 BC by the Kingdom of Baekje, but there is evidence to suggest that humans occupied the area of Seoul since the Paleolithic Age (aka the Stone Age). Prehistoric remains have been found in Seoul that date to 3000-7000 years ago.
In 18 BC the kingdom of Baekje founded the city of Wiryeseong – which is generally believed to be located where modern-day Seoul is. At the time, the Baekje was one of the three kingdoms of Korea – along with the Goguryeo and Silla.
Being directly on the Han River, Wiryeseong quickly became an important and strategic location, and the three Kingdoms fought over this area for centuries. In 660, the Silla Kingdom defeated the Goguryeo and Baekje kingdoms, gained control of Seoul, and created the United Silla empire.
After 200+ years of ruling a unified Korea, the Sillas were conquered by the Goryeo Kingdom in 935, and King Sukjong decided to build a new palace in the city of Kaesong.
Kaesong is located in current-day North Korea but is located only 30 miles from present-day Seoul. During this time, Seoul grew exponentially in political and cultural significance, becoming one of the most important cities in Korea.
In 1392 General Yi Seong-gye overthrew the Goryeo Kingdom, killed the last three Goryeo Kings, took over as the emperor, and kicked off what would be 500 years of the Joseon Dynasty. Two years later, the capital of the empire was moved from Kaesong to present-day Seoul!
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In 1590 the Japanese feudal lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi set his eyes on conquering China and decided to invade Korea as a stepping stone. And his secret weapon? He had European guns – far superior in technology than what was available in Korea. This advantage enabled the Japanese to invade Korea and gain control of Seoul in only a few months.
But the Koreans fought bravely and through guerilla warfare, and a couple of decisive naval victories, they were able to win back Seoul and push the Japanese completely out of Korea.
Weakened by years of corruption and dealing with constant Japanese and Chinese interference, the Joseon Dynasty ended in 1894.
The transition started when 8,000 Japanese troops took over the Royal Palace in Seoul in 1894, and was completed in 1910 when Korea was officially annexed by Japan and would remain so until the end of World War Two.
Times were tough for Koreans under Japanese rule, and many things changed. But one thing that remained the same was that Seoul was kept as the capital city, but was renamed to Keijo (which literally translates to ‘capital city’).
On January 21st 1919, Japanese Emperor Gwangmu was found dead – many suspected that he was poisoned. Koreans saw this an opportunity and anti-Japanese rallies took place all over the country, including an official declaration of independence reading in Seoul.
Unfortunately for Koreans, the Japanese reaction was swift and harsh. An estimated 50,000 people were arrested and 8,000 people were killed.
But as a silver lining – this incident eventually led the Japanese to re-examine their oppressive policies. Koreans were soon allowed greater freedom of speech and freedom of press, and the Japanese replaced their military police with a civilian force.
After gaining independence from Japanese rule in 1945, things quickly turned in 1950 with the start of the Korean War. In the years from 1950-1953, Seoul was captured 4 times and endured unimaginable destruction.
Frequent bombings destroyed the city, leveling almost 250,000 buildings, and North Korean refugees flooded the city, putting enormous strain on the infrastructure.
Editor’s Note: You might also like to look at our best hotel recommendations in Gangnam.
After the destruction of the Korean War came to an end, Korea was split into two, with Seoul getting its modern name, and becoming the capital city of the Republic of Korea (aka – South Korea).
Over the next few decades, Seoul modernized at a rapid pace, and by the 1970s was nearly completely rebuilt.
Over the course of the next 4 decades, Seoul (and South Korea as a whole) entered a period of rapid economic growth that transformed it from a developing country to one of the world’s largest economies.
This period is referred to as the ‘Miracle on the Han River’ – the river which Seoul is located on.
Seoul has a population of 10 million people, making it the 18th largest city in Asia.
Want another fun population fact? South Korea as a whole has a population of 50 million – this means that 20% of the entire country lives in one city! This is why Seoul is the cultural, economic, and political capital of the Republic of Korea.
Hosting the Olympics for the first time, the hometown country performed surprisingly well in the ’88 Olympics! South Korean athletes performed impressively, coming in 6th place in total medals (33) and 4th place in gold medals (12).
This event was seen as a ‘coming out party’ for South Korea and Seoul to make a name for themselves on the world stage.
The 2002 World Cup was hosted by Japan and Korea. This marked the first World Cup that was held in Asia, as well as the first World Cup that was hosted by two countries, with many of the games played in Seoul.
On June 22nd, the South Korean team accomplished the impossible and beat Spain in quarter-finals on penalty kicks. Three days later, they would play the German’s in Sangam Stadium in Seoul, but the cinderella-story came to an end as the Germans beat South Korea 1-0. So close!
Seoul is one of Asia’s most important and modern cities – and it has been that way for centuries! Seoul really started to grow in the late 1800’s when it opened to the West.
This lead Seoul to develop extremely quickly. In fact, many historians agree that the Korean capital was the first city in the world to simultaneously have public transportation, electricity, clean water, and the telephone!
The Joseon Dynasty took the safety of Seoul very seriously, and in the late 14th century they surrounded the entire city by a large wall. The wall was closed every night and helped fend off foreign attacks, as well as keep the locals safe from thieves, and tigers (true story).
While the walls are no longer up, many of the original gates can still be visited to this day!
While Seoul seems to be a no-brainer to be the South Korean capital, it’s a bit more complicated than that – mostly because it’s located only 35 miles from the border of North Korea and therefore within the range of the North’s artillery guns!
In light of this, there have been attempts to relocate the capital in recent years – most famously to the centrally-located city of Gongju, and most recently to newly created Selong City.
While there has been some momentum to move the capital (some government ministries and agencies have already relocated to Selong City), overall the idea is controversial, and opposing sides are in a deadlock. For now, Seoul remains South Korea’s political center.
K-Pop has taken over Asia, and is one of the most famous genres of music in the entire world. It should be no surprise that many of South Korea’s most beloved K-Pop idols hail from Seoul.
But Seoul is more than just an origin city – much of K-Pop’s music is produced in Seoul, and the location of Def Dance Skool where many K-Pop stars learn to dance.
When you think of the Simpsons and South Park, you think of America, right? Well, guess what… both shows are actually animated and processed in Seoul!
This initially began as a way for American studios to cut costs, but since then Seoul (and most famously ‘AKOM Production Co’) have become the go-to place for quality animations. The Simpsons have been processed in Seoul since the show began in 1989.
While South Korea is a relatively small country (population of around 50 million – 27th largest in the world) it has one of the world’s largest economies (1.6 billion GDP – 12th in the world).
This puts South Korea as Asia’s 3rd largest economy – only behind China and Japan.
Opened in 2001, the Incheon International Airport was ranked the 17th busiest airport in the world last year.
But Incheon not only has a high quantity of flights but also high quality. The airport is extremely clean and modern and boasts a garden, showers, and sauna. Maybe that’s why it was named the world’s BEST airport from 2006-2011.
Started in 1938 as a trading company, Samsung has grown to dominate the electronics market and is one of the most valuable brands in the world.
According to Brand Finance’s annual Global 500 report, Samsung’s brand is worth 94 billion dollars, making it the 5th most valuable brand IN THE WORLD (after Amazon, Google, Apple, and Microsoft). Pretty impressive!
Although breakdancing originated in New York City, Seoul is arguably the current capital of b-boying! It was introduced to South Korea in the mid-’90s, and it has since spread like wildfire.
In fact, South Korea is so good at breakdancing, they have won the international breakdancing competition (called ‘Battle of the Year’) in 2002, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2013 and 2018!
Seoul is a city known for its obsession with beauty, so much that it has become the plastic surgery capital of the world!
Due to such high demand, cosmetic surgery in Seoul is affordable and of the highest quality, and has resulted in an enormous boom of cosmetic-surgery-tourism.
Built in 1971, the Seoul Metro is among the best in the world and boasts 1.9 BILLION riders every year.
The Seoul Metro is often praised for its accessibility (very few stairs), and cleanliness. It’s also quite affordable!
There you have it! The history of Seoul is endlessly fascinating, and helps us understand where the city is today, and where it is headed in the future.
Did we miss any facts about the history of Seoul? What was your favorite fact? Let us know in the comments below!
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Emma Johnson lives to travel! Born in Washington D.C., Emma is a hotel connoisseur and a staff writer at Hotel Jules. An army brat, Emma got the travel bug early and has never been able to stop. Now, she has proudly visited 70+ countries and plans to visit every country in the world! Passionate about her ukelele (obviously) and her family, Emma eventually wants to retire in Thailand and write a book about all of her travel experiences.