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Chaebol Urbanism Graphic


Justin Stern, MUP 2012

Project Title 

Chaebol Urbanism: Diversified Corporate Conglomerates as Agents of Urban Transformation in the Seoul Metropolitan Region


Rahul Mehrotra



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.

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