From hyper-capitals to shadow capitals: an archipelago of Korean capital cities

Valérie Gelézeau 1
1 Centre de Recherches sur la Corée
CCJ - Chine, Corée, Japon
Abstract : This paper discusses how the geographical analysis of Korean capital cities helps to reconsider the Euro-centric notion of the capital as a unique and static territorial center linked to the construction of nation states since the modern era. The existence of many historical capitals is a common phenomenon in many Asian countries and was also the case in pre-modern Europe. But in the Korean peninsula since the middle of the 20th century, the partition in two States (the DPRK and the ROK) and the permanent reconstruction of what I call the Korean “meta-nation” reactivated the plurality and the competition of former and present Korean capitals. As the consequence of national division, a strong competition between Seoul and Pyongyang, the two political capitals, had enormous material consequences upon the urban space and architecture, not only in major public spaces, but also in everyday environments (from transportation to housing). The competition also focused, in each Korean state, on former historical cities that were instrumental to legitimizing present states: Kaesŏng in the North and Kyŏngju in the South are symbolic historical places of a unified pre-modern state in divergent national historiographies. That also had important consequences on heritage policies and planning management in those two historical capitals. Beyond the longue durée analysis, those plural Korean capitals are forming the backbone of contemporary territorial structures. As a matter of fact, macro-regional concentrations in the globalized contemporary economies are not anymore organized on single hubs. Rather, they develop in polycentric urban regions (from megalopolis to urban corridors): for example the multipolar Korean capital region around Seoul, or the bi-polar region formed by Pyongyang and Namp’o. The paper thus argues that the capitals of the Korean “meta-nation” can be viewed as an archipelago of cities, an archipelago which is still in the making. The paper then proposes a typological reading of the « archipelago ». First, two types of capitals are very visible in the Korean geo-history. They are the current State capitals, Pyongyang and Seoul, « hyper-capitals » that concentrate major functions (political, economic, cultural, and symbolic) and that are connected to the global system. Historical capital cities (Kaesŏng and Kyŏngju) that legitimate current Korean States are also very visible in the Korean geo-history, while featuring prominently in the global tourist space as UNESCO listed heritage sites. In addition to the visible capitals, this archipelago of capitals includes numerous « shadow capitals » : they are the historical capitals of former Korean States that were then marginalized in South Korean history (such as Kongju and Puyŏ) ; they are mega-projects under constructions in the South Korean territory (Sejong-si or even Songdo) ; they are the capitals of the Korean diaspora (from New Seoul in Los Angeles to Alma Aty in Kazhakstan) ; finally they are the imagined capitals of a hypothetical future unified Korea. The paper concludes that, as long as the Korean border continues to be in the making, the plurality and competition of capital cities will develop, with important consequences on planning and urban policies at the regional and local scales in both Koreas.
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Valérie Gelézeau. From hyper-capitals to shadow capitals: an archipelago of Korean capital cities. IIAS Newsletters, International Institute for Asian Studies, 2016, Producing & living the city in Vietnam, ⟨http://iias.asia/the-newsletter/article/hyper-capitals⟩. ⟨halshs-01338172⟩

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