The Waste Land: Photos from Inside a Ghost Town in Korea’s Capital


Seoul, like most large cities, is in a constant state of construction and demolition. Here’s a look inside one of Korea’s ghost towns, an entire neighbourhood marked for destruction.

The Miracle on the Han River is a term used to describe the rapid economic development of Seoul, Korea’s capital and one of the largest metropolises in the world. The furious pace of Seoul’s growth is seemingly endless, as entire districts are condemned, demolished, and rebuilt as towering mega-apartment cities. These apartment cities are clusters of buildings housing thousands, which is rather necessary when you have a nation built on mountainous terrain with little free land left.

Sea of Apartments

In time, most low rise apartments as seen in the foreground will be replaced by apartment mini-cities as seen in the background.

There’s a bittersweetness to this process. As the standards of living improve, slumlike housing is cleared away for bigger and better places for families to live. Yet at the same time, a lot of the city’s history is paved over in the process. Hanok style housing, Korea’s ancient style of home building with gorgeous woodwork and arched tiling is becoming increasingly rare, replaced instead by steel, glass and concrete high rises.

When I heard about an area of the city that was once such community condemned to being entirely levelled, I had to see it. I grabbed the camera, jumped on the scooter, and began a wander that left me speechless. An area the size of a small town, utterly abandoned, marked to be destroyed. Residents left seemingly quickly–much of their possessions were left where they were in piles of trash on the streets. Children’s pictures hanging on the wall. Appliances strewn about. In one home I ventured into, I found that the keys to the house were still in the drawer by the door.

Here are pictures from the exploration, images that might be the last ones ever produced of these structures or their contents before they are reduced to a dusty pile.

Gate

A mark for demolition, from what I can gather.

A mark for demolition, from what I can gather.

Abandoned Alley

Narrow alleys and winding streets are slowly being replaced by grids and wide roads in, which is a departure from working with the existing terrain. While most of this neighbourhood is on a steep hill, it will likely be levelled before apartments are built.

Everything you can see will be demolished.

Everything you can see will be demolished.

Trashed Hanok

Old Hanok homes are the most heartbreaking casualties of rapid development and modernization. Traditional homes simply take up too much valuable real estate, and now can only be afforded by the very wealthy, though most who can afford it opt for penthouse apartments.

Trashed Hanok 2

What was once a beautiful open-air courtyard is now a trash heap.

Strange to think you might be the last person to see the city from this vantage point.

Strange to think you might be the last person to see the city from this vantage point.

This family left a lot of possessions behind, from CDs to China, and children's artwork.

This family left a lot of possessions behind, from CDs to China, and children’s artwork.

Abandoned Artwork

Apartment Interior

Walking through the neighbourhood, the most striking thing to see were children's toys, a reminder that entire families lived out their histories here.

Walking through the neighbourhood, the most striking thing to see were children’s toys, a reminder that entire families lived out their histories here.

All photos by Michael Johnstone.

4 thoughts on “The Waste Land: Photos from Inside a Ghost Town in Korea’s Capital

  1. Thanks for sharing this story and some amazing pictures! these narrow streets, hanok houses are what the foreigner imaging of small neighbourhoods in seoul, alongside the high-rise buldings, ideas coming from movies and dramas and which sadly will disapeared! i liked this mixture of old and new in this country where you have no choice but sacrifice a bit of the old and historical… shame it might have to be not only a bit but most of it… i’ll have to visit Seoul before it’s too late!!!

    • You’re welcome. It was quite an amazing find…I’ve never seen anything like it. You’ve probably got another decade to visit Seoul before they entirely demolish much of the old city, which is rather sad.

      • Hello! Could you please shine some light on this? Where have the residents gone, were they promised a unit in the would-be built high-rise, or otherwise? It looks almost like an evacuation!

        • As far as I’m aware residents are given a payout from the government, although this is anecdotal and second hand information. I do know that when Gangnam was redeveloped from farmland, the property owners were given quite a large sum of money for their farms. A lot of these homes may have been rentals, and perhaps only those who actually owned properties were compensated. Hard to say. I wish I knew more. It definitely looks as though people left quickly. Sudden wealth? Lack of notice? I don’t know.

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