South Korea’s economy and culture revolve around Seoul. Nearly all the top colleges and company headquarters are in the city.

In cities around the world, harried urbanites look to the suburbs for more space or a nicer house for their money. But in South Korea, the city apartment is still the dream.

A prospective buyer looks at a rendering of a new apartment complex in Seoul in 2005
A prospective buyer looks at a rendering of a new apartment complex in Seoul in 2005 © Lee Jin-man/AP


The government aimed for these suburban developments not to turn into bedroom communities, Kim says. But so far, that’s what they largely seem to be.

South Korea is smaller by land mass than Iceland, with a high population density. That helped lead to the emergence of a singular urban giant, and in this respect, the country is similar to Hong Kong or Singapore. Korea’s uber-urbanization is great for sustainability: Apartments have been lauded as the most efficient housing option for the expanding global population, while Seoul’s public transportation system is perhaps the world’s best. But unlike the two city-states, South Korea has upwards of 26 million people outside of Seoul and its thriving economy. When it comes to housing, employment, and education opportunities, some say provincial South Koreans practically live in a different country.

It’s challenging to make a better life for yourself without living in Seoul. Seoul alone has all of the resources: white-collar jobs, your children’s half-dozen after-school academies, and the chance to launch a business in a global city. The Korean verb for going to Seoul is ollagada, literally “going up,” as Colin Marshall remarked in The Guardian in 2014. And to leave is naeryeogada, which translates to “going down.”

All of these are reasons why Korean suburbs have little allure for city folk. I noticed as much when I visited a suburb near the mammoth Incheon International Airport with my boyfriend, a native Seoulite. I felt happy at its slower, easier mood—no onslaught of aggressive pedestrians! No cars! A view of the sky and mountains and sea!

He looked nauseated. His eyes were searching for something to do. How about the arcade? Should we grab a coffee?

But the cafes were already closed.