Songdo: No Man's City

Ian James
Ian James

If one were to crown the most bizarre city in South Korea, many users on r/korea would undoubtedly pick Songdo. Officially known as the Songdo International Business District, this 40 billion USD project is promoted as a smart, green, low-carbon city a fifteen-minute drive and a short flight away from a third of the world’s population.

Little do people realize that the city is far from just about everything else. Songdo is part of Incheon, and to get to the former you have to go through the latter if you’re not coming from the airport. From Seoul I took the subway, which crawled past enormous apartment buildings for what felt like more than an hour. I found myself wondering what Douglas MacArthur — the nuke-loving American general who surprised the invading Korean People’s Army here seventy years ago — would say if he could see what this village of brick and tile had become.

It was all too much for me, or at least for my stomach. By the time my map app was telling me I was in Songdo I was about to collapse from starvation. I staggered out of the subway into the dark gray empty station and wandered South Korea’s usual labyrinthine hallways, stairwells, and escalators echoing with electronic voices until I emerged in the middle of… nowhere.

Aside from a gigantic empty convention center of some sort I was surrounded by miles of open space, at the edge of which Songdo’s glass steel skyscrapers rose into the distant haze.

Not a single halmoni (grandmother) sold fruit or vegetables spread out on sidewalk tarps, and no stalls hawked eight-hour-old skewered fishcakes steaming in creamy water. No poker-visored women rode motorized yogurt refrigerators. There were no pork barbecue joints, either — there was really no one and no thing but myself and the earth reclaimed from the Yellow Sea.

The city was silent and post-apocalyptic, which already made the trip worthwhile. How many of you, after all, can say that you’ve traveled to an empty metropolis? Future South Korean zombie movies could film here without having to worry about anyone getting in the way. It was almost as awe-inspiring as discovering a city of gigantic 2001: A Space Odyssey-esque monoliths, though the comparison falls apart: Consider that, unlike Arthur C. Clarke’s creations, which contain the indistinguishable-from-magical power to turn animals into sentient beings, Songdo’s vast and seemingly empty structures only have the power to reduce sentient beings into insects.

Cradling my empty stomach, I lurched toward the skyscrapers, reasoning that there must be people working inside, and that they must have to eat sometimes. I must have walked for half an hour, moving as quickly as I could go without breaking into a run.

Not once did I have to play a game of sidestep chicken with a gaggle of senior citizens. There were no cars parked on the sidewalk, and no motorbikes, and not really many people, either. This lack of mayhem created an eerily comfortable experience as a pedestrian in South Korea, a nation which often strikes me as designed for the convenience of automobiles rather than human beings.

I still had some ways to go before finding food. 40 percent of this city is reserved for green space (about double that of New York City), which meant that, soon enough, I crossed a park of dirt and grass. Here and there were trees propped up on wood stilts, as well as a building which looked like a Buddhist temple. The park surrounded an artificial lake or river, where a few people were paddling in duck boats, while others were riding double bikes on the dirt paths. My stomach, by then, was ready to climb out of my body and abandon me.

Only then did I reach the fabled dizzying skyscrapers, which offered no sign of even a single restaurant, but eventually I found a more normal assertion of twenty-first century South Korea: a gray cement block of small businesses. On the first floor was a Vietnamese dumpling place, nearly empty, where the young staff greeted me, the odd foreigner, as though I was covered with Yakuza tattoos.

The International Business District indeed.

It may sound ridiculous now, but only a few years ago the city was envisioned as a “global center” to rival Singapore or Hong Kong, a place where “foreigners would rent the buildings”—presumably after gaining a mystical understanding of South Korea’s idiosyncratic real estate market. The city’s Wikipedia page notes that a small number of Japanese people shaken up by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake have taken up residence here, though the Korean-language Yonhap News article it cites says that only four Japanese actually made the move.

More to the delight of local real estate agents, a number of South Korean celebrities are believed to have moved here, helping to attract other domestic buyers.

I can’t help thinking of all the time, money, and energy that would have been saved had the city never been constructed to begin with.

According to this liberal arts major’s math skills, if I take 40 billion USD that the city has cost and divide it by six and a half million — the population of Korea’s elderly, which is overwhelmingly mired in poverty — I get over six thousand dollars per person, which works out to two thousand hours of gathering cardboard boxes, assuming you make three bucks an hour doing so. (Seniors transporting recyclables in their beat-up carts are a common sight in South Korea.)

Giving this money to the generations that got screwed over by old age after they built South Korea is not the solution to their endemic poverty, but it probably would have made more of a difference to the country as a whole than building a bunch of skyscrapers in the middle of the Yellow Sea. The ocean is also expected to rise by up to a meter by the century’s end—an environmental catastrophe that Future City Songdo doesn’t seem prepared for.

After destroying my food, I wandered into the nearby second-tallest building in South Korea, the Northeast Asia Trade Tower, and tried ascending the elevator to the top, but could only make it up a few floors. There I discovered an empty spotless cafeteria, with a spectacular view of the empty spotless city. Back outside, during several hours of walking, I checked out the international school (where tuition is a sensible $35,000 per year) and the university campuses, encountering not a single human being in those locations.

I was there on the weekend, true, but I live in Gyeongju, and if you stop by at any of the schools here on Saturday or Sunday you will find all kinds of folks around. Not so in Songdo.

I passed through the shadows of the other skyscrapers, each apparently in possession of tens of thousands of pyeong of office space, and I wondered what people did, exactly, inside them. Much of the rest of the city had been given over to vacant lots whose current tenants were weeds and moths, although some, according to the LA Times, have become vegetable gardens for elderly South Koreans.

Songdo isn’t entirely pointless. If residents follow common practices here, 40% of their water and 76% of their waste is recycled, the latter using a garbage-truck-less and nearly fully automatic city-wide pneumatic disposal system. Both Songdo’s plebs and celebs ultimately use 40% less energy than average. Their homes are equipped with digital control panels which allow them to view their energy use and compare it with everyone else’s.

(The fact that 1,500 acres of Yellow Sea marshland, home to several endangered bird species, was devastated for this ‘green’ city is another matter.)

But Songdo is a new kind of city: completely artificial, painstakingly designed, without a hint of decay or poverty, and nearly empty. It’s a human desert. One redditor mentions that the city has no character, but Songdo, I think, has more character than almost every other city in South Korea. There is an oppressive, Chernobyl-like emptiness here. The shallowness is awesome, in both the modern and traditional sense of the word; you can almost feel that these huge buildings are only years away from being completely abandoned.

Back in Gyeongju I actually made the acquaintance of a Songdo native (if such a person could exist). He was strikingly handsome, he dressed as well as anyone could have asked, and his English was impeccable, though there was very little to talk about with him, aside from how he had not been allowed to join an exclusive South Korean dating website because he apparently wasn’t good enough for it. No specific reason was given for his rejection.

A Buddhist, he told a monk who was present during one of our discussions that he had read the entire Dhammapada aloud to himself, which he had done not only because recitation would earn him merit for his next life, but because the text was, in his words, “true.” In almost the same breath he mentioned a recent purchase of a pair of gold-rimmed eyeglasses which were becoming difficult or impossible to obtain throughout South Korea as a result of their popularity.

Despite his apparent wealth, this Songdo-in was also, like many South Korean youths, having trouble finding a job. (500,000 South Koreans enter the work force every year, but only 200,000 permanent jobs are available for them, according to government data.) He mentioned that he had refused a recent employment offer specifically because it would have meant living in a part of Seoul which was full of Chinese people.

This man, so shiny yet vacuous, was unfortunately unconscious of the perfect job for him: official mascot of Songdo.

I left that fantastic metropolis exhausted but thrilled, however. What other city in South Korea made it possible to live near so much open space? Where else could I be reminded, every time I walked out of my apartment building, that I was really just an insect, a minor annoyance in an architect’s designs, as bulldozable as homes of endangered birds?

Even Songdo’s vision of perfection isn’t immune to encroachment. The city was on the verge of bankruptcy a few years back, which means that the planners probably had to compromise with the pressures of local developers. At the city’s edge, in fact, it was possible to see enormous apartment buildings. These were now marching toward the metropolitan limits like an army of titanic egg crates, waiting to transform Songdo’s useless savannas into the same concrete jungle that you find just about anywhere in South Korea.

My only regret is that Songdo, a city that rose out of nothing, didn’t take this chance at experimentation and run with it while it was possible. It might have had more success if locals had marketed it as the ultimate ghost town, a sister to the “dreaded civil service post” of Sejong. (In a failed bid to move the capital of Seoul, Sejong was made the administrative capital of the country, with bureaucrats shuttling back and forth between there and Seoul where they continue to live.)

An alternative idea is that houses could fill these wide open spaces instead of high-rises—or that the unused space could be put aside for endangered birds. According to Valérie Gelézeau, author of Une république des appartements, the notion that South Korea’s population is too dense to allow for any other kind of building is simply false. “The same housing density can be attained using different morphological types,” she says.

But it appears that like the UAE’s Masdar City, another perpetually unfinished ‘international’ ‘green’ ‘futuristic’ gated community, Songdo may be just one more city on its ways to becoming one more exhibit in the Museum of Futures That Never Were.

I would actually like to live in Songdo. Seoul is only an hour or so away, and I’m not a heavy drinker, so the lack of nightlife options—the lack of pretty much everything—isn’t an issue.

A look at the two-thousand-dollar-a-month kind of babysitter jobs in the area, however, combined with my wife’s five-second glance at the real estate listings, smothered my fantasies of taking up residence there. Sadly, I’ll have to wait until the eternally inflationary South Korean real estate market bubble bursts to have any hope of calling one of the most bizarre cities on earth my home.

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