The 63 Building, built in 1985 after five years of development at a cost of $180m, was intended to be the symbol of the Miracle on the Han River. Even after a quarter of a century, with its golden surfaces and a location mere metres away from the waters of Han River (Han-gang) the 63 Building is the most striking modern structure in Seoul.
The 63 was at the time of construction the tallest building outside North America, and as such was a statement of intent, an exclamation mark after twenty years of torrid economic development led by the brutal military dictatorship of President Park Chung-Hee. Earthquake- and typhoon-proof, with super-speed elevators (still the fastest open to public in Korea) and attractions such as an aquarium, IMAX cinema and sky-scraping observatory, the 63 was a technical marvel and inspired a real sense of awe in people weaned on drab, nondescript and functional facilities. Unlike other major undertakings such as the Kyung-bu Expressway, the 63 did not serve a specifically industrial purpose and was unequivocally open to the public, who responded enthusiastically by flocking from all parts of Korea to take in the spectacle, quickly turning the place into a tourist attraction. The gleaming facade seemed to ask the populace to put behind the grim sacrifice of the preceding decades, necessitated by the country’s relentless drive for prosperity that suffered no stragglers, and look forward to a more capable, proactive new era. The near-pathological national consciousness to join the higher-echelon of world order had, at the expense of democracy and human rights, enabled the hopelessly poor and backward country to rise above the rubbles of the Korean War and become one of the Asian Tiger economies by the time the 63 came into being. The new building was therefore both a monument to Korea’s achievements, and a marker on what everyone assumed would be the nation’s firmly continuous upward trajectory.
The 63 proved, for a while, prescient: the establishment of Korea’s first fully democratically elected government in 1987 coincided with an exponential increase in the national GDP, Seoul hosted first the Asian Games in 1986 and then the Olympic Games in 1988, and Korea was awarded the World Cup hosting rights in 1996. The export-oriented industry had empowered the chaebols to become truly global corporations in diverse fields – most notably Samsung in electronics, Hyundai in automobiles, and several others in shipbuilding and construction – and all sectors were aided by overseas market expansion and years of unbroken economic growth that seemed to have no limits. The increasing affluence and burgeoning economy in turn allowed a strong middle class to come into being, and, helped by the civilian government’s relaxation of foreign travel laws, the average person began to have unprecedented levels of access to foreign lands. What the country and its citizens had striven for so long had now become reality: Korea was coming to the world. All the while the 63 stood sentinel to Korea’s hopes and dreams, a beacon lighting the way destined for its people.
The Asian Financial Crisis in 1997 (referred in Korea as the IMF Crisis) at a stroke rendered the 63 Building an anachronism. The devastating effects of the economic downturn were felt in every corner of the country as droves of people lost their ‘for-life’ jobs overnight and companies went bankrupt, not even dinosaurs like the Daewoo Group surviving the catastrophe. President Kim Young-Sam, under whose government the causes of the Crisis had festered, was demonized with unbridled vitriol; students and businessmen abroad who had travelled under the auspices of the early-Nineties boom were recalled; thousands of hitherto-respectable heads of families were pushed out into the streets to become day labourers or, worse, beggars; and thousands more everyday either joined them or feared for their livelihood. What was more destructive long-term was the change in the national mood: hope and contentment, ambition and go-getting spirit – all were displaced by suspicion, despair, jealousy and cynicism. Having raised their standards with tireless effort, the Korean people now faced the prospect of further toil. Some felt deceived by the government, others indulged in conspiracy theories against ‘foreign speculators’, but many shared the feeling that collectively the country had been careless and negligent – at not stocking up on foreign reserves, at not regulating businesses and banks more carefully, at failing to remember the hungry spirit of the New Village movement of their fathers and mothers. And the entire nation, like the Parisians after the Franco-Prussian War, reached deep within itself to end the Crisis just two years after it started. The 63, however, was now a giant, oversized pillar of hubris, a memorial to an ethos that seemed dangerously out of place in the immediate aftermath of the IMF debacle. Its extravagance protruded incongruously against the solemn flow of the Han River, its miracle bubbles having burst.
The years since the nightmares of the late-Nineties have seen Korea not just overcome the Crisis, but actually thrive beyond the most generous of forecasts: the country is now a G-20 member, top ten or just outside in most economic indicators, and that the lesson was learnt was shown emphatically in the last global recession, from which Korea was one of the only developed nations to emerge unscathed. And the 63 once again has the sheen of relevance to it: having been purchased by the Hanwha Group in 2002, it is a bustling, boisterous melange of offices, shops, restaurants and tourist traps. But looking at the 63 now is to feel a slight pang of ambivalence, for the damage done by the IMF Crisis to the national psyche has not yet healed. By all accounts Korea is now one of the richer nations in the world, but the behaviour of its people does not reflect it. Driven by the fear of losing everything like ten years ago, the society has conditioned its members to value money and safety above all else, and to avoid risk and differentiation. The path to a more open, tolerant and diverse society that seemed likely for Korea was severely disrupted, resulting in a hungry public with all the food in the world on the plate. The ‘need to feed the family’ has become a mantra that excuses all sorts of entrenched, reactive decisions, ranging from meek acceptance of the social norms to avoidance of entrepreneurial initiative, neglect of artistry and creativity, and devaluation of personal fulfillment. The sacrifice is on again, but this time no one is quite so sure what it’s in aid of. As for the 63, recently renovated with a shiny new entrance, it still stands, monolithic as ever, now as much a historical piece as a commercial one. It’s a symbol of a bright future Korea dared to dream for herself, and, perhaps in an indeterminate future, a witness to what she may one day still achieve.