Geography of Korea: IV. The Capital Region > 2. Gyeonggi-do
Based on 2013 data, the total area of Gyeonggi-do province is 102,000 square kilometers, or about 10.1 percent of the total area of South Korea. Its population is 12,230,000, or about 23.9 percent of the country’s total, while its population density is 1202 persons/sq. km. The population of Gyeonggi-do surpasses that of Seoul and it is the most populace of South Korea’s seventeen self-governing administrative regions and the most densely populated of the country’s provinces, even surpassing in density Ulsan Metropolitan City and Sejong Special Self-Governing City. Indeed, Gyeonggi-do is the only province with a population density above 1000 persons/sq. km., more than two times the average provincial population density of 510 persons/sq. km.
Gyeonggi-do is situated at the heart of the Korean Peninsula and has a rounded shape. It extends approximately 150 km east-west and 140 km north-south. What is now Incheon Metropolitan City originally formed a part of the province until 1981, when that city was promoted to the status of jikhalsi, a municipality directly under the administration of the central government. Today, Gyeonggi-do is composed 3 counties (gun) and 28 cities, the number of cities being relatively high among the country’s nine provinces. In 1995 the province’s Ganghwa and Ungjin counties were incorporated into Incheon Metropolitan City. The city of Gaeseong (Kaesong) as well as the counties of Gaepung (Kaepung) and portions of Jangdan (Changdan), which are currently in North Korean territory, were traditionally a part of Gyeonggi-do province.
The name “Gyeonggi” derives from a combination of the Sino-Korean words for “capital” (gyeong) and “area surrounding the capital” (gi). During the Goryeo period (918–1392), the capital was established at Gaeseong (or Kaesong; in present day North Korea) and the area surrounding that capital (territory just generally termed gyeonggi) was divided into administrative units termed gihyeon and jeokhyeon. As the Goryeo period progressed, this capital-area territory (gyeonggi) continued to expand until it was the size of a province. With the founding of the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910) the dynastic capital was moved southward to Hanseong (present-day Seoul), and with it the designated gyeonggi territory (i.e., the territory surrounding the capital) likewise shifted south. In 1413, with the administrative reforms of the new Joseon dynasty, Gyeonggi-do province was born, absorbing some of the territory that was part of the now erstwhile Yanggwang-do province, taking on a rounded shape due to the fact that it comprised the territory surrounding the capital.
In terms of its topography, the terrain of Gyeonggi-do is generally elevated in its eastern section and slopes gradually downward as one moves west. The highest points in the province are the mountain peaks in Pacheon and Gapyeong, which rise over a thousand meters, while one can also find peaks over five hundred meters in height extending between Yangpyeong and the Yeoju-Anseong area. The province’s west is coastal area where one finds the lowland Gimpo, Ilsan, Pyeongtaek, and Anseong plains. The terrain here consists generally of floodplains or alluvial plains that find primary use as paddy fields. From the mid-1990s such plains in the vicinity of Seoul became preferred locales for the development of new planned cities. What are now the cities of Sanggye-dong in Seoul, Ilsan-gu in Goyang city, Bundang-gu in Seongnam city, Pyeongchon in Anyang city, were all built on the alluvial plains of tributaries of the Han River. In terms of its area, Gyeonggi-do may be divided into the basin zones of the Imjin, Han, and Jinwi-Anseong Rivers and then the West Sea coastal area. In the Imjin River basin can be found such cities of Paju, Yeoncheon, Dongducheon, and Pocheon. The province’s Han River basin includes the cities of Gapyeong, Yangpyeong, Yeoju, Icheon, Seongnam, Namyangju, Uijeongbu, Anyang, Bucheon, Gimpo, and Gohyang, while the Jinwi-Anseong River basin contains the cities of Anseong, Suwon, and Pyeongtaek. In the province’s West Sea (or Yellow Sea) coastal area are found cities such as Ansan and Hwaseong. The body of water to the west of Gyeonggi-do is called the Bay of Gyeonggi (Gyeonggi-man). The coast of the Bay of Gyeonggi is highly asymmetrical with many inlets and islands. All the islands found in the Bay, from its largest Ganghwa-do (do here meaning “island”), belong administratively to Ongjin county. From an early date the closest off-shore islands, such as Ganghwa-do-Gyodong-do, Daebu-do-Yeongheung-do, and Yeongjong-do, were linked by bridge to the mainland so that they ceased technically to be islands. Ganghwa-do is famous worldwide for extreme tidal fluctuations. The spring tidal range at Incheon (8.1 meters) is only slightly less than that found in the country’s Bay of Asan (8.5 meters). The Bay of Gyeonggi has a long coastline, while rivers like the Han, Imjin, and Anseong carry sediments to the coast contributing to the formation of extensive tidelands. Notably, the tidelands of Ganghwa-do’s Janghwa-ri are famous worldwide.
In the 1980s the South Korean population was entering a stabilization period following a period of demographic transition. During the years 1985–1990 the annual population growth rate fell to 1.4 percent. In terms of regions, however, annual population growth increased at a rate above the national average for the six major cities of Seoul, Busan, Daegu, Incheon, and Gwangju, as well as for the province of Gyeonggi-do. During this period the annual population growth rate was highest in Incheon (5.6%), followed by that of Gyeonggi-do province (5.1%). As Incheon was incorporated as part of Gyeonggi-do province until 1981, this can be seen more broadly as the phenomenon of population concentration in Gyeonggi-do throughout the decades of the 1970s and continuing into the 1980s. Compare this to Gyeongsangnam-do and Jeju-do provinces, whose annual population growth rates during this period of 0.9 and 1.0 percent, respectively, were below the national average, and the provinces of Gangwon-do, Chungcheongbuk-do, Chungcheongnam-do, Jeollanam-do, Jeollabuk-do, and Gyeongsangbuk-do, which all had negative growth rates and population declines.
The population growth of the Gyeonggi region in the 1990s is also worth noting. According to census date, if one breaks down the very modest 0.6 percent average annual population growth rate for South Korea during the period 1990–1995, Seoul for the first time experienced a negative population growth rate of -.07 percent, while Busan also experienced its first negative population growth rate during this period (-.75%). In contrast to the overall average population growth rate for cities during this period of 1.64 percent, on average the nation’s provincial counties (gun) experienced a population drain, with the average population growth rate shrinking significantly to -2.9 percent. Meanwhile, Gyeonggi-do continued to experience a population rise during the 1990s: 4.4 percent for the period 1990–1995 and then 3.2 percent for the period 1995–2000, the highest rate for any administrative region in South Korea during this period. During the five years from 1995 to 2000 it grew to 1.29 million and at a rate some 94 percent higher than the national average. It is no exaggeration to say that Korea’s overall population growth in the 1990s was affected almost solely by the growth of Gyeonggi-do.
Although the annual population growth of cities from 1970 to the present has been on a rising trend in contrast to the slowing of population growth nationwide, Gyeonggi-do is singular in that it continues to demonstrate a rapid population increase. The most important factor contributing to this phenomenon was the official policy of industrialization commencing in the 1960s and the concomitant rapid urbanization. Whatever the reasons, what is clear is that over the last fifty or so years Gyeonggi-do has proven the most popular choice for those Koreans selecting to move to a new locale.
Naturally, Seoul’s population distribution policies have been a primary factor, but regardless, Gyeonggi-do’s population rise has meant that changes in land use patterns in that province have been more sudden and widespread than in other regions. New residential areas were built to accommodate the new arrivals, this attracted new business enterprises that provided livelihoods, new streets emerged where none had existed, and for the most efficient use of limited land skyscrapers were constructed. Gyeonggi-do had entered upon the road to urbanization. The result by 2013 was a total of some 12.2 million residents in the province, and 28 of the provinces 31 local autonomous entities—excepting only Yeoncheon, Gapyeong, and Yangpyeong—were cities.
Gyeonggi-do is the most dynamic and developing of South Korea’s seventeen local autonomous governments. The primary reason for Seoul’s population stagnation starting from the mid-1990s was that city’s population drain towards surrounding Gyeonggi-do. People began taking up residence in the aforementioned new cities that were being constructed on Seoul’s periphery. These new cities, symbolized by their large-scale apartment complexes, were initially constructed as part of satellite cities abutting Seoul, but gradually they began to be erected at a further distance from the capital, in places like Yongin, Suwon, Hwaseong, and Pyeongtaek. Gyeonggi-do has not only been experiencing a population influx from neighboring Seoul, starting from the 1970s, the period of industrialization also brought in new residents from regional areas beyond Gyeonggi-do, due primarily to the lower housing rents available there compared to Seoul while still offering access to that city.
Though the western coastal area of Gyeonggi-do, to include Gimpo, Hwaseong, and Pyeongtaek, had much of the country’s portion of arable land, over the last quarter century the rate of its arable land as percentage of the province’s total land has dropped from 25 percent to 18 percent. With the exception of the mountainous eastern area of the province, most arable land in the province is taken up by wet paddy fields rather than dry fields, although the proportion of dry fields is on the rise. Traditionally, the rice produced in Gyeonggi-do, and widely known as “Gyeonggi mi” (Gyeonggi rice), has enjoyed great popularity, with the varieties from Yeoju and Icheon particularly famed for their quality. Driving along the province’s National Road 3 or National Road 37 you will come across no shortage of restaurants with names like “Ssal bap jip” (House of Rice) or “Dolsot bapjip” (House of Stone Bowl Rice) where rice dishes constitute the main menu. Besides this, on the outskirts of the province’s large cities the cultivation of vegetables and flowers as well as animal husbandry flourishes.
Gyeonggi-do is also home to large-scale industrial facilities on the outskirts of Seoul. What is termed the Gyeongin (“Seoul-Incheon”) industrial belt originally formed along the Seoul-Incheon axis but eventually expanded to the Seoul-Suwon axis.