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The transnationalization of urban systems: The BESETO ecumenopolis

One of the most frustrating problems in a comparative study of urban systems is the definition of urban area. Therefore, for this chapter, the extended urban area from Beijing via Seoul to Tokyo (BESETO) includes only cities of over 200,000 inhabitants, which will minimize definitional errors because urban areas above this size are undeniably urban in character.

In the inverted S-shaped corridor from Beijing to Tokyo via Pyong yang and Seoul there are about 98 million urban inhabitants, and 112 cities with a population of over 200,000 are almost contiguous along a 1,500 km strip of densely populated land (table 14.7 and fig. 14.2), becoming a so-called "ecumenopolis", to use Greek urban ologist Doxiadis's term, or a borderless urban corridor (Whebell, 1969). An ecumenopolis is defined as a unified settlement system spanning the entire habitable area on a global or continental scale (Papaioannou, 1970). An urban corridor from the Tokaido megalopolis to Fukuoka in Japan is extending across the Korea Strait, via stepping stones of islands such as Tsushima and Iki, to Korea's southeastern region centred on Pusan, which covers the most industrialized part including Pohang, Ulsan, and Masan. The intensity of commodity and tourist flows is already very high and it is likely to become another Singapore-Johore Bahru in the Malay Peninsula or Hong Kong-Shenzhen-Guangzhou in the Zhujiang Delta of China. This borderless urban corridor further extends from Pusan to Taegu and Seoul in South Korea and to Pyongyang and Shinuiju in North Korea. It then continues to China's Bohai rim cities. This region can be traversed in only one and a half hours by air and would be within 10 hours' commuting distance if a high-speed train is introduced and the Korea Strait between the Korean peninsula and the Japanese archipelago is connected by an under-sea tunnel. The region covers the most developed parts of the respective countries, with bundled lines of railroads and highways. Also, the region is connected by four distinctive megalopolises in each country.

Table 14.7 Urban population and number of cities in the Beijing-Pyongyang-Seoul-Tokyo corridor

  Population ('000) No. of cities over 200,000
Bohai rim corridor, China 31,556 36
Shinuiju-Kaesong corridor, North Korea 4,997 9
Seoul-Pusan corridor, South Korea 22,642 15
Fukuoka-Tokyo corridor, Japan 39,269 52
Total 98,464 112

Sources: China Urban Statistical Yearbook, 1988; Eberstadt and Banister (1991); Korea Manicipal Yearbook, 1990; Japan Municipal Yearbook, 1989, 1990.


Thanks largely to the city of Beijing being the imperial capital since the Ming Dynasty, China's north-east region enjoyed the status of the largest city in the empire for a period of almost 600 years from the late thirteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth century. The opening of Tianjin as a treaty port in 1861 and the development of Dalian and Qingdao as leased port cities with foreign capital and technology in the early years of the twentieth century greatly reinforced the region's traditional urban hierarchy based on a vertical structure of administrative cities. The opening of smaller port cities in the late nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth century, such as Dandong and Yantai on the Yellow Sea, was mainly for the export of Chinese goods. These cities were developed with few linkages with their rural hinterland, further accentuating urban growth in the region.

Fig. 14.2 The BESETO ecumenopolis

As dozens of mining and industrial cities in the province of Liaoning, such as Fushun, Anshan, Benxi, and Shenyang, were developed under the Japanese occupation in the 1930s, Liaoning province has been the most urbanized province in China. After the founding of the People's Republic, raw material and fossil fuel-oriented industrial centres such as Tangshan, Zibo, Xingtai, and Handan grew rapidly. In the 1960s, with the economic development policy of regional self-sufficiency, provincial capitals such as Shijiazuang and Jinan became diversified manufacturing centres with a complex industrial mix. Since the economic reforms initiated in the late 1970s, China has experienced an unprecedented rate of labour transfer from agriculture to non-agriculture as well as the most rapid rate of urbanization in modern Chinese history.

China's Bohai rim, situated in a most favourable coastal region facing the Korean peninsula, and endowed with rich resources of energy, minerals, and labour, has witnessed a much higher degree of urbanization than the nation has as a whole. Of the five provinces in China with more than 40 per cent of their population engaged in nonagricultural activities in 1988, three were located in the region: Beijing, Tianjin, and Liaoning (Chang, 1991). While Beijing and Tianjin are independent municipalities, Liaoning province has the highest percentage of urban population among all provinces. The provinces of Hebei and Shandong are also characterized by a much higher than average rate of urbanization. The Bohai Major Economic Zone, with a population of 200 million and more than 100 large and small cities, forms a C-shaped circular zone often reputed to be "the golden necklace of the Bohai Sea." It has been described as the "windows and forward positions of North China towards the outside world" (Cheng, 1991:35). It has 32 cities of over 200,000 inhabitants and its total urban population approached 32 million in 1988, as shown in figure 14.3.

Fig. 14.3 Population of cities over 200,000 in the Bohai rim corridor, China, 1988 (Source. China Urban Statistical Yearbook, 1988)

Cities Population (1,000)
Beijing 5,487
Tianjin 4,320
Shijiazhuang 987
Tangshan 778
Qinhuangdao 283
Handan 467
Xingtai 511
Baoding 239
Zhangjiakou 980
Chengde 333
Cangzhou 219
Shenyang 3,412
Dalian 1,619
Anshan 1,148
Fushun 1,151
Benxi 726
Dandong 491
Jinzhou 641
Yingkou 392
Fuxin 608
Liaoyang 461
Panjin 308
Tieling 229
Chaoyang 202
Wafangdian 237
Haicheng 201
Jinxi 234
Jinan 1,257
Qingdao 1,191
Zibo 801
Zaozhuang 297
Dongying 217
Yantai 369
Weifang 332
Jining 229
Tai'an 219
Total 219


Beyond the pre-eminence of Tokyo as a mega-city, it is estimated that one-third of Japan's wealth is generated in the Tokyo metropolitan area. There are three major, contiguous metropolitan areas with heavy concentrations of population and industry known collectively as the Tokaido megalopolis: the National Capital region based on Tokyo, the Chubu region based on Nagoya, and the Kinki region based on Osaka. A further concentration of population and employment has been taking place in specially designated cities such as Hiroshima, Kitakyushu, and Fukuoka and their metropolitan areas, so that there will eventually be a great urban corridor from Tokyo to Fukuoka. This has been reinforced by the construction of the Shinkansen (bullet train) railway system and other trunk transportation networks along the corridor. The construction of the Shinkansen railway system linking Tokyo and Osaka in 1964 and of the national motorway system has probably done more to consolidate Tokaido than any other public investment. The extension of the Shinkansen to Fukuoka in 1975 merely extended the existing intensely developed urban crescent. Of 11 Japanese cities over 1 million, 10 are now located in the region stretching from Tokyo to Fukuoka along the Shinkansen (Tokyo, Kawasaki, Yokohama, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Hiroshima, Kitakyushu, and Fukuoka As shown in figure 14.4, there are also medium-sized cities, and the total urban population of the region as a whole was about 39 million in 1990.

During the past 40 years, there have been a series of plans and other measures both to prevent the further concentration of population and employment and to restructure the growth of those metropolitan areas. The Japanese government announced its Fourth Comprehensive National Development Plan in 1987. The basic thrust of the plan was to create a multi-polar nation in which various poles featuring characteristic functions were to be developed. Japan is becoming a highly motorized and sophisticated high-tech economy. Its economy is internationalized and is experiencing relative decline in its manufacturing sectors. There are many indications that these trends may lead to another upsurge of metropolitan growth in Tokaido and in the urban corridor along the Shinkansen.

South Korea

South Korea is already a highly urbanized country: four out of five Koreans lived in urban areas in 1988. South Korea started to experience rapid economic growth and urbanization during the period beginning in 1961. The resultant benefits, however, are largely concentrated in Seoul. Consequently, people from all over the country headed for Seoul and a few large cities in the Seoul-Pusan corridor. Five out of the six largest cities with populations over 1 million(Seoul, Inchon, Taejon, Taegu, and Pusan) are located in this corridor, although Seoul and its metropolitan area dominate urbanization in Korea. More than 42 per cent of the nation's population and 48 per cent of the nation's manufacturing employment are concentrated in the Seoul metropolitan area.

Fig. 14.4 Population of cities over 200,000 in the Tokyo-Fukuoka corridor, Japan, 1990 (Source: Japan Municipal Yearbook, 1989 and 1990)

Cities Population (1,000)
Kumamoto 566
Oita 402
Kurume 225
Kitakyusyu 1,031
Fukuoka 1,186
Sasebo 248
Nagasaki 446
Simonoseki 259
Hirosima 1,058
Kure 220
Hukuyama 365
Kurasiki 417
Okayama 584
Kokogawa 236
Himezi 451
Akasi 265
Kobe 1,439
Amagasaki 495
Wakayama 450
Sakai 807
Osaka 2,536
Nara 345
Kyoto 1,402
Otu 251
Itinomiya 261
Nagoya 2,111
Simizu 242
Toyota 321
Toyohasi 331
Okazaki 299
Numazu 212
Hamamatu 528
Maebasi 284
Takasaki 236
Hatiozi 446
Sizuoka 471
Hiratuka 241
Yokosuka 436
Yokohama 3,176
Kawasaki 1,140
Kawagoe 296
Omiya 394
Urawa 407
Tokyo 8,111
Itikawa 422
Tiba 816
Hunabasi 526
Utunomiya 422
PNGu 407
Matayama 442
Takamatu 329
Tokusima 260
Total 39,269

Table 14.8 Share of population in the Seoul-Pusan urban corridor, 1960-1988 ('000 persons)

  1960 1970 1980 1988
National total (A) 24,989 31,435 37,449 42,800
Urban population (B) 9,526 15,810 26,891 34,558
Urbanization rate (%) 38.1 50.3 71.8 80.7
Seoul-Pusan population (C) 5,950 11,297 19,493 26,027
(C)/(A) 23.8 35.9 52.1 60.8
(C)/(B) 62.5 71.5 72.5 75.3

Source: Korea Municipal Yearbook, 1990.

As shown in table 14.8, about 61 per cent of the nation's population or 75 per cent of the urban population lived in the Seoul-Pusan megalopolis in 1988 (only 24 per cent of Koreans lived in this corridor in 1960). There is a consistent trend of concentration of population and employment in this urban corridor. There are 15 cities with over 200,000 inhabitants and also more than 30 smaller cities located in the inland urban corridor of 250 miles, creating a contiguous urban area of 26 million, as shown in figure 14.5.

Since the early 1970s the vulnerable national security situation, the high primacy rate of Seoul, increased regional disparities between the Seoul-Pusan urban corridor and other regions, especially the southwestern region, and the worsening of rural areas in terms of income and the heavy outflow of the productive younger population have led the government to implement various measures to curb population concentration in the Seoul metropolitan area. An overall evaluation of the effectiveness of those measures is known not to be very encouraging. Contrarily, the government encouraged further growth of the Seoul-Pusan megalopolis by the construction of the Seoul-Pusan expressway in the late 1970s and development of new industrial estates along the expressway. The government is now considering building a Korean Shinkansen from Seoul to Pusan by the end of this century. This will reinforce the ongoing trend of growth of the Seoul-Pusan megalopolis.

Fig. 14.5 Population of cities over 200,000 in the Kaesong-Shinuiju corridor, North Korea, and the Seoul-Pusan corridor, South Korea, 1988 (Sources: North Korea - Eberstadt and Banister, 1991; South Korea - Korea Municipal Yearbook, 1990)

Kaesong - Shinuju Corridor

Cities Population (1,000)
Pyongyang 2,355
Nampo 715
Kaesong 331
Sonchon 356
Shinuju 289
Pyongsong 239
Sariwon 221
Tukcheon 217
Songlim 274
Total 4,997

Seoul - Pusan Corridor

Cities Population (1,000)
Seoul 10,287
Pusan 3,769
Taegu 2,239
Inchon 1,644
Taejon 1,021
Suwon 543
Sungnam 515
Anyang 433
Uijonbu 200
Kwangmyong 253
Chongju 417
Chonan 201
Kumi 200
Pohang 302
Ulsan 618
Total 22,642

North Korea

North Korea is one of the least known countries with respect to population dynamics in general and especially the urban system itself. Available fragmentary information indicates that, in general, cities are not excessively large in their urban jurisdiction, and that urban population is defined according to conservative criteria (Eberstadt and Banister, 1991). However, North Korea does have a relatively high rate of urbanization. In addition to its initial condition of strong manufacturing industries and a high proportion of non-agricultural population, North Korea has continued to give priority to industrial development. As a consequence, the level of urbanization increased from 40 per cent in 1960 to about 64 per cent in 1985. There is only one city over 1 million and eight small and medium-sized cities are located in the corridor from Kaesong to Shinuiju. The urban corridor is the most developed and densely populated area in North Korea, as shown in figure 14.5.

In addition to the existing Asia-Pacific urban system, which has been briefly outlined, the emergence of extended metropolitan regions crossing national boundaries in North-East Asia, the globalization of economic activity, and the transnationalization of capital and labour markets will make a great impact on the urban system in the region. China's open policy, Korea's Nordpolitik, Japan's Japan Sea Movement, and Russia's Eastward Movement will be important forces shaping the urban future in the twenty-first century. These evolving forces necessarily lead to the need for the spatial and structural adjustment of mega-cities in North-East Asia because mega-cities have never in the past not acted as locomotives for change to shape a new order.

Ideal and reality: Needs for further research

The evolving urban system in North-East Asia has many important implications in both national and international urbanization policies. The emergence of extended borderless metropolitan regions implies the globalization of problems, solutions to which have to be collectively found. In other words, urban problems and their solutions cannot be contained within national boundaries. However, it cannot be denied that there is an ambivalent attitude towards the phenomenon of extended metropolitan regions itself and the future course of action to tackle it. There are many issues that we can raise at this time.

First, even in highly urbanized countries such as Japan and South Korea, urbanization has been accepted as an undesirable consequence of development. Governments have made every effort to slow down growth in the Tokaido and Seoul-Pusan megalopolises, although the rationales for a national urbanization policy are somewhat different. Japan's concern is the likelihood of earthquakes in the Tokaido area and the development of the side of the Japanese archipelago facing the Sea of Japan. South Korea has been dominated by national security concerns and the problems of the southwest region, which has been volatile in respect of national political integration since the uprising in Kwangju in 1980. China may not be an exception to the issue of uneven growth of urban areas. In the process of nation building from 1949, development priority was given to inland regions away from coastal cities where the colonial and imperialistic imprint persisted. It is a great challenge for China to reopen its coastal cities without losing the original thrust of inland development. These nations share a historical legacy of Confucianism. Anti-urbanism and ambivalent values towards the city have been prevalent, so enthusiasm about the emergent global urban system tends to be tame.

Secondly, many Chinese and Koreans still remember the design of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere under Japanese colonialism before World War II. Japanese initiatives to develop borderless megalopolises in North-East Asia would be viewed with great suspicion as attempts to revive the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

The third issue is that there are reservations about the internationalization of the mega-city system, on the grounds that hyperurbanization of a handful of mega-cities will finally create an unbridgeable gap between population growth and the provision of urban services, produce new forms of inter-local conflict, intensify socio-spatial inequalities in a country, and reduce social spending in favour of direct foreign investment (Smith, 1989:7-8). A surge of foreign investment in North-East Asia is building its mega-cities and reshaping its urban and industrial systems. Cross-holdings of property between major economic powers are inevitable in this world of globalization. As Professor Meier and others (1990) have pointed out, the biggest threat to urban settlement in the Pacific Rim is a catastrophic land price increase strongly reminiscent of the Japanese land price bubble. If all the man-made bubbles in Japan collapse, this would be a gargantuan financial disaster that would shock the multitudinous mega-city institutions around the Pacific Rim.

Fourthly, the spatial division of production has occurred through shifting the location of capital, labour, production, markets, and management to take advantage of the best possible conditions for multinational firms. As a result, urban and regional restructuring is taking place throughout the world. This reorganization of industrial and spatial structures is most dramatic in East Asia. During the past two decades, East Asia as a whole has been experiencing the most rapid economic growth in the world (Fujita and Ishii, 1991:3-4). However, a new international division of labour would have already had a vital impact on urban and regional structures and is expected to bring about more drastic changes in future. Extended urban configurations across national boundaries can be seen as the manifestation of social, economic, and political structures in terms of the new international division of labour, capital, and technology, and will result in the deepening of capitalistic uneven regional growth and increased duality and dependency. One feature of the new Asian economic network has been the formation of a transnational hierarchy of cities. We need further enquiry into the consequences of the transnationalization of the North-East Asian economy for the urban and regional systems.

However, the processes of globalization and urbanization must be understood as being a basic condition for and a functional consequence of economic, social, and technological development. Indiscriminate efforts to avoid them may result in the stagnation of North-East Asia as a whole and the distortion of its mega-city system. The increase in the growth potential of high-density concentrated accumulation brings some promise of an improvement in human welfare as well as sustained economic prosperity in North-East Asia.

In spite of great diversities among countries in North-East Asia, there exist useful complementarities. China and the Russian Far East need capital, advanced technology, and industrial products from Japan and South Korea. In the Russian Far East, population is sparse in comparison with the vast land area, and lack of manpower has become the main problem of its economic development. South Korea's capital and North Korea's labourers are already very much on the move there. As Japan and South Korea are resource-poor countries, natural resources and raw materials in China, the Russian Far East, and North Korea are most attractive for them. The regional divergence of resource endowments and complementary relationships is still developing, and will be reinforced in the future. North-East Asia is an important integral part of the whole Asia-Pacific region, and is becoming one of the most dynamic regions with great potential in the world economy.

Finally, urban infrastructure, including "triple T" (seaport, airport, and teleport) and spatial linkages in North-East Asia, is lagging far behind present requirements. There must be concerted efforts to avoid overlapping investment. The first step is to assess needs and to exchange information among mega-cities where important business and decision-making take place. One of the most promising fields of research is the newly evolving urban system in North-East Asia. The search for an integrated North-East Asian Community is still a goal that is cautiously embraced by a handful of academicians and policy makers and also by the largest multinational organizations operating there. This endeavour is likely to continue throughout the 1990s and the years to follow. There is a great probability that the BESETO ecumenopolis will remain a loose idea rather than an integrated economic reality unless cataclysmic events in the future provide the impetus for its development.

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