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The first time that I visited the city was a little over two years ago and my mission was to report on the boom in citizen reporting and the rise of the OhmyNews media brand. With five interviews scheduled for a single day, I figured that this would somehow be doable in a city such as Seoul. Having done all the set up without a firm grasp of the landscape, I hadn’t anticipated that every resident would be on the road in either a Hyundai or Daewoo and that the city would be in an eternal state of gridlock.

Needless to say, the South Korean capital and I didn’t get off to the best start. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting but in my mind the power and efficiency of South Korea’s mega-brands suggested that the whole place would be as shiny and well engineered as a kitchen full of Samsung white-goods. In urban terms, this added up to the sprawl of Tokyo mixed with the grittiness of Kowloon with a sprinkle of Singapore master-planning. I couldn’t have been wider of the mark.

Visit two was just before Christmas and was something of a blur involving raw abalone, too-jolly executives from LG, a driver with an obsession for sucking on sweet wrappers and dry, overheated offices. To be fair to the city, it didn’t have much of a chance to show off its better sides as I was strapped into the back of a long wheelbase Hyundai for most of it.

A few days before sitting down to pen this letter I went back to Seoul and I’m happy to report it’s all change between us now. That the journey from Incheon airport to the city centre took less than an hour was a good start. That the renovation of The Shilla hotel (one of the only highlights from visit one) actually improved the property was a huge relief and had me thinking about ways of extending my trip so I could park myself in the gym/scrub room for a whole day of punishment.

Depending who you talk to, Seoul is often described as either Tokyo 15 years ago or five years ahead of Shanghai. In fact, it’s neither. While the mayor’s office has a major task ahead of it to fix some serious infrastructure and quality of life shortfalls, the city is also bursting with potential. Unloved neighbourhoods are showing signs of becoming mini-Daikanyamas, the international airport needs a good marketing campaign to raise its international profile and the city’s muscular retailers (Galleria being the best of the department stores) could teach everyone from Selfridges through to David Jones how to keep consumers coming back for more.

Seoul is about to embark on a global marketing campaign to sell its strengths that will pit it against all the other cities looking for more airlines, conventions, regional headquarters and all the developments that go with them. Where other cities like to sell their international credentials and end up broadcasting messages that are universally safe and bland, Seoul needs to sell its grittier, more surprising side mixed with breathtaking dollops of technology and pop culture.

Monocle’s Top 10 from Seoul

  1. Incheon really works, especially the massage centre in the international departures area.
  2. South Korea’s carriers do too. They’re some of Asia’s better kept secrets. That said, we’re sad to see that Asiana has changed its beige livery and gone for something louder.
  3. Mayor Oh Se-hoon for pushing the boundaries of urban branding. We particularly like his plans to open a boutique in Paris to promote local design talent.
  4. The super-slick food hall at Galleria.
  5. The frenetic self-service food court at the central branch of Lotte.
  6. Pop group Rollercoaster.
  7. The private breakfast dining rooms at the Shilla and the endless buffet.
  8. Handsome actor on the up Daniel Henney.
  9. Plans to complete a proper high-speed link all the way from the city centre to Incheon.
  10. A mission to focus firmly on improving the quality of life in the city and taking a leading role in the region.

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