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What Gangnam stands for in Korea

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Published : 2010-10-26 18:44
Updated : 2010-10-26 18:44

Gangnam is an administerial district in southern Seoul but actually involves a much more complex social connotation here in Korea.

Gangnam, as opposed to Gangbuk, or north of the Han River, usually refers to three relatively affluent districts: Gangnam-gu, Seocho-gu and Songpa-gu.

The area may mostly be represented by two major keywords: wealth (especially in the real estate section) and education.

The northern districts in Seoul, such as Jongno, had traditionally been the key area of the 600-year-old capital city. The now-prestigious Gangnam land was largely neglected as an agricultural outskirt area until the mid-1960s.

However, since the Busan-Seoul highway and the Gangnam Boulevard were built in the 1960s, the former suburban wasteland became an icon of real estate speculation.

Also, Tehran Boulevard, the major eight-lane road linking Seocho-dong and Samsung-dong, rose as a symbol of business success in the 1980s.

As of the end of 2009, the average market price of Gangnam real estate has multiplied by 500,000 times over the past 50 years, according to Seoul City data.
A night view of COEX and its vicinity in Gangnam  (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

Its ever-soaring price flinched last year, for the first time since the financial crisis back of 1997, according to Seoul City statistics.

The sudden influx of money also gave birth to the first generation of real estate goldminers, who later bequeathed their wealth to their children, creating a new upper class.

Gangnam’s social connotation as the city’s prestigious core was further reinforced in 2000 when the multipurpose residential building Tower Palace was built in Dogok-dong, Gangnam-gu.

“The initial sense of prestige may have diminished over the years but its residents still usually specify their address instead of describing it as just Gangnam,” said a real estate agent in the area.

“Though its social significance has diminished over the years, Tower Palace still stands as an icon of the so-called Gangnam wealth, often referred to as the Korean Manhattan.”

These economic connotations also led to political influence in the corresponding districts.

In the June local elections, the re-elected Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon, who fought a hard battle against his liberal rival Han Myeong-sook, caught up as votes from the Gangnam districts were disclosed late in the night.

His opponents criticized Oh as the “Gangnam mayor,” alluding to his siding with the affluent citizens of the city.

The people of Gangnam are also renowned for their education fever.

Among the 713 Seoul high school students who made it to Seoul National University this year, 292 or 41 percent were from the three Gangnam districts.

Also, the top school districts are there, together with the busiest hagwon streets.

Mothers quite often give up on their career despite their high level of education in order to become a full-time parent, dedicating themselves to the academic management of their children.

Such mothers have been nicknamed “Gangnam ajummas,” largely associated with real estate speculation and overeagerness for their children’s education.

Despite the government’s efforts to curb private education, the education rush persists, much of it taking place at great cost.

With the Gangnam area, especially Gangnam-gu, in spotlight in connection with the G20 summit, many once again reflect on the social and economic significance of “Gangnam” in Korean society.

“Gangnam is very often censured for its exclusive wealth and the resulting prejudices but now hopes to acquire a new reputation as a hot spot representing Seoul,” said an official of the Gangnam District Office.

By Bae Hyun-jung (tellme@heraldcorp.com)