Seoul: the side effect of success


안녕하세요~ 리아나 입니다~!

(Hello, I’m Rhianna!)

Seoul is a city on the rise. The Korean capital has become known to the west in recent years as a hub of innovation. For me, it is – or rather, was – my home. I moved my life to Seoul last summer to spend a year studying at one of the city’s biggest universities. I returned to the UK less than a month ago – but I still consider myself a Seoulite.

I’ve been groomed by Korea’s efficiency, and I miss it, especially when I’m pinned between commuters on London’s Northern Line. Seoul’s transit network would humble even the most sophisticated British commuter. The strength of the city’s infrastructure is just one element that places South Korea among the world’s most developed countries.

Experts predict the country will emerge as a leader in the future global economy and Seoul’s younger residents – upon whom the city’s future economy rests – only accentuate this promising portrait with many being bilingual and highly educated. But, like any developing country, deeper social issues plague South Korea. My time in Seoul proved to me that although Seoul Metro might be utterly fabulous, Korea’s efficiency comes at cost. So, who’s paying?

A closer look at Gangnam Style

When I mention my time in Korea, more often than not people mention this popular song:

It’s understandable. Gangnam Style was silly and infectious – and sparked a worldwide frenzy. While the western world mimicked a man riding an imaginary horse, Psy was helping to establish South Korea’s national brand. The country still reaps the economic benefits, as cultural exports like Korean TV dramas, films and cosmetics continue to grow in popularity each year. But Psy didn’t start this demand for Korean products; since the 1960s post-war industrial boom, South Korea’s export-heavy economy has risen to international regard on the backs of homegrown giants like Samsung, Hyundai and LG.

South Korea's economic expansion measured per $1,000,000. South Korea's economic expansion measured per $1,000,000.

Though dismissed by many as a passing craze, Gangnam Style offers a convenient starting point to examine South Korea’s rapid-growth economy. What you may not know about Psy, otherwise known as Park Jae-sang, is that he’s a social satirist, and he used Gangnam Style to lampoon one of Seoul’s wealthiest neighbourhoods. Viewers caught up in its gaudiness would be forgiven for missing this satirical aspect and even now, nearly 2.4 billion YouTube views later, many still don’t realise what they’re watching. Jae-sang mocks the extravagant lifestyle that Gangnam is known for: it’s a district teeming with ostentatious shows of wealth. Gangnam’s reputation has already been tarnished in recent years due to the high number of cosmetic surgery clinics in the area – which now has Western observers lodging criticisms. It’s indicative of Gangnam’s complicated culture of excess: one that was born from an economic background branded by images of war-torn landscapes and agrarian poverty.

Downtown Seoul, 1950. Downtown Seoul, 1950.

Children among the rubble in Seoul, 1953 Children among the rubble in Seoul, 1953.

Today: N Seoul Tower at night Today: N Seoul Tower at night.

The Han River bordered by Gangnam in south Seoul Today: downtown Seoul.

Side by side, the images above are jarring. With stunning speed and indefatigable ambition, South Korea’s capital city has been transformed. But despite its phenomenal economic rise, South Korea harbours an unpalatable underbelly of meagre social policies and rising income inequality – while the shadow of its neighbour in the north looms large. Is it possible that Psy’s farcical number has exposed the dark reality of Gangnam’s glamour to western audiences?

Social imbalance

Upon arriving in Seoul, many are blinded by its technological modernity. I include myself in that group, but I found that the longer I lived there, the harder it became to ignore the issues troubling Korean society as a result of its economic flight. From women older than my grandmother carting bulging bags of waste on their backs in the streets to homeless elders sneaking into restaurants to beg for spare change before being spotted and shooed, the plight of the elderly is something that deeply bothers me.

It’s set to get worse for the less privileged. Land developers are now targeting slum villages around Seoul, which currently house the poorest in Korean society. Plans have recently been approved to demolish Gangnam’s very own slum village, where shanty houses accommodating 2,000 residents, most of them elderly, will be crushed. Seoul’s richest one per cent will have successfully removed yet another of the tacit reminders of the city’s growing income inequality, and luxury apartments to home Gangnam’s young professionals will soon add to the Han River skyline instead.

Profile of a Seoul consumer

To the outside world, this gloomy portrait of inequality is masked by the opulent world of Korean technology and consumerism – after all, that is what’s driving the country’s economy. Due to the influence of social media, an increasing number of Koreans travelling abroad and a rampant market economy, these consumers have gained an insatiable hunger for luxury goods. The sharp rise in the number of one-person households combined with the concurrent decline in three-generation households shows that young Koreans are choosing career-driven lifestyles, oriented around wealth and social status, rather than the Confucian model of their parents and grandparents.

Their consumption habits are driven by a desire for the newest commodities – up to date, never-before-seen freshness. Trust me: it sells. And this doesn’t just apply to domestic products: Western imports also fly off the shelves – with hefty price tags attached. In today’s Korean society, your purchases reflect your social status more than ever before – so it’s imperative that you have the right amount of disposable income.

As the prosperity of South Korea’s economy is enjoyed by its younger generation like Psy’s Gangnam yuppies, insufficient social welfare awaits those on whose backs the success was built. This imbalance is an unwelcome side effect of Seoul’s rapid development, and it’s beginning to undermine the very things that make South Korea glorious.

The future

Perhaps one of the clearest lessons we can take from South Korea is about the way in which technology and globalisation are changing our world. As Asian countries like South Korea begin to exude more and more global influence, the west is starting to take notice of Asian consumers and learn their habits. It’s important that we also gain a deeper understanding of the social context.

South Korea is creeping into the world’s top 10 countries by gross domestic product (GDP) and a new wave of Korean brands are emerging, operating in industries covering fashion to technology. But while this success can only be good for South Korea and the global economy, it’s important to keep shining a light on the country’s domestic issues. Seoul’s case may be exceptional, but these problems deserve attention.

While I remain on this side of the world, I’m happy to continue informing people who fail to pick up on the nuances of the sophisticated satire that is Gangnam Style. And FYI – Psy’s horse dancing is funnier when you see his show for yourself.

Rhianna is no longer with The Frameworks.

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  • Society
  • Technology
  • South Korea