In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Seoul transformed itself from a forbidding, treacherous teeming place where all designer garments were phony into an alluring and rich global mega-city where people are staggeringly well-dressed, but they still have to hang out in parking garages. This paradox is the extraordinary license of wealthy nations; countries scramble for wealth; then they succumb to the enervation that comes with it.
A manifestation of this new modernism, “Gangnam Style” signals the surfacing of satire in South Korea, the concluding stage in any nation’s development. Irony may not be a gauge of eliteness but South Korea has often been accused of having no irony, the Korean language has no word for irony. It’s easy to grasp Korean’s inability to accept irony. You can’t have irony when you’re being chastened by sticks everyday at school.
Gangnam is Seoul’s snobbiest locality, Apgujeong, is sometimes called the Beverly Hills of Seoul; the major shopping street is named Rodeo Drive. Throughout Korea this inspires a thorny mixture of craving, greed and acrimony. Gangnam may be the most desirable address in Korea, but less than two generations ago it was little more than some pitiful homes bordered by flat farmland and drainage ditches. Having ditched it’s past (pardon the pun) it now mirrors the style of Korea’s new money social élite. The district of Gangnam, which literally means “south of the river”, is about half the size of Manhattan. About 1 per cent of Seoul’s population lives there, but many of its residents are very rich. The average Gangnam apartment costs about 500,000 English pounds, a sum that would take an average South Korean household 18 years to earn.
The new wealth has drawn the trendiest boutiques and clubs and a propagation of plastic surgery clinics, but it also provided admission to something considered imperative in modern South Korea: top-notch education in the form of esteemed private tutoring and schools. Gangnam households spend nearly four times more on education than the national average. Kim Zakka, a Seoul-based pop music critic says, “Gangnam inspires both envy and distaste,” “Gangnam residents are South Korea’s upper class, but South Koreans consider them self-interested, with no sense of noblesse oblige.”
The changes in Korean are further re-inforced by the development of the Korean Wave. Over the past few years, Korean popular culture, often abbreviated as “K-pop,” has gained mammoth popularity in many countries. Following the initial surge of interest in Korean television dramas and popular music, nowadays all things Korean (from food, movies and dances to fashion and language) are quite the rage. The cultural wave, or hallyu, is establishing itself as a global phenomenon that has already washed over East Asia and is now reaching the shores of Europe, Latin America and the Middle East. As a result, there are now more than 830 hallyu fan clubs in more than 80 countries, with a total of 6 million members.
It’s all a far cry from 1997, the same year the colony of Hong Kong was handed over by the British to the Chinese. South Korea was historically so humiliated by the notion of borrowing money, that when it received $57 billion in IMF bailout funds former President Kim Young-Sam told his country via television that he was in shame, “whipping himself every day”, at having delivered his country into this situation. A national advertising campaign urged citizens to help pay off the debt; wealthy women supposedly donated their jewelry to be melted down and used to pay back the debt; which Korea repaid by August 2001; three years’ ahead of schedule. Now, however, South Koreans are drowning in debt surpassing that of the U.S. pre-subprime crisis. Just shopping at E-mart with my solo debit card I often see people trying 3 or 4 credit cards before they get to one that works! Does this remind you of the UK?
So much for progress!