Gangnam Style – A Symbol of Fast Urban Growth and Deep Inequality

By Yooil Bae (Fulbright University Vietnam) and Yu-Min Joo (National University of Singapore)

In 2012, South Korean singer Psy’s Gangnam Style became a global sensation, earning three billion views on YouTube. In several interviews, Psy mentioned that the theme of the song was intended to satirize the extravagant and speculative culture of the place (Jung and Li 2014). With his motto to “dance cheesy, dress classy,” the music video showed Gangnam’s trendy and luxurious lifestyle, as well as the high-rise properties of the wealthy. Indeed, Gangnam has become an emblematic and successful example of Korea’s compressed economic development. At the same time, it also began to symbolize deepening urban segregation, as Gangnam is concentrated with the super-middle class with socio-economic, and even political, superiority in South Korea. Similar urban scenes—dubbed as “Gangnam-ization” (Park and Jung 2017)—have also sprouted up in other metropolises of rapidly developing countries, including China and Indonesia.  

Gangnam’s transformation from cabbage fields and pear orchards into an iconic urban place was an outcome of the South Korean developmental state’s aggressive policies and incentives to advance its rapid growth. Both national and local governments designated Gangnam as a Development Promotion District, and throughout the 1970s and 1980s laid important infrastructure for residential development and transportation. They provided tax deductions for developers and landowners and relocated important urban infrastructures and amenities (e.g., bus terminals, government offices, and renowned public high schools). In addition, throughout the 1980s, Seoul’s government made full use of Gangnam’s underused land, as it prepared to host international sports games such as the 1988 Olympics (Joo 2019).

This state-led Gangnam development was quickly followed by fervid real estate speculation and began to attract Seoul’s upper-middle class families. As they moved into Gangnam’s new and modern housing units, major department stores, luxury shops, and rich cultural amenities also opened in Gangnam, catering to the rich customer base. Gangnam’s escalating housing prices further enriched its residents’ wealth, increasing the socio-economic gap between Gangnam and non-Gangnam within Seoul to a greater extent. Academics, mass media, as well as the public began to express their concerns about Gangnam’s wealth condensation and deepening urban inequality. Gangnam further cemented its symbolic image as the home of the powerful and new super-rich, separating itself from the rest of Seoul in its collective political choices (conservatism) and specific policy preferences (e.g., against comprehensive property tax). Education fever also became synonymous with Gangnam, concentrating the best private education institutions and tutors in the country. A dual image was thus constructed for Gangnam—a symbolic place for the nouveau riche and yet at the same time a place where Seoul’s urban middle class aspired to move into.

Why and how has Gangnam become a symbol of socio-economic segregation and political conservatism in a very short span of time? Some urban scholars might argue that socio-economically homogeneous residents of affluent communities, such as Beverly Hills, West Village Manhattan, and Gangnam, tend to mobilize themselves to promote the value of their properties and draw neighborhood boundaries using their superior status. Residents of those neighborhoods intentionally or unintentionally protect their interests through an economically or socially constructed barrier. Although this explanation focusing on “rent-seeking” has some explanatory power, it is a partial explanation to “Gangnam-ization.”

In our article, through a much deeper understating on “cognitive” aspects of urban identity, we argue that Gangnam’s urban identity and its consolidation are the outcome of multidimensional place-identity formation, involving “self,” “other,” and “future” identities. First, Gangnam identity is cultural and symbolic, as well as materialistic, and is repeatedly formed through mass media by the “others” (outsiders) who critically use “Gangnam style” as a metaphor for South Korea’s urban inequality. In return, Gangnam residents continue to consolidate their identity through strengthening social networks such as school and professional ties among themselves (“self”) and forming an entrance barrier with its high housing prices. In addition to this “self-other” identity formation, what we uniquely found in our field research is that both Gangnam and non-Gangnam residents demonstrated cultural and psychological attachment to Gangnam across time. We dub this “future identity.” We argue that envisioning future-selves that are attached to Gangnam’s distinctive lifestyle and socio-economic status has appeared in the forms of excessive investment in short-term and long-term investment in Gangnam’s expensive apartments, obsession with private education for children, and conservative political choices in elections.

Through the analyses of urban identity formation and its consequences in Gangnam, our “self-other-future identity” framework helps understand the process of urban segregation and inequality from a social-relations perspective. This framework has two important implications. First, cognitive process of urban identity formation is particularly interesting in understanding why metropolitan areas in developing countries might follow “Gangnam-ization,” reproducing similar forms of urban inequality. Second, a regulatory framework to control property price or taxation alone may not curve the trend of socio-economic and political disparity among urban communities. Only with a deeper understanding of people’s desires and the root causes of urban inequality can workable policy measures be sought after.   

References

Joo, Yu-Min. 2019. Megacity Seoul: Urbanization and the Development of Modern South Korea. London: Routledge.

Jung, SooKeung and Hongmei Li. 2014. “Global Production, Circulation, and Consumption of Gangnam Style.” International Journal of Communication 8: 2790–810.

Park, Bae-Gyoon and Jin-bum Jang. 2016. “The Gangnam-ization of Korean Urban Ideology.” In Developmental Cities? Interrogating Urban Developmentalism in East Asia, edited by Jamie Doucette and Bae-Gyoon Park, 134–61. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill.

Read the UAR article here.

Photo provided by authors: Tower Palace Residential Complex – a symbol of luxurious lifestyle and lavish culture in urban Gangnam.

Author Biographies

Yooil Bae is a lecturer and founding faculty at Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management, Fulbright University Vietnam. His main research areas cover comparative public policy and urban and regional political economy in East Asia. He authored and co-authored three books, and published urban and local government related papers in journals such as International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Democratization, Cities, and Habitat International.


Yu-Min Joo is an Assistant Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. Her research interests focus on urban development and governance issues in Asia, particularly on the topics of city branding, smart cities, global cities, urban revitalization, and multi-level governance. In addition to publishing a number of journal articles on the topics, she published Megacity Seoul: Urbanization and the Development of Modern South Korea by Routledge in 2019.

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