(510) Land Speculation
By Andrei Lankov
Recently, a long-time foreign resident of Korea told me a story about his mother-in-law's maid. This maid is in her 60s now, and for decades she has been coming once a week to share household work with the mistress of the house.
It is a part of life for both ladies, but there is a funny thing about it: the maid does not need to earn an extra buck any more.
Actually she has no need to work at all, since her private wealth is now estimated at several million dollars, and she is actually richer than her one-time employer. Where did all this money come from? Like many other Koreans, the maid invested wisely in the real estate market in the 1960s.
Koreans are not a nation of gamblers, but there is a fair share of speculators among them. In the post-liberation period, one item consistently attracted the speculators' attention: real estate.
Indeed, for many reasons the Korean share market remains rather underdeveloped, and it has never been a major draw for those looking to make a quick won. But real estate was, and it is surprising how well most of the speculators did.
There were ups and downs, of course, but for most of these postwar decades the market prices kept moving up, and this growth greatly outpaced inflation.
A lucky investor who in the 1950s or 1960s put a relatively small amount of money into a land plot in what then used to be on the outskirts of Seoul is now very rich. However, even a less lucky and less astute investor in all probability is doing reasonably well, too.
The major goldmine for the land speculators was the development of Gangnam, a vast area on the southern bank of the Han River. Until the mid-1960s, Seoul was located to the north of the river, while the opposite bank was occupied by numerous kitchen gardens, famous for their quality chili pepper.
The development of Gangnam began in the mid-1960s, and by the 1970s the new apartment complexes were mushrooming in the paddy fields.
By the early 1980s, the Gangnam area had already acquired its status as ``Korea's Manhattan,'' the place of urban sophistication and modernity. Needless to say, the prices of real estate in the area truly skyrocketed during this transformation.
Well, let's have a look at the figures. In 1963, before the decisions about the development of Gangnam were made, one pyeong (3.3 square meters) of land in the would-be Apgujeong area cost 400 won on average, while one pyeong of land in downtown Sindang-dong would then be sold for the average price of 20,000 won.
In 1971 when the development of Gangnam began to speed up, the price of one pyeong at Apgujeong had risen to 15,000 won. In other words, it was some 400 times higher than eight years before!
The downtown prices increased as well, but at a much slower pace: in 1971 one pyeong of land in Sindang-dong cost 150,000 won ― an eightfold increase. In 1979 one pyeong of Apgujeong land was valued at 350,000 won, or nearly 900 times the 1963 level.
The Apgujeong prices were only slightly below that in the old downtown (the Sindang-dong price in 1979 was 500,000 won per pyeong).
This means that a person who in 1963 sold some land in the downtown area to finance the purchase of a similar sized plot in the newly developing area would, in a mere 16 years, sell it and buy a plot which would be thirty times larger than the original one in the original downtown area.
Here we have been talking about average prices for rather large areas. There were instances when prices moved up even faster. For example, in one known case prices of land in a particular area increased 400 times in the space of three years form 1966 to 1968.
For the 1963-79 period, there were districts where the average land price increase reached 1,330 times ― this was the case with Hakdong. In some cases, the land titles changed hands every few weeks, but all speculators were happy since everyone made hefty profits.
In the late 1960s the government made some attempts to curb the speculation, but without much success. There were rumors of corruption and some officials allegedly made good money from their insiders' knowledge of the situation.
However, in most cases the speculators were Korean women in their 30s and 40s, who were called ``bokbuin'' or ``Madam Rich.'' This word was first introduced in 1978 and made popular by a 1980 movie.
The small and medium-scale land speculation, which produced quite a handsome profit, became the realm of these tough ajumma, who were usually well-educated and energetic.
Of course, speculation was not limited to the Gangnam area alone, even though it was the place where the largest fortunes were made in a particularly spectacular manner.
Similar events were taking place across the entire country, especially on the outskirts of the booming cities. Land prices were growing everywhere.
Land speculation was a risky kind of business, but, nonetheless, many people got involved in this type of activity. Many lucky ― and some unlucky ― speculators were women. Back in the 1960s and 1970, nearly all married Korean women were full-time housewives who, according to an established tradition, had control of the family purse.
They had time to gather information and analyze the current trends, as well as having the resources to invest, and many of them did so with great success.
This is one of the most interesting paradoxes of the traditional Korean family: essentially patriarchal, it still guaranteed a woman much power in some domains.
Prof. Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He has recently published ``The Dawn of Modern Korea,'' which is now on sale at Kyobo Book Center and other major bookstores. The book is based on columns published in The Korea Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org