(551) Development of southern Seoul
Nowadays, few neighborhoods in Korea can rival the Gangnam area of Seoul when it comes to affluence and urban sophistication.
Since long ago, Gangnam ― the part of the city which is located on the southern bank of the Han river ― has been seen as the playground of the rich and powerful, but also as an embodiment of social inequality and a favorite target of the diatribes of the Korean left (whose leaders often reside there).
Real estate prices in Gangnam are exorbitant, and the ability to live in even a modest apartment there is seen as a sign of worldly success.
Against such background it seems bizarre that some 40 years ago the Korean government had to implement social programs which were aimed at promoting the area. In the early 1970s Seoulites were encouraged and even pressed to relocate to Gangnam.
There were good reasons why they were once reluctant to go there. Prior to the early 1960s all of Seoul was located on the northern bank of the Han River. The areas to the south of the river remained rural. Half a century ago what now is known as Gangnam was an area of small hamlets and vegetable plots (the chili pepper produced there was widely renowned).
When in the 1960s the government decided to develop these areas, few people would agree to relocate. The new apartment blocks looked modern, to be sure, but they were located in the middle of nowhere.
As of 1965, only three bridges crossed the river, so inhabitants of Gangnam had to spend hours commuting to and from their work somewhere in downtown Seoul (and there were almost no jobs in Gangnam).
In order to make the area attractive, the government had to develop the transport infrastructure first, and above all else, build bridges. In 1969, a new Hannam bridge was completed, greatly improving the transport connections of the newly developed Gangnam with downtown Seoul.
Interestingly, the engineers initially designed a bridge 20 meters wide with four lanes, but when work began, they were suddenly ordered to build on grander scale: the new bridge had to be 27 meters wide and had to have six lanes.
The reason was political: the then recently completed Taedonggang Bridge in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang was 25 meters wide, and South Korean capital’s newest bridge had to be larger than the similar structure erected by those “godless reds.”
Nowadays, since South Korea has won the intra-Korean competition completely, such incidents sound like a joke, but in those days Seoul leaders were deadly serious. At any rate, it did not hurt that the new bridge was so large: the growth of Gangnam soon exceeded all expectations.
In 1975-76, the Jamsu Bridge was built. Its name can be translated as submersible bridge, and indeed it was designed on assumption that every summer it would go underwater.
The money mattered in still poor Korea, city planners reasoned that much lower construction costs justified this unusual structure. After all, the Han River floods seldom lasted for more than two weeks a year, and for the other 50 weeks the new bridge was expected to carry traffic as normal.
However, even in the early 1970s the local people remained unenthusiastic about the new area, so additional measures had to be taken.
First of all, the Seoul-Busan expressway, the backbone of the emerging new, car-centered transportation network, deliberately terminated in Gangnam, miles away from the traditional heart of Seoul. It was assumed that people who had to travel to the countryside frequently would be inclined to settle down in the Gangnam area.
Following this same line of reasoning, a bus terminal was built in Gangnam. The massive building was opened in April 1977, and from July of the same year all bus terminals in the northern part of the city were closed down. So, one had to go to Gangnam to take an intercity bus.
Other more radical measures were also taken. In 1972 the Seoul administration introduced special restrictions on the development of Gangbuk, that is, all of Seoul at that time that was not Gangnam. According to the new regulations, one could not open entertainment facilities in a few key areas of Gangbuk.
The decree issued by the Seoul mayor stipulated that no licenses for new bars, night clubs, motels, dabang (teahouses) would be issued in downtown Seoul. All aspiring operators of such establishments (which can be generally described as “somewhat sleazy entertainment”) would rather have to think about going south in the most literal sense.
To encourage the growth of the new area, the government also used public funds to build large apartment complexes there, some of which housed low income families while other provided housing for officials.
All these measures helped. From around 1975 the real estate prices in the area skyrocketed, and by the early 1980s Gangnam began to acquire a status it still enjoys nowadays. So, it is funny to think of the measures which once had to be undertaken in order to encourage people to move into what once was a remote and underdeveloped neighborhood.
Prof. Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.