A look inside South Korea's money machine

park.jpgSubversive and South Korea are not words that you'll often see next to each other, but Park Jaesang's huge K-Pop hit "Gangnam Style" (more than 62 million views on YouTube) contains cultural references that are a lot more intriguing than this idiotic music video might suggest. The Atlantic's Max Fisher's helps translate:

Gangnam is a tony Seoul neighborhood, and Park's "Gangnam Style" video lampoons its self-importance and ostentatious wealth, with Psy playing a clownish caricature of a Gangnam man. That alone makes it practically operatic compared to most K-Pop. But I spoke with two regular observers of Korean culture to find out what I was missing, and it turns out that the video is rich with subtle references that, along with the song itself, suggest a subtext with a surprisingly subversive message about class and wealth in contemporary South Korean society. That message would be awfully mild by American standards -- this is no "Born in the U.S.A." -- but South Korea is a very different place, and it's a big deal that even this gentle social satire is breaking records on Korean pop charts long dominated by cotton candy.


One of the first things [Korean-American consultant] Adrian Hong pointed to in explaining the video's subtext was, believe it or not, South Korea's sky-high credit card debt rate. In 2010, the average household carried credit card debt worth a staggering 155 percent of their disposable income (for comparison, the U.S. average just before the sub-prime crisis was 138 percent). There are nearly five credit cards for every adult. South Koreans have been living on credit since the mid-1990s, first because their country's amazing growth made borrowing seem safe, and then in the late 1990s when the government encouraged private spending to climb out of the Asian financial crisis. The emphasis on heavy spending, coupled with the country's truly astounding, two-generation growth from agrarian poverty to economic powerhouse, have engendered the country with an emphasis on hard work and on aspirationalism, as well as the materialism that can sometimes follow. Gangnam, Hong said, is a symbol of that aspect of South Korean culture.

h/t The Dish

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Mark Lacter
Mark Lacter created the LA Biz Observed blog in 2006. He posted until the day before his death on Nov. 13, 2013.
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