Korean pop music, or K-pop, is such an integral part of South Korean culture that the government has blared it through loudspeakers across the border with North Korea just to annoy Kim Jong Un. The music is a mix of genres, including pop, hip hop, and electronic, and mainly features glossy boy bands and girl groups whose labels strictly train them in dancing, singing, and comportment.
K-pop is also an economic boon for South Korea. Keith Howard, a professor at the University of London who has studied the genre, says that the country has seen a return of $5 for every $1 spent on K-pop—not only from the music, but from its role in selling other Korean products like Samsung phones and televisions. South Korean government agencies estimate that K-pop brought more than $11 billion to the economy in 2014.
It’s thus unsurprising that Seoul’s government is keen to dedicate an entire area of the capital—Changdong, in the northern outskirts—to K-pop. It started to move in this direction in April by opening Platform Changdong 61, an array of huge shipping containers painted vibrant colors and transformed into a concert hall and recording studios, plus art galleries, restaurants, and retail stores.
Next steps include the construction of an arena that will be the country’s biggest, at 20,000 seats, and will offer concerts 200 days a year. Plans for a music school and K-pop museum are also being considered.
A K-pop presence can already be found in the wealthier Gangnam area south of the Han River, made famous by K-pop artist PSY’s insanely viral 2012 video. It’s home to K-Star Road, a walking tour that takes tourists to a K-pop experience center, the major entertainment companies, and a bubble tea cafe popular with the stars.
Yet the government has chosen Changdong over Gangnam for the K-pop hub. Howard notes that Gangnam’s development since the 1980s has been rapid, overshadowing the older parts of Seoul north of the river, like Changdong. While Changdong was slated for development in the 1980s, and it now features apartment blocks rather than shantytowns, it didn’t become the cultural center that the government hoped for.
“Changdong has been perceived as underperforming compared to other regions in Seoul,” Lim Tai Wei, a lecturer at SIM University in Singapore who has studied Korean popular culture, tells CityLab via email. The city’s leaders believe the area is now ripe for growth, especially since an expressway connects it to roads leading to the airport.
Seoul’s government is looking to Liverpool and Austin for inspiration for Changdong’s scene. Lim writes that both cities provide lessons for Changdong due to their successful gentrification efforts, in part fueled by music. He also notes that Seoul is long overdue for a creative center in the tradition of other Asian megacities, such as Akihabara in Tokyo, the West Kowloon Cultural District in Hong Kong, and the Dashanzi Art District in Beijing.
“These areas eventually became centers of consumption and tourism,” he writes. “Changdong will likely become one, too.”