Developing Gangnam – Water, State, and Society in Modern Korea

Sang-ho Ro, Assistant Professor
Ewha Womans University

In this paper, I will examine how modern state and society in Korea closely cooperated with empires in order to dominate Mother Nature. Especially, my interest is the historical formation of Gangnam, the urban center of Seoul, which at present symbolizes luxurious lifestyle and space of modern Korean middle-class consumers. The Gangnam did not exist as residential and commercial areas until multiple agents chose to work together for taming the Han River. The modern alliance for human dominance over nature crossed ethnic and national boundaries of Koreans and non-Koreans in the twentieth century. Foreign powers – the Japanese Empire before WWII and the U.S. after WWII – initiated water control in Han River for their own purposes in the peninsula. Also, the Pak Chŏng-hŭi administration and the following Chŏn Tu-hwan administration not only used the colonial legacy of autocratic developing state, but also actively collaborated with the USAID for controlling Han River and making Gangnam. The 1988 Seoul Olympics completed the birth of Gangnam as if South Korea as a modern nation finally could conquer the Han River. Although their mission of domination was less than perfect, I would like to argue in this paper that the history of developing Gangnam will give us a deeper insight into the rise of modernizing regime in Korea which can be better understood by transnational perspectives.

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