K-pop: Seoul neighborhood rides the Korean wave

Story highlights

The Seoul government has announced plans to build a K-pop "music mecca" in the city's northern outskirts

It hopes to use the growing popularity of K-pop to attract tourists -- and money -- to revitalize a neglected suburb

CNN  — 

Forget Gangnam style. There’s a new area of Seoul that, if the South Korean government gets its way, is about to become synonymous with K-pop.

Once a rundown district, Changdong is being transformed into a mecca to K-pop – the manufactured music genre that has taken Asia by storm.

Sales of Korean music, and related TV shows, films, animations, games and other publishing, earned the country nearly $5 billion in 2015, according to a Korean Trade Investment Promotion Agency report.

Now the Seoul government is leveraging the “hallyu wave” – as this cultural phenomenon has been dubbed – to revive Changdong.

“From the Korean perspective, the hallyu-Korean wave, the K-pop wave, it’s not just music, it’s not just dramas,” Cuz Potter, an associate professor in urban planning at the Korea University Graduate School of International Studies, in Seoul, tells CNN.

“It’s the whole soft power of Korean goods.”

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Seoul gentrification

Changdong district, a relatively small residential commuter area, lies on the northern outskirts of Seoul. Home to a few hundred thousand people, it’s an area that’s growing but which has little cultural facilities or industry.

City planners hope that K-pop can do for Changdong what the Beatles did for Liverpool in the UK – indeed, what PSY has done for Gangnam, in Seoul – attracting both locals and tourists into the area, who could bring jobs and spending power with them.

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New South Korean dance craze lures foreigners
01:53 - Source: CNN

Concert halls, a music school, recording studios, art galleries, a K-pop museum and policies to encourage “pop musicians to move into the area” are all part of the plan, according to the Seoul Metropolitan Government.

A 20,000-seat multi-cultural entertainment arena is slated for completion by 2021, with a range of other supporting facilities to follow.

“Since the 1980s, the population in Changdong has increased rapidly. There was almost no cultural center so (it was) decided to have the arena set up first … and turn it into a youth and art complex,” Kim Dong Cheol, leader of the Seoul Metropolitan Government arena team, tells CNN.

Work has already begun on the project, while Platform Changdong 61 – a smaller cultural center built out of brightly-colored shipping containers, which features a concert hall, a recording studio, art galleries, cafes and retail stores – opened in April.

Platform Changdong 61 is the first K-pop cultural development to be built in Changdong.

The K-pop effect

Potter says this type of urban development is common in Seoul – a sprawling, modern metropolis, with a population of 10 million people in the city center, and 30 million regionally.

Many other parts of the city have been regenerated by turning them into a cultural hub, although none have yet used K-pop as the foundation.

“This idea that the government would step in and create a major hub is something that’s a familiar strategy for the Korean and the Seoul government,” says Potter.

“Gangnam itself was created in a similar kind of way in the 70s. They decided they were going to develop it intensively in order to get middle class and upwards people to move in that direction and forcibly moved all sorts of cultural institutions, in particular schools and universities, to support this strategy.”

It eventually become the Beverly Hills of Seoul, inspiring PSY to write his worldwide smash “Gangnam Style.”

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K-pop pull

It may seem gimmicky, and even a risk, to chance the revival of an entire area on the strength of K-pop, but the towering economic power of this industry gives city planners confidence.

Aside from hallyu’s export earnings, officials have carefully harnessed the recognition and respect popular culture has generated for South Korea to drive other industries, such as sales of industrial goods, including semi-conductors, and consumer goods, like electronics and cars.

“One of the other statistics that the Korean government has been working off is that for every $1 spent on the cultural industry you get $5 worth of sales of Korean cars or white goods or things like that,” Keith Howard, a Korean music and culture professor from the University of London, tells CNN.

And although the main overseas hallyu markets are in China, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong, K-pop has gained traction in the West in the past decade, thanks to government policies geared to foreign expansion. The US was the third largest market for overseas K-pop concerts from January 2013 to March 2016, according to Billboard magazine.

“It’s a strategic thing … there was a shift towards soft culture and it was led by (former president) Kim Dae-jung,” says Howard.

“It was a very deliberate policy to make Korea cool, to brand Korea through its popular culture and the South Korean government did promote that culture abroad and it continues to do so.”

Changdong style

From an urban redevelopment perspective, Potter and Howard both say the Changdong project “probably” has good economic sense behind it, if solely for the pulling power it will have with tourists.

Potter notes that the district is ideally located, at the end of a subway line that connects to the tourist shopping area of Myeong-dong. Plus, Howard says, more people visit Korea for popular culture than they do to see historic sites.

It could be K-pop’s biggest challenge yet.

Sol Han contributed to this report.