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South Korea

Over-The-Top Korean Weddings, Gangnam-Style

The neighborhood in Seoul known to Westerns from Psy's mega-hit single is also the place status-conscious South Koreans go to get married. But something is lost in all the ritz.

A wedding in Gangnam
A wedding in Gangnam
Jason Strother

SEOUL – Ahn Eun-mi and Nick Derret got married in the Gangnam district of South Korea's capital. Now famous around the world thanks to the 2012 record-breaking song and video Gangnam expand=1] Style, the neighborhood has long been known to locals for its ritz and glamour.

And in status-conscious South Korea, one of the first things people look for on a wedding invitation is the address. “Many people think it’s a good place and they want to show off that they got married in Gangnam. It is not our case…” says Ahn.

Though Derret also dismisses those who choose it for "showing off,” he does note the convenience of having a cluster of marriage-related businesses, that has become known as "wedding town."

Inside this one particularly large wedding hall in Gangnam, separate ceremonies are taking place on each floor. In one room, designed to look like a European chapel, a bride enters the room in a luxurious white dress. Thirty minutes from now, after this couple will be married, another bride and groom will do the exact same thing.

Lee Dong-young is a manager at the Raum Wedding Hall, one of the most expensive places in Seoul for newlyweds to tie the knot. He says he never has a problem finding clients willing to pay. “Location is very important in this business. Gangman is the home of many of Korea’s top companies and the families who live here are very well off. So it makes sense for their children to have their weddings in this neighborhood.”

There’s no such thing as a cheap wedding in South Korea, for any family.

Government statistics show that middle-class couples and their families often spend at least $100,000 on the whole event.

Choi Seong-hee has planned and directed weddings in Gangnam for about ten years. She says it’s perhaps the most desired location in the entire country to get married.

“Even if someone doesn’t live here, they want the Gangnam experience. All the expensive luxury brands are located here, as well as all the best businesses. People want to spend their time here, meet their friends, live their life here as much as they can. They crave to live here and to work here. And have their weddings here too.”

Choi says, it’s her job to connect these couples with all the right businesses in a one-stop shopping approach to putting on a wedding.

“All the wedding halls, beauty shops, dress shops and wedding photo studios are all concentrated around here. Women from other cities want to come here because they know they can put together their entire wedding in one go.”

Old customs die away

One of the shops that Choi introduces to her brides-to-be belongs to wedding dress designer Lee Seong-mi. Her work has appeared in international bridal magazines and in fashion shows overseas.

After Lee was done helping one of her clients pick out the right dress, she tells me that Seoul has long had a wedding district, but it wasn’t always in Gangnam.

“Gangnam is now the Mecca for weddings, but it wasn’t like that 20 years ago when I first started making dresses. At that time it was located near Ewha Women’s University, it was called Wedding Street. But about ten years ago the wedding industry started to move south of the Han River and that’s when I came to Gangnam too.”

Lee says the move from the old wedding street to Gangnam reflects the overall change in wedding tastes in Korea.

“When I had a shop there, there were about 100 other wedding related shops along that street. At the time the style was simpler, with mostly conventional dresses sold there. But since moving to Gangnam, I would say that I have been able to make more high-end designs.”

Lee’s dresses aren’t for the budget wedding shopper. They cost around $7,000 for a 2-day rental of a 5-piece set of her signature crystal beaded dresses.

Guests help offset all the costs of weddings in Korea. As soon as they arrive at the wedding, they hand over an envelope, filled with cash to a clerk who sits at a desk outside the hall. Their names and the amount they give is recorded. They receive a coupon for the post-ceremony buffet in return.

Wedding planner Choi Seong-hee confesses that ceremonies these days do seem rather business-like. She says something was lost during South Korea’s economic development.

“In the past, Korean families would stay up all night before the wedding, cooking. It was a real community event," she says. "Now we have adopted some Western wedding styles, but in appearance only. Ceremonies are so quick and expensive, you can’t even tell if the couple is enjoying it. It seems too much about money.”

Choi adds, she just wants to make the couple happy — no matter the cost.

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As hostilities flare again between Serbia and Kosovo, the writer draws connections between the dissolutions of both the USSR and Yugoslavia, and the leaders who exploit upheaval and feed the worst kind of nationalism.

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-Analysis-

At high school in Kyiv in the late 1990s, we studied the recent history of Yugoslavia: the details of its disintegration, the civil wars, the NATO bombing of Belgrade. When we compared Yugoslavia and the USSR, it seemed evident to us that if Boris Yeltsin or Mikhail Gorbachev had been anything like Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, bloody wars would have been unavoidable for Ukraine, Belarus, and other republics that instead had seceded from the Soviet Union without a single shot being fired.

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Fast forward to 2020, when I visited Belgrade for the first time, invited for a friend's wedding. Looking around, I was struck by the decrepit state of its roads, the lack of any official marked cabs, by the drudgery, but most of all by the tension and underlying aggression in society. It was reflected in all the posters and inscriptions plastered on nearly every street. Against Albania, against Kosovo, against Muslims, claims for historical justice, Serbian retribution, and so on. A rather beautiful, albeit by Soviet standards, Belgrade seemed like a sleeping scorpion.

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