Korean language and culture series: Gangnam, Gangbuk, and Chaebols

One of the most frequently appearing character-types in Korean dramas is a “chaebol.” What exactly is a chaebol, and do they really all live in Gangnam?


Any extremely rich person is sometimes (mistakenly) called a chaebol. But a chaebol specifically refers to the head of large family-controlled conglomerates found in South Korea. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, a conglomerate is defined as a “corporation formed by the acquisition by one firm of several others, each of which is engaged in an activity that generally differs from that of the original.”

An example of a Korean chaebol is Lee Kun-hee, the current head of Samsung Group, whose subsidiaries include business areas as wide and diverse as electronics, shipbuilding, insurance, construction, and many others. The original Samsung Group was founded by his father, the late Lee Byung-chul. And after his death, Samsung Group was split between his sons and daughters into four conglomerate groups – the present day Samsung Group, CJ Group (a company holding businesses in food, entertainment and media, etc.), Shinsegae Group (department stores, discount stores, hotels, Starbucks Korea, construction, IT, fashion, etc.), and Hansol Group (chemicals, construction, household interiors, paper products, telecom, etc.).

Currently, most of the CEOs are at the 2nd generation (in other words, they are the children of the founder, Lee Byun-chul), but many of their kids (the folks from the 3rd generation) are already taking an active role in their respective companies.

What I mean to highlight by this example is that a chaebol is a head of a conglomerate. Owning a hotel will make you very rich, but not a chaebol. Owning a large publishing company will make you very rich, but not a chaebol. Even owning a large restaurant chain with branches throughout the country may mean you’re very wealthy, but not a chaebol! This is a misunderstanding held by many people as they watch dramas, perhaps because even native Koreans use the term “chaebol” very loosely in our daily lives to describe anyone with a successful big business. In fact, there are many wealthy people in Korea, as there are in any other developed countries. But there are only several dozens of chaebols in all of Korea.

The quintessential fictional chaebol character is Gu Jun-pyo (played by LEE MIN HO) in Boys Over Flowers. He is described as the heir to the fictional Shinhwa Group, a conglomerate whose businesses included that of electronics, automobile, oil, distribution, and telecommunications. Other fictional chaebol characters include SONG SEUNG HUN’S Park Hae-young character in My Princess and the fictional JK Group in Royal Family.

Interestingly, many fictional characters who are described as a chaebol may not satisfy the criteria for being a chaebol after all. For instance, SBS’s TV Entertainment News aptly pointed out that despite touting himself as a “leader of society”, HYUN BIN’S Kim Joo-won character in the SBS drama Secret Garden did not appear to operate any other business besides Loel Department Store. And thus, Kim Joo-won may be embarrassed to discover that he would not be classified as a chaebol in real life, but just a wealthy “commoner”.

Can you think of any other examples of drama characters who may really not have been a chaebol after all? Perhaps there really aren’t as many chaebol characters in Korean dramas as you may have initially believed!


Korean dramas feature many moneyed people. I guess the drama makers believe that viewers would be far more interested in watching the fantasy world of people living out a different lifestyle from our own than those of everyday ordinary folks. A casual drama watcher may misunderstand that all these moneyed people are chabeols. But in fact, there are many wealthy character types who are in fact not categorized as a chaebol. Here are some examples:

1. The “Big Hand” (lending kingpins)

“Keun sohns” (literally translated as the “Big Hands”) are the big-time investors. In dramas, they’re often times depicted as older folks with a humble beginning, who through smart investments or lucky windfalls from lottery winnings or the Gangnam’s real estate boom, acquired and collected great wealth in the form of readily disposable assets (i.e. cash!). These disposable assets are their source of power, for even chaebols may sometimes be at the mercy of the Big Hands to borrow large sums of money within a very short notice and without having to go through the formal loan application process at banks.

The Big Hands often appear in corporate dramas, like Midas and Giant, where winning their favor may spell the difference between success or failure for the drama characters. For instance, in Giant, Lee Gangmo (LEE BUM SOO) manages to win the trust and the favor of the Big Hand, Baekpa (LIM HYUK), which serves as a turning point in his business venture.

In Twinkle Twinkle, Seung-joon (KIM SUK HOON)’s mother is described as Jongno’s Big Hand (KIM JI YOUNG). Her money-hungry ways serve as a conflict between the mother and the son.

I’m not sure whether this is a true reflection of real-life Big Hands, but like Baekpa, fictional Big Hands in dramas and films often have nicknames that start with the word “Baek” (translates as “White”). For instance, Seung-joon’s mom in Twinkle Twinkle earned the nickname “Baek Gom,” or “White Bear.” Jung Won (KIM HYUN JOO) wonders why, and lists some other possible choices, including “White Tiger,” “White Snake,” “White Wolf,” “White Seagull,” and “White Shark.” She even lists “Baeksook,” or “White Chicken.” But then realizing that “baeksook” is the name for a boiled chicken dish, she thinks better of it and finally arrives at “Baek Jangmi” (“White Rose”) and finds it satisfactory, much to the dismay of Seung-joon’s mom.

2. Nouvea riche

Like the Big Hands, nouveau riche are those who through smart investments or lucky windfalls from lottery winnings or the Gangnam’s real estate boom, acquired great wealth. Unlike the Big Hands, they’re not necessarily a big-time investor or the mover and shaker of the nation’s economy, although a select few may grow into Big Hands. Vice versa, not all Big Hands are nouveau riche either.

There are many nouveau riche in Korea who became “overnight millionaires” because they happened to have owned or invested in land at Seoul’s Gangnam area at the brink of its development boom in the 1970s. There are many real-life accounts of poor farmers who owned farming land in the Gangnam area, and suddenly found themselves millionaires and owners of the most sought-after land in Korea.

For example, in Family Honor, Lee Kang-suk’s (PARK SHI HOO) dad was a poor scrap collector. One day he found a rare antique vase, and used the money he earned from selling the vase to purchase some land in the Gangnam area. That turned out to be a very smart investment, for the value of Gangnam’s land soared and Kang-suk’s family ended up making millions.

Many of these people continued to invest in real estates and became real estate tycoons. Although the drama never explained it to be so, I suspect Dong-woo’s (LEE TAE SUNG) mother (played by KIM SUMI) in Hooray for Love also acquired her wealth in a similar manner.

Although these characters are extremely rich, it would be wrong to categorize them as chaebols because they don’t operate a large conglomerate. However, I’ve often seen them incorrectly called the “real estate chaebols.”


Gangnam, also sometimes spelled as Kangnam, literally means “south of the river.” The opposite of Gangnam is Gangbuk, which means “north of the river.” The river in question is of course in reference to Han River, which cuts through Seoul.

Seoul is divided into 25 districts, called “gu.” In fact, there is a district called Gangbuk-gu north of the river and there is a district called Gangnam-gu south of the river. However, when Koreans talk about something being located in Gangbuk, they are usually referring to any one of the several districts located north of Han River. In contrast, when Koreans refer to something being located in Gangnam, they are usually referring to the specific district, Gangnam-gu. (Sometimes, the two neighboring districts, Songpa-gu and Seocho-gu, along with Gangnam-gu, are collectively called Gangnam.)

As depicted in the drama Giant (SBS, 2010), Gangnam saw rapid development in the 1970s and the value of its land soared several hundreds of a thousand-fold. Just a few decades ago, this land where calves once roamed became the stage for unprecedented level of development and growth.

Gangnam-gu has earned a reputation to be one of the most affluent districts in Seoul. In general, for the same living arrangement, real estate prices are higher in Gangnam-gu than in other Seoul districts. With wealthy neighborhoods like Apgujeong-dong and Cheongdam-dong all located within Gangnam-gu, many professionals like doctors and lawyers have made their home in Gangnam. Many top-star celebrities also live in Gangnam.

By no means is everyone in Gangnam rich, however. In fact, many are middle class or upper middle class folks lured there by convenient living, status quo, and better schools for their kids, similar to American upper middle class suburbs. The stereotypical Gangnam mothers as depicted in dramas like Catch a Gangnam Mother (SBS, 2007) are fiercely competitive about sending their kids to the best schools and best cram schools, and well, this stereotype is for the most part true.

However, the topic here is not about upper middle class folks making six-figure salaries, but on chaebols and not-quite-chaebols making millionaires. In fact, the wealthiest neighborhoods (called “buchon”) in Seoul are not located in Gangnam, but in small pockets located in Gangbuk, north of the river.

The most representative buchon neighborhoods in Seoul are Seongbuk-dong (in Seongbuk-gu), Pyeongchang-dong (in Jongno-gu), and Hannam-dong (in Yongsan-gu). They’re all located north of the river.

Seongbuk-dong (in Seongbuk-gu) has earned the reputation as the “original chaebol’s neighborhood.” Currently, about 100 chaebols and other wealthy businessmen, most notably the Hyundai Group family members, make their home in Seongbuk-dong. Bankers who specialize in millionaire clients all agree that the really rich folks all gather in Seongbuk-dong. In fact, it has been shown that the spending by Seongbuk-dong’s residents shopping at department stores is three times that of wealthy residents of Gangnam and other affluent neighborhoods. A representative from a high-end department store, Galleria, agreed. An analysis of their customer spending revealed that their Seongbuk-dong’s resident customers spent on average twice that of their Apgujeong-dong’s resident customers. (Source: Hankyung Magazine)

Seongbuk-dong has always been known for lack of real estate turnovers. Once people moved in, they rarely ever moved out. Hence, many Seongbuk-dong residents are first-generation chaebols in their 60s-80s. Most Koreans are well aware of Seongbuk-dong’s reputation as the “old money” neighborhood. When singer Jang Yoon Ju and Park Kyung Lim dressed in their hanboks to the Lunar New Year special of the variety show Quiz to Change the World, one of the other guests commented that Jang Yoon Ju’s purple hanbok gave her the aura of a “Seongbuk-dong madam,” whereas Park Kyung Lim’s colorful hanbok gave her the aura of a “nouvea riche madam.”

Hannam-dong (in Yongsan-gu) is another very well-known buchon of Seoul. Whereas many Hyundai folks live in Seongbuk-dong, Hannam-dong is where many Samsung and LG folks reside. Although not in Hannam-dong itself, the richest Korean, Lee Kun-hee (of Samsung) owns one of his many houses in the neighboring Itaewon-dong (also in Yongsan-gu). (Source: Hankooki.com)

Finally, Pyeongchang-dong (in Jongno-gu) is another traditionally affluent neighborhood and often featured in dramas. Some fictional drama characters residing in Pyeongchang-dong include Joo-won’s (HYUN BIN) mom in Secret Garden.

The Big Hand (“White Bear”) and Han Jung-won’s (KIM HYUN JOO) family, who owned a publishing company, were Pyeongchang-dong neighbors in Twinkle Twinkle

And in Golden Fish, Han Ji-min (JO YOON HEE) married into a family owning a hospital and residing in Pyeongchang-dong. Due to the many moneyed people living in Pyeongchang-dong, people actually speak of the “Pyeongchang-dong’s daughter-in-law fashion” to describe its residents’ preferred fashion choice, illustrated by Jo Yoon Hee in Golden Fish.

That said, although many first-generation and older second-generation chaebols live in Gangbuk, there has been a trend of many younger second-generation and third-generation chaebols moving out of Gangbuk and moving into Gangnam, most notably the Cheongdam-dong and Dogok neighborhoods. (Source: dongA.com)



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  1. foraredrose

    Thank you very much for the enlightening post! I think I fall in the category of people calling every extremely wealthy character a chaebol, and I won’t be doing that anymore! Also, the explanation of Seoul’s districts was great! :D

  2. snow

    i am really loving this k-culture series! thank you for making culture fun and interesting! will you be doing a post on korean food? for example, table etiquette, the kinds of food/drinks drama characters often eat and drink?

    1. blue

      Post(s) on Korean food is definitely on the lineup!

  3. thundie

    Such an interesting and informative post. LOVE it!!

  4. bella012

    You can also add the Leeum museum tothe Samsung holdings as well. Lee Kun Hee’s wife’s pet project that later turned into a museum and probably one of the best museums i have been in many years.

  5. joonni

    You’re amazing, you know that, right?

  6. cha

    thank u!! great post!

  7. ditdut

    gah, I LOVE your informative posts! if I can make a request, can you post about the enigma of Korean mother in laws? Why are they so often portrayed as such a domineering presence? Is it true to real life?

  8. Sophia

    Thanks for the very interesting article.

  9. InLove

    Yeah! Thank you so much for the post. The Korean language and culture series are always my favorite post to read :)

  10. kcomments

    Thanks, Blue, very informative as always ^_^

  11. nonski

    Thanks for the post Blue! So informative and elaborate. :)

  12. supah

    Blue, this is so cool! Your cultural posts are always so rich and resourceful.
    The Big Hand aspect is pretty interesting, I thought he existed only in the world of Sandglass and Giant. But turns out such figures really did exist, or still do.

    A bit off-topic but I was wondering whether you might have heard more news on the drama Doll Mask? I first heard you mention it on this blog and am intrigued, especially since it covers the Japanese colonial era. I’m now seeing it listed as an upcoming KBS drama but that’s all the details I’m getting. Hope it comes into existence soon and has decent enough talent behind it and hey, a good cast (since KBS is becoming notorious for its bad casting decisions lately)!

    1. blue

      Hi Supah!
      Big Hands definitely do still exist, although I’m not sure how accurate the drama depictions are. Actually, “Big Hand” is a common term to describe someone with a lot of money whose cash flow could influence an entire economy of a business sector, so there are definitely Big Hands in other countries as well, although they just may not be called as such.

      I’m looking forward to Doll Mask/Bride Mask as well, especially since I like stories taking place during the Japanese occupation era and I’ve watched the 80s cartoon version as a kid. I’m slightly wary of it though because I don’t think I’ve ever liked any of the dramas that were based off of Heo Young Man’s manhwa though.

      The good news is that as recently as this month, there have been news articles being published about how the drama will be made by KBS early next year. So it looks like the drama is still on. There have been no further news, either on the director, screenwriter, or the cast. From what I’ve read so far, it looks like this will be a KBS in-house drama, which in my book is always a good thing. Most of the bad KBS dramas in recent years have been those that had been out-sourced to outside production companies.

      1. supah

        Ooh… Thanks girl, I’ll continue to keep an eye out for this. Excited! :D

  13. folie a deux

    Now I understand the context behind PSY’s Gangnam style, thanks for this article :)

  14. porcelain

    I think Joo Won family is involve is more than just department store business in Secret Garden. Wasn’t there the development of some sort of resort which the action school went for MT and the spa that his mom goes to that belongs to the family too… so what could SBS’s TV Entertainment News be discounting themselves… that definitely more than wealthy commoner and almost a chaebol :)

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