Walking out of Gangnam Station, one of the first things you notice is a statue of dancers striking iconic poses from Psy’s Gangnam Style, an homage to the 2013 hit that made Seoul’s young business and technology district a household name. Look up, and you’ll see intimidating skyscrapers and the names of the multinational corporations they house. Look around, and you’ll see the glitzy storefronts that draw shoppers from across the city. Walk a bit, and you’ll eventually reach the enormous Coex Mall and a number of cultural institutions. It’s not hard to see why Gangnam is heralded as the place where South Korea’s future is made.
What you might not notice, however, is the street running through the heart of it all: Teheran-ro, or Tehran Boulevard. It’s become metonymous with economic progress in South Korea (hereafter just Korea), yet it is, seemingly perplexingly, named after the capital of Iran. The name, and the Korean-Iranian friendship it celebrates, hints at the decades-old story of how two nations pursuing their own interests created a mutually beneficial economic partnership, the story of which doesn’t make it into most Eurocentric accounts of globalization.
The name, and the Korean-Iranian friendship it celebrates, hints at the decades-old story of how two nations pursuing their own interests created a mutually beneficial economic partnership
Teheran-ro was first Samneung-ro, or “Three Royal Tombs Street,” named after the nearby ancient Sillan dynasty burial site. It was named after the Iranian capital to commemorate the creation of a sister-city pact between the two cities in 1977. Earlier that decade, Korea’s population was rapidly increasing and urbanizing, but the country was still far from being fully developed. The Seoul city government, searching for somewhere to house the growing labor force overwhelming the old city’s infrastructure, turned to Gangnam – then mostly farmland. The city government’s 2015 “Seoul Solution for Urban Development” report describes the many infrastructure projects initiated in 1970s Gangnam, which began the process of connecting a once-isolated area reachable only by boat to the metastasizing city core.
But the stagnation of the global economy in the early 1970s slowed progress, and, as the Seoul Solution report notes, many in the old city were hesitant to make a risky investment in new Gangnam property. Still, it was at this time that Gangnam began to represent the city’s future, bright or not. This made it a valuable and symbolic gift to Tehran, particularly because it replaced a symbol of its ancient history that was the “Samneung-ro” name.
Though Korea and Iran have been in contact for centuries, their economic friendship began in earnest in the early 1970s. According to Myongji University economics professor Shim Ui-Sup, Korea, a resource-poor country heavily reliant on imports, began developing its technology sector with a focus on labor-intensive engineering projects. This trend coincided with the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries’ (OPEC) 1973 oil embargo against several Western powers, including America.
Though widely remembered as an “oil shock” for its catastrophic impact on many Western economies and their allies, the embargo proved to be a boon for OPEC countries, including Iran, and, eventually, Korea. The former was flushed with oil-funded capital and eager to invest it in development projects but lacked a sufficient labor force to construct them; the latter was reliant on energy imports yet had a large, well-educated workforce, ready to move abroad and start building.
Shim’s paper “South Korean Workers and the Middle East Construction Boom in the 1970s” explains that Korean firms began winning contracts for huge construction projects in the Middle East and sending legions of migrant workers to the region. During the peak of the oil boom, between 1978 and 1979, Korea received more construction contracts in the Middle East than any other nation, displacing countries that had dominated the market early on, such as West Germany and America.
The strengthening economic ties between the two countries in the 1970s were reflected in a series of diplomatic meetings, trade missions, and cooperation agreements, including the 1976 Seoul-Tehran sister city pact. It was in this amicable climate that Samneung-ro became Teheran-ro, providing a physical reminder of the centrality of Iran to Korea’s development. Relations between the two countries cooled as a result of the 1979 Iranian revolution and wage spikes that shifted the focus of Korea’s economy, but they remain friendly today even despite their opposing alliances.
When considering the entirety of the street today, however, this legacy is hard to discern. The rapid construction of apartment complexes and office buildings in the 1980s may have been partially fueled by the 1970s economic partnership with Iran, but Gangnam seems to have modeled itself after the modern West. It’s wide streets, skyscrapers, pervasive English signs and Western brands contrast with the old city, which has also been extensively redeveloped yet still maintains more traditional narrow streets lined with hanok-style buildings.
It’s also easy for an uninformed observer to understand Teheran-ro’s name as just another manifestation of Gangnam’s pervasive and general embrace of the global community. Before I started researching this article, I actually thought that Teheran-ro was just one of many internationally-named streets in Gangnam; I imagined that it might intersect with a Leondeon-ro or Nyu Yok-ro. The street is lined with world flags alternating with Korean ones, after all, each celebrating the many ideas and products exchanged between Korea and the international economy. For the past three decades, therefore, I can imagine that walking down Teheran-ro would be more likely to remind one of Korea’s close relationship with the world as a whole rather than Iran specifically.
While visitors can easily choose to remain ignorant of Teheran-ro’s origins, the name points the curious towards a more nuanced understanding of Korea’s economic development.
This may have been especially true since the 1990s, when more and more startups and IT companies arrived in Gangnam and people started referring to the area as “Teheran Valley,” rechristening it once more. The Silicon Valley reference celebrates Korea’s own innovative tech sector as well as the many American tech companies that have offices in the vicinity. This is another story of how Gangnam has been shaped by Korea’s engagement with the global economy, yet it is one that most observers, especially Western ones like myself, are much more familiar with.
It’s significant, therefore, that the “Teheran” in Teheran Valley has been kept, despite 1980s attempts to change its name and disassociate Korea from increasingly-isolated Iran. While Korea’s economy is still tied to Iran’s, the nation is much more powerful than it was in the 1970s, and it would likely lose little by renaming Teheran-ro. Instead, while visitors can easily choose to remain ignorant of Teheran-ro’s origins, the name points the curious towards a more nuanced understanding of Korea’s economic development. America’s influence was heavily present in both Korea and Iran in the 1970s, but the two countries still pursued economic self-interests that would have a negative or at least neutral impact on the hegemonic power.
Indeed, the plaque commemorating the naming of Teheran-ro contains only Persian and Hangul, one of the only signs in the area without an English translation – a memory of a moment when the global exchanges fueling the country’s growth were made without any Western parties, and a reminder that one can find traces of such complex, unexpected histories if they look carefully below the skyscrapers.