Changsin-dong_ The Preserved First Step in South Korean Industry > K-POP

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Changsin-dong_ The Preserved First Step in South Korean Industry

  • Name : korea
  • Date : 2023-07-10 13:11:07
People come to Dongdaemun for the latest in fashion and design, and for good clothing in bulk. People come to Seoul in general for the latest in technology, entertainment, and beauty, and for a vast, clean, high-speed city. 

But it’s pertinent to wonder what it took for South Korea to grow into this position, to be able to offer such products and innovation (given that, not long ago, it was one of the poorest countries in the world), and to consider the diligent labor that goes into it. 

If, when shopping in the modern, bustling Dongdaemun, you take a break from the noise and movement of the markets to walk past the East Gate, past the Seoul City Wall and up Naksan Mountain, you’ll find yourself entering the cliff-side neighborhood where much of the clothes sold in Dongdaemun comes from: Changsin-dong. And Changsin-dong is rich in history, having been the production site for what Dongdaemun began as in the 1960s, and thus being the setting for the beginnings of the Korean workers’ movement, as well as the beginning of Korea’s industrialization and economic development. 


Walking through the narrow, steep streets of Changsin-dong, you hear the whirring of sewing machines coming from all sides. Through windows, you see fabrics, thread rolls, needles, and mannequins, and through grates in the ground and on the side of roofs, exhaust fumes float out, from the textile machines operating inside. Motorcycles weave through streets and alleyways carrying bagfuls of materials and clothes to deliver either to other household factories in the area (for the next stage of manufacturing) or to the Dongdaemun markets (to be sold). 
Today, it is the largest sewing industry cluster in Korea, home to around 900 sewing factories, and is equipped with an incredibly fast manufacturing system, through which the latest clothing designs can be produced within a few days. Textile factories are held in the houses lining the street, and clothing makes its way down the hill, from house to house, going through different stages of manufacturing, until it is picked up by motorcycles and taken to the markets. 

This practice dates to long ago, when South Korea was trying to recover after the Korean War. 
In the 1960s, as developed countries increased in income and South Korea remained one of the
poorest economies in the world, the country decided to adopt a labor-intensive light industry export-led growth model. Young women worked in factories making textiles and wigs, and these two became Korea’s major exports, supplying the growing global economy. Though a simple, humble production process, this was Korea’s first step in escaping its dire poverty.

The center of Korea's clothing industry in the 1960s and 1970s was Pyeonghwa Market. This market began with North Korean refugees selling clothes at the end of the Korean War, but was given a proper concrete structure in 1962. From that point, it grew in its production scale, with hundreds of Korean women working in its low-ceilinged, poorly-ventilated attics. 

Pyeonghwa Market is the birthplace of today’s Dongdaemun fashion markets. The structure still stands today, on the outskirts of the now much larger and modernized shopping district.A model of what the working conditions looked like for these women is showcased at the Jeon Taeil Memorial Hall museum: small, cramped sewing stations, stacked on top of each other in bunks and set side-by-side, where women worked long hours, were vulnerable to disease, and were paid very low wages. 


Jeon Taeil was a young man who, becoming a garment worker for the Pyeonghwa Market at the age of 17, saw the injustice of work conditions first-hand. He studied the Labor Standards Act and founded the Fool’s Association (a labor movement organization of garment workers), to bring awareness to how labor regulations described by the law were being ignored. 


When his efforts were met with resistance by the government, he made a final demonstration at the age of 22, by setting himself and the book of Labor Standards Act on fire. 

His sacrifice mobilized workers, leading to the formation of the labor union movement, which gradually improved working conditions in Korea. He is an important figure still mourned and celebrated today. 

A brightly-colored image of Jeon Taeil is displayed on a building wall in Changsin-dong. 

Walking through Changsin-dong, you will also see signs detailing the history of the sewing village and the important figures within it, and on one building, a striking mural commemorating the women who, with hard work and suffering, held up the country’s garment industry.

It is important to remember this history. The sewing museum that was once in the neighborhood has closed down, and the Seoul city government recently announced its plan for Changsin - dong’s redevelopment. But for now, the cliffside village by the wall is the same as it has been for decades. 


Today, South Korea is leading the world in industry and technology, but it achieved this in a miraculously short time. And one of the first steps in this achievement was women making clothes.

Long ago, the Seoul City Wall was built in only 98 days; today, in a neighborhood just beyond it, women supply an entire shopping district with entirely new clothes in a single day. The secret for how South Korea went from extreme poverty to the 13th largest GDP in the world in only a few decades lies between these two facts. It is a story of hard-working, organized, and efficient people, who labor on in the face of hardship.



 By Caroline Ketelhohn, Summer Intern 


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