[FOUNTAIN]I've got your numberThere are currently 2.55 million automobiles registered in Seoul, including 1.91 million passenger cars. All those cars have license plates, just as people carry identification cards.
On its license plate, each car has a two-digit number identifying the district where the car is registered and a four-digit number. For example, a car registered in Jongno-gu has the number 30. A car registered in Jung-gu carries the number 31. Number 52 designates a car from Gangnam-gu and the number 54 is used for Gangdong-gu.
Recently, Gangnam-gu has begun to issue a new number, 55, because it had exhausted all the four-digit private numbers carrying the original local number 52. People may think that is natural, because Gangnam-gu is the wealthiest district in the nation and residents there are likely to own a lot of cars. But that might not be the true reason.
When Seoul residents were allowed to register their cars in districts where they do not reside, the cachet of having a license plate of the most privileged district of Seoul, Gangnam-gu, became apparent. Even further, some people say, you will see another reason for the rush to Gangnam license plates if you go to a luxurious entertainment spot or store there. Those establishments, rumor has it, quietly discriminate between customers based on whether the customer's car is large or small, new or old or imported or domestic and between cars carrying Gangnam license plates and those that do not.
To address that demand, car dealerships will hang license plates with the Gangnam-gu number on new cars if customers request those plates, or sometimes they use such plates as a marketing tool.
Cars have license plates for traffic safety and crime prevention reasons. In 1893, the Paris police obliged cars that could travel faster than 30 kilometers per hour to carry identification plates with the owners' name and address and the cars' registration numbers. The cars were much faster than horse-drawn carriages and accidents were frequent. The system spread to most of Europe by about 1900.
In Korea, the police began to issue license plates in 1914. At that time, the plates were black in color, and included the name of the city in which the car was registered. In the center of the plate was a two-digit number assigned by the police. At first, cars carried license plates only on the front, but later a rear plate was added as well.
It is a pity that license plates, meant to be used for traffic control, have now become a status symbol and a tool for snobbery and discrimination.
The writer is a JoongAng Ilbo editorial writer.
by Kim Seok-hwan