The Korean economic miracle may appear to have sputtered, but the country’s grasp on pop culture is growing visibly stronger every year. From K-pop to video games, the country is rapidly coming to dominate a hefty piece of global pop culture real estate. (Just yesterday, I overheard a snatch of conversation between two young teenaged white Canadian girls seated ahead of me on the streetcar: “Life was so boring before I discovered K-pop,” said one. The other sighed and nodded.)
This recent development has launched a whole subsidiary industry in books and articles struggling to define, analyse and understand the phenomenon. From colourful guides to K-pop for western audiences, to academic treatises on the symbolic import of Korean anime, there’s a new growth industry in chronicling and explaining (and cashing in on) the Korean pop culture craze. Much of this literature is tedious, simplistic and reductive; couched in crass stereotypes, mind-boggling generalizations or inaccessibly obscure theory.
Amid all the chaff, however, there are some gems worth reading, and Euny Hong’s new book The Birth of Korean Cool is a sparkling gem that falls into the must-read category. It explores the rise and tenacious grasp of Korean pop culture, offering a thorough treatment of K-pop music and videos, television programming, cinema, and even video games and technology. Collectively referred to as ‘hallyu’ – a word loosely translated as ‘Korean wave’, referring to the K-culture craze – these individual tentacles have all played a vital role in creating a self-perpetuating image brand for Korean pop culture: the birth of Korean cool.
The book is sub-titled ‘How one nation is conquering the world through pop culture’, and it’s not meant as hyperbole. Although the book is engaging, easy to read and occasionally humorous and light-hearted, it’s also a fact-filled investigative study with a definite thesis: Korea is deliberately and successfully using its pop culture as a means of asserting ‘soft power’ in the world (a term which political scientists use to describe “the intangible power a country wields through its image rather than through force”).
Furthermore, while it’s making successful inroads into the western world, Korea is particularly intent on building its influence in the third world of which it was until recently a part. By securing a dominant cultural presence in this world of emerging and future consumers, Korea is making a long-term investment; and one that’s already starting to pay off.
Hong’s professional background as a journalist is evident throughout. The chapters, while woven together in defence of her over-arching thesis, each read like individual feature articles. This is part of what makes the book so readable. Hong’s journalistic style combines explanatory commentary with research and interviews, striking just the right balance so as to render the book accessible for laypersons, and yet still interesting for those with a more professional (or personal) familiarity with the topic.
The range of people she interviews is impressive: from celebrity chefs to school board officials, music industry executives, senior government bureaucrats, K-pop stars, bloggers and more. And the range of topics she covers is impressive, too. From shamanism to school beatings to kimchi, her scope is broad yet she succeeds admirably in making each detour fascinating, and then finding connections where one would least expect them.
A Korean-American who has herself drifted between the two countries since her childhood, never quite at home in either, Hong draws extensively from her own experience in offering illustrative examples of the topics she covers. Parts of the book become almost a memoir, but far from detracting this actually enhances the overall effect, enabling her to illustrate her arguments with vibrant (and often humorous) examples.
The recent push on K-culture is, Hong says, deeply rooted in Korea’s experience in the economic crises of recent years. This produced a number of effects: a deep sense of shame about the country’s image when it was forced to request a loan from the International Monetary Fund; a realization that the country’s image abroad mattered a very great deal (to attract investors); and a realization that it could no longer rely on the traditional corporate conglomerates to keep the country afloat: if these crashed (as they were doing), the whole economy crashed.
In an effort to respond to these various dynamics, one reaction was to latch onto the cultural and creative industries. All these required, explains Hong, were time and talent. Moreover, they directly influenced the country’s image both at home and abroad. And so the government began investing in cultural industries in a massive way.
Hong interviews the director of the Popular Culture Industry Division (a division of the larger Korean Ministry of Culture) about the tens of millions of dollars at his disposal for promoting pop culture initiatives. This doesn’t just mean grants for artists: it means designing holographic technology for improving concert experiences, shape-changing fireworks, monitoring of karaoke parlours to ensure musicians receive royalties (cultural content policy development to ensure government policy adapts quickly to technological innovations is part of the job), and much more. The government also plays a key role in coordinating private sector involvement: a pop culture investment fund of more than $1 billion has been raised, with the goal of achieving Korean cultural industry exports of $10 billion within five years.
‘Conquering the world’, indeed. While other countries are eviscerating their arts and culture budgets and concentrating tech research on military projects, Korea is moving in the opposite direction, boosting funding to cultural industries and focusing government-funded research on inventing artificial rainbows (without the use of CGI).
Hong expertly reveals the complicated collaboration between government and private industry in promoting Korean culture: “a paradoxical combination of constraint and freedom”. In the film industry, for example, the government required Korean theatres to show a certain percentage (measured in days per year) of Korean-made films. It also allocated a percentage of box office sales into an arts fund. Above all, it adapted quickly: as the generous funding and promotional support for the Korean film industry paid off by increasing both the quantity and popularity of Korean films, government reduced the theatre quotas, which were no longer as necessary.
Government involvement has been key, and it’s proven a unique advantage. While many countries support the arts and cultural industries in various ways, it’s often treated as a tedious form of charity, which leaves creative producers feeling like unwanted beggars. Only a handful of countries – Korea foremost among them – have come to take seriously the economic role that culture can play. As early as the ‘90s, Hong explains, government reports were noting that if a single movie like Jurassic Park could generate twice as much revenue as the annual sale of Hyundai cars, this was something Korea needed to be getting in on in a big way.
The other boon has been the government’s role in promoting Korean popular culture abroad: of vital importance for ‘conquering the world’. The Korean government was key in pushing to have Korean television dramas aired on Hong Kong television (literally smuggling videos across the border in diplomatic pouches), even pressuring Korean companies to buy ad time in order to convince Hong Kong networks to air them. This provided access to a vast audience in China and Asia which Korean networks could not otherwise reach.
The Korean government quietly helped facilitate flashmobs in France demanding K-pop concerts, to convince both its own entertainment labels as well as French concert venues to take a chance. The result, for the first major K-pop concert in Paris, was what police described as the biggest crowd of fans they’d ever had to handle at Charles de Gaulle airport.
What Hong helps demonstrate as well is the complex relationship between popular culture – between what’s considered ‘cool’ in different parts of the world – and international relations. She argues that Korea has had a key advantage in Asia because it has little history of aggressive colonialism in the region. While countries like Japan and China also have a strong pop culture presence, a dominant presence by these countries can sometimes be read as a revisiting of cultural domination in countries with painful memories of colonialism, and thus can quickly turn un-cool (European and American cultural industries would face similar challenges, no doubt). Thus, Korea has the freedom to ‘dominate’ without a parallel colonial legacy to encumber it.
Furthermore, she suggests, Korea’s innate cultural conservatism enables it to promote its popular culture quickly and easily across a range of cultural backdrops. Unlike the more extreme sexuality of American and even Japanese music videos and dramas, Korean pop culture manages to straddle a complex borderland combining sweet innocence with just a hint of sensuality (one popular television drama, recounts Hong, featured only two kisses between the main couple in the entire series!). The result is the growing international dominance of Korean television: from Iran to Cuba to Africa.
And, importantly, Korean companies have demonstrated less ego-bruising resistance to adapting their products to the expectations of the countries in which they’re trying to get an edge. They program Japanese-language video games for export to Japan; their K-pop bands write songs in Chinese and other Asian languages and sometimes feature different stage line-ups in different countries. Adaptability isn’t a new business strategy, but it’s one at which Korea is exceeding many of its rivals these days.
Hong’s account isn’t all roses, of course. She tempers her analysis with personal reflections on the challenges she faced when her parents relocated to Korea after several years away, and she had already absorbed many of the ways and mores of American culture. The xenophobia she experienced as a Korean who had grown up abroad is paralleled by other Korean-Americans she interviews, and the challenges of opening up a society that has historically been associated with cultural conservatism and xenophobia, and in which tradition plays a very important role, is discussed as well. Economic miracles and the turning upside-down of cultural tradition are possible – and Korea has proven that – but they are never as easy as they might appear to be in retrospect.
Are there lessons to be learned from the rapid ascent of Korean popular culture? Most certainly, according to Hong. Foremost among these – a lesson reiterated with numerous examples throughout the book – is “the need for a government that is unafraid to interfere with private business and its citizens’ private lives.” Many Americans and other first world nations would find a paradox in government control of private business being key to success in the free market. Yet that balance, which the first world seems rapidly to be losing, has been key to Korea’s rise.
This relates very much to another dimension of its success, according to Hong: the fact that different realms of society – from pop culture to corporate business to individual ethics – are seen as related. There’s a team mentality involved, one which helps explain why large corporations are willing to cooperate in government-coordinated initiatives to help and promote their small- and medium- business competitors (the ever-present threat of government coercion and fines, if they don’t cooperate willingly, also helps). But in the end, says Hong, the interconnections help to create a sense that profit is not a ‘zero-sum game’: “that is, no party has to profit at the expense of the other; everyone can win.” Capitalism may have triumphed in Korea; but it’s a sort of team-capitalism, far removed from its American counterpart.
Drawing on a cycling analogy, another lesson she offers is that Korean companies have been willing to engage in what would be referred to as ‘drafting’ – intentionally falling behind in order to let those in the lead face the initial challenges and backlash (of convincing people to adapt to new technology, for instance); and then picking just the right moment to surge forward into the lead. In other words, she says, being number one doesn’t mean being in the lead all the time.
Finally, however, she says the work ethic which lies at the root of all this is the product of a uniquely Korean mentality; a combination of the ‘han’ (a vague sense of cultural rage against the cruelty of fate) and shame (at personal failings, at the country’s historical poverty, at a history of colonial subjugation) which have helped shape Korea as “a superachieving, frighteningly ambitious nation with a mighty axe to grind.”
Be that as it may, it’s an axe-grinding that’s proving delightfully fun to watch, play, and dance to. And Hong’s book offers a superb overview of the Korean pop culture phenomenon. This is a book for experts and the lay public alike; one that will appeal to a broad audience, from business strategists, to public policy-makers, to entertainment promoters and pop culture doyens, to the hallyu fans who want to know more about the deeper roots of the pop culture they absorb so avidly.
Indeed, this is a satisfying and thought-provoking book by a first-rate journalist whose style is irresistible and informative all at once.
Not to mention, darn cool.