Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Korean Wave (Hallyu)

Continuing with the theme of IR, here's an excerpt from a piece by Washington Times writer Andrew Salmon:

New wave of pop culture redefines Korea

« “Soft power” challenged Korea’s traditional development paradigm. From the 1960s, authoritarian governments had placed absolute primacy on economic growth. Social and political development was de-prioritized as the entire nation was hitched to an economic locomotive that would convey Korea to the terminus of “advanced nations.” It succeeded: economically, Korea is arguably the greatest national success story of the 20th century.

On prosperity’s heels came demands for political freedom. After a decade of struggle, people-power demonstrations overthrew the military government in 1987. Though it had slow and uncertain beginnings, democracy took root. As the 1990s unfolded, political democracy engendered a social liberalism that seeped into society.

...Freedom fighter and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kim Dae-jung [shot] down [Korea's traditional development] paradigm in a brilliant 1994 essay in Foreign Affairs Magazine, “Is Culture Destiny? The Myth of Asian Values.” Kim argued that his country’s ultimate destiny was to improve Western concepts by reference to Asia’s own ancient traditions of democracy, rule of law and respect for the individual, rather than ignore them.

...This combination of factors was, by the end of the 1990s, generating a creative wave of popular culture This new content combined slick production with professional marketing, underpinned by a key local ingredient - the raw emotion Koreans express so passionately. As Korean music, soap opera, film and computer games flooded the continent, from East Asia through to the Middle East, Chinese reporters coined the term, Hallyu (“Korean Wave”) to describe what was happening: A sudden surge of funky new content streaming out of a nation that had previously exported industrial, but not cultural content.

“Winter Sonata” (2002) drove Japanese housewives wild over its star, Bae Yong-joon ­ better known by the honorific “Yonsama” in the island nation. Bae...reached such stratospheric heights that he was invited to appear on television alongside Japanese prime ministers. Daejanggeum (2003;”The Jewel in the Palace”), featuring the trials and tribulations of a chef in the Joseon Dynasty palaces, became the most widely watched TV program in Hong Kong’s history. And violent noir thriller “Old Boy” (2004) raked in a bucketful of prestige for the local film industry when it captured the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film festival.

Korea’s brand added value at a rate that sent it soaring off all previous charts. “Winter Sonata” did more for Korea’s image in Japan than any PR activity by the Korean Tourism Authority could ever hope to match, as Japanese matrons flocked to Korea to visit filming locations and go on “Yonsama” shopping tours. Moreover, “Daejanggeum” put Korean cuisine on the map region-wide. In Hong Kong, Korean restaurants serving hanjongsik (the table d’hote served in aristocratic and royal households) gained overnight popularity, with hungry viewers reportedly queuing outside their doors. “Old Boy”(2004) would not necessarily attract tourists to its shoddy and violent Seoul backstreets, but it won plaudits from pulp wunderkind Quentin Tarantino and proved that Korea could do thrillers that were as violent, cool and edgy as anything coming out of Hollywood or Hong Kong.

While soaps restricted themselves to social critique ­ albeit, viewed, often, through rose-tinted lenses ­ Korean film took on bolder themes. “JSA”(2000) was a groundbreaking take on national division; “Silimdo” (2004) examined the murky massacre of a secret Korean bloodbath in the Park Chung-hee era; and “The King and the Clown” (2005) dealt with homosexuality in Olde Corea. It is difficult to see this kind of material being produced in some of the region’s more repressive states. For Asian viewers, it became clear that 21st century South Korean society was more open and liberal.

The wave peaked in 2005, when Korea sold $22 billion worth of pop culture abroad. Today, the “Korean Wave” is an old hat. Korean content is no longer new; it has become part of the Asian and ― increasingly the global ― entertainment fabric. Now, with a greatly improved distribution infrastructure ― multiplex cinemas and a proliferation of cable ― it is no longer so necessary for Korean producers to sell abroad; the local market has matured.

...On the political/strategic front, the “soft power” embedded in the Korean Wave may yet impact the steepest geopolitical challenge facing the peninsula: Reunification. Through South Korean films and dramas smuggled into North Korea, decades of Pyongyang’s state propaganda are being undermined: If South Korean society is aspirational for Southeast Asians, how much more alluring must it be to impoverished and downtrodden North Koreans? This aspect of soft power may eventually prove as important a factor in crumbling the walls of Kim Jong-il’s benighted nation as any single aspect of hard power.»