txt by Isak Ladegaard // jpg by Alex Blosyak // published 23/11/2012
The Burmese cities Mandalay and Rangoon are full of street cafes. Plastic stools and tables are spread over cracked asphalt, under big parasols, and here people gather for nicotine, caffeine and conversation. Sometimes a boxy television set is turned on, and people gather around to watch South Korean soap operas. The TV and film industry in Seoul is thousands of miles away from the oppressed people of Burma, but access to Korean movies and TV series is easy, as the sale of pirated DVDs and VCDs is widespread. The one-way stream of popular culture says little about the political relations between the two countries, but it speaks volumes about ‘Hallyu’ – the phenomenon of South Korean popular culture spreading throughout the Asian continent. Even isolated Burma is reached, and in other countries, movies, TV series and pop music from Seoul are not just present, but ubiquitous. Hallyu is enormously popular in Japan, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
South Korea is the world’s 15th largest economy, measured by its GDP. Its economy grew rapidly between the 1960s and 1990s as the country developed a competitive advantage in labour-intensive manufacturing, with shipbuilding, cars and construction as three pivotal industries. However, China caught up, and Korean officials started to look for alternative ways of making money. The saviour came in the shape of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. In the mid-90s, a report was placed on the Korean president’s desk. It included a calculation that showed that the export revenue of the Steven Spielberg blockbuster Jurassic Park was equal to the export sale of 1.5 million Hyundai cars. The message to President Kim Young-Sam was that popular culture, when done right, is good business.
“The Korean government identified the cultural industry as the next thing to come up,” says Choi Jung-Bong, a Korean professor who researches East Asian culture at New York University: “They instituted numerous state research agencies, to support and channel people’s investments into software business,” he says. The government also subsidised projects and offered tax cuts to companies, hoping the commercial culture industry would get going. Choi says the state even broke ground for a college entirely devoted to manga, or Japanese-style comics.
The manga college didn’t turn out very well, but the Korean state has otherwise succeeded in fostering a money-making culture industry. And Hallyu doesn’t only export Korean popular culture to Asia; it also brings hordes of tourists to Korea. Hallyu tourism started with the drama Winter Sonata. The show was a huge success in Japan when it was shown in 2003 and 2004, and according to Kōichi Iwabuchi’s 2008 book East Asian Pop Culture, its popularity led to a 35 per cent increase in Japanese tourism to Korea.
Today, the official Korean Tourism Organization continues to cash in on Hallyu’s popularity by using k-pop groups and artists to promote South Korea as a tourist destination. A tram in Hong Kong is, for example, currently covered by a massive picture of the k-pop girl group miss A. In Korea, places that appear in television dramas and movies are popular tourist attractions. Several tourist agencies specialise in pop-culture tours, and the country’s own tourist website lists film sets from 65 Korean television series.
One of them is the popular TV drama Coffee Prince from 2007. It depicts a romance between a man and a young boy, who later turns out to be a girl, and many of the scenes were recorded at a café in Seoul. This place is now a popular target for tourists.
We asked Choi why this k-pop Hallyu phenomenon is so popular. He believes Hallyu’s growing popularity in Europe might have to do with the West’s love affair with Japanese culture. He says parts of Japanese culture were, in the 1980s and into the 2000s, more popular in Europe than in Japan. Examples are haiku poems, samurais and jujitsu: “There was a steady stream of people between Europe and Japan – students and commerce,” he says, adding a somewhat surprising point: “If you visit Japan today, you’ll discover that the Japanese are no longer interested in their own culture. Instead, they are instead looking to Korea.”
“Every single day they talk about Korea, eat Korean food, speak Korean, look at Korean men and women,” Choi says: “Don’t you think many visitors in Japan think ‘maybe we’re missing something here, maybe we should check out Korea?’ That’s a very possible scenario. I think a lot of people who went to Japan rerouted their cultural orientation to Korea.” The same rerouting might happen to people who visit China, where the popular culture is Korea-centric, according to Choi: “The Chinese are very receptive to Korean culture, to the extent that 70 per cent of local cable TV’s primetime line-up is Korean-made television.”
That being said, commercial actors are working hard behind the scenes to make Korean popular culture appealing to an increasingly international audience. In the k-pop world, most artists or groups are carefully tailored to fit their target group, and Korean record labels employ clever marketing strategies. For instance, k-pop groups often include international members. The boy group Super Junior had a Chinese member, another group called 2pm had a member from Thailand who was educated in the US and speaks fluent English and Thai. “The 2pm strategy worked out really well,” Choi says. He explained that the band became the flame that ignited Hallyu in Thailand, which was aloof when other parts of Asia were going bananas over Korean pop culture.
The record labels are also heavily involved in a careful crafting of their artists’ image and commercial appeal. After they’ve been through auditions, they go through what Choi calls a ‘boot camp’. “As an artist you learn languages, such as Japanese or English. You have to build up your persona, your mental strength. And they have to do go through a complete remake of the body that involves heavy diets, and sometimes even plastic surgery. Nose jobs, eyelids, etc. I don’t even know what they’re doing with the legs.” Choi also thinks the global presence of major corporations like Samsung, Hyundai and LG have a lot to do with this cultural phenomenon. In terms of sale of electronics, Samsung has long ago surpassed the Japanese company Sony and is today the world’s biggest information technology firm, and the Korean company Hyundai Motor Company is one of the world’s largest car manufacturers. Choi’s point is that the k-pop groups are emotional front-runners who amplify the love of the brand and make consumers love Korean products, which facilitates a growing interest in Korea as a country and culture.
Lastly, the appeal of k-pop is that it’s more than just Korean: “It’s a package of already proven selling points that we know from other cultures. There’s the Japanese cute girl culture, the American body culture. Here you have the enigmatic, puzzling Korean language, mixed with English words. Fans are seduced and pained at the same time,” he says: “It’s a good play. Whatever it is, it works.” Hallyu has conquered Asia, and now the Korean wave has hit European shores. How many Europeans will dive into it remains to be seen.