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Special Section
Vol.14 Winter 2011 (Page 12-13)
Redefining the Real Korean Wave
by Kim Yonghee
What is the Korean wave? Is it a real phenomenon ? One thing for sure is that Hallyu, the “Korean Wave,” had to already be manifest as a concrete and actual reality in Korean society before these questions could be considered properly. The genesis of the Korean Wave can be traced back to the mid-1990s when the ‘idol’ group H.O.T. began commanding a massive fan base in East Asia that spread with the rise of other idol groups such as Shinhwa and TVXQ, Korean dramas such as “Dae Jang Geum” and “Winter Sonata,” Korean games such as Lineage, and Korean characters such as Pororo. Korean pop culture has now become a cultural phenomenon reaching far beyond the boundaries of East Asia. With a positively microscopic publishing industry and a much smaller reading population compared to Japan, the seemingly unstoppable path of the Korean Wave has left Koreans with mixed feelings of pride and incredulity at the same time. What is certain is that the Korean Wave has ceased to be a teen subculture and has gained momentum with people of all ages from around the world. It can consequently be considered an important aspect of popular culture providing fertile ground for a complex discourse. This phenomenon is further complicated by overzealous coverage by the media, the interests of entertainment agencies, the system that industrializes culture, and cultural nationalism.
      These are all factors that must be considered when examining the history of the Korean Wave. The Korean Wave began spreading in East Asia from the mid-1990s. It did not manifest in its current intensity until 2005, the year when foreign tourists to Korea hit the six million per year mark. This is largely thanks to “Dae Jang Geum,” as that was the year the drama hit China. Bae Yong-joon of “Winter Sonata” fame was enjoying a second splash with the film “April Snow,” but his popularity in Japan was seen as more of a cult following than proof of any interest in Korean culture. “Dae Jang Geum,” however, provided an epic story that presented Korean culture in a way that captivated Chinese audiences. While women of the royal court were usually confined to roles that depicted them vying with each other for the King’s affections and squabbling over power, “Dae Jang Geum’s” Jang Geum used her own skills and determination to get ahead, a fresh female character that became an instant classic. After that, the film “The King and the Clown” came out in 2006 and the dramas “What Love?,” “Lovers in Paris,” “All In,” and “Iris” all sold at high prices abroad.
      What exactly is this Korean Wave, then? According to scholar Cho Hae-joang, the Korean Wave refers to: “The tendency to enjoy and consume Korean pop culture in the forms of music, dramas, fashion, tourism, and film that is particularly prevalent among the people, most notably adolescents, of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Vietnam.” Cho’s definition, however, leaves it unclear about whether the cultural product must include a cultural component or whether it is sufficient to have been made in Korea. Cho defines the Korean Wave according to its end result regardless of the ideological and commercial intentions that go into the beginning of production. The subject of hottest debate when it comes to the Korean Wave in Korea, however, is regarding the inclusion of a cultural component in the end product. The success of the Korean Wave starting in East Asia in the late 1990s and then throughout the world in the 2000s was not enough to quell these concerns over cultural nationalism. When Korean nationalism plays a major part in the Korean Wave, its ideological position is one that clearly goes against the definition of culture. Assuming that culture is based on a mutual understanding of its power to transcend borders, to make Korean identity the center of the Korean Wave would be to invite resistance from other countries.
      It is only natural that there should be conflict and resistance when one culture meets another. The political history and psychology of any country demands it. For instance, in the mid- 2000s the two major private broadcasters in Japan cut down on the air time given to Korean dramas. Their decision to reduce the air time allotted to Korean dramas cannot be understood without understanding the history of the two countries. Historically it is rare for neighboring countries to be on good terms. Culture cannot be pure creation, nor can it be pure imitation. Most importantly, bombarding one country with the culture of another in a purely one-sided cultural exchange cannot ever be truly ‘cultural.’ Regarding other countries in East Asia and throughout the world as mere consumers of our culture is infantile cultural supremacy and slavish capitalism at its worst. From this point of view it is imperative that Korea open itself up to a more equal exchange of cultures if it wishes to see the Korean Wave continue to flourish in the long term.
      Another problematic aspect of the Korean Wave is that it equates commercial interest with national interest from an econo-centric point of view. Some of the most-branded phrases belonging to this school of thought include ‘in the age of cultural wars, culture is competitiveness’ or even ‘culture is money,’ which of course is nothing but the rankest barbarity that stands between the true exchange and understanding of diverse cultures. As the Korean Wave gathers fresh momentum it is good to rethink these kinds of attitudes from a critical point of view and see if we can find alternatives.
      The revival of the Korean Wave in recent years is largely thanks to the surge of interest in K-pop. First gaining popularity in East Asia in the 1990s, K-pop now has fans in Europe and the Americas. The Korean media has lost no time showing videos of foreign youngsters screaming at K-pop concerts singing along to the lyrics in Korean, and imitating the dance routines of idol stars. The people of Korea swelled with pride to see the youth from cultural giants in Europe bopping to Korean music, but at the same time could not decide what the attraction was. The thought was that K-pop was merely a product manufactured by talent agencies that aggressively groomed attractive teenagers into girl groups and boy bands. To be honest, their flashy song and dance routines were beginning to wear thin in Korea (the popularity of the audition program “Naneun Gasuda” (“I Am a Singer”) speaks volumes on how fed up the more mature public is with such idol stars).
      Against this backdrop the stalemate of idol groups is a subject of growing interest. The word ‘idol’ has become an important icon in Korea, taking over the place once occupied by ‘star.’ A star enjoyed mysterious, even symbolic status; an idol is by definition manufactured under a commercial system. The rise of the idol in Korea is closely related to the rise of extreme capitalism in the country following the Asian financial crisis of 1998. Capital became most important in Korea and encouraged ever-greater competition at an increasingly hectic speed. The human body had become nothing more than a machine, a tool for securing more capital. By the 2000s this extreme capitalism had become the matrix that dominated the lives of the Korean people.
      This change in social and economic attitudes resulted in a visible change in popular culture. In the 1990s talent agencies did the casting for an idol group before preparing them to become idol stars. Since the 2000s, however, agencies have maintained a vast pool of trainees who compete with each other to become part of an idol group. Since there are far more trainees than potential idol groups the trainees spend years practicing without any guarantee they will actually make the cut. Trainees practice singing, dancing, foreign languages, and any other skill that might give them an edge over other trainees. Exposed to this system from an early age, they internalize the fantasy and disenchantment that goes with being a manufactured product. It dovetails with the situation of the Korean youth dubbed the 880-thousand-won (800 dollar) generation, trapped in the present, with no prospect that the future will be better, shackled to the drug-like hope of making it big someday. They fantasize to forget the wretchedness of reality (in the case of idol groups, they spend their teens practicing under inhumane conditions for a contract they may or may not win, that may turn out to be a slave contract even if they do, and laboring under the stress that even if they do succeed their popularity might be short-lived).
      Idol groups flourished along with the swift growth of talentagencies in the 2000s. By this point the capital clout of the agency had become more important than the musical influence of the producer. Agencies sought to create entertainers, not singers,who were more valuable as a multi-purpose product. The frenzy to capitalize on this growth resulted in an explosion of trainees basically at war with each other to become idols. Numerous idol groups are being formed, undergoing training, or being disbanded every moment in this system of competition.
      The success of the television talent show competition “Superstar K2” reflects this trend. The winner of the show, Huh Gak, became the cultural icon of 2010. When invited to the Blue House last year, Huh introduced himself as living proof that Korea was a fair society where anyone could realize their dreams. “Superstar K2”, however, was a fiercely competitive contest that dropped contestants each week; only the final winner remained. Korean youth working at part-time, irregular jobs under a constant fear of unemployment might dream of striking gold with audition programs like this, but the reality is much harsher. As much as talent agencies might play into the myth of success, the truth is that they are ruthless machines operating in a neoliberal market and to become one of their products is to be programmed and tailored down to the finest detail, rather than to embrace diverse potential and talent.
      Considering this background, how does one look at the K-pop craze? Is the fact that K-pop is gaining popularity in Europe, South America, and Australia one that Korean viewers and Korean youth should celebrate as they watch how the myth of making it big plays out?
      The sure thing is that the Korean Wave needs to stop equating itself with commercial success or politico-diplomatic nhegemony in a blatantly cultural supremacist way and embrace the phenomenon as a movement that celebrates the sharing of culture. All cultures are influenced by others—there is no culture that is pure creation, nor one that is pure imitation. Cultures meet, absorb, imitate, and repel each other in a never-ending process of creation and consumption. From this point of view every culture is a mongrel, a hybrid curiosity. To package the Korean Wave as something uniquely Korean is trying to market jingoism. K-pop already brings in producers, choreographers, and composers from many countries—it is already a cultural hybrid from its inception. Global, it turns out to be, is merely another word for hybrid. Against this backdrop it would be useful to view the Korean Wave as a phenomenon in which one local culture acts as the common meeting point for a variety of other cultures, transcending both similarities and differences.