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Calm Ahead for Korean Wave?

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New Emissary

Calm Ahead for Korean Wave?

Was the dramatic rise in interest for Korean culture spontaneous or manufactured? And how long will it last?

In the fifth and final part of our series on the Korean Wave, or hallyu, The Diplomat looks at what the future might hold for the phenomenon.

As I’ve noted, overseas interest in South Korean culture has risen dramatically over the past decade. So much so, in fact, that the phenomenon was given its own name—Korean Wave or Korea fever (known locally as hallyu).

In the past week, I’ve written about this intriguing trend, looking at hallyu’s roots, its popularity in East Asia and other parts of the world and its effects—especially economically—on South Korea.

But was the Korean Wave spontaneous, or has it been manufactured? And how long will it last?

Jung Sun Park, who I consulted with for this series, has suggested that when hallyu first emerged, it was dismissed by many as simply ‘media hype without substance or a cultural fad, destined to fade away soon.’ However, the critics have obviously been proven wrong, with the Korean Wave showing even now ‘remarkable sustaining power’ over a decade later.

But does it have the power to continue on for another decade or longer? According to Park, it probably doesn’t. She says that while there’s no way to know for sure, especially with the complexity and fast changing nature of hallyu, ‘pop cultural trends have limited shelf life, (so) sooner or later, hallyu as a distinctive cultural phenomenon will disappear.’

This isn’t to say that the popularity of Korean culture globally is going to simply vanish. Park suggests that instead, though, the Korean Wave might just become ‘localized.’

Localization is, simply put, when a trend or fashion is adopted into local cultures and takes on a unique form that’s suited to the tastes of a particular area. Park told me that an example of such localization may be the current Japanese version of Korea’s famous cuisine, bulgogi—marinated and barbecued beef, which in Japan is called yakiniku, and which is very popular amongst locals. The preparation and cooking style of the dish has changed in some ways, perhaps to suit Japanese palates or customs.

Of course, the relatively brief history of hallyu means it’s difficult to predict what will happen—especially with the amount of effort being put into keeping it alive by related industries and government, as I mentioned before. But one of our readers described to me earlier this week the particular dangers that might lie in such a profit-driven effort.

She explained that in her opinion, ‘hallyu has become little more than an amalgam of economic interests that push manufactured pop stars,’ that in the case in the booming Korean pop music industry, has led to ‘outdated practices, slave contracts, physical and mental abuse of underage singers, cronyism, and general human and labour rights violations in pursuit of profit at any cost.’ She went on to say that for her, as a Korean, she’s quite conflicted about the popularity of K-pop because, ‘on one hand, it’s intriguing and heartwarming. On the other hand, I wonder, if the Korean Wave is not perpetuating what should have been reformed or destroyed years ago, fooling the young and naive into supporting a system that destroys the idols they love so much.’

Prof. Jung-Bong Choi of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, also suggested to me another larger implication of continued attempts to globalize Korean culture: ‘The Korean hallyu is dangerous because it attempts to globalize its product the same way America did and European society did. So it would be a duplication of hegemonic cultural imperialism if that happened.’

Not everyone is convinced that hallyu can be manufactured or duplicated. Korea culture analyst Michael Shin told me, for example, that he once spoke to a scholar who did an ‘interesting research project about the Korean Wave’ and found that when producers tried to create TV dramas or other entertainment forms that were ‘specifically designed to take advantage of the Korean Wave and be popular abroad,’ that most of these attempts failed.

He also cited the 2002 hit Winter Sonata as an example: ‘The (series) that they produced for an exclusively Korean audience, where they weren’t thinking about a foreign audience—those were the ones that succeeded. So in a way it was those people who ignored the foreign market or that just weren’t concerned about it and just focused on telling stories to a Korean audience that were more successful…There wasn’t anything really economical corrupting their impulse.’

This reminded me of something that Prof. Park had mentioned to me when she was talking about the attempts by various people and the government to capitalize on the power of South Korea’s pop culture.

She said that she doesn’t believe that it is the government or these other interests that are really the main foundation of the Korean Wave. ‘It is, most of all, the creativity, energy, dream, ambition and economic interests of the people who generate the cultural content that have been the driving forces of the Korean Wave.’

Calm Ahead For Korean Wave?


Images: patrick gookin (top), d. FUKA (bottom).