In the third of our series on the Korean Wave, or hallyu, The Diplomat investigates the spread of the phenomenon beyond the Asia-Pacific—to some unexpected places.
News this month that South Korean actress Han Hye-jin is in negotiations to appear in the Iranian movie Six Individuals in the Rain is an interesting example of the continued worldwide ripple effect that the Korean Wave phenomenon is still creating more than a decade after it started.
As Michael Shin, Korean culture analyst and professor at the University of Cambridge, told me recently, Korean TV programmes have been hugely popular in Iran since the 2003 historical drama Dae Jang Geum (or Jewel in the Palace) became a massive hit with audiences there: ‘When it was broadcast in Iran over 50,000 websites in Persian (Farsi) became devoted to the show.’
He told me that at the time he was actually quite surprised to learn through these websites that Iranian viewers tended to believe that they felt their culture was in fact very similar to that depicted in the Korean shows’ storylines and that perhaps this was a key factor in their mass appeal. Of course this is just one of the reasons, and as he also noted, there could be multiple reasons for why these programmes have been such a hit:
‘Viewers expressed that in some of the older dramas it was the (depicted) culture of honour and the family as well. They said that in Iran—and some of my colleagues have confirmed this—watching TV is very much a family thing and they feel that a lot of stuff that comes out of Hollywood, families can’t watch together. Korean dramas are also less sexual and cleaner.’
He added that a common theme in many Korean dramas will be someone from a lower class background working their way up to the highest echelons of society—the kind of storyline that has a universal appeal that transcends South Korea’s own strong cultural emphasis on maintaining social status. (Jewel in the Palace revolves around the story of ‘a young palace girl who eventually becomes the personal physician to the king.’) After all, who can’t find something appealing in a modern fairytale of upward social mobility?
On the question of why hallyu has spread to so many surprising places, Professor Jung-Bong Choi of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, summed it up best for me when he suggested that essentially Korean cultural exports are a borderless alternative to US their US counterparts.
‘I define hallyu not as a Korean phenomenon…the ownership of hallyu is not to Korea. It’s the public’s…who have this desire to consume some of the product that’s distinct from the US product or Hollywood product whether that’s drama or whatever—something that is consistent and congruent with their emotions. So I see the power as coming more from the…people’s desire and yearning to see their own stories, to envision their own future through the lens of Korean media and music and whatnot. It’s identity politics.’
This could well explain the fact that South Korean culture is even popular in isolated Bhutan. According to one writer-reporter I contacted this week: ‘Korea is big in Bhutan too…kids dressing up like some Korean pop stars, watching Korean movies…and Korean fashion is big!’
Does this idea of identity politics lay behind the hallyu effect in North-east India too, where Diplomat reader Sunil Vincent told me recently: ‘Korean TV shows, music and cinema have become all the rage…especially(in) Manipur and Nagaland’?
According to Sunil, Indian people emulating ‘their Korean counterparts’ fashions and even studying the Korean language,’ started after some rebel groups there banned music, cinema and even fashions from the rest of India, which prompted locals to look elsewhere for entertainment. He said that right now in North-east India, ‘there are hundreds of shops selling Korean DVDs and music CDs legally.’
Jung-sun Park, writing in the Korea Herald, said countries including Turkey, Egypt, Jordan and Kazakhstan have also aired Korean TV shows, which according to her have ‘elicited generally positive responses.’
But she’s quick to add that hallyu is also still going strong in the West, noting that the ‘remarkable critical acclaim that some Korean films have received from Western critics and their winning awards at renowned international film festivals,’ indicates that the hallyu phenomenon has also undoubtedly spread to Europe as well, to some extent at least.
The role of Korean cinema in hallyu, along with other popular exports such as food and electronics, is something I’ll touch on tomorrow when I look at the economic implications of hallyu for Korea.