The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation Is Conquering the World Through Pop CulturePicador, 2014, 267 pp., $16
Here’s something that might seem odd at first glance: Microsoft’s advertisement for its latest piece of techno-bling uses a song from Korean girl-group 2NE1. The song, sung in Korean, is called I Am The Best, but the significance is that most people in the West wouldn’t know that: the point is that it is Korean, and therefore cool. How did this happen? How did a country once known for introversion and shoddy products become the source code for pop culture? Euny Hong, a Korean-American journalist who moves easily between the two countries, has an answer: it was all part of a plan. And, she says, no one is better at making and implementing plans than Koreans (by which she means South Koreans).Seoul today is known for its Net-wired affluence, but this was not always the case. Even in the late 1970s, the living standards in Seoul and the North Korean capital of Pyongyang were remarkably similar. South Korea started to pull away during the 1980s, but progress was patchy and export income was minimal.Hong notes that a critical part of Korean culture is han, a sense of grievance against the world derived from a history composed largely of invasion and oppression. She sees this as underpinning the national drive and willingness to accept government direction, even when it involves considerable self-sacrifice. When she moved to Korea at the age of 12 with her Korean-born parents, for example, she was struck by the emphasis on using Korean-made goods, even though their quality was often poor.The turning point came in the aftermath of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which hit South Korea hard and forced the government to take loans from the International Monetary Fund. (Koreans refer to this as “the IMF situation.”) Then-president Kim Dae-jung responded to this humiliation by reorienting the economy toward the country’s social capital. South Korea, he decreed, would become the world’s leading exporter of culture, a process called hallyu (“Korean wave”).It was an unlikely idea, especially in its promotion of pop music. Rock ’n’ roll had been illegal for some time in Korea, apparently because the government thought it might spark rebellion. But the corporate studios took to the idea, especially when the government began to provide grants and other support. Massive auditions were held to select possible candidates for stardom, who were then winnowed by a gruelling process of training. The key member of the popular group Big Bang, G-Dragon (real name: Kwon Ji-young), was signed up when he was eight years old.This venture was seen as an industry, says Hong, not an opportunity to have fun. And young Koreans were used to it; their education system had made them familiar with regimentation and constant effort. Learning dance moves with military precision was not so different. A formula for K-pop quickly emerged: a song-and-dance ensemble, with the music provided by anonymous musicians. Phalanxes of handsome boys and pretty girls (never mixed), scrubbed to a shiny glow, and locked into long-term contracts that stipulated how they would live. Most artists train for years before recording a note or stepping onto a stage. Any hint of a sex scandal or drug use is grounds for dismissal.A good deal of K-pop sounds repetitive and conservative to Western ears, but in many countries, Hong argues, this is exactly its appeal. It fits the Confucian emphasis on order, and even the sexiness of some groups is presented as safe, controlled, and parentally supervised. Girl Generation, for example, is a group of nine attractive women who are apparently interchangeable, even having the same body shape. Most of their songs are about wanting a boyfriend. It’s all a very long way from The Pussycat Dolls.One way or another, K-pop has become the dominant force in the youth-driven music market across southeast Asia, as well as Japan and China. Recording different versions of the same song—and, importantly, music videos—in Japanese and Mandarin has been a successful strategy. K-pop has even made inroads into Europe, particularly France. Significantly, K-pop is not just about selling music. A successful group is a platform for selling magazines, merchandise, and advertising. Long before the Microsoft ad, Samsung was using 2NE1 tunes in its promotions.The export of Korean television shows shared this model; government dictated the game strategy and private companies ran with the ball. It worked particularly well for soap operas. With the first wave, the government paid to have them dubbed into other languages, though it also pressured Korean companies into buying advertising time. At one point, tapes of the show What Is Love All About? were smuggled into Hong Kong in a diplomatic bag. But the business soon gained momentum of its own, especially with the development of new delivery methods like video-on-demand internet portals. DramaFever is one that has become hugely successful, mainly offering subtitled Korean dramas. Amazingly, the most popular show in Cuba is the Korean series Queen of Housewives. K-soap has also become successful in Brazil and Argentina, and when the stars visit on promotional tours they are routinely mobbed.The export of Korean movies has been less successful but it still significant. For a long time, most Korean cinema consisted of violent thrillers, usually depicting characters driven by a quest for revenge (han again). That has changed in the past few years, with Korean films winning prizes in important festivals. Hong sees this as the likely next area for development, with a generation of promising directors starting to emerge.While pop music and television shows are the cutting edge of Brand Korea, the largest hallyu earner of export income is video games. There is a national Korean obsession with role-playing games, and the best players have become superstars. Korea has become the world’s largest manufacturer of free role-playing games (that is, free to play, with the supplementary activities and products costing money). Most of Korea’s top video game companies have a division dedicated to developing Japanese-language games. As a result, the Korean industry has virtually taken over the once-mighty games sector in Japan. So far, Korean games have not been able to penetrate the U.S. market, probably because of the American preference for console-based games rather than the PC-based games developed in Korea.The new frontier for games, and a potential way around the console issue, is mobile games. It fits with the direction in which smartphone technology is developing, and attracts people who would not otherwise be gamers. Samsung is the maker of the world’s most popular smartphone, so it is understandable that it is angling to become a major player in mobile gaming. Hong devotes a chapter to Samsung, explaining how it went from being a company whose products were notoriously unreliable—the firm was known as “Samsuck”—to a techno-giant. From the start of the hallyu era, Samsung was seen as an important vehicle, and the government encouraged it to focus on technology-based products and to emphasize quality and innovation. “Encouraged” might not be the right word; it was more like an offer that could not be refused. But the company embraced it, and has become so large that it now generates an astonishing one-fifth of the country’s GDP.An important aspect of all this is that successive governments have resisted the temptation to micro-manage. For example, government agencies have conducted extensive research into the markets of other countries and have then made the findings available to whatever companies might be able to use it. At the same time, the government is a major source of funding for start-ups, providing a quarter of all venture capital. Government agencies are also engaged in research to drive the next stage of hallyu. Hong visits a government-funded institute that is working on holographic technology, the eventual aim being that a K-pop group could “perform” in several cities at once.If there is a certain irony in the idea of holographic performers singing boy-meets-girl pop as a result of government policy, the Koreans do not see it. Or, maybe they do, says Hong, at least a little. She notes that the Korean performer best known around the world, Psy, is in fact not a product of the hallyu system at all but a somewhat eccentric outsider. Even more, his hit song “Gangnam Style” is satirical. Gangnam is the nouveau riche district of Seoul (and where Hong lived), and the song and video make fun of the people who live there for becoming too soft, too effete, too lazy—insufficiently Korean, in a word. Whether the tongue-in-cheek criticism was understood in Korea is unclear; Hong points out that there is no word for “irony” in Korean.For all its success, the export of pop songs and soap operas was only the opening gambit in a longer game. Making Korea cool is meant to provide an avenue for broader exports of Korean goods, from clothing to cars to computers. To some extent, this has proved successful. Korean food, for instance, has gained popularity in the United States and other countries. Korea has become the new Japan, but less tight-lipped and insular. It’s hard to not like a country that would produce a boy band called Shinee.Is the hallyu model itself something that can be exported? According to Hong, the government is seeking to do so, providing advice on development to emerging countries (with an eye to building new markets for Korean exports, of course). Taken as a whole, The Birth of Korean Cool is a remarkable story. A criticism of the book is that it takes a while to get to its real subject, devoting too much time to Hong’s childhood difficulties in fitting into Korean society. But she has the ability to find the right people to speak to, and is handy with the engaging quip. Where Korean Cool might go from here is unclear, but this book makes a good case that it’s a force worth watching.