[Column] Crests and troughs of the Korean Wave

Posted on : 2021-11-12 17:35 KST Modified on : 2021-11-12 17:35 KST
With my own students, I emphasize balanced critical thinking and analysis and debunk unrealistic fantasies about Korean society
Kim Soon-bae
Kim Soon-bae
By Kim Soon-bae, director of the Center for Comparative Korean Studies at the Central University of Chile

It’s not exactly news that Hallyu, or the Korean Wave, is spreading through Latin America. But Latinos who are passionate about Korea sometimes find themselves questioning their feelings.

I was reminded of that at an international workshop for the Ninth KF Global e-School for Central and South America, which was held on Nov. 3-4. Hosted by the Autonomous University of Nuevo Leon in Mexico, the workshop brought together students from 14 universities in Latin America who’ve been taking online courses about Korean studies each semester and put them in direct contact with professors in the field. These are serious-minded students selected from each university for their academic interests.

During the workshop, we had a chance to hear why these students decided to take classes in Korean studies. Most of them had similar motivations, the sort that readers can guess: They’d learned about Korea through K-pop or through Korean dramas and developed an interest in Korea’s economic development or culture industry.

The fact is that such motivations for taking up the Korean language or Korean studies are fairly similar across continents. Some students had an overly idealistic view of Korea and wanted to transplant Korea’s experience with development to their own countries. Many of the students in the master’s program in Korean studies that I teach also applied because of optimistic intellectual curiosity about Korea.

But as students come to learn more about Korea, their affection mixes with disappointment. They may start out wearing rose-colored glasses, but they gradually learn of the lingering problems caused by the intense economic growth that Korea experienced in such a short period of time. Part of what education aims to achieve is having students move beyond a shallow understanding of Korean society and dig deeper as they apply critical thinking to their professors’ lectures.

The areas that students focus on aren’t much different from the social problems that Koreans themselves point out — the obsession with getting into college, the rat race, the highest suicide rate in the world, poverty among older populations, sexism, authoritarian hierarchies, discrimination against migrants, and hidden cameras in women’s bathrooms.

Students learn not only about Korea’s history of industrialization and democratization, but also about its current status as “Hell Joseon” and “The Republic of Chaebol.” When students tell me that “once you learn more about Korea, it becomes disappointing,” I can commiserate.

As academic conferences moved online during the pandemic, there have gradually been more opportunities to gain a deeper understanding of Korea.

On Nov. 11–12, my university will host the Ninth Latin American Conference of Korean Studies (EECAL), which will feature presentations by 20 researchers of Korean studies from Mexico, Argentina, El Salvador and four other countries. The conference will cover a wide range of topics, including not only Hallyu and international cooperation between Korea and Latin America, but also defectors and anti-feminism. Since the conference is being held online, nearly 150 people from various countries in the region have registered to attend the presentations.

No country is without faults. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the weaknesses of medical systems and state capacities in the so-called advanced countries of Europe and the United States — countries that Koreans have long envied. Korean society also has its dark side, and we need not be ashamed when other people find out about it. With my own students, I emphasize balanced critical thinking and analysis and debunk unrealistic fantasies about Korean society.

But in the end, I can’t help being Korean. When my students struggle to understand certain aspects of Korean society, I can woefully relate.

Just today, I was contacted by yet another TV station that wanted to interview me about the secret behind the global success of Korea’s culture industry. That shows how interest in Korea just keeps growing.

My hope is that Korea will become the kind of country where greater knowledge only increases its charm. Given that hope, I tell people that Korea is getting better and has the power to improve, realizing full well that my students may complain that I’m being too patriotic.

My students may get disappointed in Korea sometimes, but that doesn’t stop them from loving it.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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