[Column] South Korean culture has entered a magic circle

Posted on : 2020-10-11 18:00 KST Modified on : 2020-10-11 18:00 KST
The success of BTS, Blackpink, and “Parasite” has made people worldwide more receptive to other aspects of Korean culture
BTS. (provided by Big Hit Entertainment)
BTS. (provided by Big Hit Entertainment)

For the first time ever, South Korea has recorded a half-year surplus in culture and arts copyrights. Put another way, South Korea is exporting more culture than it is importing.

The continuous success of BTS or Blackpink is well-known. “Parasite” winning the Oscar for best picture was a truly historic moment that will be remembered for years to come. And Bong Joon-ho and fellow acclaimed directors Park Chan-wook and Lee Chang-dong now command cult followings.

But why is the rest of the world consuming South Korean culture? What makes millions of fans worldwide dance to the tune of “Dynamite” or “How You Like That” instead of pop from other East Asian countries? Why did South Korea’s take on inequality win the Oscar instead of similar movies from other parts of the world?

Success in one field brings success in others

In short: South Korean culture has entered a magic circle in which success in one field brings success in others. It is cool. It is respected. Increasingly, it is inescapable if one wants to be at the cutting-edge of cultural consumption.

Certainly, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Korean pop, cinema, or, say, dramas and literature, are “better” than they were before Hallyu took off. But it means that they are perceived in a different way. They are synonymous with quality products that people around the world want to watch, listen or read. They have gained global recognition.

And once someone listens to and enjoys a K-pop song, that person is more likely to look for other songs from the same group. Then for songs from other groups. And then for other forms of South Korean culture. Indeed, BTS’ global fan base Army can very well be tomorrow’s reader of “The Vegetarian” (an award-winning novel by Han Kang). Because that person will associate South Korean culture with a quality product that it wants to consume. A quality product that tells stories that the person wants to follow.

South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho accepts the prize for best film at the 2020 Academy Awards in Los Angeles on Feb. 9. (Yonhap News)
South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho accepts the prize for best film at the 2020 Academy Awards in Los Angeles on Feb. 9. (Yonhap News)
Cultural barriers torn down

This magic circle has two key advantages for current and future South Korean artists. Above all, cultural barriers have been torn down. In the past, people in Southeast Asia, the Middle East or Europe and the US might have been reluctant to even watch a South Korean movie or read a South Korean webtoon. This isn’t the case anymore. The minds of potential consumers of South Korean culture have broadened, and they will try new things.

In addition, South Korean artists can now gain recognition as individuals, not as generic “South Koreans”. We have Army members and Blinks (Blackpink fans). Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook followers. Avid readers of Cho Nam-joo and Han Kang. These are South Korean artists with name recognition. Their nationality is part of the broader appeal of South Korean culture, which supports other South Korean artists as well. But they have attained the individual recognition that most artists aspire to.

Certainly, some may decry that a particular conception of South Korean culture has taken hold. Take the case of K-pop. It is a generic term, mainly associated with South Korean pop music mixing different styles with powerful choreographies. Clearly, K-pop doesn’t encompass all forms of South Korean popular music.

This is almost inevitable. Most people associate American movies with Hollywood, even if indie movies are an essential part of the US cultural landscape. It is something that all countries have to live with. Even the most powerful exporter of cultural good there is today.

But this potential negative effect of the popularity of South Korean culture should not detract from its many benefits for South Korean artists at large. The Kim Sisters, a Korean-American singing trio during the 1950s and 60s, did not lead to Hallyu, or the Korean Wave. “My Sassy Girl” (rom-com), BoA (singer) or “Winter Sonata” (TV series), in contrast, laid the groundwork for BTS and “Parasite” to be defining cultural icons of the year 2020. Surely Hallyu has been positive overall for Korean culture.

This magic circle means that emerging and less-recognized South Korean artists may eventually stand on the shoulders of giants. Because millions of people across the world stand ready to give their craft a try.

Ramon Pacheco Pardo
Ramon Pacheco Pardo

By Ramon Pacheco Pardo, KF-VUB Korea chair at the Institute for European Studies of Vrije Universiteit Brussel and associate professor of International Relations at King’s College London

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

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