A Privileged Source of Information


JungBong Choi


A gust - ephemeral, but transformative. The abrupt forays of hurricanes, tornadoes, and tsunami bring about topographical and ecological changes. The same holds true for the socio-political domain as well. The tempests we have witnessed in the twentieth century, strikes, uprisings and revolutions, have triggered historical ruptures not just in the nations from which they originated, but also in the overall power dynamics of the world. In the realm of culture, too, such transformative events occur periodically, as illustrated by the upsurge of rock’n’roll, China’s Cultural Revolution, and the American hippie culture.

Today, the ferocious advance of cultural globalisation reorganises our quotidian experiences dramatically. From the wave of cultural globalisation, there emerges a derivative, counter-tide of cultural regionalisation: the so-called Hallyu (Korean Wave) is a case in point. The term Hallyu literally denotes “Korean (Cultural) Wave/Current,” and was first used by the Chinese media in the late 1990s. It refers to a sweeping phenomenon in which Korean cultural/media products are enthusiastically hailed by adjacent countries in East and South East Asia: namely, Japan, China (including Hong Kong), Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia. This unprecedented craze for Korean culture is spreading at an astonishing pace, stretching from content-based products like movies, popular songs, and television dramas to such cultural hardware as food, clothing, accessories, mobile phones, and the likes.

For instance, a famed television drama Winter Sonata (South Korea, 2002) has been broadcast in thirteen different terrestrial and cable stations in Japan alone and viewed by over two-thirds of the nation’s television households. When the male protagonist of Winter Sonata, YongJun Bae, visited Japan in November 2003, nearly 4,000 middle-aged female fans swarmed the Narita International Airport, practically paralyzing it for a few hours. Situations in Taiwan, Vietnam and China are similar by and large. In China, South Korean programs have become a fixture on commercial networks and cable stations as well as on CCTV (China Central Television), a government-owned and operated television network. The total hours of running Korean programs outstrips that of all other foreign broadcasts combined, including those from the United States and Japan.

The phenomenal success of Korean television dramas is paralleled by equally strong demands for South Korean films, pop music, and media celebrities, which in turn fuel the robust growth of Korea’s culture-based industries. For example, in response to the sudden influx of avid Hallyu fans from Japan, Taiwan, and China, savvy tourist companies introduced a variety of “Hallyu tour” packages, itineraries which consist mostly of visiting famous drama sets, broadcasting stations, and live music concerts. It is reported that a record 257,000 Japanese visited South Korea in October 2004 alone. As such, the number of foreign tourists travelling to South Korea increased dramatically, from 2.8 million in 2003 to 3.7 million in 2004.

What are the socio-cultural and politico-economic contexts from which Hallyu arose? What are the implications of Hallyu in East and South Asian regions? The Korean Wave may be seen as a conjunctural effect resulting from a conflation of domestic/international, economic/political, and historical/contemporary factors. More specifically, Hallyu is an upshot of the clash of two crosscurrents: first, the relative decline in Japan’s economic, political, and cultural leadership in Asia, which highlights the startling rise of China; second, the proliferation of (neo)liberal doctrines leading to a higher level of regional integration in economy and culture, which is at odds with the residual forces of Cold War and postcolonial politics that reproduce political schisms in the region. The following briefly outlines the principal political and economic conditions from which Hallyu sprung to life.

From the early 1990s onward, Japan’s clout in East and South Asian provinces in the areas of politics, culture, and the economy has visibly waned. A decade-long economic recession eroded the foothold the country had gained over forty years in the post-WWII period. Politically, the resurgence of ultra-rightwing politics exacerbated the already estranged relationship with neighbouring countries. The ever-escalating anti-Japan sentiment in the region permeates cultural domains as well. Contrary to the warm reception that Japanese culture enjoys in the industrialised West, an increasing level of antagonism and apathy toward Japan is evident in East and South East Asia. Hence, even the most widespread cultural products—mascots, karaoke, hair styles, pop music, animations, mange, etc.—are losing ground in the sudden wake of the Korean Wave.

The waning of Japan’s authority coincides with the striking ascent of China as a regional hegemon and global superpower. At the same time, China’s growing prevalence is closely connected with the end of the Cold War and the acceleration of economic liberalisation in the region. With the official conclusion of the Cold War came the close of many ideological confrontations in the region. What followed was an era characterised by cutthroat economic competition under the banner of deregulation, marketisation, and liberalisation. The neoliberal canons for a borderless, free-trade world prompted the relaxation of economic and cultural border patrolling, thereby precipitating the crystallisation of what might be termed a pan-Chinese arc in Asia, an archway stretching from mainland China and Hong Kong, to Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand.

The nations in the pan-Chinese arc are more or less in a similar stage of economic growth and, to a significant degree, share common traditions and mindsets. For some time they have been in search of a viable model for development, one that harmonises market economy with socio-cultural life consistent with time-honoured codes and values. It is a known fact that the American or European models of modernity do not represent compelling paradigms to much of East and South Asia. Likewise, the Japanese model of development and social organisation has received only a half-hearted endorsement by these societies, due largely to the nation’s unremitting attempt to “exit” Asia in favour of Euro-American modernity. It is amid this vacuum that Korea surfaces as a reassuring and intimate model worthy of imitation.

There are three main, interrelated reasons that account for South Korea as an example to be emulated by its neighbours. First, contemporary trajectories of South Korea are often labelled as a pattern of “compressed modernity,” which eloquently attests to the possibility of leapfrogging from an agricultural society to a high-tech information society in less than four decades. Second, the South Korean mode of development epitomises the continuing relevance of Confucian values to economic growth and political reformation. Third, Korea is accredited for having achieved a high level of participatory democracy, mature civil organisations, and active labour unions after the sustained period of social unrest during the military dictatorship. For many Asian societies, the contemporary social formation of South Korea represents a healthy standard which prizes public good and communitarian spirit without stifling individual freedom and the creativity of the market. In this respect, one can say with reasonable confidence that the Korean Wave is animated by and indicative of East and South East Asia’s eager search for a model of sound growth in both society and the economy.

It is in this context that Korean media/cultural products function as a multidimensional theatre in which experiences of Korean modernity are narrated and performed before the curious eye of regional audiences. Nevertheless, this is not to suggest that Hallyu is all about lofty soul-searching and noble quests for Asiatic ingenuity. Truth be told, a good amount of Hallyu product is fraught with conspicuous displays of wealth, vulgar mimicry of Western lifestyles, and the crude exaltation of the patriarchal order. Upon close inspection, however, there is an interesting tension between style and content, or presentation and representation in many Hallyu media products.

What accompanies the flamboyant exhibitionism of Korean dramas, movies and music videos is a subtle embedding of traditional values such as the centrality of communal life, filial responsibility, disciplined work ethics, and empathy toward social minorities. These are values that conform to Confucian teachings and are widely upheld by the countries that comprise the pan-Chinese arc. The two ostensibly opposing vectors, that is, the vociferous parade of high-modernity and the faithful defence of group (not individual) values, can be identified as the main point of attraction for the Asian audiences who harbour bi-directional aspirations for material wealth and ethical exaltation simultaneously. Replete with dizzyingly modern, exotic images on the one hand and curiously familiar ideas on the other, these texts indeed offer satisfaction in twofold measure. In this regard, Hallyu can be said to be a ventriloquist with superb technique, simultaneously articulating commodity attraction and moral edification, a sleek surface and poignant substance.

Let us not forget, however, that the momentum of Hallyu comes not just from textual and technical excellence; instead, the very impetus that propels the particular type of narrative composition that Hallyu embodies are the socio-political and economic-cultural yearnings of the region itself. In other words, Hallyu did not “originate” in Korea. Rather, it is a cultural tempest steered by the aesthetic and political judgment of extensive publics in East and South East Asia. For too long the region has been dependent on the provision of cultural products from the United States, despite violently brewing discontent with material perceived as incongruous with the outlooks and emotional textures of Asian audiences. Lamentably, today’s “cultural globalisation” is in reality the second phase of what may be better defined as cultural Americanisation (diluted with some degree of reciprocity). The only perceptible difference between the previous era of overt Americanisation and today’s covert version is the fact that what used to be the one-way transmission from the U.S. to the rest of the world is now being elusively carried out by a handful of transnational media behemoths like Time-Warner, News Corp., Sony, Bertelsmann, and Disney.

In this respect and others, the rise of Hallyu is a significant political event. Take, for example, the case of Japan, a country that has been awash with cultural products imported from the United States. The Hallyu frenzy in Japan is something of an anomaly. That the combined rating of E.R., Ally McBeal, and Friends on NHK channels is dwarfed by that of Winter Sonata indicates an astounding shift both in the relationship between two long-estranged nations and in the cultural inter-dynamics between the U.S. and East Asian countries. Indeed, Hallyu is the most powerful catalyst in healing colonial wounds and alleviating postcolonial resentment between Japan and Korea. It was in this spirit that the Korean pop singer Boa was invited to perform at a summit held between South Korean President Noh MooHyun and Japan’s then-Prime Minister Koizumi. An article in USA Today notes, “The [Hallyu] phenomenon signals a sharp reversal in the relationship between two peoples with a long and mostly bitter history. It also reflects the easing of old Asian animosities, the search for alternatives to American culture and the kind of inexplicable national mania that sent Japanese tourists trudging through Iowa a decade ago in search of The Bridges of Madison County.”

Here, it is worth repeating that Hallyu is a regional phenomenon. Which may be part of the reason why it has been able to keep its political significance intact: Hallyu is a cultural asset shared by regional members, a modest and yet encouraging form of cultural repertoires through which people in the immediate area can improve communication and understanding. Its wide distribution bodes well for the birth of regional cultural spheres promoting dialogue between peoples beyond the confines of national culture. Even if Hallyu falls short of becoming a common cultural asset in the region, it could certainly be a stepping stone toward the latter.

Nevertheless, there are some disconcerting signs that plague this upbeat prospect for the arrival of regional cultural spheres. Earlier this year, Chinese CCTV announced that it would “diversify” the foreign drama genre by bringing in more programming from Taiwan and Hong Kong, a move aimed at warding off the deluge of Korea products. Similarly, the Taiwanese Government Information Office is considering a ban on “foreign” dramas during prime time, a time slot that has been inundated by Korean programs over the last two years. More drastic measures might come from the Vietnamese government, which stated publicly that it would put a ban on the importation of Korean movies and dramas to rein in the overheated Hallyu boom. Hostile reactions against Hallyu have visibly spiralled in Japan as well, as evidenced by the wide circulation of a comic book titled Ken KanRyu, which may be roughly translated as “Disgust toward Hallyu.”

These hostile actions against Hallyu were no doubt provoked by an ensemble of agents responsible for the engineering of Hallyu products (and not Hallyu as such): that is, Korea’s mainstream media, government officials, intellectuals, and culture industry in its entirety. For these cohorts Hallyu represents little more than a goose that lays golden eggs and which, sadly, is on the verge of being butchered by the greedy farmer. Disturbing evidence suggests that dreams of “dominating” Asian culture, a kind of cultural fascism nourished by petit-nationalism and crude mercantile spirit, are on the rise in these circles. Hallyu, like other cultural trends, is at its worst when driven by aggressive nationalist impulses coupled with unbridled commercialism. Right now, Hallyu is at critical moment; and so is the prospect for building a healthy regional cultural sphere. At this crossroads, a judicious intervention of the concerned regional public is imperative.


USA Today, Dec 9, 2004. www.usatoday.com/news/world/2004-12-09-korean-actor_x.htm

(accessed on Sept 21, 2006.)