[Herald Interview] CICI chief Choi takes modern look at Korean culture

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Jun 27, 2016 - 17:39
  • Updated : Jun 27, 2016 - 17:39
Choi Jung-wha, a professor at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, has released the English version of her new book, “K-Style: Living the Korean Way of Life,” which delves deep into the evolution of modern Korean living.

Through her book, the founder and president of the Corea Image Communications Institute intended to arouse interest and curiosity about all things Korea and the Korean way of life.

Choi said her desire to raise international interest in Korean society was first ignited decades ago at a time when the country had virtually zero global presence.

Divided into four seasonal chapters -- spring, summer, autumn and winter -- the book attempts to explain what Choi refers to as distinctly Korean ways of life. It also attempts to facilitate cultural communication and further spark curiosity in the Korean way of life by answering what few textbooks and culture books on Korea do: Why do Koreans live the way they do?

“I read a lot books on Korea and when I would go to the library, I would see all these books that were all about our traditions, our history,” said Choi during an interview with The Korea Herald on Thursday at the Westin Chosun Seoul.

“Most of the books were just listing facts, like textbooks. My book, rather, explains the Korean lifestyle, our way of living. Although I do explain the historical backgrounds of our customs, what I also explain is the evolution,” she added.

“Asians, I think, including Koreans, when we like something or when we feel something emotionally, we accept it immediately without much explanation,” said Choi. “But whenever I met with Westerners, I noticed that they always needed to understand the ‘why.’ So I realized that I needed some sort of explanation to why Korean culture is the way it is, which is one of the reasons I decided to write this book.”  

Founder and president of Corea Image Communications Institute Choi Jung-wha (right) and her husband Didier Beltoise, president and CEO of Cs, pose during an interview with The Korea Herald on Thursday at the Westin Chosun Seoul. (Yoon Byung-chan/The Korea Herald)

The book was first released in French last month in honor of the 130th anniversary of Korea-France diplomatic relations and the English version of the text was released on Friday. 

As the president of CICI, a nonprofit organization that strives to promote and advance the global image of Korea, Choi has had the unique opportunity to meet citizens of all walks of life and from other nations, which helps her establish the overall perception of Korea from the eyes of non-Koreans and to understand what aspects of Korean culture spark the most interest among foreigners.

“I think historical books are only of interest to a small number of people,” said Choi’s husband Didier Beltoise, the president and CEO of hospitality consulting firm Cs. “I think what more people are interested in is the lifestyle of today; why is today’s situation the way it is and how it became this way. I’m not talking about going back centuries ago because that was not our time -- we never experienced it and we never will experience it -- but more about explaining what has been happening for the past few decades so we can better understand the recent evolution of a country like Korea.” 

The book delves far beyond the recent advents of K-pop and the Korean Wave, covering topics on all walks of modern Korea life, from society’s craze for education, wedding customs, superstitious folklore, ghost tales and even how and why Korea has now become a mecca for plastic surgery.

“Choi Jung-wha reveals the great and unique cultures of Korea,” said French author Guy Sorman about Choi’s new book.

“Beyond the economic success and K-pop we know today, the author demonstrates how Koreans have preserved their souls without resorting to the West. Choi Jung-wha succeeds in this remarkable challenge by combining her vast knowledge (of) culture with a rare clarity of style,” Sorman added. 

Acknowledging that global recognition of Korea has grown leaps and bounds over the past few decades, Choi said the secret behind the country’s patented image branding leads directly to the Korean way of life.

The author noted that although the country has not yet established itself as having a single iconic landmark imagery -- France has its Eiffel Tower and China the Great Wall, for example -- it’s the Korean people that constitute the country’s biggest selling point. 

“For me, the attracting power of Korea is Korean people,” said Choi. “Korean people are who generated this ‘K-culture’ and this ‘K-style,’ so to me, the symbolic landmark or symbolic icon is Korean people ... and that is what will attract people to Korea.”

“K-style,” illustrated with photos by several well-known photographers as well as Hanjin Group chairman Cho Yang-ho, is priced at 30,000 won ($25) and can be purchased online at CICI’s official website or at Kyobo Bookstores.

By Julie Jackson (