Why is hallyu (or the “Korean wave”) so popular these days? Why hasn’t “joonglyu” (the “Chinese wave”) or “illyu” (the “Japanese wave”) swept across the world, while hallyu continues to spread throughout not only Asia, but also Europe and Latin America? These are the questions one may ask while witnessing the enormous popularity of Korean movies, television dramas and pop songs overseas.
Recently I met Lee Won-bok, a professor of arts design and the celebrated author of “Far Countries and Close Countries” at a panel discussion. Prof. Lee asserted that one can define China or Japan more easily than Korea, because the two countries have distinctive, clearer images and cultural icons compared to Korea. On the other hand, Korea, caught between China and Japan, is still trying to conjure up some unique, definitive ones to present to the international community.
Prof. Lee continued to say that due to harsh Western aggression in China during the 19th century, the Chinese people have tended to be suspicious of and even hostile to Western culture. As a result, Chinese culture always supersedes and overrides Western culture in China. On the contrary, the Japanese people have been less reluctant to embrace Western culture, and moreover, unlike the Chinese, they have actively incorporated Western culture into their native culture. As a result, Western culture is intricately woven into Japanese culture.
According to Prof. Lee, the Korean people have neither been hostile to Western culture nor tried to incorporate it into their own. Consequently, both Western and Korean culture have the same validity in Korean society, coexisting as two separate entities. Prof. Lee asserted that the unique situation of Korea, which is radically different from China and Japan, contributes to the universal appeal of the “Korean wave,” an idealistic mixture of indigenous Korean contents and Western methods, or what he calls, a “global mix.”
Prof. Lee pointed out that historically the Korean people have always been in favor of Western culture and even heartily welcomed it. There are two reasons for such a phenomenon; one is that Korea is a rare country in Asia that has never been colonized by the West. The second reason is that Korea was liberated from Japanese occupation by Western intervention. Therefore, the Koreans hold no grudges against the West, and tend to regard the West as a saving force: ergo, Korean’s favoritism of Western culture.
Although optimistic about the strong appeal of Korean culture to the world, Prof. Lee also acknowledged the fact that there have been increasing cases of clashes lately between Korean and Western culture in Korean society. As the nation has emerged as an affluent society, indeed, Koreans have been turning backs on Asian values and desiring a restoration of their cultural pride. Prof. Lee concluded that the recent victorious bid to host the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang can be a cataclysm that can mobilize national consensus and reconciliation, and bring an end to the ideological clashes that have been seriously undermining Korean society.
Persuasive and insightful as it was, Prof. Lee’s theory was met with some skepticism and criticism nonetheless. Some philosophers at the panel pointed out that Prof. Lee’s theory lacks solid logical proof. Other, perhaps more cynical, scholars contended that what Prof. Lee calls the “global mix,” could also be perceived as “chaos,” or a serious lack of cultural identity. Indeed, the connotation of the word “mix” is not quite encouraging; it reminds one of “coffee mix,” a small stick that contains coffee, sugar and cream, with which one can make an instant drink. The philosophers also unanimously agreed that sporting events such as the Olympics and the World Cup could lead to an outburst of national frenzy deliberately instigated and exploited by conspiring demagogues and sly politicians for political gain.
Caught between the optimistic artist and the pessimistic philosophers, I was a torn man. To me, Prof. Lee’s theory was quite persuasive, and yet, he seemed to be much too optimistic and overestimating the power of Korean culture. Likewise, the philosophers’ critiques were quite trenchant, and yet, they seemed to be much too pessimistic and seriously underestimating of the potential of Korean culture. As a result, I concluded that Prof. Lee’s theory, which was a bit simplistic, could not explain the ultra-nationalistic and antagonistic tendency toward anything foreign that is still rampant in Korean society. At the same time, the philosophers’ pessimism could not explain the immense popularity of the Korean trend overseas.
Perhaps we need to perceive the phenomenon called hallyu from a third perspective. For instance, we should not be excessively excited about the success of the Korean trend overseas, seeing only the rosy side. We should be aware that only some foreigners, not all, have been swept up in the Korean wave. By the same token, we should not be overly pessimistic and disparage the potential of our pop culture. It surely is encouraging to see that the Korean wave has become so fashionable overseas. But the important thing is that we need to have a true “global mindset,” not just an “instant global mix.”
By Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon, a professor of English at Seoul National University, is editor of the literary quarterly “21st Century Literature.” ― Ed.