Prof Kim Chang-nam: history & characteristics of modern Korean culture

(SOAS, 5 June 2006, 7pm: the concluding event of the London Korean Festival 2006)

I’m more reluctant than usual to make this post. The ground covered in Professor Kim’s hugely stimulating conclusion to the London Korean Festival was more than extensive, and left the audience wanting to ask tons of questions. To condense a hundred years of Korean popular culture into 90 minutes or less inevitably involves cutting corners and omitting crucial detail. And summarising that summary here risks trivialising and oversimplifying what Kim was saying. So if you’re reading this, think of this post as (a) more private and (b) more error-prone than my usual stuff. I’m just posting this to try to make sense of the scrawled notes I wrote during the talk, and to note down some things I want to follow up on. I’ve tried not to impose my own spin on what was said. Any obvious comment of my own is in square brackets.

The following biographical details were provided by the organisers:

Professor Kim Chang-Man is one of most well known professors in the media and communications sector. Hes is recognized as an ‘active intellectual’. As a founder of ‘No-Chat-Sa’ (people who seek to sing), he was a social critic during the 1980s when Korea had undergone various political uncertainities. Because public culture theories had not been established firmly, Professor Kim was received by the public to be revolutionary. Professor Kim is currently spending a sabbatical period at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) as a visiting professor.

Professor Kim divided his analysis into three distinct periods: The colonial period, the military dictatorship period and the post-democratisation period.

1 The colonial period 1910 – 1960

(a) Japanese influence

In the first half of the twentieth century Korean popular culture was dominated by Japanese influence. Korean popular songs were dominated by the Japanese enka style. [I’d be interested to know if there was any underground / resistance culture. It’s inevitable that the only surviving recordings were of officially sanctioned culture.]

(b) American influence

Following the end of the second world war and throughout the 1950s, Kim highlighted the American influence. US GIs needed entertainment — and entertainment that reminded them of home. So Korean musicians were trained in western popular music styles in order keep the troops happy. Inevitably, American popular music styles became more widely popular — the US, who had saved the South from the communist North, represented modernity and the future [cf Sopyonje]. Kim played some fun soundclips, including a country & western group and a 1966 male duo who modelled themselves on Elvis.

2 The military dictatorship period (60s-80s)

Kim identified several themes:

(a) The film industry and broadcast media.

Kim noted the government control over the media, and the growth in the number of radio & TV sets during the Park Chung-hee era. To exercise “positive” influence over the film industry, Park introduced a “Superior Movie Prize”. The incentive for entering was that the winner was permitted to import (money-making) Hollywood movies. To qualify for a superior movie prize a film had to be patriotic, or, consistent with Park’s industrialisation imperatives, deal with heroic industrial warriors or themes of overcoming national crisis by the whole country pulling together. Art movies could also qualify, but they were defined as films which did not deal with social concerns. Film companies dutifully produced such films, but only to enable them to import foreign films. The films were literally throw-away affairs (prints have not been kept).

(b) Popular music & youth culture

Park’s censorship banned a wide range of songs.

  • Those which threatened national security or integrity
  • Those which thoughtlessly followed foreign trends
  • Those which were over-emotional, displaying defeatism, self torment or despair
  • Those which displayed sensationalism or moral decay.

Music was inevitably a tame affair. Kim played a music clip from the early 70s (I think it was “Friend” by Kim Min-ki) and it sounded a bit like “My Way”, accompanied by guitar and Hammond organ.

The 70s was the time of rock music, hippies, jeans and long hair elsewhere in the world, but any serious challenge to the status quo in Korea was forbidden. On the streets of Seoul, policemen were armed with scissors to provide an impromptu barber service for youths with hair of an inappropriate length; and with tape measures to check the length of mini-skirts. Countless foreign songs were banned. Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and Tom Jones’s Delilah because of the killings described therein; House of the Rising Sun was banned because of its decadence; Sergeant Pepper because of the appearance of Karl Marx’s head among all the other worthies on the cover.

(c) Protest culture

A leading sing-songwriter of the time was Kim Min-ki. He started off as a leader of youth culture, but after his songs were banned he became a leading contributor to the protest movement. His song, Morning Dew, sung by Yang Hee-eun, was the first to be banned and became a favourite song for demonstrators. Underground protest songs were distributed illegally on cassette. Kim Chang-nam himself was involved in this.

3 The post-democratization period

(a) Extension of freedom of expression

After the fall of the military dictatorship, freedom of expression was relaxed and there was greater openness to foreign influence. Underground protest songs were now legal, and social criticism was now permitted in film. There was a brief period of interest in the music of the 1980s protest culture: the “Progressive Music Group” brought out a 6-CD retrospective of underground protest songs performed in the 80s by 노래 를 찾는 사람들 [No-Chat-Sa, the 1980s protest singer collective — thanks, Soyang]. Kim played a clip, which I could tell would sound very emotive to someone who had lived and breathed the underground movement in the 80s, but sounds very serious to someone coming to it afresh.

However, this period of interest was brief. With democratisation and the beginning of globalisation came a new generation with different interests outside of politics. In the changed environment there was no longer the unifying force of opposition to an oppressive regime: instead there came a diversity of passions in a widely dispersed area of interests.

(b) Waning government influence; increasing power of capital

With the weakening influence of government over popular culture, the power of capital became ever stronger. The impact of this is that small-budget films are squeezed out by bigger-budget moneyspinners, while pop music has become teen-oriented, lowest common denominator stuff. The chief challenge of the power of capital and the consequent commercialism is that lack of diversity becomes a serious problem.

(c) New generation distribution systems

With Korea the most wired nation in the world, the internet and mobile phones have become an important distribution channel, and traditional bricks & mortar theatres less important. With this development, content becomes ever more important.

(d) Hallyu

With the growth of the Asian video market, there is an insatiable appetite for content. Korea had adjusted its film and TV industry to meet that appetite. It was producing content which was neither American nor Japanese, but still recognisably Asian and at the same time contemporary. Japan and Hong Kong had not adjusted, and the Korean Wave has been the result. Kim noted an interesting article in the NY Times (Roll over Godzilla), and, for French readers who pay their subscriptions, Le Monde (BoA: pop-star en Corée, idole au Japon)

Closing the talk on a slightly pessimistic note, Kim argued that the Hallyu is a temporary phenomenon. Democratisation permitted freedom of expression, and a certain amount of creativity ensued, which came at the right time to enable the first wave. But to continue to succeed in Asia, the Korean popular culture industry needs to constantly reform itself. Money is not the critical factor: what is more important is diversity and creativity, and Korea does not have enough of that.

A controversial conclusion, and the audience was bursting to ask loads of questions. Topics covered in the Q&A were as follows.

Anti-Americanism in the 1980s?

Recognising the growing tides of anti-Americanism in the 1980s post-Kwangju, one questioner asked why the musical current of the protest movement seemed to be dominated by American musical styles. Kim responded that while in the 1980s there was an anti-American element in the underground, it did not extend to trying to eliminate the American musical elements. There was admittedly an increase in interest in traditional musical forms, particularly drumming, at the time, but it was generally acknowledged that the underlying political message was far more important than what musical style was used. Part of the influence in the protest movement was generational — the protestors were reacting against the Japanese influence of the older generation, and it was the Americans who had beaten the Japanese.

The relaxation of the screen quota

Kim argued that the relaxation of the screen quota is likely to have an extremely adverse affect: the Korean film industry does not have a sufficient base of diversity and creativity, because creativity was suppressed by censorship under the military dictatorship. Kim argued that the film industry needed protection to allow creativity to take root. [I’m sure that people will question the point about lack of diversity and creativity — that’s surely one of the things that appeals most about Korean film, but maybe Kim’s point is that there isn’t enough of it, and that in order to compete against the wave of big-budget Hollywood imports Korean film will try to compete on Hollywood’s ground rather than build on its diversity. At the Q&A following the Lady Vengeance London premiere, I had asked Park Chan-wook the same question about whether the Korean film industry could survive the relaxation of the quota, and he was similarly gloomy, predicting a lingering death after about five years].

Another question from the floor asked why the Uri party had unilaterally volunteered to relax the quota in the context of the US free trade agreement negotiations. Kim’s answer was that Korean film isn’t a major part of the economy [this chimes in with what Rowan Pease was saying at the Birkbeck conference: Hallyu doesn’t make as much money as it should because distribution is largely pirated]. A much bigger part of the economy is made up by the industrial might of Samsung and Hyundai. Pop Culture is one of the US’s biggest exports, so the screen quota is something the Americans are very interested in. Korean culture was therefore being sacrificed on the altar of Korean economic interest.

How commercial are Korean TV soaps?

One question challenged Kim’s gloomy analysis that Korean popular culture is going down the road of commercialism, and suggested that TV dramas had genuine value eg as social commentary (the questioner mentioned one soap about someone who became a male prostitute in order to pay school fees), or reinforcing traditional values / themes of nostalgia (Jewel in the Palace) [or displaying historical interest (Sandglass)]. Kim acknowledged that there was a wide range of TV dramas, some serious, some not. But in an environment where the ratings battle is the key driver, the dominant / mainstream trend is that of commercialism, and the plotlines become increasingly violent or sensational.

US cultural imperialism

Here I’m afraid my notes are more difficult to interpret. There was a shared concern that globalisation = Americanisation, particularly where culture is concerned. It’s a phenomenon which threatens local cultures everywhere, not just Korea. Wherever local content is less vibrant, or there’s less of it, American content rushes in to fill the gap. One suggested avenue of resistance was the promotion of national film festivals, which have been so successful in Italy.

The future of Korean creativity

A final question — a pretty impossible one to answer — asked Kim what environment the government should foster in to ensure the flourishing of the Korean cultural industry. Kim’s response was in line with the theme of his talk, and was again slightly depressing. In an environment of rapid change, where the power of capital is growing, creativity is vital. But in the highly pressurised and competitive Korean educational system there is little time or energy left for creativity or cultural activity outside of hours devoted to lessons and time needed for homework. This is something which needs to be addressed, but cannot be done by government alone: it requires a long term change of attitude in Korean society.

Lots of food for thought. Thanks again to Oh Tae-min for making this possible.

2 thoughts on “Prof Kim Chang-nam: history & characteristics of modern Korean culture

  1. hi. i am an undergraduate doing a research paper on the impact of college music scene on political activism in korea during the 70s. i really want to learn more about this presentation that professor kim gave. if you can contact me with more info, i would greatly appreciate it. thanks.

    in Him, peace

  2. Hi Hatty
    Well, I’m afraid the summary I gave above pretty much exhausts my scrawled notes of the talk Prof Kim gave. And from recollection he spoke without any notes himself.
    One suggestion I have is that you join the Korean Studies list (if you haven’t already) and send an email asking for advice on source materials for your topic – that will provide some leads for you.
    But best to get it from the horse’s mouth I guess. I have an idea that Prof Kim is in London for the year; whatever, I’ll see if I can find contact details for him and you can follow up with him yourself.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.