Korean wave: growing or receding?

soasIt was the last seminar of the winter term. With the title of Contemporary Korean popular culture, Kim Shin Dong’s talk was sure to be well-attended. The SOAS Korean Society had mobilised in force for the occasion, and were selling kimbap outside the lecture room.

It was a pity, then, that the lecture itself on 5 December did not quite live up to expectation. One interesting new perspective was that Professor Kim, from Sciences Po in Paris, downplayed the “special” nature of the Korean wave, pointing out that transnational cultural flows are nothing new in Asia – there have been Hong Kong waves (1970s) and Japanese waves (1980s) before, and the success of Winter Sonata in Japan was not planned. It was just a cheap airtime filler which got lucky.

Professor Kim also examined some of the reasons for the success of the Korean wave, and discounted the “cultural proximity” argument, which says that Korean cultural content is popular in China because of shared Confucian heritage: as a counter-example to the cultural proximity argument Kim cited the Philippines, a predominantly Catholic country. He suggested another reason for cross-border popularity of Asian media – that of countries “recovering” or rediscovering their neighbours after decades of Western domination: the modernisation process in Asian countries tended to be equated with “catching up with the West”, arguably leaving a cultural vacuum which could be filled by content from other Asian countries.

Professor Kim showed us an image which probably marked the high point of the Korean Wave. It was the lead photograph on the front page of a Taiwanese newspaper (the China Times), showing a street scene in Beijing, of a man on a bicycle looking at a giant advertising hoarding depicting a Korean star (Jeon Ji-hyun) holding a Japanese product (an Olympus camera).

The Korean appetite for education – particularly education overseas, with phenomenal statistics for Korea being the third largest population of overseas students in the US – was suggested as a positive aspect for sustaining the wave. Two years ago Professor Kim Chang-nam, talking on an identical topic (again at SOAS) had a different view, highlighting another aspect of the Korean education system which acted against the wave: long hours of rote-learning which give students no time for creativity.

While these perspectives were interesting, Professor Kim was extremely selective in his use of statistics, choosing to truncate his data in 2005, and thus showing exponential growth in theatre attendances, movie and TV export earnings and any other numbers from 2000 – 2005 showing the Korean wave in rude health. He chose not to show more recent data which would have shown a more sober view: loss-making films and and plummeting export earnings.

Asked what he saw as the threat to the ongoing success of Korean cultural exports he bizarrely chose to highlight President Lee’s decision to resume US beef imports. The halving of the screen quota by the previous liberal administration was not mentioned as a threat, nor was internet piracy, anti-Korean sentiment in China, lack of creativity in the film industry, overpayment of stars in mediocre TV dramas or any other factor you might mention.

Perhaps a talk of 45 minutes is not adequate to cover such a wide-ranging topic. But an audience has a right to a talk that is not two years out of date.

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