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Book review: The Birth of Korean Cool

KoreanCool-cover-500Euny Hong: The Birth of Korean Cool
How one nation is conquering the world through pop culture
Simon & Schuster UK, 2014, 267pp

Euny Hong’s first non-fiction book (we loved her novel) is in turn infuriating, entertaining and informative. Let’s get the infuriating bits done with first. In her approach to Romanization she is cavalier, at times respecting the official Ministry of Culture guidelines over the accepted Western transliteration, at other times ignoring them; and too often coming up with transliterations which raise an eyebrow. (Seogang University for Sogang (p183); ajooma for ajumma (p185); and Seo Pyun Jae for Seopyeonje (p179) – a film she confesses to have found “so torturously boring that given the choice, I’d have preferred to undergo waterboarding”). She could have done with someone to give the book a second read – a step which might have caught the schoolchild howler of “free reign” for “free rein” (p187); picked up the error of thinking Hennessy was whiskey (p151); and questioned the appropriateness of using the w-word in the phrase “Thoreau wanked on about Walden Pond” (p61) in a semi serious book sold to a UK readership.

The other mildly irritating thing about the book is its title and marketing. “How one nation is conquering the world through its pop culture” suggests that this book will be taking a sustained look at the creation and promotion of the Hallyu. And while Hong is definitely at the Conspiracy end of the cock-up vs conspiracy debate, much of the first third of the book feels like a series of unrelated but nevertheless entertaining essays about modern Korea – the education system, han, Dokdo, Korean food, and the portrayal of north Korean female defectors on the TV show Now on my way to meet you.

Even where Hong is off the main topic of the book she can provide insights. In her somewhat flippant sections on religion in Korea (shamanism gets a particularly rough ride) David Mason gives some interesting thoughts on Korean Christianity:

An important aspect of Koran Christianity that has its roots in shamanism, said Mason, is that Koran Christians pray for real-world benefits in a way that far exceeds their western counterparts (p65)

And in her entertaining section on Korean education, we hear that there was strict segregation in respect of languages taught: girls learned French while boys were taught German (p16); and that rather like the neighbourhood committees in North Korea, students were expected to inform on each other at school. Typical crimes for which teachers wanted information were engaging in sex, smoking, or having private tuition (p41).

The best part of Hong’s book is where she shares insights from interviews with key people in the cultural industry – even where such interviews don’t necessarily support her thesis. In a section entitled “the world’s coolest ministry of culture” Hong meets Choi Bokeum from the Popular Culture Industry Division of the Cultural Content Office, one of whose roles is ‘to promote the research and development of highly advanced “cultural technology”‘ – holograms for use in pop concerts, artificial rainbows and shape-shifting fireworks. Even in this cutting-edge department, which appears to be “nucleus of Korea’s Soft Power strategy” (p101), Choi is able to say:

The Korean wave is not guided by the Korean Government; we just serve a coordinating function” (p100).

Yet individuals in the Ministry of Culture can make a big difference. Chung In-joon, who was later to serve as press and cultural attaché at the Korean embassy in London in the mid-noughties when the KCCUK was being established, was a director of the Korean Overseas Information Service in the early 90s. According to some, says Hong, it was Chung who was responsible for the Korean wave. In 1992 He put a broadcast-quality video tape in the diplomatic pouch to his cultural attaché in Hong Kong to try to get the drama What Is Love shown on Hong Kong TV.

What is Love
The start of the wave? TV Drama What is Love (MBC, 1991-92)

Sending the tape via normal commercial post was too risky. To convince the network to air the drama, Korean companies were persuaded to buy advertising, and government funds were use to dub it into Cantonese. The show was a huge hit and was the first of the Korean TV dramas credited with emptying Hong Kong’s busy streets when it was broadcast.

Closer to our own time, many readers may remember the flash mobs in France to persuade SM Entertainment to run a second SM Town concert. The flashmobs and their press coverage were coordinated by Choe Junho, director of the KCC in Paris from 2007 to 2011 (p206ff). LKL coverage of the flashmob at the time can be found here. Yet despite this clear success in terms of press coverage and securing an extra performance, a year later a French adviser to the Korean government on cultural promotion could say:

[The success of K-pop abroad is] thanks to the work of artists, not the government… I’ve never been to the Korean Cultural Center in Paris. I don’t know what they are doing. They’re just bureaucrats that are paid by public money.

Hong identifies other milestones in hallyu development and promotion:

  • the launch of the Busan International Film Festival in 1996, which Hong credits with getting the Korean film industry known internationally (Hong’s book draws upon an interview with Kim Dong-Ho, minister of culture 1961-1988, who established the festival.) p188
  • Government initiatives such as the construction of superfast broadband networks and the establishment of an investment fund to stimulate soft-power start-up companies.

To Hong’s credit, she acknowledges that Korean musicians were making it big in America long before Girls Generation had their slot on the David Letterman Show: the Kim Sisters had much more airtime on US TV in the 1950s and 60s:

[t]hey were almost as big a Vegas act as the Rat Pack. They appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show twenty five times, ranking them among the top ten most frequent acts in the history of the show.

This historical context is welcome. She is less accommodating, however, of Korean film in the period before what most would call New Korean Cinema: her chapter on film is subtitled “The Journey from Crap to Cannes”

Overall, as an introduction to contemporary Korea this is one of the livelier books available and can be recommended to the newcomer. But as a description of “how one nation is conquering the world through pop culture” a more thorough argument is necessary.

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