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Korean Wave or Korean Tsunami? The Next-Gen Late Night at the Korean Cultural Centre

On Friday 31st May, the Korean Cultural Centre UK hosted its inaugural networking event for young professionals and opinion leaders titled ‘Next Gen Late Night.’

Business cards
“Don’t forget to bring your business cards” an email to attendees reminded – and bring business cards they did.

The evening was aimed at bringing people together to discuss not only the explosion of global interest in Korean culture (known as Hallyu) but crucially, as the target audience of the evening suggests, the future of this phenomenon.

From influencers and investment managers to Korean skincare brands and journalists, the event was well and diversely attended, a testament to the breadth of interest generated. The room was packed and the waiting list apparently extensive.

The evening was divided into two halves. The first, a talk titled ‘Hallyu – What’s Next,’ brought together 4 panelists to share their thoughts on the topic.

In her welcoming speech, Dr Seunghye Sun (director of the KCCUK) stressed the importance of younger generations in building and perpetuating culture, a sentiment warmly received by her panelists and the audience. Moderated by Su-Min Hwang, a media consultant and former head of the BBC Korean Service, the panel was comprised of former Korean diplomat Sanghun Seok, CEO of Seoul Bird Judy Joo, Portfolio Management Associate Jonghwan Bae, and senior BBC journalist Julie Yoonnyeong Lee.

Su-Min opened the talk with the compelling story, later echoed by most of her panelist counterparts, of first moving to the UK when she was 12 and being asked by people whether she was either “Chinese or Japanese.” She was also met with a number of people who genuinely didn’t know what she was referring to when she followed that question up with “actually, I’m Korean.” Though the thought is ridiculous to us now, she acknowledged the huge shift that has happened in just a handful of years.

Sanghun Seok kicked off the panel with a talk on ‘Public Diplomacy,’ a synonym-of-sorts for soft power and the name of a 2016 act passed in Korea. According to the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ‘Public Diplomacy’ “refers to diplomatic activities through which Korea promotes foreign nationals’ understanding of and enhances confidence in Korea directly or in cooperation with local governments and the private sector. It is a multifaceted approach that draws upon policies, knowledge, and culture.”

Discussing what he found to be irreconcilable differences between dutiful diplomacy and the more seductive elements of cultural persuasion when conducting his diplomatic work, Sanghun supported the conclusion that a melding of the two, with the government as facilitator for creativity and culture, is the most beneficial partnership.

Sanghun Seok

Looking to the future, Sanghun also believes the future of Hallyu in the public sphere relies on a mingling of Korean and local cultures, closing with the powerful statement that he hopes “public diplomacy evolves more into a dialogue than a monologue.”

Next up was Judy Joo, business-woman extraordinaire. Her talk on “Why Korean Food is Unique,” was so much fun. She covered all the reasons why Korean food is exploding in popularity (there was 90% growth in interest in Korean cuisine from 2021-2022). The success of her own restaurant, Korean Fried Chicken chain Seoul Bird, is indicative of this boom. “Obangsaek” or “the rule of 5” describes the unique combination of at least 5 flavours, colours or textures that comprises so many Korean dishes, adding to their appeal. Even kimchi alone obeys this rule, embodying sweet, salty, sour, spicy and umami all at once.

Key also to the uniqueness according to Judy is the fun and convivial “Hansik table” (Korean table). Banchan, the multitude of small, free sharing plates that you’re served alongside every Korean meal, evoke joy through their variety. Reflecting Korean’s own geographical position, Judy noted, they are halfway between the Chinese lazy susan with its large sharing plates and the Japanese bento box, lots of small dishes for one. Banchan are the perfect compliment to any meal. For Westerners, the novelty of their complimentary nature never quite seems to wear off, too.

Judy Joo's talk

Korean cuisine is the sum of its history (the popularity of Spam has not diminished since American troops brought it over during the Korean war) and as diverse as it gets, boasting new dishes wherever on the peninsula you go. But what will make it so enduring, according to Judy, is how fusionable it is. Gochujang and kimchi now adorn burgers and pastas and salads – every menu seems to have an element of Korean cuisine these days. And Judy, with her faith in the timelessness of Korean flavours, doesn’t see that stopping anytime soon.

With his talk on ‘Hallyu in Business’ Jonghwan Bae contributed an interesting overview of the shifting focus of business across generations in recent Korean history, amid their rapid economic development.

He tracked progress beginning with selling land and producing industrial outputs in the aftermath of the Korean War, then transitioning into the Digital boom that saw the emergence of giants like Hyundai and Samsung, before emphasising the huge role that entertainment conglomerates such as Hybe and SM now play. He noted the staggering statistic that in 2019, BTS alone contributed 0.5% to South Korea’s GDP. He made it clear that media and culture has never been more central to the perpetuation of Korean business than it is now.

Yoonnyung Lee rounded the discussion off with a focus on ‘The Power of Korean Storytelling,’ which she attributes to the authenticity of Korean media and its focus on issues such as class, as well as people-centric storylines. She then celebrated how the Hallyu wave has actually opened space for a more diverse global cultural landscape overall, cultivating an attitude of openness to media and culture from all countries.

The talk culminated in a Q&A in which the audience offered some great questions to probe the panel further on the concept of Hallyu and how it relates to the idea of longevity or ‘next gen.’ In response to a question about the very nature of a ‘wave’ (which implies an inevitable breaking), all the panelists agreed that evolution, opportunities for creative expression and a two-way cultural conversation is the way to keep the momentum of the wave going, or as Judy put it, to make it a ‘tsunami.’

One particularly interesting question was asked around how the heightened interest in Korean culture, being under the global microscope, may have made Koreans reflect on some of their values that may not be so favourably received by the rest of the world (for instance, the elephant in the room that they are lagging behind most OECD countries when it comes to women’s rights). The panelists reflected and stressed that the diversity of the UK is something they admire, whilst Sanghun Seok made a very poignant point– it is the very authenticity that is so compelling in their art and cultural content that is shining a light on these issues, and making people in Korea self-reflect.

Each member of the panel brought their own unique nuance to the conversation and their personal understanding of the increased prevalence of Korean culture, from Johnghwan’s thought that Korea is the perfect bridge between the East and West in business, to Judy’s view that Korean food is one of the most fusionable. It is interesting to note that the Korean state visit last year and the dinner at Buckingham Palace provided a great point of excitement and discussion, particularly as homage to the concept of Hallyu becoming an intergenerational staying point, rather than trendy cultural Zeitgeist.

Korean food at the Next-Gen evening

It was then time for Part 2 of the evening – ‘Networking: Eat, Enjoy and Mingle’. With Judy Joo and her reminder of the joys of Korean food placed tauntingly second in the lineup of panelists, everyone in attendance was more than ready for the Korean feast that was promised. Traditional Korean food and drinks including trays loaded full of dumplings and kimji jeon were served, and everyone gathered to eat, network, exchange business cards and reflect on what was a thought-provoking evening.

This was a great evening that achieved its purpose, and hopefully the first of many hosted by KCCUK to bring together thought leaders across disciplines to explore how we can continue to perpetuate an interest in Korean Culture both in the UK and globally.


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