Author and Wall Street Journal Online columnist Jeff Yang wrote a piece published by CNN Opinion in which he posits that South Korea, no longer Hong Kong or Japan, is the Asian nation at the center of cultural cool.
So, is Korea cool du jour or can Korea kewl stay even after school?
That’s a question Euny Hong addresses in her new book, “The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation Is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture.”
“I think it can,” she says. “The difference between cool Korea and earlier Asian pop culture waves is that Korea has been working to make this happen for almost two decades. Korea is cool because it decided to be cool — it’s the first country in history that has made being cool a massive policy priority, backed by the Korean government to the tune of billions of dollars.”
The fact is, the machine of Korean pop culture is as sleekly designed, systematically engineered and massively marketed as any Samsung gadget. It’s not just a gigantic money-making industry, it’s also the primary source of “soft power” by which the nation seeks to shorten its path from war-torn, third-world country to the top ranks of world influencers.
“Koreans have a deep-seated desire to see the nation recognized and validated,” Hong says. “We study harder than anyone in the world, we work more hours, and it’s all because of this need to see us finally come on top.”
Jeff Yang continues,
Japanese cool is quirky, the sum of the nation’s eccentricities. Hong Kong cool is frenetic, representative of the society’s freewheeling striving spirit. American cool is casual: It’s cool that’s anchored in doing without trying, it’s about being quintessentially effortless.
By contrast, Korean cool could not be more effort-ful.
…and in illustrating his point, he diverges with mine:
The hypnotic appeal of K-pop videos are not just their candy-colored, otherworldly aesthetic, it’s also because their performers — sometimes numbering in the dozens — are invariably dancing in perfect sync, with a level of precision possible only because candidates for K-pop glory are recruited as adolescents and trained for years in groups that are required to live, take classes, eat, sleep and rehearse together until they’ve achieved a transcendent level of harmony.
“It all underscores the fact that the rise of Korean cool was hardly an accident — and that it could well have staying power.”
It can if, like those technocrats in a planned economy, the pop culture makers can continue to guess right or throw money at marketing or throw increasingly more money at marketing their mistakes. History’s lessons are full of semi-successful-for-three-years five-year plans doomed after so many succeeding and less successful five year plans ran those ministries into the dust heap.
The forced analogy makes me wonder, can cool be dictated by the decidedly uncool? I have commented often (as recently as today) on the long-term faptastic mistake that I think the femmebot, (shall we say) compliant sort of K-pop that the Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism (MCST) subsidizes for export is. At best the girl groups will be laughingly remembered in dorm rooms as their target cohort matures into university students. At worst, they will resuscitate a hard-lost image of objectified Asian women. All the while the corporativism that is the alliance between the MCST and the Ministry’s preferred big entertainment companies are missing Korea’s vibrant and talent laden hip-hop, rap, and dance scene
OK, so the author and I disagree about what is cool and even whether Korea can stay the (as pronounced with a long ‘e’) it girl after the carriage turns into a pumpkin. As things stand he and the ministry are right, and the validity of my opinion is yet to be determined. Still Jeff Yang hit upon a larger, more important trend in Korea, though he missed the forest for the trees: Korea’s MCST is writing the how-to manual for emerging countries to market themselves and project their soft power.
Brand Korea, which I sometimes use derisively, is a self-marketing juggernaut. Korea’s branding prowess extends far beyond pop culture. For example, Korea recently gained recognition for Namhansanseong as a UNESCO world heritage site, which brings Korea’s total to an impressive 11. The Korean marketing machine is the real story here.
Read Jeff Yang’s full opinion piece at CNN.com
UPDATE: I found an article, Korean Cool Is The Ultimate National Marketing Ploy written by Euny Hong, author of the above cited book in Newsweek Online. She provides a brief, interesting bit of why:
“Very few countries have ever attempted to sell their pop culture to the United States. Even Japan didn’t try,” says Lee Moon-won, one of Korea’s most prominent cultural critics. So why would Korea focus its efforts on popular culture? Why not stick to cars and semiconductors?
The answer lies partly in the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-1998, which left the country economically crippled, forcing the government to request a $57-billion loan from the IMF. The crisis exposed a huge fault line in the Korean economy: it was too dependent on the nation’s chaebols…. The government of then-president Kim Dae-jung realised it had to diversify.
…Was the president out of his mind? Building a pop culture export industry from scratch during a financial crisis seems like bringing a Frisbee instead of food to a desert island. …The creation of pop culture, Dae-jung argued, doesn’t require a massive infrastructure; all you really need is time and talent.
Read the rest of her article here.