John Lie on Korean Popular Culture and Soft Power

John Lie is C.K. Cho Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent books are The Dream of East Asia: The Rise of China, Nationalism, Popular Memory, and Regional Dynamics in Northeast Asia (Association for Asian Studies, 2018), and K-Pop: Popular Music, Cultural Amnesia, and Economic Innovation in South Korea (University of California Press, 2015).

Following the Olympics in Pyeongchang, much attention has been directed toward South Korea’s cultural influence in Asia and beyond, a phenomenon often referred to as hallyu. When did South Korea’s popular culture become a global phenomenon?

South Korean pop culture (Hallyu) began to become a global phenomenon in the late 1990s. In particular, South Korean dramas became popular in Japan and eastern and southeastern Asian countries from around 2003. The spread of South Korean culture came in part because the South Korean culture industry and government tried to export its products, expand their influence, and increase income. There was also an increasing demand as people across eastern and southeastern Asia became more affluent and sought entertainment and popular culture. South Koreans were there to fulfill that demand.

How has South Korea promoted its soft power and cultural economy?

The government does very seriously promote its soft power and culture industry. As the government saw some promise in the potential for Hallyu in the neighboring markets, it began to give everything from tax breaks to outright financial encouragement. The forms of financial assistance could be quite direct. For example, one might think that encouraging the study of K-Pop by academics wouldn’t do that much, but the government did in fact devote a lot of money to encourage academic interests in South Korean popular culture (I would like to state for the record that I did not receive any money from the South Korean government for my book on K-pop). The government also used embassies to facilitate performances in Europe and Latin America. Although Hallyu is not a main source of income for the country, the government continues to make cultural exports a priority. South Koreans have been export-oriented since the 1960s. In each stage, they try to promote certain industries and make investments in industries with potential for success. So it’s not that the government expects the culture industry to make huge amounts of money immediately, but that it thinks a strong culture industry is part of the future. Since South Korea has very few natural resources, it thinks that it needs to cultivate human-capital-based industries that will generate significant profit. These industries include high-tech electronic devices, designer goods, and South Korean pop music, all of which the government believes constitute the core of the future of South Korean economy.  So this investment in the culture industry is more of a long-term strategy.

What has been the impact of South Korea’s successful cultural economy in Europe and North America?

The spread of Hallyu actually does not contribute much to the South Korean economy now. But after 1997, when South Korea suffered from serious economic downturn, there was an acute recognition that the future of South Korean exports should not be dependent on heavy industries, such automobile manufacturing and shipbuilding. It needed rather, to diversify from having technology-heavy exports to cultural exports. The impact of South Korea’s culture industry depends on the place. In Europe, it’s amazing that South Korean pop musicians have fans there at all. But it’s also fair to say that K-pop fans constitute a small slice of the European market. South Korean pop culture fan bases are much larger and more noticeable in some Latin American countries and East Asia.

Has the spread of South Korean cultural exports reshaped the image of South Korea in Asia? For instance, is there less animosity towards South Korea from Southeast Asian countries? Are there examples of how Seoul used soft power to alleviate tensions with other countries?  

A substantial number of people, especially young people, are South Korean pop music fans whereas middle-aged and older people tend to be South Korean drama fans. This has created an undoubtedly positive view of South Korea. So rather than being a relatively backward, poor, or patriarchal country, pop culture depicts South Korea as being relatively modern, affluent, and less patriarchal. Japan most obviously had a negative view of South Korea before the emergence of Hallyu in part because of the previous experiences that Japan had with South Korea were negative. Korea was colonized by Japan, divided by the Korean War, and made money from promoting sex tours, which were geared towards Japanese and American men, especially in the 1970s. So South Korea didn’t always have a positive image in Japan. Outside of Vietnam, where the violence and ferocity of South Korean soldiers during the Vietnam War generated a negative image of South Korea, other Southeast Asian countries did not have much of an impression of South Korea. So they were surprised that a country beside Japan was able to provide entertainment and have a “cool” culture. South Korea does use its soft power to alleviate tensions. Popular music is used in speeches and at South Korean events to appeal to young people. At the same time, it's also hard to say how much of an impact it does have, especially with politicians who tend to be older men who do not have much knowledge about South Korean pop music. Having said that, it’s also the case that much of the target of Hallyu promotion is to serve domestic interests. It is trying to appeal to South Koreans by saying that South Korean culture is very popular overall globally. There is a lot of media coverage and promotion in South Korea about how South Korean products are very popular everywhere. This initiative promotes the idea that South Korea is a very advanced country, and contributes not only to South Korean self-satisfaction but also to popular support for politicians and bureaucrats.

You wrote a book, K-Pop: Popular Music, Cultural Amnesia, and Economic Innovation in South Korea, which discusses the powerful influences of Korean popular culture and its differences with Japanese popular culture. Both cultures have striking similarities in their media, such as Japanese Pop and Korean Pop music, Japanese anime and Korean dramas. With these parallels in mind, how do these Japanese and Korean popular forms of soft power differentiate?

For a long time, South Korean popular culture was deeply influenced by Japanese popular culture. This was definitely true until the 1990s, though already by the late 1980s, U.S. influence was probably greater than that of Japan. In 2018, Japanese influence would be easy to overlook. One of the reasons for this is because Japanese popular culture and its industry is increasingly inward-looking. They don’t try to export culture as much as South Korea and much of the culture industry is geared towards Japanese domestic consumption. This is, of course, very different for South Korea, which definitely wants its culture to be popular in South Korea, but also focuses on making its culture export-oriented. The Japanese and South Korean pop culture popularity did not emerge at the same time. Japan was always much more advanced than South Korea from its political economy to culture industry. It wasn’t until the twenty-first century that South Korean music and dramas could claim to be equal to Japan’s. The animosity between South Korea and Japan has increased because of problems with North Korea, comfort women, and other issues. But, overall, there is a lot more interaction between the two countries at the personal and organizational levels. In general, South Korea-Japan relationship is much better now than it used to be. A lot of people might disagree since surveys asking South Koreans which country they dislike the most show that they primarily say Japan. But I think that’s very misleading because it is also very much the case that Japan is the main country that South Koreans go to for tourism and South Koreans largely appreciate Japanese food and popular culture. Beyond Japan, South Korean production agencies create K-Pop music groups with foreign members in order to gain more transnational and global appeal. They will often have members from countries with large markets, like China or Thailand. And when they have non-South Korean members or members that are fluent in Mandarin, Japanese, or English, they are able to diversify their fan base and expand their market.

In your book, you define the shift in Korean culture as cultural amnesia. Can you elaborate on this idea of cultural amnesia? What are the cultural differences from pre and post K-Pop? How does cultural amnesia illustrate the gradual decline of traditional Korean values and contribute to the current state of Korean culture?

Cultural amnesia is a process that has developed through the last few decades as a result of the South Korean government embracing globalization, modernization, and capitalist industrialization. The government was very eager to vitiate tradition because tradition tends to get in the way of doing something new. So rather than promoting traditional music, people tried to teach their children classical and popular Western music, which made it more amenable for South Korean pop musicians. But doing so, you’re also giving up on a lot of traditional Korean culture. To be sure, people argue that a lot of current South Korean pop musicians maintain the Confucian ideals of traditional Korean culture because the performers try to be polite and respect their elders. However, that’s largely because of the conscious effort of management agencies to provide service for fans and fan clubs. There’s very little desire to maintain traditional Korean culture. By and large, it’s not just Hallyu but South Korean culture at large that has been very eager to eliminate the past and to embrace the future. They will continue to call their culture Korean, but that has very little to do with what was considered Korean 30 years ago and certainly what was Korean 100 years ago. South Korean popular culture has also influenced what young Koreans want to do when they grow up. For a number of years now, when South Korean girls who are around 13 years of age are surveyed, the number one desired occupation was to be a K-Pop star. The desire to be a singer or entertainer has shifted from children wanting to be nurses or teachers. This is part of a major cultural change, which is also evident in the shift in people’s acceptance of cosmetics and plastic surgery. This remarkable change created tensions between the younger and older generations for a while. Forty years ago, few South Koreans would have accepted plastic surgery because it would be disrespecting the body that parents gave children. But now, plastic surgery and cosmetic modifications are widely accepted. The cultural shift began in 1990s in part because of the integration of democracy and affluence with the embracing of the Western and the modern.

While the results of Korean soft power seem to be overwhelmingly positive, what are the future challenges associated with the spread of Korean popular culture?

From the exploitation of South Korean pop stars to the misleading image of South Korea that Hallyu projects, the growth of South Korean popular culture is not all positive. If you compare South Korea to Japan, the number one desired occupation for young Japanese girls is to be a baker or dessert maker, whereas young Korean girls desire to be pop musicians. I think that says something deep about these two countries. You might see Japan as more inward-looking and conservative and in so doing, its younger generation has much more reasonable career expectations.

If you look at a lot of South Korean dramas, South Koreans look very wealthy and content. Almost all of the men are gentlemen, who are very caring, respectful, and nice to their significant others. But in South Korea, men are actually very patriarchal. There is a great deal of sexual discrimination and sexual harassment, not to forget sexual violence. Also, the first television drama to be successful outside of South Korea was Winter Sonata, which was popular 15 years ago. What’s remarkable about that show is that there is nothing really Korean about it. This goes back to cultural amnesia. The characters are never eating Korean food or participating in typical Korean pastimes. So I think it is fair to say that a lot of the depictions of South Korea in these shows are superficial, and purposefully so because the show is trying to appeal to an audience outside of South Korea. These dramas portray a Gangnam-centric view of South Korea, Gangnam is a southern district of Seoul and is the single most affluent area in all of South Korea. There is nothing wrong with trying to make Gangnam to represent South Korea. Nonetheless, I think that it misleads non-Koreans to think that there is no homelessness, poverty, misogyny, or unattractive people in South Korea. I don’t want to be too critical of that because the point of TV is not to capture reality exactly as it is, but still there is a bit of inconsistent messaging that depicts South Korea as a utopia where everyone is beautiful and affluent. When tourists come to South Korea in search of this amazing place, they are often disappointed  However, I am not really sure what challenges Hallyu poses. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with non-White groups gaining popularity in Europe. It’s very positive that Asian groups are gaining recognition and importance globally. It’s very positive for global understanding and weakening global racism. I am not really sure that it is as positive for South Korea as people make it out to be. A lot of countries are trying to replicate the success of hallyu. This is true in China, where both the government and entertainment entrepreneurs are trying to capture large markets with Chinese pop, Chinese dramas, Chinese movies, and so on. This is true in a lot of countries so Hallyu has had tremendous repercussions around the world, but whether they are all positive,  I am not so sure.











Julie Tran CMC '20Student Journalist

Photo by Wikicommons source: [ KCON 2012] |Date=2012-10-13 22:26 |Author [ Peter Kaminski] from San Francisco, California, USA |Permission

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