Thursday, 22 October 2015

'What is the Korean Wave and how has borderless media contributed to its success?'


What is the Korean Wave and how has borderless media contributed to its success? In examining the reasons for the global popularity of the Korean Wave, you must also consider whether it is a unique phenomenon.
(2014 Semester 1 University Essay for 'Borderless Media in East Asia' / Grade: HD)
 


Introduction

The campy tune was ubiquitous, the dance parodies were endless and the media hailed the phenomenal global response to the 2012 song Gangnam Style as a sign of a new cultural zeitgeist – the Korean Wave: the explosive rise of South Korean pop culture, from its pop music to its television dramas and online games, throughout the rest of the world.[1] Indeed, the music video for Psy's Gangnam Style hit one billion views within six months of upload and still holds the record for most viewed YouTube video as of May 2014.[2] While no other Korean artist has come close to replicating the success of Gangnam Style since then, including Psy himself, stunned commentators have become acutely aware of the intensifying popularity of Korean dramas, music and games outside of Korea – a cultural industry worth $10 billion and estimated to increase to $57 billion by 2020.[3] With 182 Korean Wave fan clubs worldwide, including 3.3 million official members, the global reach of the Korean Wave stretches from East Asia to unassuming places like Latin America, Europe and even the Middle East.[4] In the midst of such exciting developments, this essay discusses whether the Korean Wave is a unique phenomenon in being able to achieve global popularity, and analyses the ways that borderless media have helped it transcend cultural and geographical barriers.

Why is the Korean Wave so successful?

1.       Government Sponsored Nation-branding

The first and arguably most significant factor of the Korean Wave harks back to its origins as a government sponsored initiative to compete against neighbouring economies and to ensure the survival of a Korean national identity in the face of rapid globalisation. Kim argues that the government played an indispensible role in initiating its growth in the private sectors as it reacted to the devastating 1997 Asian financial crisis.[5] Pressure from the IMF and WTO, as well as China’s competitive threat to South Korea’s manufacture based economy, led to the implementation of numerous neo-liberal policies. These included the increased privatisation of public broadcasting, liberalisation of domestic markets, deregulation of media and the emergence of multi-media conglomerates that had taken advantage of these new freedoms. More importantly, restrictions on the broadcast of foreign media were lifted and Hollywood studios were able to distribute films directly to local theatres.[6] Kim contends that trade experts naturally took inspiration from Hollywood and looked to cultural exportation as a way to market South Korean goods and services.

In contrast, Shim argues the success of the Korean Wave should be attributed more to “Korea’s struggle for cultural conformity when confronted by the threat of global cultural domination.”[7] Still smarting from its colonial history, the government in as early as 1994 sensitively observed that the overall revenue from the US film Jurassic Park was worth the foreign sales of 1.5 million Hyundai cars – cars regarded as the Pride of Korea. This defeat prompted the Presidential Advisory Board to submit a report asking the government to promote media products as a national strategic industry.[8]

Consequently, systematic infrastructures were implemented as part of a specific policy to globalise the Korean culture industry. President Kim Dae Jung immediately allocated $148.5 million the year after his inauguration to establish the Basic Law for the Cultural Industry Promotion in 1999.[9] Funding was used to establish film schools, media scholarships and also the creation of the Pusan International Film Festival. Large companies like Samsung and LG were also required to invest in the industry, with LG reported to have provided Vietnamese TV stations with several Korean TV dramas for free, even covering the cost of dubbing. Of course, the actors are subsequently hired for endorsements by LG and other Korean companies.[10] As a result, drama themed group tours to Korea from Taiwan experienced a 50% increase from 2002 to 2003; enrolments for Korean Language at the Inlingua School of Language in Singapore increased 60% in 2003 compared to 2001 and sales of Korean cosmetics in China tripled to $336.8 million from 2009 to 2010.[11]

Overall, Kim states that “Korea may be the first nation to consciously recognise and, more importantly, form official policy and take action towards becoming a dream society of icons and aesthetic experience.”[12]  


2.       Cultural hybridisation and glocalisation

The second key reason for the Korean Wave’s global success is its ability to skilfully blend western and Asian cultural values, styles and genres to create its own ideal – known as a process of cultural hybridisation.[13] The result is an image of Korea that is modern and cosmopolitan, looking much like the west, yet still retaining the traditional Confucian values of Asia, such as familial piety, respect for elders and sexual abstinence. For example, many Korean dramas, including the 2009 phenomenon Boys Over Flowers, revolve around members of the young urban middle class and are set in the sophisticated metropolises of Seoul or Incheon. However, the narrative is heavily infused with “Asian values” such as family unity and pursuit of education, and usually the protagonist will endure against difficulties by upholding these Confucian values.[14]

This hybridised ideal image is extremely appealing to Asian audiences, including diasporas. In Austria, a Japanese fan of Korean dramas said “Korean popular culture contains strong Asian values which are lacking in modern Japanese pop culture” and a Taiwanese fan said “Japanese dramas are just trendy and well made but sometimes it is not realistic… Korean dramas are more ‘Asian’ to me. Maybe that is why I watch Korean dramas so often, because I miss home.”[15]  Sung posits that the heavy emphasis on Asian values still retained in Korean dramas  is a strong selling point in Asia because it offers a cohesive identity and sense of community for members of Asian diasporas who may struggle to integrate with the ‘progressive ‘culture of the mainstream host society. Moreover, the appeal of Confucian values in Korean dramas has won support from even audiences in the Middle East where more conservative depictions of family and love are preferred.[16]

Apart from cultural hybridisation, producers also engage in strategies of glocalisation – a practice of “providing customisable territory-specific content and extensive localisation services for products that are distributed regionally.”[17] For example, the major Korean talent agencies that train and produce all of the country’s K-pop bands have, since the early 2000s, adopted a strict regime of teaching Chinese and Japanese to their most promising talents. The South Korean girl group SNSD are able to sing in both Korean and Japanese, while the members of the boy group EXO is split into EXO-M – the Mandarin singers, and EXO-K – the Korean singers. Thus, they are more able to market their songs effectively to audiences in both regions.

Korean online games are also very glocalised and hence, are able to enjoy worldwide popularity. According to Jung Ryul Kim, the Chairman of Gravity Corporation, the formula for successful regional distribution is to firstly, make the game familiar to target users and secondly, hire someone who knows local users well to deliver it.[18] The South Korean game Lineage, often ranked within the top 5 online games in the world, demonstrates both cultural hybridisation and glocalisation. It is set in a European medieval environment, but the game play itself mirrors the Confucian hierarchy of Korean society as players must formulate themselves into a strict hierarchy of leadership – a feature that would and has never be produced in America as players tend to prefer individual autonomy. Moreover, depending on the market, native speakers are hired to do translating for the game. For Russian players, Russian slang and axioms are added in; the same for Chinese and English players. Animation, architectural and dress styles are also altered to fit the different markets.[19] Overall, the global success of the Korean gaming industry, like its pop music industry, lies in culturally hybridisation and glocalisation, thus transcending cultural and language barriers.[20]

3.       Social media and fan participation

Finally, the third key factor in the rise of Korean pop culture on a global scale is the availability and avid use of social media networks by fans. With the emergence of smart phones and various social media platforms like Blogger, Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, fans are able to create vast networks, share photos and songs, facilitate and engage in discussion about their favourite Korean idols at incredible ease. In fact, YouTube has been hailed by Ono and Kwon as a critical “k-pop interlocutor”.[21] They argue that K-pop is wholly based upon performance and aesthetics. The cool synchronised dances, the flamboyant fashion and the stars’ perfectly sculpted faces and bodies are its selling points because they depict an ideal, modern cosmopolitan look – the reason why K-pop can transcend the language barrier as “the visuality of performance [is] central to what makes K-pop circulable”.[22]

In aspiring to look like K-pop stars, there is now a phenomenon of fans uploading dance covers of their favourite K-pop dances onto YouTube, some even wearing similar outfits. Khiun posits that this active fan participation is more than just imitation but reinterpretation and recalibration of K-pop, and that the ability of anyone from around the world to participate is “decentring and transcending the geo-social and cultural boundaries of the highly manufactured and rigidly regimented industry.”[23] For instance, pale white skin is considered beautiful in Korea and so most Korean pop stars have very pale skin. Those with dark skins are singled out conspicuously by the scrutinising Korean public.[24] However, fans with darker skin (such as those from Latin America) who upload K-Pop dance covers are breaking those standards while actively promoting a more global and cosmopolitan image of K-pop. This notion is very interesting as Khiun identifies a contra-flow of culture where the fans are the ones responsible for manipulating, changing and perpetuating the very cultural products they are consuming. Overall, the active movements of fan clubs, including the mass uploads of dance covers, are testaments to how borderless media has allowed for greater accessibility of Korean pop culture as well as the ability for fans to change its inherent socio-cultural standards.

A Unique Phenomenon?

Some people may believe that the Korean Wave is a unique phenomenon, driven by new information technologies, glocalisation and of course, the avid support of the South Korean government. This may very well be true, considering that the closest comparison that can be made is with the Japanese cultural mania that peaked in the 1980s and 1990s – back in a time when the internet did not exist.[25] Perhaps that fact itself lends credence to the uniqueness of the Korean Wave. Currently, Japanese pop culture is in a slump. Its music industry is still the second largest market for music in the world, but its market size fell by 8.3% in 2010.[26] The Japanese accounted for 50% of the world gaming market in 2002 but in 2012, that figure has fallen to 10%.[27] Keiji Inafune, global head of production at Capcom, summed up Japan’s lagging gaming industry with one apt simile: “It’s like sushi. Everyone loves sushi in the West, but you can’t just serve sushi over there like it is in Japan.”[28] His sentiment clearly underscores the importance of cultural hybridisation and glocalisation when exporting cultural products. However, the question is why Japan has failed to implement the same strategies as South Korea. Many commentators have held the opinion that the Japanese government or media may not think it necessary to market to the world when they already have such a big domestic market. And of course, their strong competitive economy may account for this comparatively laissez-faire attitude. But no matter, South Korea has clearly taken full advantage of technologies and glocalisation strategies where Japan has not – using borderless media to foster a trendy cosmopolitan image of its culture. At its current rate, the Korean Wave is leaving Japan far behind and appears on course to challenge the most strategically important market of all – the US.



BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Journal articles

Chan, Dean. “Negotiating intra-Asian games networks: on cultural proximity, East Asian games design and Chinese farmers.” Fibreculture Journal: internet theory criticism research no.8 (2006): 1-16.

Huang, Shuling. “Nation-branding and transnational consumption: Japan-Mania and the Korean Wave in Taiwan”. Media, Culture & Society, 33, no.1 (2011): 3-18.

Shim, Doobo. “Waxing the Korean Wave.” Asia Research Institute Working Paper No.158 (2011): 1-21.

Wasserman, Todd, and et al. “Land of the Rising Sun.” Brandweek 46, no.8 (2005): 22-29.

Books and Book chapters

Jin, Dal Yong. “Hybridisation of Korean Popular Culture: Films and Online Gaming.” In The Korean Wave: Korean Media Go Global, edited by Youna Kim, 148-164. Taylor and Francis, 2013.

Khiun, Kai Liew. “K-pop dance trackers and cover dancers: Global cosmopolitanisation and local spatialisation.” In The Korean Wave: Korean Media Go Global, edited by Youna Kim, 165-181. Taylor and Francis, 2013.

Kim, Youna. “Korean Media in a Digital Cosmopolitan World.” In The Korean Wave: Korean Media Go Global, edited by Youna Kim, 1-27. Taylor and Francis, 2013.

Kim, Youna. “Korean Wave Pop Culture in the Global Internet Age: Why popular? Why now?” In The Korean Wave: Korean Media Go Global, edited by Youna Kim, 75 – 92. Taylor and Francis, 2013.

Nye, Joseph, and Youna Kim. “Soft Power and the Korean Wave.” In The Korean Wave: Korean Media Go Global, edited by Youna Kim, 31-42. Taylor and Francis, 2013.

Ono, Kent A., and Jungmin Kwon. “Re-Worlding Culture? YouTube as a K-pop interlocutor.” In The Korean Wave: Korean Media Go Global, edited by Youna Kim, 199-214. Taylor and Francis, 2013.

Sung, Sang-yeon. “Digitisation and Online Culture of the Korean Wave: ‘East Asian’ Virtual Community in Europe.” In The Korean Wave: Korean Media Go Global, edited by Youna Kim, 135-147. Taylor and Francis, 2013.

Websites and videos

Mark Cieslak, “Is the Japanese gaming industry in crisis?” news.bbc.co.uk, posted 4 November 2010. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/click_online/9159905.stm

OfficialPsy, Gangnam Style (online video, May 4, 2014). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9bZkp7q19f0&feature=kp


Peter Dyloco, “Can J-pop replicate the success of K-pop?”  japantoday.com, posted 15 September 2011, http://www.japantoday.com/category/opinions/view/can-j-pop-replicate-success-of-k-pop

“Photos of Tanned K-Pop Band Spark Controversy Over Skin Colour,” koreabang.com, posted 3 July 2012,  http://www.koreabang.com/2012/pictures/photos-of-tanned-k-pop-band-spark-controversy-over-skin-colour.html



[1] Shuling Huang, “Nation-branding and transnational consumption: Japan-Mania and the Korean Wave in Taiwan”, Media, Culture & Society 33, no.1 (2011): 3.
[2] OfficialPsy, Gangnam Style (online video, May 4, 2014). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9bZkp7q19f0&feature=kp
[3] Youna Kim, “Korean Media in a Digital Cosmopolitan World,” in The Korean Wave: Korean Media Go Global, ed. Youna Kim (Taylor and Francis, 2013), 6.
[4] Youna Kim, “Korean Media,” 13.
[5] Youna Kim, “Korean Media,” 4.
[6] Doobo Shim, “Waxing the Korean Wave”, Asia Research Institute Working Paper No.158 (2011): 1-21, 7.
[7]Doobo Shim, “Waxing the Korean Wave,” 7.
[8] Doobo Shim, “Waxing the Korean Wave,” 8.
[9] Doobo Shim, “Waxing the Korean Wave,” 10.
[10] Youna Kim, “Korean Media,” 12.
[11] Youna Kim, “Korean Media,” 12.
[12] Youna Kim, “Korean Media,” 4.
[13] Doobo Shim, “Waxing the Korean Wave,” 14.
[14] Youna Kim, “Korean Wave Pop Culture in the Global Internet Age: Why popular? Why now?” in The Korean Wave: Korean Media Go Global, ed. Youna Kim (Taylor and Francis, 2013), 80-84.
[15] Sang-yeon Sung, “Digitisation and Online Culture of the Korean Wave: ‘East Asian’ Virtual Community in Europe,” in The Korean Wave: Korean Media Go Global, ed. Youna Kim (Taylor and Francis, 2013): 135-147
[16] Joseph Nye and Youna Kim, “Soft Power and the Korean Wave,” in The Korean Wave: Korean Media Go Global, ed. Youna Kim (Taylor and Francis, 2013), 34; Youna Kim, “Korean Wave Pop Culture in the Global Internet Age: Why popular? Why now?” in The Korean Wave: Korean Media Go Global, ed. Youna Kim (Taylor and Francis, 2013), 80.
[17] Dean Chan, “Negotiating intra-Asian games networks: on cultural proximity, East Asian games design and Chinese farmers,” Fibreculture Journal: internet theory criticism research no.8 (2006): 1-16, 6.
[18] Dean Chan, “Negotiating intra-Asian games networks,” 6.
[19] Dean Chan, “Negotiating intra-Asian games networks,” 4-5.
[20] Dal Yong Jin, “Hybridisation of Korean Popular Culture: Films and Online Gaming,” in The Korean Wave: Korean Media Go Global, ed. Youna Kim (Taylor and Francis, 2013), 148.
[21] Kent A. Ono and Jungmin Kwon, “Re-Worlding Culture? YouTube as a K-pop interlocutor,” in The Korean Wave: Korean Media Go Global, ed. Youna Kim (Taylor and Francis, 2013), 199-214.
[22] Kent A. Ono and Jungmin Kwon, “Re-Worlding Culture?” 208.
[23] Liew Kai Khiun, “K-pop dance trackers and cover dancers: Global cosmopolitanisation and local spatialisation,”in The Korean Wave: Korean Media Go Global, ed. Youna Kim (Taylor and Francis, 2013), 172.
[24] “Photos of Tanned K-Pop Band Spark Controversy Over Skin Colour,” koreabang.com, posted 3 July 2012,  http://www.koreabang.com/2012/pictures/photos-of-tanned-k-pop-band-spark-controversy-over-skin-colour.html
[25] Todd Wasserman et al., “Land of the Rising Sun,” Brandweek 46, no.8 (2005): 22-29.
[26]Peter Dyloco, “Can J-pop replicate the success of K-pop?”  japantoday.com, posted 15 September 2011, http://www.japantoday.com/category/opinions/view/can-j-pop-replicate-success-of-k-pop
[27] Mark Cieslak, “Is the Japanese gaming industry in crisis?” news.bbc.co.uk, posted 4 November 2010. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/click_online/9159905.stm
[28] Mark Cieslak, “Is the Japanese gaming industry in crisis?”