South Korea has emerged as a center of pop culture throughout Asia: its scope of cultural influence encompasses Eurasia (e.g., Uzbekistan, Mongolia, and Russia), East Asia (e.g., China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and Japan), Southeast Asia (e.g., Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia), and even extends beyond Asia. Korea’s cultural products – notably, its blockbuster movies, television programs, fashion, and popular music – have become favorites among Asians and even among Latin Americans. The so-called “Korean wave” (or Halryu, a term first coined by Chinese reporters in 1999) refers to the growing appeal of Korean popular culture in other Asian countries (Koh et al. 2005), while the Korean government’s rhetoric of the “digital Korean wave” is an attempt to ride the wave of Korea’s cultural influence by simultaneously promoting Korea’s high-tech electronic companies such as Samsung Electronics.
Korean television programs and cinema have gained a “pan-Asianist” value (Dator & Seo 2004; Kim 2007), and the scope of their cultural influence in the global market has become similar to the pan-Iberian/Latin American telenovela culture, which is relatively independent from the monolithic cultural dominance of the Hollywood empire. Korea’s pan-Asian appeal can be theoretically explained by “cultural proximity,” a phenomenon first identified by empirical studies of Latin American TV watching patterns, which verified the export success of channels such as Mexico’s Televisa and Brazil’s TV Globo and noted their function as a counter to worldwide cultural standardization by global media firms (Sinclair 1999). “Cultural proximity” is created by such factors as local culture, language similarity, local market strength, and other cultural variables (Straubhaar 1991).
The “Korean wave” in Asian regions bears some similarity to the cultural influence of the telenovela in Latin America, and the new pan-Asian culture signifies the “non-linear, fractured nature of cultural globalization” (Ang 1996, 154), the so-called “hybridity” of global culture, as distinct from theories of the propagation of uniformity by the western-dominated media market. The cultural proximity among Asian countries lacks linguistic proximity, unlike Spanish and Portuguese, and hence the “Korean wave” in Asia is less firmly grounded than the influence of telenovela culture in Latin America. In an attempt to ensure that the “Korean wave” is not merely a passing fad, Korea moved beyond exporting its TV programs and films to invest in television and film production in China and Taiwan, and also to become involved in co-producing such entertainment with these countries. Moreover, to alleviate the antagonistic responses from some Asian regions to the dominant penetration of Korean popular culture, Korea has launched government-driven public relations programs which aim at promoting Korea’s image as harmless: the government has been establishing “Korea Plazas” in the major Asian regions, which are used for teaching the Korean language, previewing Korean TV programs, films, and other cultural commodities, and eventually promoting tourism. As another way to lessen some negative responses to Korean popular culture, over the past ten years the government has also invited and sponsored 1,000 Asian artists, entertainers, and cultural activists every year. The government expects these public leaders in Asian countries to promote Korea’s public image among their own peoples (Ministry of Culture and Tourism 2005).
Korea’s effort to promote culture as a business originated from government policies promoting the domestic cultural and tourism industries. Under the pressure of the 1997 IMF-driven financial crisis, the government shifted to radical adoption of neoliberal economic policies and to privileging the information and culture industries over labor-intensive heavy industries. Since that time, culture in Korea has been widely regarded both as a key dimension of economic globalization and as a creative industry for earning foreign dollars and creating a new job market. Under the administrations of Daejung Kim (1998 –2003) and of Moo-hyun Noh (2003 –the present), policy plans for the cultural or creative sector have been predominantly driven by reducing cultural products to pure commodities.
This has been addressed by encouraging foreign exports of Korean music, television, and film, promoting Korean entertainers in the Asian entertainment market, and establishing international trade fairs or film and leisure/sports festivals in major cities designated as international culture or tourism sites. The neo-liberal yet interventionist cultural policies initiated by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism plan to place Korean culture in the first tier of the pan-Asian cultural/ creative industries, along with promoting the rapid incorporation of national and local development into the global economic system. Ironically, however, as of August 2006, Korea paid almost twice the amount of royalties to the Hollywood empire as it earned in entertainment dollars from Asian regions. The “Korean wave” thus signifies the Korean culture industry’s ambiguous position vis-à-vis the global Hollywood system.
- Ang, I. (1996). Living room wars: Rethinking media audiences for a postmodern world. London: Routledge.
- Dator, J., & Seo, Y.-S. (2004). Korea as the wave of a future: The emerging dream society of icons and aesthetic experience. Journal of Future Studies, 9(1), 31– 44.
- Kim, Y.-N. (2007). The rising East Asian “wave.” In D. K. Thussu (ed.), Media on the move: Global flow and contra-flow. London: Routledge, pp. 135 –152.
- Koh, J.-M., Lee, A.-J., & Kang, S.-K. (2005). A plan for the sustainable “Korean wave” [in Korean], issue paper 7, Samsung Economic Research Institute.
- Ministry of Culture and Tourism (2005). C-Korea 2010 [in Korean]. Seoul: Ministry of Culture and Tourism.
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