[Column] What is "K" ?

K is being used as a symbol that compresses many meanings, phenomena, and discourses. Within K, the logic of cultural flow and the logic of product production clash; dimensions of transcultural acceptance and nationalistic messages coexist;


Author | Sojeong Park (Research Fellow, Center for Hallyu Studies, Seoul National University Asia Center)

The character 'K' symbolizes something positive related to Korea, but it's not clearly defined.

The prevalence of the term 'K-OO' in our surroundings signals the era of a K-flood, encompassing various aspects such as K-pop, K-drama, K-quarantine, K-new deal, and even K-first daughter. The upstream force driving this flood is undeniably K-pop.

Originally coined in the mid-2000s to describe Korean popular music gaining global recognition, the term "K-pop" was later brought back to Korea as a prefix for various Korean-origin cultural content achieving popularity abroad. As Korea's cultural influence has been acknowledged and capitalized on globally, the K symbol has extended beyond cultural content to encompass beauty, food, healthcare, education, and other facets representing Korea's soft power. Notably, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the term "K-quarantine" emerged as a prominent topic, reflecting Korea's strategies for pandemic control.

The graphic below illustrates the usage trend of the term "K" over time, derived from 7,639 articles featuring the term "K-OO" in the title. The data spans from January 2000 to December 2021 and is sourced from Korean newspapers.

Trends in domestic media coverage of K

Two notable spikes are evident in the data. The first occurred in the early 2010s, coinciding with the explosion of K-pop coverage. A pivotal moment was SM Town's Paris concert in 2011, which served as a defining moment. This event demonstrated that K-pop had the potential to transcend East Asia, garnering a fan base in multiracial Western countries. Consequently, the term "K-pop" became infused with Korean cultural pride, leading to other fields being evaluated as "K-OO after K-pop" when achieving modest success overseas.

The significant rise of the K-wave in 2020 indicates a more pronounced surge. This surge corresponds to the success of the film "Parasite," which won the Cannes Film Festival, and the international acclaim garnered by Korean Netflix original series like "The Squid Game." During this period, "K-content" emerged as a popular term in the industry and media, leading to the creation of subcategories such as "K-fantasy," "K-story," "K-zombie," and others. Notably, this trend isn't confined to pop culture; it has permeated into the political, economic, and medical domains. In politics and medicine, terms like "K-bio," "K-vaccine," and "K-quarantine" have become commonplace. Similarly, in the economic sector, major export industries like batteries and semiconductors are now associated with the "K" label.

Over a decade since the inception of the K symbol, widely adopted by everyone, one might question whether all these instances of "K" share a unified meaning. Originally tied to the Korean Wave, K has expanded beyond Hallyu's focus on pop culture and now permeates various sectors of society. Consequently, the varied applications of "K" signify multiple layers of meaning, offering a nuanced reflection of Korean society.

Popularity of "Korean OO"?

In online memes adorned with the letter K, you can come across the expression, "Hey! This is the true K-OO!" This phrase combines the addition of K to something proudly Korean with a lively and trendy Gyeongsang-do regional tone. Embedded in such expressions is a sentiment known colloquially as '๊ตญ๋ฝ•' (gukbong), referring to a fervent and sometimes excessive sense of patriotism or pride in Korea.

The national pride, or '๊ตญ๋ฝ•' (gukbong), stemming from K-pop, which is the starting point of the K, can be traced back to the perception of the domestic media and the public in South Korea. While the K in K-pop is an abbreviation for 'Korean,' it cannot simply be translated as 'Korean popular music.' There are ongoing discussions about the meaning and categories reconstructed by adding K to Korean popular music. However, generally, the core meaning revolves around the notion that it has been recognized and gained popularity overseas.

In the late 2000s, numerous early media reports, which highlighted K-pop as a headline, focused on its entry into Japan and the United States and how well it resonated there. Subsequently, in 2011, the establishment of the K-pop chart on Billboard and the successful SM Town concert in Paris occurred. The following year witnessed the emergence of Psy's "Gangnam Style" phenomenon. As a result, the major domestic concern regarding K-pop shifted towards its achievements overseas and how many international fandoms it could secure. Consequently, K no longer simply functions as an acronym for 'Korea' to indicate the content's country of origin. Instead, it serves as a certification mark imbued with international recognition and national pride. The sentiment embedded in the short prefix K extends even to the brief questions accompanying explanations of Korea to foreigners, like "Do you know Psy?" or "Do you know BTS?"

Here, there are aspects that should be approached with caution. There has been a warning about the dangers of nationalism or ethnocentrism in the context of Hallyu, the cradle of K. Particularly when Hallyu is illuminated more from the perspective of economic effects or soft power than voluntary cultural acceptance, it reveals a pattern where Hallyu is utilized as a tool to reaffirm Korea's economic and cultural dominance and to fuel patriotism. It is natural that K, derived from Hallyu, is not entirely free from the sentiment of '๊ตญ๋ฝ•' (gukbong). The close connection between the phenomenon of Hallyu as a transcultural trend and the derived K symbol with nationalistic consciousness should be a cause for concern. This is not just about national pride; it carries the risk of manifesting latent nationalism within us, beyond a simple sense of pride in the nation.

Making Korean things even more Korean

With the expanding use of K across various domains, there has been a noticeable emergence of terms that might seem peculiar. Phrases like 'K-๊น€์น˜' (K-kimchi), 'K-๋ง‰๊ฑธ๋ฆฌ' (K-makgeolli), 'K-ํ˜ธ๋ฏธ' (K-hoe), 'K-์†Œ์ฃผ' (K-soju), and even the cultural DNA of Koreans, referred to as 'ํฅ' (heung), is sometimes labeled as 'K-ํฅ' (K-heung). These instances involve adding K to cultural elements where Korean-ness is already evident, creating a clearer association with Korea and emphasizing their popularity abroad without explicitly using the K prefix.

The term 'K-์ฝ˜ํ…์ธ ' (K-content), widely used to refer to recent Hallyu content, also emphasizes Korean identity. This term began to gain popularity in the early 2010s, extending beyond K-pop to encompass a comprehensive term for various cultural contents accepted internationally. Many subcategories created in this realm with the prefix 'K' imply the 'Korean-style' reinterpretation of cultural products rooted in Western cultural industries. For example, works like "ํ‚น๋ค" (Kingdom), "์‚ด์•„์žˆ๋‹ค" (Alive), "๋ฐ˜๋„" (Peninsula), "์ง€๊ธˆ ์šฐ๋ฆฌ ํ•™๊ต๋Š”" (School 2021) are labeled as 'K-์ข€๋น„' (K-zombie) content, while "๊ณ ์š”์˜ ๋ฐ”๋‹ค" (The Silent Sea), "์Šน๋ฆฌํ˜ธ" (Space Sweepers) fall into the 'K-SF' (K-science fiction) category, and "๋นˆ์„ผ์กฐ" (Vincenzo), "๋ชจ๋ฒ”ํƒ์‹œ" (Taxi Driver) are expressed as 'K-๋‹คํฌํžˆ์–ด๋กœ' (K-dark hero) genres. Additionally, works like "์˜ค์ง•์–ด ๊ฒŒ์ž„" (Squid Game) and "๋ฏธ๋‚˜๋ฆฌ" (Minari) are sometimes referred to as 'K-์‹ ํŒŒ' (K-melodrama). In these cases, the 'K' symbolizes not only the Korean reinterpretation of Western genre attributes but also a way of emphasizing the Korean aspect as more distinctly Korean.
In this way, K-์ฝ˜ํ…์ธ  emphasizes the aspect of being 'Korean' content, underscoring the 'Korean-ness' of the content. The success and impact of Korean content on the global stage are weighed in, suggesting that the 'K' in K-์ฝ˜ํ…์ธ  validates the notion that 'the most Korean thing is the most global.' It is used as a way to confirm the value of 'something Korean' by proving the effectiveness of the long-standing slogan, 'The most Korean thing is the most global.'

National project, K...

Within the realm of K, the Korean government has actively promoted a K that has been built upon accumulated national pride and Korean identity. This is none other than 'K-๋ฐฉ์—ญ' (K-quarantine). In the midst of the global competition in establishing COVID-19 response systems following the outbreak of the virus in 2020, the Korean government officially named its unique COVID-19 response system as K-๋ฐฉ์—ญ. Next, as part of efforts to get the world to know about Korea's quarantine system during the G20 Special Summit, the word "K" (๋ฐฉๆ—ญ) grew beyond the meaning that it got from Korean pop culture and now dominates the K discourse. K-๋ฐฉ์—ญ was introduced to the world as a model for epidemic prevention showcasing the democratic values and unity of the Korean society. In the media, K-๋ฐฉ์—ญ was framed as a national brand. The relatively successful response of Korea to the global crisis in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, amid efforts by Western nations, smoothly connected with the national pride encapsulated in the meaning of K.

During a similar period, in the economic domain, the use of terms such as 'K-๋ฐฐํ„ฐ๋ฆฌ' (K-batteries), 'K-๋ฐ˜๋„์ฒด' (K-semiconductors), 'K-์กฐ์„ ' (K-shipbuilding), and others for national strategic industries highlighted the close connection between industry and policy. This further heightened the presence of the nation within the symbol K. With the attachment of K to specific industries, the market and policies are bound within the framework of national determination. In the global market competition, K-๋ทฐํ‹ฐ (K-beauty) must surpass J-๋ทฐํ‹ฐ (Japanese beauty), and K-๋ฐฐํ„ฐ๋ฆฌ should outshine C-๋ฐฐํ„ฐ๋ฆฌ (Chinese batteries). In this context of national competition within the global market, the meaning of K as a symbol of national projects is reinforced.

Furthermore, starting with K-๋ฐฉ์—ญ (K-quarantine), K has been incorporated into the language of politics and policies. Especially as assessments of the failure of K-๋ฐฉ์—ญ were being conducted, expressions like 'K-๋…์žฌ' (K-dictatorship) and 'K-์žํ™”์ž์ฐฌ' (K-self-adulation) began to emerge from the mouths of politicians to criticize and mock the political moves of the ruling party. K has become a language that efficiently operates within the framework of partisan confrontation and negative politics. What was initially manifested in cultural phenomena has now become a symbol that equally dominates the realms of politics and economics, along with national issues.

Market-oriented K**

The Korean Wave (Hallyu) is evaluated for its economic achievements in the global market, but its fundamental condition is the voluntary acceptance and support of Korean popular culture by overseas audiences. Unlike the economic globalization demonstrated by major domestic companies, Hallyu is distinct in that it occurs through cultural exchange rather than the exchange of goods. However, as the extended concept of "K" pervades not only the cultural industry but also various areas in the form of planned products, it highlights a dimension of the market value of Hallyu. The focus on "K" shifts attention to how much Korean cultural products are being consumed rather than just how they are being received abroad.

An exemplary illustration can be found in K-Beauty and K-Food. K-Beauty and K-Food represent two prominent sectors that have emerged as a chain reaction of the Hallyu wave originating from popular culture content. While watching actors in Korean dramas and K-pop idols, overseas Hallyu fans become enamored with Korean beauty. Through social media, they also develop an interest in Korean foods like spicy chicken noodles and cheese dakgalbi. Unlike traditional Korean promotional materials that have historically focused on promoting the beauty of Korean traditions or traditional cuisine, K-Beauty and K-Food, as contemporary trendy cultures distributed internationally, contribute to shaping a new national image for Korea. Furthermore, K-Beauty and K-Food foster rich cultural discourses. As the concept of beauty in a society is closely linked to issues of race and gender, K-Beauty brings forth new imaginings and debates about the identity of Koreans and Asians within global society. One of the representative K-Foods, kimchi, has been a subject of debate with China's 'pao cai.' However, the domestic media and policies exhibit more interest in market exploration, export growth, and participation in overseas exhibitions, emphasizing the economic aspects. In this market-centric discourse, capturing cultural significance beyond what the numbers reveal becomes challenging.

The K used in the titles of the above articles takes on a somewhat different meaning than the K that has expanded as the language of national pride. The discourse around K has taken a new direction as words using K as a prefix with negative connotations have increased. A critical and mocking perspective towards Korea has become associated with K. These instances of K usage reveal the underlying issues in Korean society, hidden behind the rapid growth of markets and the nation's influence. This usage of K is a linguistic strategy that pushes various societal problems in different areas of Korean society into the discourse of K. Its goal is to make sure that the successes of Korean pop culture and industries in other countries do not give people the wrong idea that Korean society is socially, culturally, and politically advanced, which would mean that people do not notice the ongoing problems and contradictions in Korean society.

Moreover, these words often emerge as neologisms or memes through social media and online communities. While K undergoes dissemination in the domestic media and industrial sectors and becomes incorporated into the language of policies and politics, the public has also started to see through the nationalistic nature of K. From the waves of K coming from above, another K symbol, created from below, puts a brake on the nationalism and ethnic nationalism that the discourse around K has matured over the years, revealing new aspects of our society.

When you see K, you see Korea

K is being used as a symbol that compresses many meanings, phenomena, and discourses. Within K, the logic of cultural flow and the logic of product production clash; dimensions of transcultural acceptance and nationalistic messages coexist; and it operates as a dual-value symbol, representing both progressive and regressive aspects. Whether K will continue to accumulate new layers of meaning, expand its domain, be replaced by other words, or become obsolete due to exhaustion is difficult to predict. However, examining the changes and evolution of K is undeniably an interesting way to peek into the world of Hallyu and Korean society. Observing how K combines with different phenomena and who articulates it can be a way to diagnose the direction in which Hallyu is flowing. Furthermore, it can be a critical method to scrutinize various aspects of our society's development and decline. (End)

Author | Sojeong Park (Research Fellow, Center for Hallyu Studies, Seoul National University Asia Center)