[Book] "What is Hallyu All About(한류가 뭐길래)" by SHIM Doobo

This book defines Hallyu (Korean Wave) as a 'cultural phenomenon' and explains it through four keywords: the 'complexity' of Hallyu, its 'positionality,' its 'relationship’, and its 'hybridity.' To illustrate these concepts, the book includes various interesting episodes.


Cultural shifts and the Evolution of K-Culture

SHIM Doobo | Sungshin Women's University

The Korean Wave, an unexpected phenomenon, has been around for decades. Over that time, the nature of the Korean Wave has become complex and diverse, and discussions and research about the Korean Wave have proliferated significantly. However, amid the societal enthusiasm over the achievements of the Korean Wave, discussions and writings have muddled the understanding of the Korean Wave and, in the end, distanced the public from it. As someone who lived abroad in the early days of the Korean Wave and witnessed the "wonder" of media exchange and cultural change and who has continued to explore the phenomenon ever since I found it disheartening to see discussions confined to the 'armchair' without delving deep into the intricacies of the Korean Wave. In addition, I felt compelled to address why an 'export-centric' perspective that solely focuses on selling products is problematic. This led me to present the book <한류가 뭐길래> (What is Hallyu All About?).

"What is Hallyu All About : Cultural shifts on the Glove and the evolution of K-Culture"

defines Hallyu (Korean Wave) as a "cultural phenomenon" and explains it through four keywords: the "complexity" of Hallyu, its "positionality," its "relationship," and its "hybridity. To illustrate these concepts, the book includes several interesting episodes.

First, the book addresses the issue of defining the Korean Wave. While the Korean Wave began as a trend and cultural phenomenon overseas, it seems to be more recognized domestically as an industry. Therefore, it is possible to define the Korean Wave as a cultural phenomenon and the Korean Wave as an industry. What we should keep in mind, however, is the choice and acceptance of overseas consumers. No matter how diligently industrial efforts are made domestically, the phenomenon of the Korean Wave is impossible without the choice and acceptance of overseas consumers. Therefore, this book emphasizes that the Korean Wave is a trend that developed overseas and is characterized by the popularity of Korean cultural products and a local popular culture phenomenon.

As a phenomenon, the Korean Wave emerged among East Asian recipients of Korean cultural products in the late 20th century amidst the tide of market opening and media globalization. Modern audiences select and enjoy products (such as dramas, popular music, movies, etc.) produced and distributed by the cultural industry and media. In the process, they search for meaning in their lives. Around 1997-98, middle-aged women in East Asia began to appreciate Korean dramas, while teenagers developed a taste for dance music, showing cultural responses that can be referred to as the Korean Wave, as they found meaning and embraced it as part of their own culture.

Passionate female fans were calling stations to request reruns of Korean dramas, and teenagers who loved Korean dance music were copying the hairstyles of Korean stars, actively expressing their feelings and sharing their experiences as fans. As a result, the local media judged that the subcultures created by these individuals had significance as social phenomena and began to report and comment on them, referring to them as the Korean Wave. However, conservative cultural authorities in the region largely denigrated their tastes and choices. In China and Taiwan, Korean Wave fandom among teenagers was seen as deviant behavior, while the Japanese establishment denounced middle-aged female fans of Korean dramas as exhibiting abnormal behavior.

Keys as Subcultures

In fact, the Korean wave in each region began by showing the characteristics of subcultures within society. This phenomenon can also be observed outside of Asia. In Europe and the Americas, Korean Wave fandom has been shaped by immigrants, people of color, women, and teenagers who are socially marginalized by gender, age, race, and class. As a result, conservative cultural authorities initially denigrated the Korean Wave. However, as Korean cultural products gained critical acclaim and international recognition by winning prestigious awards at film festivals and events, the criticism of the Korean Wave waned. Instead, a discourse praising the excellence of Korean culture (industry) has spread. Now that the Korean Wave has become a cross-generational and cross-regional phenomenon, it has expanded beyond popular culture into various fields of Korean culture, including Korean studies and traditional culture.

Second, the book addresses the multifaceted nature of the Korean Wave, making it clear that it was not a government initiative, but rather the result of a butterfly effect involving various elements. Of course, there is no doubt that the Korean government's decision to allow freedom of expression and to lead the industrialization of the media in the 1990s laid the foundation for the Korean Wave. However, these measures were the fruits of democratization through "citizen power" and a response to the rapid changes in the international political economy in the late 20th century, not aimed at the Korean Wave. On the other hand, overseas performances and events in cooperation with Korean cultural institutions and embassies in the late 1990s under the Kim Dae-jung administration were simply part of cultural diplomacy conducted in various countries. At that time, the Korean Wave seemed unimaginable, and even after its emergence, there was no certainty or confidence about the phenomenon within Korea. It was only after the economic and diplomatic benefits of the Korean Wave were confirmed that the various branches of the government began to make various efforts to capitalize on or promote it.

I do not deny the government's role in the Korean Wave. On the contrary, I positively evaluate various policies related to the promotion of the Korean Wave carried out by institutions such as the Korea Creative Content Agency and the Korean Foundation for International Cultural Exchange, which were established in the 2000s. But to argue that the government planned the Korean Wave phenomenon from the beginning is not only incorrect, but also a misguided view that fails to understand the world of popular culture, which is characterized by unpredictability and uncertainty.

Moreover, emphasizing the role of the government does not help the Korean Wave or Korea's image because many foreign countries still perceive Korea as an underdeveloped country ("a country that only develops when a few elites like Park Chung-hee or the government lead an ignorant populace"). They do not even try to change this outdated perception. As a result, when foreign media interview Korean Wave experts and relevant government officials in Korea, they ask questions about the role of the government. When government-related institutions boast about their contributions to the Korean Wave, the foreign media reinforce the perception that "Look, Korea has not escaped from its Asian backwardness, unlike advanced Western countries," leading to negative coverage of the Korean Wave and K-pop. The more serious problem is that "conscious" readers abroad who read such articles may interpret the Korean Wave as cultural imperialism and join the ranks of anti-Korean Wave sentiment.

Ambition, Sweat and Tears

In fact, there are various implications when many individuals attest to the unpredictability of the Korean Wave phenomenon. In other words, it is important to note that a very diverse set of factors have intertwined to give rise to the Korean Wave. In this context, <What is Hallyu All About> focuses on and explores various factors that contributed to the rise of the Korean Wave. These include the ambitions of cultural planners and producers to succeed in the market, the sweat and tears of young people trying to succeed in the entertainment industry, the role of cultural mediators who are skilled in cross-cultural communication and passionate about business, and the presence of overseas consumers who empathize with and find joy in Korean cultural texts. The book also emphasizes that the Korean Wave can be further analyzed through an understanding of the agency of cross-border fandom, as well as the international political economy dynamics and the development of media technologies that affect the production, distribution, and consumption of popular culture.

Thirdly, this book takes a more objective perspective on the 'positionality' of the Korean Wave. Contrary to the "The Korean Wave has taken over the world" media narrative, K-pop and Korean dramas are just one of the many cultural options available to the global audience. Just as Korean consumers, as cultural omnivores, might enjoy both BLACKPINK and songs by Lim Young Woong, global audiences also engage with various cultural products, including K-pop. For instance, it is important to remember that the appeal of the Korean Wave is not exclusive to Southeast Asian countries; cultures from the United States, China, Japan, and many others continue to captivate Southeast Asian audiences.

However, the overseas Korean wave trend surveys conducted by various domestic institutions usually present trends on a country-by-country or periodic basis, such as "K-culture has gained popularity and something is trending in K-culture. These surveys may emphasize the popularity of a particular K-pop band, highlight the latest top-rated drama, or mention the success of spicy chicken noodles in the local market. However, such surveys tend to perpetuate the imitation of similar products and reinforce nationalistic sentiments. Instead of these superficial surveys, comprehensive, contextual, and multidimensional research should be conducted on changes in the economic structure of countries and the cultural preferences of local consumers. This type of in-depth research would be more beneficial for the long-term promotion of the Korean wave.

However, why does this kind of approach to studying the trends of the Korean Wave persist? This is because the Korean Wave is perceived as an 'export of goods.' In this regard, the book points out the claim that the drama <Jealousy> was "exported" to China in 1993 and considers this as the starting point of the Korean Wave as problematic. The book delves into the origins of such claims and presents much evidence to highlight the flaws in this argument.

On the other hand, the reason for recognizing 1997-98 as the starting point of the Korean Wave is supported by ample evidence and data. The drama <What is Love> and the male band CLON gained popularity in China and Taiwan during that time. Importantly, their success was not just a one-off; it set the trend for other content and laid the groundwork for the larger phenomenon we now know as the Korean Wave.

Historians make their arguments after handling the documentary evidence with a rigorous attitude. In addition, they revisit and supplement their theories and historical interpretations by visiting historical sites. However, making claims about the Korean Wave with the mindset of an "armchair scholar" without rigorous scrutiny of the data and field research can lead to a number of serious problems.

Claiming that the existence of export records marks the starting point of the Korean Wave is influenced by the domestically expanded export-oriented Korean Wave policies. This attitude is ultimately detrimental to the development of the Korean Wave from a long-term point of view. It should not be forgotten that one of the reasons for anti-Korean Wave sentiment in other countries is that it gives the impression that Korea has no genuine interest in and respect for the local people and their culture and that it considers them only as mere revenue generators.

K-drama "What is 'LOVE'" in 1997

Fourth, <What is Hallyu All About> focuses on the "relationship" between the Korean Wave and other cultures. In fact, similar cultures from other countries that entered foreign markets first, unexpected cultural mediators became 'bridges' and played crucial roles in contributing to the spread of the Korean Wave. While Korean dramas had been exported since the early 1990s, the drama <What is Love> in 1997 became a catalyst for the Korean Wave, partly due to the dedicated efforts of skilled Korean-Chinese translators employed by China's state-owned CCTV, who meticulously translated the drama's text.

The overseas Chinese networks scattered throughout Asia and the world played a crucial role as important channels for the initial spread of the Korean wave. In the early 2000s, female fans in the Philippines and Indonesia confessed that it was only after watching the Taiwanese drama <Meteor Garden(流星花園)> that they began to like Korean male actors with similar looks. The sudden popularity of  in Brazil in 2006 was attributed to third-generation Japanese-Brazilians who had experienced Japanese society and brought back the popularity of the drama from Japan. In Europe, many Korean wave fans were originally fans of Japanese culture but developed an appreciation for Korean culture. While some interpret this as "winning the Korea-Japan game," these fans continue to appreciate both Korean and Japanese cultures. Failure to recognize the intercultural "relationship" and "bridging effect" revealed in such examples would limit the understanding of the Korean Wave to mere national pride.

Fifthly, <What is Hallyu All About> regards the entertaining competitiveness of Korean cultural products as one of the crucial factors driving the sustainability of the Korean Wave. However, attributing this origin to statements like 'Korean culture is inherently superior’ in the form of 'cultural essentialism' or a kind of 'mystical DNA' theory is occasionally observed. Such explanations are merely the signs of scholarly laziness. We should pay attention to the cultural process in which modern Korean cultural products have long negotiated with foreign cultures, indigenized them, and improved their entertainment quality through fierce competition in the domestic market.

The Korean popular culture industry has become a model for content production in various regions, including Asia. For instance, the production methods of K-pop have been spread to countries such as the United States, Japan, and the Philippines, and these countries are creating "global K-pop" or "hybrid K-pop.” As such, <What is Hallyu All About> provides various examples related to cultural exchange and hybridization.

Process of Hybridization

Anthropologist Ulf Hannerz once said that human history itself is a process of hybridization, just as Lunar New Year, the great national holiday, originated in China but evolved into a holiday with Korean customs and traditions that have become part of our lives. Korean foods such as seolleongtang, hotteok, sundae, and soju, as well as words like agassi and agi, have their origins traced back to Mongolia during the Goryeo dynasty. What is crucial is not the origin of forms and genres but their ability to blend with our experiences and emotions, becoming an integral part of our culture and enhancing our lives.

After a long period of hybridization, Korean culture has succeeded in creating content that encompasses our historical experiences of colonialism, war, dictatorship, democratization, and industrialization. This, in turn, resonates with the universal emotions of humanity, leading to the emergence of the Korean Wave.

I believe that the Korean Wave has more than just an industrial impact. One of them is the consciousness and attitudes that are coming back to us on the wave of the Korean Wave. Just as other countries are embracing Korean popular culture, I would like to see Koreans adopt a more open-minded approach to other cultures by improving racial sensitivity and inclusiveness.

This book interprets various cultural phenomena and issues unfolding at the global, Asian, national, and regional levels, using the Korean Wave as a "tool of cultural discourse. For example, it analyzes why China insists on using the term "Chinese New Year" abroad, a name not used domestically (China calls it "Chunjie"), leading to conflicts with other countries. It explores the cultural significance behind the popularity of comedian Kim Kyung-wook's secondary character 'Tanaka-san', and how the controversy surrounding the girl group  is linked to the global cultural industry. The book also explores issues such as the representation of race and gender in Korean drama. In addition, the book aims to make the stories surrounding the Korean Wave more interesting by introducing people related to the Korean Wave with whom the author has personal connections.

To summarize, <What is Hallyu All About> critically examines the Korean Wave from the perspective of critical humanities and analyzes it through the lenses of global cultural studies and media studies. In doing so, it covers various concepts and topics such as culture and industry, modernity and globalization, popular culture and soft power, gender, race and cultural politics, fandom and cultural consumption, nationalism, and hybridity. I have tried to present all these concepts in a way that is easy for general readers to understand, using simple language and familiar anecdotes. I hope that <What is Hallyu All About> sparks new discussions about the Korean Wave, prompting readers to reconsider the meaning and role of culture in the contemporary era. If readers find that their perspective on the Korean Wave and culture and popular culture has been broadened after reading <What is Hallyu All About>, it will bring great joy to me. Thank you sincerely for reading the long text. (END)

SHIM Doobo | Sungshin Women's University