[Column] Illusion and Essence of K: Beyond the Ambiguity of 'K-'

This article focuses on the characteristics of the "K" concept and suggests that this could be an opportunity to mature our cultural awareness to a higher level.

Bluedot Admin

Author : LEE Sungmin, Korea National Open University
Date : 2022.Nov

Contemplating What Comes After 'K-'

The prefix 'K-' has a unique characteristic where the perspectives of those who view Korea from a broader context intersect with the perceptions of Koreans themselves. The importance of examining the issue of the 'K-' prefix lies in this complexity. The confusion embedded in "K" arises from an attempt to apply to oneself the phenomenon of "Hallyu," which originated from the outside. In the current landscape of Korea's content industry, amidst the fluctuations of the global mediascape, the coupling conditions that bind Korea's cultural codes and the universal perspectives on content quality through the 'K-' prefix are encountered. The outcome of this coupling is subject to potential decoupling at any given moment. As the appeal of "K" as a cultural code increases, the boundaries of K content production are breaking down. It is noteworthy that the globalization of Korea's content industry is accompanied by a distancing from Korea's cultural codes. This article focuses on the characteristics of the "K" concept and suggests that this could be an opportunity to mature our cultural awareness to a higher level.


What dreams does K content dream?

The emergence of the prefix "K-" to replace the term "Hallyu" is a relatively recent development. As the wave of Hallyu, which spread primarily in Asia, spread globally, the term "K-" began to emerge as a key identifier for this phenomenon on a global scale. The pivotal moment when Korean visual culture gained global attention, particularly with the success of "Squid Game," prompted attempts to distinguish it from traditional dramas by using terms like "K-drama" instead of "Hallyu drama" (Lee, 2021.12.15).

According to PARK Sojeong's analysis of the flow of the 'K-' concept through BigKinds, the discourse around K- grew explosively from 2019 and 2020, marking a turning point. This period coincides with what many scholars refer to as "Hallyu 4.0" or the "Fourth Wave of Hallyu" (Yang & Lee, 2022; Chae, 2021). During this period, Hallyu successfully expanded beyond the borders of Asia to reach audiences around the world. As a result, the prefix 'K-' has a unique feature where the perspectives of those who view Korea from a broader context intersect with the perceptions of Koreans themselves.

Because of this complexity, it is essential to examine the issues surrounding the 'K-' prefix. PARK Sojeong (2022) points out that the concept of 'K-' competes and evolves within the discourse, oscillating between cultural flow, industrial characteristics as a commodity, reception and transmission, and the duality of advanced and backward. Rather than emphasizing the receptive nature of Hallyu, the use of the 'K-' prefix emphasizes the elements we create as our own terms, reflecting a desire to go beyond the content-centric concept of Hallyu. If Hallyu emphasized 'flow' within a particular region, 'K-' emphasizes 'origin. The transition from Hallyu to K- reflects a moment of contemplation and intersection between external perspectives and internal desires.

This is where the ambiguity of K arises. The confusion embedded in 'K' stems from the attempt to apply to oneself the phenomenon of 'Hallyu', which originates externally. In other words, "K-" contains the ambiguity of striving for recognition from the global audience while emphasizing the aspects of our appeal that captivate them. Ultimately, the extent of this ambiguity depends on how we envision K-. What are our dreams for K-content? The effort to consciously transform the Hallyu phenomenon into tangible results will ultimately depend on the level of awareness of the content and direction of this dream.

Therefore, this article focuses on expanding the K discourse from a content and cultural perspective in an effort to "own" it more positively. This involves acknowledging the current context and usefulness of the "K-" prefix and using it as an opportunity to explore appropriate steps for the growth of Hallyu or K content. In essence, this article attempts to revisit the concept of 'K-' and engage in discourse with the aim of expanding its meaning beyond the existing K discourse. For this reason, the article will focus on changes within the domain of K-content rather than covering all aspects of K-discourse.


The Growth and Considerations of K-Content Driving the Expansion of 'K-'

The origin of the use of the prefix "K-" can be traced back to K-pop. The term "K-pop," adapted from the widely successful "J-pop," which represents Japanese popular music, serves as a starting point for the use of the "K-" prefix. This expression is similar to a kind of origin label that emphasizes the unique characteristics of national cultures within the framework of global success, which is called "cultural coupling" (Park Sojeong, 2022).

In this context, it is crucial to examine the process of expansion of the "K" concept into various genres and fields. The rise of K-dramas is noteworthy, especially the aspect emphasized by Gang Hyewon and Lee Seongmin (2022) called 'dual commodification'. This refers to the production of global television, such as Netflix's 'original' content, in which universal codes acquired on the basis of genres and preferences are integrated with the cultural codes of individual countries. This departure from the typical formula of 'Hallyu' dramas, which focus on shared regional tastes, allows for the emergence of new content.

In particular, K-dramas share a similar position with other cultural codes from different countries, such as Latin American dramas like 'Narcos' or 'Money Heist', within the structure of 'dual commodification'. From this perspective, 'K-dramas' can be seen as a concept that reveals the positioning of individual countries' works in the new media environment created by global OTT services like Netflix, rather than as a case of 'Hallyu' distinguishing itself in the international cultural flow.

Arjun Appadurai's concepts of 'mediascape' and 'ethnoscape' become useful in understanding the complexity of the 'K-' concept. Using the metaphor of 'landscape', these concepts help to capture the changes in cultural and media landscapes during the globalization process, where the supply of cultural identity materials through media is expanding globally. The current shift in the global OTT-centered video content environment allows works from different cultural backgrounds to participate in the process of product strategies based on cultural specificity and the exploration of global universality.

Arjun Appadurai's concepts of 'mediascape' and 'ethnoscape' to analyze the global cultural landscape and the increasing role of Korean content

This shift in the mediascape brings about structural changes in the traditional "cultural discount". The cultural characteristics of each country, exposed to different global perspectives, become a kind of "encoded" form of commodification. Interestingly, the external perspectives resulting from these commodification strategies can be internalized at the individual country level. In the interconnected global cultural changes, where many commonalities are expanding, strategies to codify elements with significant commodification potential within individual cultures, while attempting to distinguish their own characteristics within these strategies, intersect and collide.

Here, the use of the term with "K-" in Korea can be seen as a process of internalizing the gaze of others, recognizing both cultural specificity and universality. The current efforts of the Korean content industry seek to optimize themselves according to the logic of this global mediascape. In the process, conditions are created in which Korea's cultural codes and the quality of content from a universal perspective are linked through the prefix 'K-'. The term using 'K-' can be seen as an assemblage, a product of the delicate balance between the internal capabilities we can develop and the dimension of coded cultural identity that is subject to external scrutiny. The results of such a coupling can be decoupled at any time, representing both a crisis and an opportunity for 'K-'.


Reading the Prelude to Decoupling Amid the Confusion of K Boundaries

A notable trend in the recent flow of the entertainment industry is the breakdown of boundaries in K-content production as the appeal of "K" as a cultural code increases. Among the works already recognized by many as part of K-content, there are productions where the involvement of Korean capital and production teams is distant. A prime example is the Apple TV+ series "Pachinko." While the show features Korean actors and reflects many elements of Korean cultural identity, it lacks a strong connection to the Korean drama industry in terms of production and distribution processes.

The use of Korean cultural codes by global corporations is on the rise. The Netflix original drama "Partner's Track," which depicts the life and love of a Korean-American lawyer, prominently features numerous aspects of Korean culture. Interestingly, the original work of this drama is an autobiographical novel by a Chinese-American author with a Chinese cultural background. The decision to choose "Korean culture" as an alternative under the conditions of strained U.S.-China relations and difficulties in distributing original works highlights a significant shift.

As the exclusivity of "Korean cultural codes" expands, concerns about the boundaries of what we call "K-drama" become more profound. The current use of "K-" combines elements of Korean culture, creativity, and industrial capabilities. The problem arises as the appeal of Korean culture increases; the close combination of these elements becomes precarious. If the "exclusive use of Korean cultural codes" continues to expand, thinking about the limits of "K-drama" will become even more complex.

There is a risk that the dual structure of "K-drama," which represents the combination of high production quality aimed at global universality and the commodification of Korean cultural elements, could be decoupled at any time in the current media-content industry landscape. In an extreme scenario, Korean content companies could adopt strategies to maximize profits through global IPs that completely disregard Korean characteristics. Conversely, global content companies may increasingly adopt Korean cultural codes.

The ongoing debate and competition over "cultural appropriation," such as the case of the "Bonghwang Biyeo" (Phoenix Feather Hairpin), where social media discussions revolve around whether it belongs to China or Korea, reflect the struggles over the authenticity of cultural codes in the highly valued media landscape. Notably, Western media companies that lead the global cultural industry do not label their cultural codes with terms like "K-". This shows that expressions like "K-" are still in a stage where our desires eagerly seek the gaze of others.

On the road to global recognition, the commodification of Korean culture and the growth direction of the cultural content industry may diverge. For example, Korean webtoon companies are actively pursuing localization strategies by creating platforms that embrace the creativity of local creators in various regions. In the possible future, collaborations such as a Thai webtoon artist adapting an English novel by a Latin American author, which is then turned into a drama by Korean and American production companies, could be embedded in the global value chain formed by leading Korean companies. Paradoxically, as global corporations actively appropriate Korean cultural elements, Korean culture may attract a broader global audience.

In this process of decoupling, a deeper understanding of one's own culture is essential. Culture flows, overlaps, collides, and converges. Korea's achievements are the result of this vast flow. Concepts that use "K-" attempt to freeze a scene from this flow. However, attempts to freeze the flow are inherently limited. Therefore, the use of 'K-' is ultimately a temporary attempt for the Korean content industry and Korea's cultural achievements to move to the next stage of the flow. If we now imagine being a "culturally attractive nation," achieving this goal may involve transcending "K-" through the process of "Beyond-K.


Imagining the Next Stage of "K-" Through the Ambiguity of "K-

The phenomenon of Hallyu in the realm of popular culture has long been met with skepticism. Only now that it has reached its fourth stage, making a leap beyond Asia into global recognition, has the phenomenon of Hallyu, now recognized as a "reception phenomenon," begun to reposition itself as a concept denoted by "K-" for its own transformative purposes. The challenge is how to navigate the inherent ambiguity of the concept of "K-" that inevitably emerges in the process of transforming the reception phenomenon into an opportunity for self-evolution and maturation.

In this article, the emergence of the 'K' concept is understood as part of the structural shifts in the cultural product landscape of the globalized world. The focus is on discovering the direction of effort required for 'Beyond-K', transcending the 'K-' concept.

Concepts are a kind of tool. To use concepts denoted by 'K-' as effective tools, it might be strategic to exploit the inherent 'ambiguity'. For example, using the ambiguity of "K-" to recognize the complexity of global cultural flows could lead to efforts that go beyond a narrow focus on our cultural awareness in the struggle for recognition by others. Alternatively, adopting "K-" as a strategy for universality could mean paying attention to the "cultural diversity" of consumers and expanding efforts to increase awareness during the creative process.

In the short term, efforts can be made to respond appropriately to the commodification phase of Korean cultural codes and maximize our cultural appeal. In the long term, however, efforts should be made to expand "K-" into a larger vessel capable of embracing universal culture.

Therefore, there is no reason to view "Expanding and Competing K" (Park So-jeong, 2022) solely in a negative light. Clearly, the current illusion of "K-" is directed toward the global stage, and the essence of "K-" currently lies in the fact that Korea's cultural charm depends on the perceptions of others. How we bridge this gap depends on the processes of competition and expansion that lie ahead. Recognizing that the past achievements of Hallyu or K-content have always been the results of such maturity, it is crucial to actively imagine and move toward the next stage of K-.

It raises concerns about the appropriation of Korean cultural elements by global corporations and the potential decoupling of Korean cultural identity from its production processes.


Author : LEE Sungmin, is currently a professor in the Department of Media and Film at Korea Open University. He has conducted numerous studies in the fields of media and content policy and media history in Korea.