In an ad that aired in Thailand last year, a boy trying to impress a girl takes a sip of Lipton iced tea. He suddenly starts speaking Korean. The girl, naturally, falls for him. “What’s not cool about Korea?” asks Jeff Yang, a Chinese American who writes about Asian culture. “It’s a land of sleek consumer electronics, long-legged and beautiful women, men who combine soulfulness and emotion with manly good looks.”
The anecdote and observation come from Euny Hong’s The Birth of Korean Cool, an insightful book about the country’s plan to use its pop culture as a means to achieve international superpowerdom. In Asia and many other places—no, not yet America—South Korea is increasingly hip.
Korean movies, K-Pop music acts, and TV shows in particular have become so beloved that the export of Korean culture has its own name, Hallyu, the Korean wave. In the Philippines, broadcasters have abandoned South American telenovelas in favor of Korean TV dramas, which now run in Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. In 2010 the stars of Iris, a Korean spy drama, sang songs to 28,000 fans in a stadium in Saitama, Japan. Last year a Korean soap star was mobbed in Cuba.
Hong documents this and argues, compellingly, that it’s not an accident. The country’s leadership, she writes, “has made the Korean wave the nation’s number one priority.” Korean diplomats smuggled tapes of the country’s TV series into Hong Kong in the 1990s, then lined up advertisers. The Korean government pays to have shows dubbed into Spanish. For two decades, public and private grants have subsidized the domestic film industry, elevating the quality of Korean films to where they now regularly appear at Cannes. And in 2009, $90 million in stimulus and heavy copyright enforcements went to help the country’s musicians. The aim, of course, is to use this soft power, this idea of Korea as a brand, to sell more phones and cars. As James Dean was to Levi’s, writesHong, the stars of Iris will be to Samsung (005930:KS).
Hong weaves personal stories throughout. Born in the 1970s to Korean parents in America, she moved to Seoul in 1985 when her father, an economist, was lured home as part of a government program to plug a brain drain. Hong hated it. Korea in the 1980s was not cool. Gangnam, the area south of the Han River where she lived, was particularly hellish to an American teen. It was full of grinding work. Unquestioning obeisance to teachers allowed some to be abusive. Because she did not speak Korean, Hong was assumed to be an idiot.
The country is driven, she explains, by han, a kind of rage at injustice that’s tended and stoked as an engine of productivity. Her brief chapter on Korea’s han against Japan is both the best and most concise explanation I’ve read of the two countries’ complicated and ancient feud.
Han helped build South Korea’s dynamic economy, Hong believes, and it also makes Hallyu possible. K-Pop is notorious for the 12-year development contracts its producers hand to teenagers and the rigorous rehearsal schedules of its young stars. That regimen is no different from a normal Korean childhood, Hong writes. When she asked to transfer to an international high school, her classmates assumed she was too lazy to take Korea’s university entrance exams.
Hong is at her most moving when she writes about Daniel Gray, a Korean orphan adopted by American parents at age 6. Now back in Korea, Gray is working to promote the country’s cuisine abroad. He’s found his birth mother and is taking her to meet the Grays of Delaware. Hong allows herself an author’s indulgence and professes to weep as she writes about him. Any country that wants to sell itself outside its own borders needs people like her and Gray, who can interpret and explain. Yet both are still having trouble finding acceptance in Korea.
In the summer of 2012 a portly Korean rapper finally pulled off what everyone in Hallyu had been hoping for: He infiltrated America. Psy, the horse-dancing man who sings Gangnam Style, is remarkable among current Korean artists, Hong says, because much of his catalog is ironic. He does not celebrate his country’s arrival; he makes fun of it. Irony is “that special privilege of wealthy nations,” she writes. “First, one scrambles for wealth. Then, one luxuriates in mocking the effeteness that comes with it.” Countries become cool when they can back off from all that boring striving. Korea is getting close.