From “Gangnam Style” and competitive electronic sports to kimchi-flavoured pot noodles, South Korea’s cultural exports are eagerly consumed around the world. Filipinos are hooked on its dramas. The French love its pop music and its films. Last year South Korea raked in $5 billion from its pop-culture exports. It has set its sights on doubling that by 2017.
Much has changed since 1985, when Euny Hong, a Korean-American journalist and author of a new book called “The Birth of Korean Cool”, arrived in Seoul. South Korea was most definitely not hip. Its musicians had been muzzled by censorship, and busking, considered a form of protest, had been banned. The country had no mods, rockers or hippies. Dramas were “provincial and tedious”.
Over the next six years Ms Hong witnessed the swiftest part of the country’s economic development, “the painful period between poverty and wealth”. She recalls the anomalies of the time: newly wealthy women wearing mink coats at the fish markets; frequent power cuts in her family’s flat, the poshest in a posh district.
From this unpromising position South Korea managed to charge past Japan to become Asia’s foremost trendsetter, and Ms Hong interviews superstars, chefs and cultural critics to discover why.
She finds that cool can be manufactured, up to a point. South Korea’s is a side-effect of the culture-exporting machine that was created at the end of the 20th century and has been nurtured by the government ever since.
The Asian financial crisis of 1997 revealed a weakness in Korea’s reliance on big conglomerates, and Kim Dae-jung, the president, responded by pushing the development of the IT and content (film, pop and video-games) industries. Firms folded or reorganised: Samsung moved into digital TV and mobile phones. According to Ms Hong, without the crisis there would probably have been no hallyu, the Korean cultural wave that has rolled through Asia for the past decade.
Tax incentives and government funding for start-ups pepped up the video-game industry. It now accounts for 12 times the national revenue of Korean pop (K-pop). But music too has benefited from state help. In 2005 the government launched a $1 billion investment fund to support the pop industry. Record labels recruit teens who undergo years of gruelling training before their public unveiling.
It is true that creativity can be limited by this work ethic and the accompanying fear of failure. (In Korea’s bubble-gum ballads and Europop-inspired tunes, voices come second to synchronised dance moves.) But this weakness has been turned to an advantage: conservatism is now a conscious strategy for the export market. K-pop has stronger global appeal than Japan’s J-pop, which tends to be less puritanical. Dramas focus on courtship and family roles. Actors and singers promote Korean tastes, in areas such as cosmetics, and in turn beauty businesses hire stars to promote their products.
Ms Hong describes Korea’s approach to culture as “a full-on amphibious attack”. She talks to some of those who have worked behind the scenes: one official organised flash-mobs around France to demand a K-pop concert; another spirited “What Is Love”, South Korea’s first so-called K-drama, into Hong Kong inside a diplomatic pouch.
The “attack” works because the pop culture it peddles is more palatable to other Asians than that of former aggressors, such as Japan or China. Korean dramas are so popular in the Philippines that they have inspired local remakes in Tagalog. “Winter Sonata”, another drama, was a hit in Iraq and Uzbekistan. Japan is now using the Korean model as inspiration: in what is perhaps the best evidence of its own waning power as a trendsetter, it has launched a $500m fund to invest in “Cool Japan”.
PSY, the rapper behind “Gangnam Style”, was not part of the national strategy. His song, with its 2 billion YouTube views, mocks the effeteness of a generation of South Korean nouveaux-riches. Its success may therefore testify to the limits of packaging cool, but it also shows the world’s readiness to revel in Korea’s cultural charms.