Unless you were in a coma in the year 2012 or out of contact with the outside world ever since, it is unlikely that you have not heard of PSY, the South Korean pop star whose electro-pop song Gangnam Style (and accompanying equestrian-themed dance) went epically viral two years ago. The song, a mockery of the nouveau riche lifestyle in Seoul’s upper-class Gangnam neighbourhood, marked two ﬁrsts: Its music video became the first YouTube clip in history to reach one billion hits, and its massive success was proof, according to American-Korean journalist Euny Hong, that South Koreans had finally embraced irony. This wasn’t just an artistic milestone, she argues, but an economic one. “Irony is a mockery of excess,” says Hong, alluding to well-heeled satirists of the past, Aristophanes and Oscar Wilde, who ridiculed the social elite they belonged to. And excess is relatively new to South Korea.
Hong’s new book, The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation Is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture, chronicles South Korea’s decades-long transformation from a poor country where kids never smiled in their yearbook photos to a wealthy cultural leader. Korean pop music, or K-pop, has surpassed Japanese pop music (J-pop) as the most popular genre in east Asia, and tech giant Samsung, once known colloquially as “Samsuck,” is producing one of the bestselling smartphones on the market. South Korean soap operas are the world’s third most popular (after American and Latin soaps), a feat for a product with no built-in audience outside Korea’s borders. In a sign of change, a meme of outlandish South Korean high school yearbook photos—kids there now try to make the silliest faces possible—went viral this year, shocking Hong, who lives in the United States but came of age in Gangnam in the ’80s.
So cool is South Korea that the country’s arch-nemesis Japan is ramping up the soft war with an $883-million government-sponsored campaign called “Cool Japan,” aimed at reclaiming its cool factor internationally. Plans include a Japan-themed mall in southern China, and an effort to translate Japanese TV shows into other languages, something South Korea has done for years. (In March, China’s political advisory body discussed the popularity in China of My Love from the Star, a Korean soap, at an official meeting in Beijing.)
Hong argues that South Korea’s pop culture takeover is, like Cool Japan, “completely manufactured and deliberate.” The campaign began in the late ’90s, she says, after the Asian financial crisis bankrupted the region. What followed were 15 years of cultural exporting that would see South Korean video games make up a quarter of the world’s market. The government even made sure to translate its now wildly popular soaps into Amazonian dialects. In Toronto, party promoter and DJ Gerald Belanger sees very few partygoers of Korean descent at the K-Pop-themed events (some sponsored by the Korean government) he hosts through his agency Pop Goes the World. Instead, he says, it’s mostly “Chinese kids, Jamaican kids, girls from Dubai.”
But if the hand of the state is pushing South Korean culture on the world, no one is forcing us to consume it. So why do we? From a Western perspective, perhaps it’s the idea that less is more. American and Latin soaps are full of lasciviousness, and Western pop is full of unbridled sex. Korean pop culture, on the other hand, is in many ways Victorian. In My Love from the Star, the male lead is shown showering with a towel on (even the implication that someone is naked is too much for a country still mired in Confucian thought). Characters on Korean soaps seldom kiss. “It’s very Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth,” says Hong. “People must be yearning for this 19th-century doomed love—the ‘will they or won’t they?’ effect.”
K-pop, says Belanger, is “sexy, but not hypersexual.” The culture around it reflects that. At K-Pop events, he “gets nothing but trouble from club owners because nobody is drinking. K-pop fans are kind of straight edge,” he says. “Mayor Ford would hate our parties.” Korean culture is naturally puritanical, writes Hong, and, apparently, the rest of the world can’t get enough of that.