Books · Taiwan

The Birth of Korea Cool – book review

Taiwan may consider South Korea to be its main direct rival in economic, cultural and tech fields, but after reading The Birth of Korean Cool – how one nation is conquering the world through pop culture, there is no competition.
That’s because South Korea is on a whole different level when it comes to developing its cultural and tech industries and promoting them worldwide, so much so that even Japan, which South Korea considers its hated historic rival, has been surpassed. The book’s subtitle explains what the book is about – how a small country can punch far beyond its weight in the world through its pop culture. The author Euny Hong is an American-born Korean writer whose family moved back when she was 12 and she lived there until she went back to the US for university.

The book actually doesn’t touch on Taiwan much, except a brief mention here or there such as that Korean shows were so popular the Taiwan authorities requested a local TV network to reduce the number of primetime showings of Korean shows.
What the book explains is how from poverty and backwardness up to the 1980s, the nation first climbed up economically, and then culturally. so much so that it has a widespread reputation for coolness and its TV shows, music, and movies are popular all over Asia and parts of Latin America, Europe and North America. Some people might think of earlier phases when Hong Kong and Japanese pop music and movies were popular across Asia in the 80s and 90s, much of their popularity was restricted to mainly East Asian nations and large Chinese populations in nations like Singapore, Malaysia and Canada. Not saying that all fans of HK or Japanese pop culture are Asians, of course, but those never went beyond minor cult status among non-Asians.

As what is known as Hallyu or Korean wave, Korean singer Psy and his mega-popular Gangnam Style became famous worldwide and attracted over 2 billion Youtube views while Korean girl groups and boy bands have massive followings in SE and East Asia. Korean TV shows have become widely watched across Asia and even Latin America. It is more impressive when one considers that all these songs and TV shows are in Korean. South Korea’s success is an ideal example of the significant of “soft power,” which incidentally is what next-door giant China seriously lacks.

Yet there is a very deliberate, planned and prepackaged mindset behind these cultural successes, starting from government planning and cooperation between the authorities and companies. As Hong puts it, this stems from a belief that “what’s good for the nation is good for business, and what’s good for business is good for the individual.”

There is an extremely determined single-mindedness towards pushing Korea out into the world, in terms of technology exports and pop culture. There is the somewhat admirable, somewhat scary zealous patriotism. And also something called “han,” a sort of eternal anger towards the universe due to all the suffering and unfairness that has happened to Korea in the past (it has been invaded 400 times, according to Hong. Even up to the mid-20th century when it split into two and then experienced a massive war). The target of their “han” has been Japan, who colonized Korea brutally in the early 20th century, both as an industrial rival to be surpassed and a market to be conquered. In this, South Korea has been successful, with Samsung overtaking Sony by 2002 and Korean musicians dominating Japanese music charts and awards shows. China is also another nearby country that has been smitten by Korean pop and TV shows and even cosmetics.

There are quite a few amusing episodes, especially when Hong recollects the Korea of her childhood. When her class went for vaccinations before the school term, the nurse used one needle to inject all the students, passing the needle over a candle flame after each injection before reusing it again. Such frugality might seem unimaginable in today’s South Korea, and is certainly wince-inducing by modern hygienic standards, but it illustrates how poor the country was in the 80s.
At times, Hong writes with a bit of vindictedness, a hint of unpleasant childhood moments growing up. In this, there was a lot, to the extent she only did one year in public school before transferring to an international school.

Not everything is great about the nation. Teachers could be brutal (though not as much anymore due to a ban on corporal punishment, according to a Korean colleague), work culture is dominated by hierarchy and overwork and society has often very conservative and rigid, resulting in the developed world’s highest suicide rate.

Besides technology and pop culture, there are chapters on plastic surgery, video games (itself another component of Korea’s potent cultural export arsenal), school thrashings (much more severe than mere spanking) and kimchi.

This is a nation that is confident about itself, as opposed to Taiwan, wants to spread its brand throughout the world, and is willing to put in significant effort, money and innovation to do so.  Through doing so, it has succeeded, but is still pushing on (a recent government ministry was actually named the Ministry of Future Creation and Science).
The book is a good, substantial read that is both fun and informative. Anybody curious about South Korea, its pop culture or how a developing country rose to become wealthy must read this.


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