중앙데일리

A crash course on the “han” in Hallyu

July 09,2008
Hae Joo Kim
As I’ve sat grinding my teeth waiting for a Korean friend to pick up the phone and make their ring tone stop, I’ve often thought that it would take an in-depth cultural study to understand the attraction of K-pop ballads. So, I found someone who’s doing one.
Hae Joo Kim was born in Seoul but moved to New York with her family in 1974 at a very young age. Now she’s back, armed with a Fulbright Grant, to test the waters of the phenomenon known as the Korean Wave, or Hallyu. She’s writing her Ph.D. thesis on the topic for Wesleyan University in Connecticut.
Kim has filtered through all the pop and circumstance and is focusing her study on Korean dramas and the music that she thinks makes them such a cultural force.
“There’s a particular aesthetic with Korean dramas that’s particularly tied with music,” she said.
But she says it’s difficult to pin down exactly what the Korean Wave is. “Locating a definition is difficult, because in Korea, everything that’s good about the country is now considered Hallyu,” she said. “It was started by K-pop and Korean dramas, but now it’s Korean food, B-boys, taekwondo, traditional music ... It’s everything.”
As she rummages around Chung-Ang and Yonsei universities and the Korean Culture and Content Agency in search of this definition, she’s had some time to consider the overriding theme.
“If you wanted to put it negatively, it’s sappy,” she said. “More artistically, it’s yearning.”
Koreans are very in tune with the emotions of loss and separation, she said. “You have to be careful a bit, but what I’ve heard from these drama producers is, and this sounds cliché, that it’s the han.”
If you are unfamiliar with the local concept of han, it is a difficult-to-describe sentiment of regret and sorrow. (Trying to get my Korean coworkers to explain the emotion to me was like trying to get a dolphin to teach a rock how to swim.)
“Koreans are very sensitive to a mentality of loss, of difficulty, of hard times. I don’t know if I’d call it a victim mentality, but there’s something that gets handed down that’s very connected to grief and longing.”
“It’s a big jump to connect that to Korean pop, but I’ve heard that,” she laughed.
Still, it can be seen as a motivator, Kim said. “It drives the big push to get Hallyu out there. It’s as if Korea’s time has finally arrived.”
So, thanks to Kim, I now have a deeper understanding of what pushes that Korean Wave. Even so, I think I’ll stick to text messaging.


By Richard Scott-Ashe Deputy Editor [richard@joongang.co.kr]


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