[VIEWPOINT]Keeping cultural fires burning“Korean fever,” called hanyu here, is hot in Southeast Asia and Japan. Yonsama, the Japanese nickname for Bae Yong-jun, a popular actor who recently visited Japan for an exhibition of photos of himself, is a symbol of this Korea boom. The airport was crowded with fans who had come to see him on arrival. The Japanese media had special reports while a private broadcaster mobilized a helicopter to cover his travel to a hotel.
But this scene is not limited to Japan alone. Let’s take a look at a performance center in Shenzhen, China, on Nov. 19. The World Miss University 2004 pageant was held there. The writer, who co-produced the contest at the request of the world organizing committee, had a very interesting experience in the first meeting with concerned officers at the organizing committee. In a discussion to invite singers, they strongly called for a Korean singer, Ahn Chil-hyun, or Kangta, instead of famous singers in the United States or Europe. Ahn Chil-hyun, who arrived in Shenzhen the day before the contest, also received a tremendous cheer from his Chinese fans in the process of going from the airport to a hotel and the performing center.
Like Yonsama and Kangta, many Korean stars are recognized as top stars in Asia. The popularity of Korean dramas, films and songs is increasing greatly. But the flow of culture is not always one-sided. Just as the Bae Yong-jun and Kangta boom spreads across Asia, stars from the other Asian countries want to get recognition in Korea.
The Asian Song Festival, a concert featuring top pop stars from seven Asian countries, was recently held at the Olympic Gymnasium in Seoul. The eye-catcher of the event was the Japanese singer Hamasaki Ayumi, whose records sold more than 30 million copies. She sang with all her might as if reflecting her will to spread the Japanese fever in Korea.
At every performance, she used to ask for an astronomical guarantee, but she participated in the festival this time without asking any guarantee. As the big wind of the Korean boom blows in Asia, pop stars from Japan and other Asian countries are trying to raise the wind of their culture in Korea.
To maintain the Korean boom in this situation, we need to diagnose the fever objectively. The fever toward Korean stars cooled in less than five years in China, the center at one time. Although Korean dramas and movies are still on air and drawing attention, hanyu has ended as a fashion.
Why could the Korean fever have cooled in China? The biggest reason was that we failed to build an organized system. Rather than being supported systematically and in an organized manner at the national level, the Korean wave was left to individuals’ activity, so it lacked momentum and produced many side effects. Another reason was the pariah consciousness that sees hanyu only from the economic perspective. The recent scandal over the actor Song Seung-hun’s Army service is a representative example. At that time, those who contended for putting off his conscription until after completing his acting role in a drama emphasized the fact that if the hanyu star could not appear in the drama, it would be a blow to the exports of the drama and cause great economic loss. The creation of economic value through culture is very significant, but it is a secondary value. Suppose Song Seung-hun postponed going into the Army, appeared in the drama and the drama were exported abroad. In that case, what would have become of our country and our people that protected a “law-violator” for economic reasons?
The Yonsama boom in Japan should also be judged cool-headedly. The Korean fever in Japan is currently concentrated on the individual Bae Yong-jun. If the Yonsama fever does not spread over our entire popular culture, we may repeat the same mistakes as we did in China.
There are already such signs in many areas. The broadcasting time zone of Korean dramas that have critically contributed to the expansion of the Korean wave is arranged after one in the morning when the viewing rate is low. This is interpreted as an intentional arrangement.
For the continuation of the Korean boom, we should first put the domestic affairs to rights. We should establish an organized system, and based on the system, we should support civic organizations and cultural industry workers so that they can engage directly in exchange activities.
If so, the second and the third Yonsama will be born, and the Korean wave will go beyond Asia to spread across the world.
* The writer is a popular culture critic and former production director at KMTV. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Ki-jin