The cultural highs and lows of 2004

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The cultural highs and lows of 2004

In the world of popular culture, 2004 was a year of scandals and rising stars.
The country’s biggest draft-dodging scandal was revealed in September, ensnaring more than 100 celebrities and professional baseball players.
In February, actress Lee Seung-yeon outraged local civic groups after posing nude for photographs as a “comfort woman,” or Japanese sex slave.
But there were those who smiled in the end. Korean actor Bae Yong-jun triggered the “Yonsama” syndrome in Japan after the TV drama “Winter Sonata,” in which he starred, brought thousands of tourists to the site where the show was shot.
In film, a number of Korean directors won awards at prestigious European film festivals. Locally, “Silmido” lured 10 million filmgoers, raking in 77 billion won ($74 million), while “Taegukgi” made 78 billion won. Cyworld, a blog, surpassed 10 million members.
Two icons of modern Korean poetry, Ku Sang and Kim Chun-su, died. The history of the Goguryeo kingdom spurred heated debates among politicians and academics.
And we cannot ignore the buzzword of the year ― well-being.
Herewith is a more detailed look at some of the major events of this year.



The word could be found everywhere, from street banners to packages of chocolate cookies. Products that stylized themselves by using the trendy catch phrase poured onto the market.
New lifestyle patterns that were adopted from overseas became fashionable, including yoga, organic food, slow food, spas, natural products and various therapies that claim to guarantee physical well-being.
Yet there was also criticism that the word was used largely as a marketing strategy for consumer trends rather than promoting the economic and mental well-being of ordinary citizens in issues like public health care and welfare.

Comfort Women

In February, actress Lee Seung-yeon stirred up controversy by posing for a series of provocative photographs depicting her as a sex slave during the Japanese occupation of Korea. The photographs, which were to appear on a paid Internet site, outraged local civic groups and former comfort women.
At a press conference, Ms. Lee defended the photos, saying the project was an attempt to “console” the comfort women, not exploit them.
She eventually apologized, and the project’s organizer destroyed all of the photos in front of the press. The incident raised the question of when and how history could be appropriated and represented.


It was a year of honor for South Korean filmmakers.
In February, Kim Ki-duk won the Best Director award at the 54th Berlin International Film festival with his movie “Samaria.” Later, he won the Silver Lion for best director for his film “3-Iron” at the Venice Film Festival.
The peak of attention, however, came in Cannes, when Park Chan-wook won the Grand Prix with the film “Old Boy,” a story of a man seeking revenge for being held inexplicably captive. The award was considered the highest recognition a Korean movie has achieved at any of the three major European film festivals. Domestic film critics predicted that the success of “Old Boy” at Cannes would draw more interest to Korea’s commercial films.

Box Office

Domestic films were box office draws both here and abroad. “Silmido,” which lured 10 million filmgoers in Korea, was shown in Japan at 250 theaters. The story of a group of Army recruits during the Park Chung Hee regime who were trained to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, the film brought in 77 billion won ($74 million), according to the Bank of Korea, while the war film “Taegukgi” made 78 billion won.
Exports of Korean movies last year totaled 36 billion won in value, twice the figure for 2002. Currently, 14 movie-related businesses, including distribution, investment, production and DVD manufacturing, are registered on Korean stock exchanges.


An academic battle persisted for months between China and Korea over the history of the ancient kingdom of Goguryeo, influencing bilateral relations.
Koreans protested a Chinese research study that claimed the kingdom (BC 37-AD 668), which occupied a substantial part of the Korean peninsula and southern Manchuria, was a subordinate state to the Chinese dynasties of the era.
The dispute led to diplomatic conflicts. In talks with a visiting top Chinese official, President Roh Moo-hyun asked that the Chinese government take swift measures to rectify the matter. Meanwhile, the first joint Korean-Chinese academic conference on the history of Goguryeo was held in Beijing.


“Cyworld,” a popular Internet site that provides personal blogs, or Web logs, attracted huge attention among younger Koreans.
As of November, the site surpassed 10 million members, or about one-fifth of the South Korean population. The company said it sells an average of 1.5 million won worth of cyber money a day, and the average member spends more than five hours on the site.
Users of Cyworld can create various Web boards, produce online photo albums, upload their favorite music and decorate their cyber rooms with items from a shop. But the site has raised issues of privacy and copyright violation, one of the reasons why President Roh Moo-hyun’s daughter-in-law and the daughter of Samsung chairman Lee Gun-hee closed down their blogs.


Parody became a cultural code word in 2004.
Political commentators turned to movie posters and digitally manipulated images of popular clips to make statements about certain characters and issues.
In July, the Blue House announced it would reprimand two of its officials responsible for the posting of an Internet parody on its Web site that depicted Grand National Party leader Park Geun-hye as the protagonist in a sexually explicit Korean movie.
President Roh Moo-hyun also was a target of a parody poster earlier this year, before Korean troops were dispatched to Iraq. Using an image of a scene from the Korean film “Marriage Is a Crazy Thing,” the slogan on the poster was switched to “Dispatching Troops to Iraq is a Crazy Thing.”


Some celebrities were arrested this year on charges of bribing medical authorities to fake test results so that they could obtain medical exemptions from military service.
Three actors were arrested for paying as much as 30 million won ($29,000) to dodge the draft. More than 100 celebrities and professional baseball players have been named in the scandal.
Among those targeted, leaving their careers in ruins, were singer Yu Seung-jun and the son of former Grand National Party presidential candidate Lee Hoi-chang. Actor and comedian Shin Seung-hwan was sentenced to an eight-month prison term for his involvement in the affair.
The country’s largest draft scandal unfolded in September, when police arrested two brokers who helped men obtain medical exemptions. Draft-dodging is considered one of the most sensitive subjects in Korea, where military service is mandatory.

Ku Sang, Kim Chun-su

Two of Korea’s most symbolic literary celebrities died this year.
Ku Sang, a poet who also wrote essays and plays on social, literary and spiritual topics, died on May 11 at the age of 85. Ku published his first collection of poems, “Even the Knots on Quince Trees Tell Tales,” in 1984, relating events in his own life to those of the turbulent history of modern Korea.
Kim Chun-su, another modernist poet beloved by Koreans, died last month. An avowed purist, Kim repeatedly declared that he did not believe in ideas, and stressed what he called “the poetry of no meaning,” using the rhythms of certain Korean folk ballads.
Works by both poets were translated into several languages, including English, French and German.

by Park Soo-mee
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