[Viewpoint] The end of the Korean WaveIn the late 1980s, when I was serving my military duty with American troops, two drunk white American soldiers came up to me and danced to the chants of “Shi-Shi-Shikumuns,” which is a derogatory reference to those with dark skin. They were doing an impression of the then-famous comic skit on Korean TV where the comedians dressed up as black people.
Such an open affront to the black people at the time was unthinkable in American society, and to the white American soldiers, this Korean TV comedy show may have looked ridiculous and amusing. I still remember the American troops’ efforts to prevent and punish any act of discrimination be it based on race, gender, religion, and etc., by dispatching an equal-opportunity officer in every camp.
I heard that one of the idol stars mimicked a black person on TV and as a result suffered severe public criticism. Also, some children of celebrities carelessly made jokes about Thai people who were suffering in the aftermath of recent flooding. Such scandals are raising the suspicion that Korean stars may lack the tact to handle international fame.
Quite recently, Kim Kura, one of the most famous hosts on Korean national television, was vehemently criticized for expressing his support for one of the legislative election candidates. The viewers cited his previous profane comments that he made on prior TV appearances and this whole debacle ended in Kim making inappropriate remarks about the “comfort women,” a euphemistic reference to Korean women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military, and announcing his temporary resignation from all shows. Personally, this is a big disappointment for me, as my favorite TV show “Radio Star” is hosted by him. I do not know how I am going to spend my Wednesday evenings from now on.
Meg Ryan, who openly derided Korea in the 1990s, holds a lot of meaning to the current Hallyu stars. At the time, Meg Ryan was one of the most popular Hollywood actresses in Korea. She was paid large sums of money to shoot a Korean shampoo commercial where she had to say the product name “Sexy Mild.” Then she appeared on an American talk show and made jokes about how she had to shoot a shampoo commercial for “some Asian country” and that the product name was in broken English. In 1997, with that one remark, Meg Ryan lost all of her Korean fans. She did not know that a simple joke could anger so many. Now some of Korean stars have risen to international stardom and face similar responsibilities.
Korean dramas and K-pop are being aired all over the world from Japan to the U.S. The Hallyu is expanding its influence and the Korean shows and music are being reproduced around the world. In this current cultural dominance of American pop culture, Korean pop culture is the only one that measures up to it. But one of the biggest threats to the momentum of Hallyu is none other than racism.
In the olden days, the words we often associated with the U.S. media were “anti-American riots,” “burning of the Star-Spangled Banner,” “Yankees go home,” “kidnapping of American citizens,” and “terrorism.” Now, similar expressions are being associated with Korea. For example, the anti-Korean demonstrations in Japan, the burning of the Korean flag in Taiwan, the Korea-hate of China and the terrorism against and kidnapping of Korean nationals in the Middle East are making headlines and are expected to occur more frequently in the future. This means that Korea has established its image as the land of multinational electronics corporations and good-looking idol stars but also is the object of much hatred and jealousy. Hallyu stars need to watch what they say and do in public, or they will face the international wrath and possible banishment from show business entirely.
The racist attack on the Philippine-Korean Jasmine Lee, the new congresswoman-elect, has gone beyond the personal level and may anger the entire population of the Philippines. The increasing number of foreign workers in Korea is inevitable and this will also lead to an increase in crimes committed by foreigners. We need to be careful not to let an extreme nationalistic ideology form in Korea. We should not ascribe the unemployment rate to the foreign workers and form a Korean version of German Nazism, Russian skinheads, American KKK or Japan’s far-right organization.
The Korean mafia that once existed in the U.S. or the Korean-American who staged the most heinous university shooting spree in the history of the U.S. may invoke anti-Korean sentiment among Americans, but these tragic events have not soured the Korea-U.S. alliance. The real power of the U.S. that Japan or China can only dream of emulating stems from the American Dream.
The U.S. is an immigrant nation with 300 million people, but is still holding its doors open for more immigrants. Although letting foreigners enter the country may result in a higher unemployment rate, higher real-estate prices as well as many other immediate social problems, countries like the U.S. and Singapore still have lenient immigration policies. As has been shown by the American example, immigration can in the long haul increase national competitiveness and prosperity.
Korea is entering an era of the “Korean Dream” where Nichkhun, a member of famous Korean idol group 2PM from Thailand; Victoria, a member of f(x) from China; and Jasmine Lee are joining and enriching Korean culture. Korea is no longer a frog in a well. It is evolving into the breeding ground for Korean culture that is sweeping across the world and even rivaling Hollywood. Now Koreans face an important choice. Are we going to go back into the well chanting “Shi-Shi-Shikumuns?”
*The author has a PhD in political science and is the director of the Korean Wave Research Institute.
by Han Koo-hyun