A Korean Wave reality checkAre we truly as global as we think we are? Is Hallyu really a wave of culture sweeping the world? Or are we just trying to make ourselves feel better about the immense efforts we make for Hallyu? Or something in between?
Nowadays, Koreans celebrate what is believed to be the success of Hallyu, spreading Korean culture throughout the world. Whether on KBS, MBC, SBS or Arirang TV, you can’t turn on the radio or TV without hearing the word Hallyu multiple times in an hour. The spread of K-pop, K-dramas and K-culture through Latin America, the Middle East, Europe, Southeast Asia and pockets of North America has indeed been witnessed. Dae Jang Gum and Psy are known even in the Kalahari.
And let’s also acknowledge some facts that have helped drive the success of Korean dramas and pop music worldwide, but also apply to other countries as well (like Turkey). Ultrafast Internet. The smartphone revolution. Increased demand from ever-hungry consumers. Good production value and great story content. And Koreans, while having great production and content, do not hold a monopoly on creativity, production value, good stories and good-looking people.
We Koreans are a proud people. We have worked hard to share Korea with the world. While once a closed country, a nation having fought for independence from several giant nations, this nation of more than 50 million has risen from the ashes of a devastating war to become a country that has virtually left all traces of the third world behind and is now a first world country. An amazing feat indeed.
I dare say that Hallyu and Korea are still far from being known in every corner of the world, despite the best efforts of pop music groups, chaebol, government initiatives and unofficial cultural ambassadors. Yes, we’ve seen the statistics. Record sales of high-end electronics, cars, music albums, DVD sets and even Psy socks from Itaewon. However, forget the numbers for a minute.
The litmus test for me regarding a true infusion of Korean culture worldwide and in order for Hallyu to really be a world phenomenon and sensation for those outside of Korea (not just an internal, domestic frenzy) is to not be asked a simple question. I get asked this question all the time when I am outside Korean borders. This question is asked by college-educated, smart, successful people.
When I tell people that I live in Korea or that I am from Seoul, five of 10 will ask, “So, is that North or South Korea?”
Shocked? Dismayed? Appalled? Unbelievable?
Well, believe it. If Hallyu is as all media outlets would have you believe, should I still be getting questions like this from anyone, ever? I’m not even talking about some rural area of Mexico or Arkansas. Some people don’t even know that Korea is a country. Many foreigners are surprised when I tell them that their cellphone or car is Korean. They thought it was Japanese or even Swedish. You might want to criticize these people (or me) and say, “Oh, where did you meet these ignorant people?” yet sadly, at least know that Korea is divided in two.
The truth hurts.
I have had the experience numerous times in my travels of having to be an unofficial ambassador of Korea, telling people about Korean history, cuisine, fashion, art, music and, sometimes, politics. I love my job as a TV talk show host for Arirang, being able to share stories about amazing Koreans and people with a unique tie to Korea, reaching 100 million households as of 2012. I feel blessed that I do for a living what I love to do personally.
However, even in 2013, my latest trip to San Francisco where there is a significant Asian population, people asked me whether I lived in South or North Korea. Smart, Silicon Valley, college-educated people making over $200,000 a year. While their questions seem ridiculous to those of us living here and knowing the obvious difference, this points out that Hallyu still has a very long road ahead.
And dare I say that we have our chubby neighbor (and his father and grandfather) in the North bringing more international attention to this peninsula than the horse-dancing Psy ever could. But they say that even bad attention is good PR. And how ironic that both Psy and Mr. Kim up north have become international superstars by just being themselves, without plastic surgery or having to lose weight. Perhaps we should have Girls Generation gain 10 kilograms (22 pounds) each and see what happens. Maybe then the farmer in rural Arkansas will know that K-pop is from South Korea, not the North.
* The author is Host of Arirang TV’s talk show “The INNERview” and executive director of The Padma Institute.
by Susan Lee MacDonald