Korea's top culture stories of 2018: A look back at why the Me Too Movement, inter-Korean relations and, of course, BTS dominated the headlines this year
Whether you call them artists or idols, 2018 was definitely the year of BTS, the seven-member K-pop act whose global popularity reached even higher heights than they had the previous year, breaking records and achieving milestones never before reached by Korean musicians.
BTS's global popularity was first recognized in 2017, when they took home the Top Social Artist award at the Billboard Music Awards. Their streak of success continued this year, with their songs “Fake Love” and “IDOL” both placing in the top 20 of the Billboard 100 singles chart. Even now, their album “Love Yourself: Answer” sits on the Billboard 200 chart, its 16th week in a row.
The music video for "Fake Love" hit 400 million views and the video for "IDOL" is not far behind with over 300 million views. Thanks to their massive global visibility, the group wrote K-pop history with feats never achieved before, like speaking at the United Nations General Assembly.
Following the success of their documentary “Burn the Stage: The Movie,” which was released Nov. 11, the group plans to release another film on Jan. 26, titled “Love Yourself in Seoul.”
The group's “Love Yourself” world tour which kicked off in August, sold out all 33 of its shows in 16 countries. BTS stormed the charts all over the world and spread hallyu (Korean Wave) to the furthest corners of the globe with their catchy songs and choreography.
Their success was shared by other K-pop stars, who also gained attention globally this year.
Boy band NCT 127 landed at No. 86 on the Billboard 200 album chart, the second-highest appearance for a male K-pop band. Girl groups Blackpink and Twice also performed strong internationally, along with boy bands Super Junior, GOT7, Monsta X and mixed-gender group KARD.
It was a year filled with unprecedented feats for BTS, but also a strong foundation for the future of K-pop to build upon.
Early this year, the Me Too movement struck the entertainment world with a string of alleged victims accusing once-prominent cultural figures of sexual assault and discrimination.
The movement kicked off when prosecutor Seo Ji-hyeon appeared on the JTBC program “Newsroom” on Jan. 29 and accused a superior of groping her at a funeral in 2010.
Victims then started to come forward and many took their cases to court. One of the earliest high-profile theatrical figures to be accused was theater director Lee Youn-taek who was sentenced to six years in prison in September for sexually assaulting a number of members of his theater troupe several times beginning in 2010. Theater writer and director Oh Tae-seok and director of the musical “The Last Empress,” Yun Ho-jin, were also accused of abusing their power to sexually assault their juniors.
Poet Ko Un, once a strong candidate for the Nobel Prize for literature, now has his name and poems erased in Korean textbooks after he was accused of sexually harassing a number of female literary figures.
In the film sector, renowned actors including Oh Dal-su, Cho Jae-hyun and Jo Min-ki were similarly alleged for their sexual misconduct and have been laying low since the accusations.
Jo, however, surprised the public when he committed suicide in March, a few days before his scheduled meeting with police regarding his alleged sexual harassment of his students at Cheongju University.
Other prominent figures caught by the movement include film director Kim Ki-duk and singer Kim Heung-gook.
South Korea has 20 items on Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. But the most recent addition, ssireum, or traditional Korean wrestling, is the first heritage to be recognized by Unesco as an item that jointly belongs to both South and North Korea. The decision was made at Unesco’s 13th Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage held late November in Port Louis, Mauritius.
The committee, composed of 24 member states, held an emergency meeting on the first day of the gathering and unanimously agreed to add traditional Korean wrestling to the list.
As soon as the announcement was made, South Korea was in a celebratory mood as the country had long been making efforts to list this particular traditional cultural heritage that the two Koreas share along with North Korea in an attempt to show the world that, despite the division between the two, there’s only one Korea when it comes to cultural heritage.
Chung Jae-suk, the chief of the Cultural Heritage Administration, who was in Port Louis said, “Nov. 26 is a meaningful day as North and South Korea got to realize small, yet meaningful unification of our cultural heritage.”
Meanwhile, the two Koreas currently each have two of the same cultural traditions separately registered on the list, including the famous folk song “Arirang,” as well as the culture of making and sharing kimchi.
To mark the event, the Cultural Heritage Administration held a friendly ssireum match, pictured below, between South Korean wrestler Ji Dae-hwan and North Korean wrestler Hwang Seok, who defected to the South, on Dec. 20 at Jangchung Arena in central Seoul.
Inter-Korean relations shine in galleries
With inter-Korean relations quickly improving, North Korea was the biggest theme in the South Korean art world in 2018, with many exhibitions including the nation’s two biggest biennales focusing on North Korean art and South Korean artists’ works about the situations of the two Korea.
At the 2018 Gwangju Biennale, one of the world’s major art biennales, which ran from September to November, 11 curators on seven teams created seven exhibitions under a multiple curator system. One of the shows, “North Korean Art: Paradoxical Realism” curated by BG Muhn, was the talk of the town in particular. It featured North Korean collective paintings, produced by a group of artists at the Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang, shown in South Korea for the first time. Including the five-meter-wide (16.4 feet) "Youth Storm Troopers” (pictured below), which depicts young workers at a construction site, most of the paintings had the conventional style of socialist realism. While some said the paintings were no more than propaganda, others said it was refreshing to see such a literal painting in a flood of avant-garde art.
The 2018 Busan Biennale, whose period overlapped with the Gwangju Biennale, was themed “Divided We Stand.” Many artists presented works about the conditions of the division of the Korean Peninsula and possible reconciliation.
Many other exhibitions dealt with inter-Korean relations, including “Gaeseong Industrial Complex,” held over the summer at Culture Station Seoul 284, which presented works showing diverse perspectives about the joint industrial complex the two Koreas which opened in 2004 and was suspended in 2016.
Korea's literature community was dominated by talk of feminism and women’s rights throughout 2018. “Kim Ji Young Born in 1982” by Cho Nam-joo, published in 2016, continued to be a consistent best seller and reached the one million copies sold mark. The latest book to sell over a million copies in Korea was Shin Kyung-sook’s “Please Look After Mom,” in 2009.
The book, which describes the life of a woman and how she is affected by gender discrimination in society, gets mentioned whenever there is talk about women's rights issues in the country.
However, the growing attention towards feminism created backlash from those who felt their rights were being neglected and spurred social division. New words like namhyeom - hatred towards men - and yeohyeom - hatred towards women - became part of common vernacular. These words were used to describe those supporting women’s rights as someone who hates men, and vice versa.
Another word that saw its usage increase over the year is hannam, a shortened term for a Korean man. The particular word started to have a negative connotation when some people began using the term to describe certain Korean men who are insensitive toward issues of feminism.
Yes24, the online book retailer, found itself in hot water in December after it sent out its regular newsletter to subscribers with a title “How could you be so hannam?” to promote an interview it had with an author.
In response, people took to social media to argue that the retailer was showing bias against men, and soon after, the company released an official apology.
Thanks to the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, Korea was about to show of the diversity of its culture outside of the already globally popular K-pop music and TV dramas.
One of the most eye-catching moments was when Inmyeonjo, which translates to “human-faced bird,” made an appearance during the opening ceremony of the Olympics. The bird was a massive puppet of a mythical bird from ancient Korean mythology which dates back to the Goguryeo Kingdom (37 B.C.-A.D. 668).
The bird is known as “the legendary bird of peace” and “the mediator between heaven and earth,” according to the Olympic organizing committee. The puppet used for the ceremony was about two times taller than an average human, and was manned by four people. It created an instant buzz on social media and spawn a great deal of fan art, many of which went viral.
During the Olympics, there were other cultural events around Gangwon, where the events were held, to entertain international visitors looking for other entertainment between sporting events.
"Cheongsan Byeolgok" was a media art show held at the Solhyang Arboretum in Gangneung, where most of the ice sport competitions were being held. It blended technology with nature so that the colors of lights and the stars created harmony during the night.
The Korea National Ballet also offered a modern ballet performance inspired by Joseon-era (1392-1910) female poet Heo Nan-seol-heon during the games, while the K-pop World Festa presented some K-pop performances to those looking to hear some of their favorite K-pop songs in person.
Perhaps it was the popularity of the period drama “Mr. Sunshine” or a tactful strategy by the current government: Either way, the second half of the year was filled with the Korean Empire (1897-1910).
For many Koreans, the short history of the Korean Empire, only 13 years, is a period they are not entirely proud of.
King Gojong (1852-1919) self-proclaimed the country an empire despite not ruling any other nations, and the period proceeded Korea being colonized by Japan for the next 35 years.
But thanks to how the period has been depicted in a recent drama as well as at numerous art exhibitions, many began to reconsider the dark history and acknowledge its significance.
TvN’s “Mr. Sunshine,” created by celebrated screenwriter Kim Eun-sook and starting veteran actor Lee Byung-hun began airing on both local television and on Netflix with English subtitles beginning in July. A total of 24 episodes wrapped up with high ratings, and attracted fans for its music, and traditional attire.
Soon after the drama came to an end, the Cultural Heritage Administration opened the “King’s Road” located by Deoksu Palace in central Seoul, which is a part of King Gojong’s escape route that he took in 1896 to take refuge at the Russian Legation, fleeing from Japanese troops.
The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art also organized an exhibition at its Deoksugung annex building, shedding light on the art of the Korean Empire. At Deoksu Palace’s Seokjojeon Hall, an exhibition on the clothing of the Korean Empire also recently wrapped up.
“Bohemian Rhapsody,” released in October, tells the story of British rock band Queen and its lead singer Freddie Mercury. But the film’s performance here in Korea far outperformed any expectations, grossing even more here than in Britain.
The movie depicts the band's rise and struggles, with a particular spotlight on Mercury.
Though the film initially had a moderate box office performance when it hit theaters on Oct. 31, its ticket sales started to gain momentum due to positive word-of-mouth and the addition of sing-along events in theaters at multiplex cinema chains like CGV. The sing-along theaters invited audience members to clap, stomp and sing along to the band’s songs throughout the entire running time.
Following the film's popularity, Megabox held a special screening on Nov. 24 to commemorate the 27th anniversary of Mercury's death.
The film climbed up the box office ladder several times over its run in theaters. In its seventh weekend, the film, which had fallen slightly due to highly-anticipated local release like “Default,” topped the box office again, which made Korea the film's second highest-grossing market after North America.
Despite positive reviews from fans both in Korea and abroad, as seen by the slew of nominations the film has received, like the two Golden Globes nods, film critics have been critical about the quality of the film, citing a weak script and the simplicity of the story’s development.
Directed by Bryan Singer of the “X-Men” series, the film stars Lucy Boynton and Gwilym Lee, with Rami Malek playing Mercury.
From K-pop dance covers to mukbang (a portmanteau of Korean words for "eat" and "broadcast"), cosmetics and pets - YouTube has quickly become the platform that brings together people with similar interests. Korean YouTubers found remarkable success in 2018, with many seeing their subscribers increased and views skyrocket.
In November, J.Fla - best known for her cover videos of pop songs like Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” and Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito” - surpassed 10 million subscribers, making her the first local independent YouTuber to hit that number in Korea. Since she first started uploading videos on YouTube in 2011, J.Fla has become known for her appealing vocals. She surpassed guitarist Jung Sung-ha in total subscribers in March. Jung, who now holds Korea's No. 2 spot, has also long been popular for his cover videos and currently has more than five million subscribers.
Makeup artist Park Hye-min - known by her channel name Pony - claims the No. 3 spot. Once the makeup artist for singer CL, a former member of the girl group 2NE1, Pony is known for her high-quality makeup tutorials.
Other remarkable individual YouTubers include Banzz, who uploads mukbang videos in which he devours huge amounts of greasy food while ironically maintaining a healthy, muscular body.
YouTube channel CreamHeroes became one of the platform's rising stars this year. The creator, who lives with seven cats, shares cute videos about life with his pets. According to YouTube, CreamHeroes was one of the fastest growing Korean YouTube channels during the first half of 2018.
Several entertainers, including popular actor Jung Woo-sung, became targets for internet warriors this year following controversial political comments.
After raising his voice in support of the several hundred Yemeni refugees that arrived on Jeju island in June, Jung, also Korea’s goodwill ambassador to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), received harsh criticism online.
Those who commented castigated Jung for his stance, saying that he was being hypocritical since he lives in a fancy neighborhood away from where the refugees would live, and doubted his understanding of refugee matters due to his low education level.
Despite the criticism, Jung’s stance remained unchanged, saying that “asylum seekers are human beings who have the right to be protected.”
Another celebrity who attracted public ire was Kim Je-dong. The entertainer, who has not been reluctant about voicing his liberal political opinions, has been hosting the KBS late news show, “Tonight - Kim Je-dong,” since September.
The public broadcaster made the decision in a bid to widen its appeal to viewers by looking at major issues and explaining them in an easy way. The show airs from 11 p.m. from Monday to Thursday.
The show instead garnered negative reviews from the public as well as a number of politicians, who expressed their displeasure with show’s lack of political neutrality, a quality people expect from a public broadcaster. The show was recently under fire for praising North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for making economic progress in the country and for being different from Korean politicians.
Another matter that audience members found problematic is how much Kim is assumed to earn from the show. KBS has refused to reveal the amount Kim is receiving for hosting the program, and in response, some took to social media to say that they would not pay subscription fees to the public broadcaster.
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