A black eye
The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The new album by BTS is a hit around the world. “Map of the Soul: 7,” the fourth full-length album by the group, was released last week and hit the top of the iTunes Top Albums charts in 91 countries across the world including the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Russia, Japan, Brazil and Saudi Arabia. It is the most successful record for BTS yet. The title song, “ON,” topped the Top Song chart by iTunes in 83 countries. In addition to “ON,” most other songs in the new album — such as “Filter” and “Louder than Bombs” — were ranked in the Top Song charts in the United States and Britain.
Although U.S. President Donald Trump complained about the multiple Oscar awards won by the Korean movie “Parasite,” it continues to record box office success. According to Box Office Mojo, a website that tracks box office revenues, “Parasite” recorded $48.9 million in revenues in North America. That is the fourth highest for foreign-language films released in North America after “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Life Is Beautiful” and “Hero.” The movie earned over $155.6 million in other parts of the world, recording a total of $204.6 million in global revenues. And that is only the beginning.
In Japan, “Parasite” is breaking records. Since its release on Jan. 10, 2.2 million people watched the movie there. The box office exceeded 3 billion yen ($27 million), ranking the top among all Korean movies released in Japan.
“The genre is BTS. That’s the genre we want to make and the music that we want,” BTS said in an interview. It created a new genre. Director Bong Joon-ho also created his own genre. In “Parasite,” drama, comedy and elements of a thriller are all mixed. He has reached a new creative stage with his own unique vision.
Language is no longer a barrier in consumption of cultural content as we see from the successes of Korean-language films and music in the global market. If movies or TV shows are fun, attractive and relevant, consumers are willing to accept the inconvenience of reading subtitles. With music, language can be irrelevant, although it has to be said that BTS is so popular that some of its foreign fans go so far as to learn the Korean language. In the era of supranational cultural content consumption, Korea is showing off its competitiveness. The explosive demand for the Korean cultural content is well reflected in Netflix, the streaming service of choice for so many modern consumers. Korean TV shows and movies are increasingly offered on that service.
Hallyu, or the Korean Wave of cultural content, started with K-pop and expanded to TV shows, beauty products and food. Now Korean movies are cool. Korea has become a cultural icon. More and more people are learning the Korean language, and being able to speak Korean and enjoying Korean food have become “in.” It has become a new fashion among youngsters from around the world to visit Korea and post photos on Instagram of themselves wearing hanbok (traditional Korean dress) and eating Korean food.
Attention to Korean culture has also elevated the brand values of Korean products. Televisions, washing machines and smart phones produced in Korea have long been desired as the best products. As cool images of Hallyu were added to their excellent qualities and designs, it created a synergy effect between Korean culture and our economy. This was possible because the companies produced products and content attractive to the world based on creativity and an aggressive global strategy that speedily accommodated trends in the digital era.
And yet, the government’s poor handling of the new coronavirus outbreak has given Korea a black eye. It now has the second most infections and deaths after China. A Korean airplane was turned back from Israel. The media in China, the epicenter of the outbreak, criticized Korea for its poor handling of the crisis. The national prestige elevated by “Parasite” and BTS was tarnished by the government’s failure.
The rigid policies of the Moon Jae-in administration, captivated by ideology and factionalism, helped fuel the outbreak. Even Chinese media are calling for Korea to come up with preemptive and bold measures, but the government did not stop the entry of travelers from China because it is afraid of angering Chinese President Xi Jinping. Economics are important and diplomacy is important. But the most important thing of all is the people’s safety.
The Moon administration failed to properly prioritize its goals, and the people are pushed to greater risks. Politics are obstructing the Korean people. If there are no unnecessary intervention and regulation from politics, Korea can do way better in the economy and culture. Korea is doing great — except for its politics.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 25, Page 31