[Column] Add wings to K-culture

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[Column] Add wings to K-culture

Kim Chang-gyu

The author is an economic news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

In the lyrics of “The Load-Out/Stay,” a popular song in my college days, there’s a line, “We’ve got Richard Pryor on the video.” The 1977 song written by American singer-songwriter Jackson Browne captures the real story behind a lonely band moving from town to town. I wondered why a person’s name appeared in the lyrics.

Today, you can instantly click and find who he is. But not in those days. I searched his name in the library after browsing through Who’s Who, encyclopedias and a bunch of magazines. Finally, I found who he was. Richard Pryor (1940~2005) was a famous stand-up comedian and actor active from the 1960s to the 80s in the United States. Later, I smiled at news that his 1979 performance would be released on Netflix pretty soon.

Cultural content transcends time and space. Actors, actresses and comedians who entertained your parents and grandparents make happy their offspring today. The popularity of Hallyu, or the Korean wave, is nearly explosive. Likewise, the world’s top content, wherever it came from, instantly reaches other parts of the globe. On Netflix, Korean productions are even competing with one another to get to the top.

In Walmart, customers hear K-pop, and in downtown London, Hallyu exhibitions are held to help satisfy the British people’s appetite for unique content such as Korean folk songs, the history of the astonishing wave and even colorful LED cheer sticks popular among the young in Korea. Some British youngsters reportedly came to fear missing out (FOMO) over K-content. When Squid Game was at its peak, the British even enjoyed mimicking iconic scenes in the hot survival drama series on Netflix.

Partly thanks to the popularity of K-content, Korea itself has become a powerful brand. A case in point is Korean language. According to CNN, Korean ranked 7th in Duolingo, a language-learning app used by 500 million people. English, Spanish and French ranked first, second and third, and Chinese fell behind Korean.

A culture authority attributed the phenomenon to “the evolution of Korean into a global communication language in tandem with the popularity of Hallyu.” In the past, he said, Korean language was mostly used by ethnic Koreans living overseas, but today, an increasing number of foreigners started to learn Korean after the vast spread of K-culture.

The Economist analyzed that Korean webtoons are driving out Japanese manga from the market thanks to their timely emergence in the digital age. The magazine forecasted that the size of the global webtoon market led by Korea will exponentially expand to $56 billion by 2030 from the current $3.7 billion. (In the meantime, the size of the global manga market shrank to $1.9 billion in 2021, down 2.3 percent from the previous year.)

The wishes of the great independence fighter Kim Ku (1876-1949) seem to have been realized finally. In an essay he wrote during the Japanese occupation period, he said, “I want Korea to become the most beautiful country in the world. I don’t want it to become the wealthiest and most powerful country. As we painfully suffered an aggression from other country, I don’t want my country to invade other country. If our wealth is sound enough to satisfy people’s needs — and as long as our military power is strong enough to defend against aggression from outside — that is enough. What I want to have limitlessly is cultural power at high levels as that power makes us — and others — happy.”

Nevertheless, I can hardly dispel a sense of anxiousness. What helped Korea become a main actor in the global stage was a humongous platform. Netflix delivered K-dramas stuck in Asia to living rooms around the world. The success of K-culture owed much to the perfect match of Netflix’s need to find exotic, non-U.S. content and Korea’s desire to advance in the global market through online platforms. But Netflix invests in a number of other countries as well. If the popularity of Hallyu fizzles out, Netflix will turn its ears and eyes to them.

BTS communicated with hoards of fans through social media platforms and YouTube. K-culture has no means to propagate its contents other than through a few established distributors nearly monopolizing the market. No matter how creative and attractive content Korea produces, it can hardly withstand pressure from those platform titans. That sounds alarms for the country to develop — and successfully launch — a comprehensive and integral platform to meet the growing demands from Koreans and foreigners — if we really want Korea to become the “beautiful country” the great independence fighter wished to see while alive.
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