Nov 112015


Korean cool book








As an important economist, Ha-Joon Chang the author of Bad Samaritans: The Myth Of Free Trade And The Secret History Of Capitalism, has argued partly utilizing his South Korean knowledge, a centrally designed and formulated economy is one which best serves growing or aspiring economies. Euny Hong’s The Birth Of Korean Cool is a concrete example of the successes of an actively interventionist government and the merits of concerted central planning. Euny Hong has likely not read Chang, but her book could easily be the entertainment corollary to Chang’s research.
That South Korean culture has made much progress in recent years is not news. Gangnam Style and PSY (which inspired the cover of the book), Rain, SNSD, Oldboy, My Sassy Girl and drama like Winter Sonata are famous the world over. Still, could South Korea become the number one exporter of pop culture, replacing the USA, as the Korean-American author reports from her country of birth?
Before continuing here are a couple of idiosyncrasies and oddities. The book begins with a statement that certain identifying characteristics, dates, places and other details of events have deliberately been changed. This is strange for a non-fiction book. Additionally, and for a book covering pop culture, there are not any photographs. One finds multiple grammatical and conventional mistakes peppered throughout the book. Page 7 reads, “government who has….” Page 11 notes that, “had forbidden my sisters and me…” Page 9 remembers that “when my family moved to Korea, in 1985,..” Moreover, Democratic People’s Republic Of Korea or North Korea might take umbrage with the constant reference to South Korea as “Korea.” The famous Korean penchant for cosmetic surgery also gets an airing. When describing the double eyelid surgery, in which the author has also partaken, one could not avoid feeling denial is at work. She claims her compatriots undergo this surgery not for Westerners or to look like them, but do so for themselves. Forgive my scepticism. At the very least, one could be undergoing the surgery for oneself too when one wants to look closer to a Westerner. Then there is the instance when she claims that K-pop is buttoned down… which K-pop has she been listening to and watching?

The Birth of Korean Cool is a fun and interesting page-turner that discusses South Korea’s determination to export its culture and the level of government involvement and public-private collaboration that is occurring. The book has much to say regarding the agility and sophistication it takes and the levels of horizontal and vertical integration in the ‘cultural’ industries of South Korea.
South Korea is aiming for “soft power” plan and has multiple five-year plans to successfully enact it. The effort has been going on for some five decades, but it received added prominence when the government determined to push Korean culture abroad even harder following the famous 1997 Asian crisis after which even the country’s mega-conglomerates (Chaebols) re-adjusted. Hong points out that unlike most countries South Korea has no military complex to rely on for growth or industrialization. Based on a 1953 treaty with the United States the country is barred from such activity. On page 98 under the title ‘The World’s Coolest…’ the author discusses the nerve centre of Hallyu or culture. According to the author a ministry in charge sounds dystopian – not really – but there indeed is a Ministry of Culture whose divisions coordinate and push cultural ‘technology’ like holograms, artificial rainbows, Korean designs, fireworks for use at concerts and more all with a buttoned down bureaucrat in charge. Nonetheless, or rather because of it, this sector of the South Korean economy is now a major revenue generator. The book attempts to explain its rapid growth from levels near zero.

Yes, there is a film five-year plan and a musical five-year plan and so forth. The book seems to confuse pop culture with technology such as microchips however. The book’s emphasis is on ‘hallyu’ or Korean popular culture, but it has no problems seamlessly transitioning from one sector to the other. The author theorizes that hallyu started with electronics. This is interesting, but again there is not much proof that LG, Samsung, Hyundai and other are drivers. However, if Hong means indirectly by earning the country revenue and making the investment and policies possible then she has a much better case.
The book leads the reader to a discussion of Confucianism and the concepts of national shame and Han, which could be described as a persistent and lingering fury and resentment. These notions drive the Koreans and are complicit in their quest. There is also reference to the stringent Korean education system with its intense requirements including rote memorization and after-school academics’ (Hakwon) custom. On page 47 the author recounts an amazing concentration exercise involving paper and chopsticks she has observed. Sign me up for a demonstration!
Han is especially targeted at Japan, which colonized Korea in the first half of the last century and whose cultural and technological exports are directly targeted by the South Koreans. Much of the endeavour and protectionism is directed at Japan and the West. With Japan earning its own section in the book the author discusses the other Asian cultural and economic giant. There are many valid and relevant points, but the reader has the nagging feeling that Hong suffers from confirmation bias. J-pop and the Japanese film industry are not quite as dead as the author contends. AKB48 is huge, Japanese films are popular the world over, Baby Metal is coming on strong, so on and so forth. In the same context, there is little discussion about how K-pop is largely South Korea’s take on Western music, dance and imagery. Korean food is correctly cited as popular in USA. It is claimed that is so largely due to one David Chang, the founder of the Momofuku chain. Aside from the wild exaggeration, omitted is the fact that the chain’s name is Japanese or how the chain doesn’t actually serve Korean cuisine. Moreover, when contrasting South Korea from Japan, the author notes the population of Japan to be 100 million strong. The number is actually 127 million. This maybe more than a mere error because Hong is distinguishing the two countries.
How are the five-year plans and interventionist government plans being executed? South Korea has deployed government economists to plan its invasion by country of export, offer detailed analyses and plan sector-by-sector advancement. The author contends that South Korea is well-positioned because, having until recently been a Third-World country, it understands what is needed and whom it is targeting.
Still there is much to criticize or, at least, take in with a punch of salt here. Page 248 has a surreal claim that there is ”no doubt” that the Korean effort is destined to go well. The USA helped South Korea and look what happened, remembers Hong. South Korea’ analogous approach to third-world countries will have a similar effect. The determination and prowess of the competition from France, Germany, Japan, China and persistence of US efforts to grow or maintain their influences and cultures have no bearing it seems. Could the Koreans really seriously penetrate the West given the language barrier? There is no denying that US’ (and Canada, Australia, UK, etc.) domination of popular culture has been partly due to the English language’s global dominance.
It is also predicted that hallyu will bring USA and South Korea together – such is its potency – although this like many other statements seems more perfunctory than rooted in data.

The South Korean Government has an investment fund of $1 billion allocated to this specific effort. Indeed, there are industrial divisions focusing on museums, pop music, opera, ballet and films too. As part of South Korea’s interventionist stance we learn of the grants the government allocates to its film industry. Of note, a full 50% of cinema receipts were directed to K-film. That is, foreign films’ success was subsidizing the domestic completion. One does wonder how global liberalizations – international rules such as GATT – ended up conspiring to remove and wind down such measures. Regardless, Korean films progressed both domestically and internationally due to a deliberate “National strategy” to make South Koreans films popular.

Lest, the point has not sunk in about how seriously the country is taking its goal Hong reports that one-third of that country’s venture capital is spent on the entertainment industry. Left unsaid, but important, is how private capital has a short-term view of things and it takes government mobilization to think long-term – as the Japanese did for decades. Tellingly, the author fails to mention that Japan’s progress in the twentieth century has made quite an impression on its eastern neighbour. Much of what South Korea is attempting is modelled after and inspired by the Japanese experience.

Here are a few interesting facts and figures found in the book:

• South Korea is the fifteenth largest economy in the world.
• Hallyu refers to Korean culture. Hansik refers to Korean food.
• Korean food features five tastes and kimchi is especially good with Korean rice which is that country’s staple and like many other things influenced by Confucianism of elements.
• The popular Korean alcohol soju could either be drunk or used to clean tables as it cuts through grease.
• Kim Jong-Nam, the older brother of current North Korea dictator Kim Jong-Un and a one-time heir apparent to that country’s throne, once tried to enter Japan on a Dominican Republic passport ostensibly to visit Tokyo Disneyland. He was deported.
• Finally, until two decades ago teachers used to routinely beat the students at school.

As hinted, the book comes occasionally across as a personal observation-cum-memoir, which translates into a fun read. Likely even the author wouldn’t call her own book a historical or scholarly study. A few tangents and seemingly unrelated history give The Birth Of Korean Cool context.
Aside from meandering, there is a fair bit of self-depreciation, nostalgia and humour in the biographical and other content’s context. When noting the discipline and hard work that constitutes the Korean regimen the author remembers her parents would wake her up to “watch the fucking sunrise.” The author confesses that she would rather undergo waterboarding than watch a highly celebrated South Korean ‘80s movie for example.
As the final phase and completion of South Korea’s transformation Hong mention that her birth country is developing a sense of irony. You must have wealth first before you could mock it!