Sustaining, expanding Korean wave
By Do Je-hae
Culture Minister Choe Kwang-shik recently handed out copies of “True Colors of Hallyu” (Maekyung Publishing) to all 700 officials of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism on April 23.
Since taking office in September 2011, Choe has placed the expansion of “hallyu,” or the Korean wave, at the forefront of his agenda. By distributing this book, he wants to send a message; this is no time to be complacent about the partial success of hallyu.
It cautions against hasty predictions that hallyu will become a major trend in the world’s cultural landscape. He presents a dozen surveys including one conducted among 3,600 people in nine countries (Brazil, China, Japan, France, Russia, Taiwan, Thailand, the United Kingdom and the United States) that signal ominous prospects for the future of the Korean wave.
More than 60 percent of the respondents said that hallyu will only last for the next five years of less. The limitations of the cultural trend are also apparent in consumer statistics. The book states that around 98 percent of hallyu-related exports remain inside Asia, with other regions such as Europe and the Americas taking a combined share of only 1.2 percent.
As a historian by profession, Choe is passionate about promoting the nation’s cultural assets overseas to expand and sustain the hallyu movement beyond the next few years.
“Let’s take the example of taekwondo, a Korean martial art. I believe that taekwondo is the earliest pioneer of hallyu and a benchmark example of hallyu dissemination,” Choe said. “If you visit a taekwondo training facility overseas — there are tens of thousands of them — you will see foreign trainees saluting our flag, reciting the Korean-language commands and counting in Korean.”
“After taekwondo came K-art, through which pioneers like Paik Nam-june, Lee Bul and Suh Do-ho gained global recognition. Then we saw the emergence of performing artists like ballerina Kang Sue-jin, soprano Sumi Jo and violinist Chung Kyung-wha, among others in Western classical music and ballet. The recent interest in Korean literature was possible thanks to the interest in Korea stemming from the achievements of these artists.”
The hallyu sweep outside Korea has had a considerable ripple effect on the nation’s economy and industries.
The economic value of hallyu-related products, such as TV dramas, and pop music for this year could amount to around 12 trillion won ($10.44 billion), a recent state research said. By 2020, it could reach $49.59 billion.
But experts, policymakers and the general public are becoming increasingly aware that the hallyu, or Korean Wave, faces a limited future, and that its popularity will subside within the next four to five years.
Seoul has recently announced measures to counter such concerns, with a focus on increasing partnerships with the local business sector and on developing marketable cultural content.
“The popularity of hallyu has boosted the overseas sales of our electronics, cars, foods, cosmetics, clothes, and etc. Hallyu is also impacting the way our companies market themselves overseas,” Choe said.
“As a result of such rising influence of hallyu on the business sector, we founded the Hallyu Support Council in cooperation with some economic organizations on April 27.”
Main business partners in the council include the Federation of Korean Industries (FKI); the Korea Chamber of Commerce & Industry; and the Korea International Trade Association.
Mix of old and new
Choe previously taught ancient Korean history at Korea University in Seoul before joining public service as the director of the National Museum of Korea in 2008. He also served briefly as the head of the Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea in 2011.
Reflecting his academic and professional background, the 59-year-old’s motto as a top cultural policymaker is taken from the words of Park Ji-won (1737-1805, also known as Yeonam), a leading Korean philosopher and noted novelist of the late Joseon period. Simply put, it means “learn from the old, yet be open to changes.”
This balanced mix of new and old is the overarching theme of most of the culture ministry’s major activities this year, the highlight of which is the 3-month long Korean cultural festival during the London Olympic Games (July 27-Aug. 12).
The government will host at London’s South Bank June 2-Sept. 9 a cultural event with the theme “All Eyes on Korea: Shining Bright, Korea Through Colors.”
The minister explained that Korea is the only country invited by the Southbank Centre in the U.K. capital to provide promotional festivities coinciding with the Olympics. An exhibition entitled “All Eyes on Korea” will run from June to September.
“What we will try to do in London is to show the best of Korea’s modern and traditional culture,” Choe said.
“Going into these Games, our focus is not entirely on the medal count as before. We are as committed to informing the world that Korea is not just an emerging economy, but a nation of rich tradition and history.”
“In Europe, people still associate us mainly with the Korean War (1950-1953) or North Korea. Ultimately, we hope to see this change,” he added.
Some of the minister’s own ideas have been incorporated into the Southbank program. “We will have a fashion show on July 29 to showcase masterpieces of Lie Sang-bong, one of the hottest designers from Korea today. Reflecting my suggestion, the stage for this show will be decorated with a traditional Korean roof.”
Renowned Korean musicians such as soprano Jo, violinist Sarah Chang and pianist Kim Sun-wook will give performances, while events to showcase Korean literature, films, “pansori” (Korean opera), food and K-pop will take place as well.
In a similar vein, the ministry will initiate culture and tourism promotion during the Yeosu Expo, which continues until Aug. 12.
One of the most important tourism initiatives this year is to mark the 10th anniversary of the templestay program, first introduced by the government to accommodate foreign tourists during the 2002 FIFA World Cup co-hosted by Korea and Japan.
Yeosu and its home province of South Jeolla and adjacent areas are home to some of the nation’s oldest and most scenic temples.
A devout Buddhist since his 20s, Choe has been vocal about promoting Korean Buddhism as one of the key traditional assets of Korea to the outside world. He previously organized an exhibition of Buddhist art works from the Goryeo Kingdom (918-1392) while he was serving as the head of the National Museum of Korea.
“It is true that Korean Buddhism, despite its 1,700-year history, is not as well known around the world, compared with Buddhism from Japan or Tibet. There were historical and political reasons that helped the dissemination of Japanese or Tibetan Buddhism,”Choe said.
“With the templestay program and the efforts to globalize our Buddhism gaining further momentum, I hope to see it grow in popularity and recognition around the world.”
On the sidelines of the Yeosu Expo, the World Fellowship of Buddhists Korea Conference will be held in Yeosu from June 11 to 16 in six different temples in the South Jeolla region.
Landmark construction projects
During the latter half of the year, the nation will see the opening of several landmark construction projects, particularly the Korea History Museum in October in central Seoul situated right next door to the U.S. Embassy.
Museums have been central to the development of Choe’s career. Prior to joining public service, he had been the director of the Korea University Museum from 2000-2008.
Choe has taken a keen interest in the construction of the Korea History Museum, which he expects to be “a place to instill pride in all Koreans about how much the nation has achieved since the end of World War II.”
A chronic problem with implementing cultural policy objectives has been budgetary limitations.
“An advanced national budget model would spend more on culture and creative industries. For us, the budget is simply too meager. Only about 1.14 percent of the national budget has been allocated for culture,” Choe said.
“Entering the ranks of an advanced nation will not be possible for Korea unless we start spending up to at least 2 percent of our national budget on advancing our culture,” he said.