By Baek Byung-yeul
Korea in the past years has invested Herculean efforts to extend the international boom for its cultural exports, dubbed "hallyu" (the Korean wave). However, there are increasing arguments that the government should relax its aggressive marketing as foreigners seem to be showing signs of recoiling from the smell of nationalism.
A survey of more than 3,600 people from Asian countries, Europe, the United States and Russia by the Korea Foundation for International Cultural Exchange (KOFICE) showed 66 percent of the respondents predicting hallyu will become irrelevant as a commercial force in their countries within the next four years. More than 15 percent of them believed hallyu has reached that point already.
KOFICE, which conducted the poll in November last year and recently unveiled the results, observed that the popularity of Korean cultural products in Japan and China, which have been the centers of the hallyu boom, is dwindling rapidly.
The success of hallyu is critical in the minds of policymakers, who are desperate to extend the country's industrialization "myth" to culture when its manufacturers are struggling to keep up with their rivals in China and other developing nations, which can compete more ruthlessly on cost.
However, too much bureaucratic talk about cultural ''exports'' and not enough about cultural "exchanges," seem to have bred fatigue in hallyu-consuming countries.
"We all know how popular hallyu is and these cultural products can have far-reaching impact and potentially complement Hollywood as international products. However, the government is too involved in this picture and even Korean culture exporters are seeing this as heavy-handed," said Han Seung-bum, president of the Korean Wave Research Institute (KWRI).
"The government has been busy planning one-off events of every kind, but officials are only chasing immediate and tangible outcomes, and not looking at the long term picture. The government wants to be a player on the field when they are better equipped as cheerleaders. They should focus on creating an environment where these companies can exercise larger creative freedom, which means more institutional support and less restriction."
Hallyu began to take root in the late 1990s when Korea began finding international markets for its films, television shows and music. Then the soap opera, "Winter Sonata," aired on Japan's NHK television in 2003, touched off a national fever, and launched hallyu as an international phenomenon.
Korean cultural products have since found markets beyond Asia and garnered followings in the Middle East, Latin America and to a lesser extent North America and Europe.
However, KOFICE believes there are reasons to think that hallyu has already passed its peak.
In its survey, about 71 percent of Chinese respondents said they believe hallyu will be diffuse in their country within the next five years. About 24 percent of them said Korean cultural products no longer pass the coolness test.
Among Japanese respondents, 91 percent of them gave five years for hallyu to matter. About 30 percent of the respondents said they were already fed up because Korean dramas and pop music have become predictable and cliched.
The government has been consistently involved in efforts to expand the market for hallyu. Korean Cultural Centers, located in practically every country Korea has diplomatic relations with, are required to organize cultural events and other activities to assists hallyu exports and promote Korean culture.
Recently, the cultural center in in Washington organized a "hallyu camp," giving an opportunity for American students to visit Korea during their summer vacations and experience its culture first hand.
However, there are debates on whether these excessive promotions are working as prescribed.
"Look at the case of Psy. He is popular because global fans found something to enjoy in his music, not because the government made a decent argument that everybody should like him. The consumption of cultural products is voluntary," Han said.
‘한류’로 대변되는 한국의 문화 상품들이 그 동안 세계적으로 붐을 일으켜 왔지만, 정부의 과도한 한류 홍보 활동으로 인해 해외 국가들이 외려 거부감을 보이는 것으로 나타났다.
국제문화산업교류재단이 문화체육관광부와 지난해 11월 중국, 일본, 대만, 태국, 미국, 브라질, 프랑스, 영구, 러시아 등 총 9개 국가 3,600 명의 15세 이상 남녀를 대상으로 한 조사에서 66%의 응답자가 한류 지속 기간이 4년 이하라고 답했다. 한류 열풍은 이미 끝났다고 대답한 비율은 15%가 넘었다.
이 같은 부정적인 의견은 한류 콘텐츠의 최대 소비국인 중국과 일본에서 두드러졌다.
한류가 5년안에 없어진다고 대답한 비율은 중국인 응답자 중 71%였고, 작년 독도 분쟁으로 한류가 시들해진 일본은 91%에 달했다.
한류의 성공은 해가 갈수록 중국과 다른 개도국과의 거친 경쟁 환경 속에서 산업화 ‘성공신화’ 확장에 애로를 겪고 있던 정부 정책결정자들에게는 또 다른 매력적인 수출 품목으로 여겨졌으며, 정부 산하 기관들에 의해 각지에서 한류 붐을 일으키자는 취지로 많은 사업을 벌여 왔다.
그러나, 문화 콘텐츠의 ‘수출’에 대한 지나친 관료주의적 강박증은 ‘한류 소비국’들에게 피곤함을 낳게 했다는 평가다.
한승범 한류연구소 소장은 “한류가 국제적으로 인기 있는 문화상품이 된 것은 주지의 사실이다. 그러나 현재 정부 주도로 이루어지는 한류 관련 문화 상품들은 가시적인 성과를 위한 것일 뿐, 장기적으로는 한류 소비자들이 문화침략적인 요소로 받아들일 수 있는 소지가 다분하다”며 “정부가 축구장에서 뛰는 선수가 되려 하면 안 된다. 치어리더가 되어서 한류 콘텐츠를 생산하는 생산자들이 충분히 뛸 수 있는 시스템을 마련해주고, 규제와 간섭을 줄이는 등의 노력을 기울여야 한다”고 조언했다.
한 소장은 싸이의 경우를 예로 들며 '팬들이 자발적으로 싸이의 음악에서 새로운 재미를 발견한 것이다'라며, 정부가 주도하는 한류 홍보 사업에 부작용은 없는지 뒤돌아봐야 한다고 덧붙였다.