Hallyu and national prestige
As time flies like an arrow, changes take place so quickly. The current hallyu (Korean wave) fever sweeping parts of the globe including Europe will help boost the national image in the international community. Korea will become more familiar for the people in Europe where K-pop stars are wowing fans.
This reminds me of the early days of my family’s time in Cambridge, the United Kingdom, from February 2006 for a one-year stay as a fellow of the East Asia Institute (EAI) of Darwin College. In the first encounter with the owner couple of the house we rented, I was perplexed when middle-age British curiously asked several questions about my family and my nation, Korea.
The first question was “Do you have your own language?” The second one was “Do you have your own money?” Caught off guard, I remained speechless for a while. Soon I realized they were considering Korea as just a tiny land adjacent to bigger nations, China and Japan, possibly using their language and currency. I explained Korea was the 12th largest economy as a member of the OECD with its unique culture and 5,000 year-long history.
Worse still, many British people did not know that Korea co-hosted the 2002 World Cup with Japan mainly because the English team only played in Japan. Korea was an awfully little known country in England. An Irish man whom I met at a bar even described Korea as an exceedingly dangerous country, probably because of the incessant news on nuclear development bids by North Korea. I told him Korea is truly peaceful with peace-loving and warm-hearted people.
Such experiences hurt my national pride to some extent. I rushed to explore the situation on the understanding of Korea with regard to Korean studies at Cambridge, a top UK university. The situation in the libraries there was exactly in line with my concern with only an extremely small portion of Korea-related books and materials compared with a huge amount of information on China, Japan and India. I wrote articles for The Korea Times and reports to the Journalists Association of Korea on the matter. I urged Chong Wa Dae and then Overseas Information Agency (OIA) authorities to take appropriate measures to enhance the national image overseas.
The government convened meetings and decided to send booklets, CDs, tapes and other materials on Korea’s culture, politics, economy and history to 5,000 leading universities, institutes and organizations around the world. I was extremely pleased to find abundant material available at the EAI and main libraries of Cambridge University when I visited there later. I also contacted East Asia-related professors like John Swenson-Wright and Peter Kornicky to discuss ways of setting up a Korean studies course at the university in collaboration with the Korean Embassy in London. Consequently, the university managed to receive 500,000 pounds in support from the Korean Foundation for starting the course, which is currently a smooth operation.
Korea’s prestige has heightened over the past several years mainly thanks to steady economic growth despite lingering recessions in major economies. Its status also increased with the hosting of significant international events like the G20 summit. The current hallyu boom will surely add fuel to that.
More than 14,000 fans from around Europe flocked to see performances by Korean pop idols like Super Junior, Girls’ Generation, TVXQ, SHINee and f(x) during the “SM Town Live World Tour” in Parison June 10 and 11. The tickets sold out in only 15 minutes, and requests are flooding in for similar performances in many regions of Europe and other continents. Some fans repeat the songs in Korean and shout Korea’s World Cup cheer “Dae-han-min-guk!!
They like the Korean songs as they can feel the same sentiment of friendship, attachment and separation through good-looking singers with dazzling dance and stage movement, which the signers acquired after years of rigorous training and sophisticated Culture Technology (CT) as described by SM Entertainment’s founders and CEO Lee Soo-man.
In economic terms, the successful debut of K-pop stars will bring enormous benefit to the nation as their activities will help polish the image of the nation and its commodities, enabling companies to receive due prices. Wary of the negative image of Korea in relation to legacy of the Korean War, labor-management disputes and divided a nation, the enterprises previously avoided using the made-in-Korea brand. They preferred to put forward the names of leading businesses like Samsung and LG. Further success of K-pop stars will prompt companies to more proudly use the national brand in overseas markets.
It is possible that the K-pop fever will lose steam in a short period of time unless it is backed by strenuous efforts to be equipped with both uniqueness and universality. Wonder Girls of JYP failed to maintain an upward trend since it was unprecedentedly an Asian group listed among the top-100 in the Billboard Chart of the United States in 2009. Only few remember X-Japan, a rock band from Japan, which hit the American market in 1950s but faded away due to lack of efforts to meet the changing needs of the fans.