(488) Country of Taekwondo
By Andrei Lankov
In recent years, one of the favorite topics of the Korean media has been that of hallyu, the craze for all things Korean, which in the recent decade or so has engulfed many countries of East Asia.
But what about Russia, my native country? Has hallyu reached the shores of the Black and Baltic seas? At first glance it appears that so far hallyu has not reached Moscow or Petersburg. Major Russian free-to-air TV networks never show Korean serials (I am not so sure about cable networks), and Korean pop stars, despite their occasional concerts in Russian cities, remain virtually unknown to the Russian public. With the sole exception of cinema, the average educated Russian still remains unaware of modern Korean culture.
The situation is slightly different in Uzbekistan, and other countries of the now independent Central Asia, where Korean serials have been broadcast with some measure of success. However, nowadays these regions are increasingly different from Russia, and their interaction with Russia proper is very limited. There have been talks on buying some Korean TV dramas for the Ukrainian networks, but once again, Ukraine is an independent country now.
What are the reasons for this apparent absence of interest? Well, a special study would be necessary to answer this question, but I think that there are some obstacles to the spread of Korean popular culture in Russia.
First, I think that Korean cultural assumptions are remarkably different from those of the average Russian, especially younger Russians. I have had many opportunities to see that the typical reaction of the Russian viewer is that Korean movies are ``too sentimental'' and ``syrupy" (and TV dramas are even more so). Needless to say, popular Russian serials are melodramatic, too, but the style of melodrama is rather different. I would dare to say that the typical characters in a South Korean serial would probably be regarded as ``sentimental weaklings'' by the average Russian viewer.
Second, the Asian appearances of the actors, and serious differences in lifestyle and cultural values, prevent the Russian public from associating themselves with the characters of the serials and their problems. It is notable that South Korean serials have been introduced in those parts of the former USSR where a significant part of the population consists of Asians or those who are of mixed origin.
Third, the Russian Korean community, unlike the Korean communities of the U.S. or China, cannot serve as an efficient conduit for Korean cultural influence, since after 150 years of life in Russia, with little or no interaction with Korea these populations have lost touch with Korean culture and seldom speak Korean fluently (nowadays well over 90 percent of Russian Koreans are monolingual, speaking only Russian).
The situation with Korean cinema is different, and the Korean movies enjoy some limited success among a Russian audience. Movies such as Shiri, JSA, Bichunmoo, and My Wife is a Gangster have all been screened. They were shown in Russian theaters, earned some money on the movie market, and garnered some approval from film critics, although none of them could be counted a runaway success. In late 2006, I googled the Russian Net and found that there were 327,000 references to ``Korean cinema,'' while ``Chinese cinema'' was mentioned 2.1 million times (and ``French cinema'' 2.7 million times).
Kim Ki-duk's films have been a major hit among the educated Russian audience. However, in spite of his success among the highbrow public, Kim Ki-duk can hardly be seen as popular among the average cinema-going people (at all probability, the vast majority of them have never heard his name).
Korean pop music is hardly known in Russia at all, even though the popular tunes which dominate Seoul and Moscow have a lot in common. Potentially, Koreans might enjoy success, but it will require a large investment. Additionally, the perception of Asia and Asians, with the possible exception of Japan, as ``poor'' and ``backward'' by definition also undermines the chances of success for Korean pop groups.
Korean literature remains almost unknown, too. Back in the Soviet era, when the traditional literature of East Asia enjoyed surprising popularity in the then Soviet Union, a number of classical works of Korean fiction from the bygone centuries were translated into Russian. But modern literature largely remains unknown, the efforts of some translators and scholars notwithstanding.
Finally, one should mention the success of taekwondo in Russia. From the late 1970s, Russia has witnessed an explosive growth of interest in Asian martial arts, initially associated with karate. However, from around 1990 taekwondo's popularity increased and probably overtook that of karate. The cultural associations between Korean and taekwondo are quite clear, and for some younger Russians Korea is, first and foremost, ``the country of taekwondo.''
Thus for the average Russian, Korea is more likely to be associated with the big brands, like Samsung or LG. Indeed, the major Korean companies have achieved a remarkable success on the Russian market in recent years.
Prof. Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He has recently published ”The Dawn of Modern Korea,” which is now on sale at Kyobo Book Center and other major bookstores. The book is based on columns published in The Korea Times.