Roald Maliangkay on soft power, street cred and the Korean Wave
The Korean Wave did not so much creep up as deluge us with its wildness, banality and sheer chutzpah. It is hard to pin down what it says about the society from which it suddenly emerged and perhaps this is the point.
Inside Seoul’s metro it is easy to find an empty bench outside rush hour. The countless underground passages offer a welcome break from the vanity-driven commerce above, though it is increasingly moving downstairs, so the reprieve may be temporary. At City Hall station, one of the busiest interchanges, you would nevertheless find yourself accompanied by the upper half of a cute rabbit, cat, or violin-playing piglet. Text underneath, in English and Korean, will assure you that “you are not alone”, with an extra line in Korean explaining, “I’m next to you after all”. It is the eighth installation of an initiative called Street Gallery that tries to bring art closer to the people, away from the confines of galleries and museums.
It showcases the work of young artists, mostly graphic designers, available for sale – mostly in cute smartphone case or designer toy form – on the agency’s website. These particular figures are accompanied by a video that shows a split screen with a glum-looking young man on the one side, and an equally dispirited young woman on the other walking onto a platform. As they each board a train, the on-screen text reads, “another day like yesterday ... left alone again in the crowd”. But when they disembark and sit down on one of the benches, the two find themselves amused by one of the cute figures. They smile and take selfies and when they stand up they have a chance encounter. The installations are intended as valves for the pressure cooker that is South Korean society. The economic powerhouse the country has become has fuelled tensions and anxieties, which the Korean Wave has arguably exacerbated.
In 1999, the government began to endorse the promotion of Korean pop entertainment abroad by way of law amendments, government subsidies and tax incentives. Its intention was to generate revenue, and bolster the nation’s soft power. Although there was already considerable interest in Korean dramas, movies and teenage pop dance acts overseas, the government support provided a major boost and saw exports increase exponentially. By the mid 2000s, the Wave was sweeping through countries across the world. It provided new opportunities for existing talent and saw star-making enterprises growing their own: young singers began to model and act, and actors began to model and sing.
The force of the Wave and the vast number of idols led to a cult of celebrity that now ties most consumption in Korea to the emulation of some on-screen look or lifestyle. Model turned heartthrob actor So Ji-sub explains in one ad why this particular robot vacuum cleaner is the one for you, and in another why that bra will provide you with the ultimate in comfort. The Wave-induced beauty ideal may have Western elements, but its features are unquestionably Korean. For those wishing to be as attractive as So, or attract someone like him, a cosmetic surgery paradise is just around the corner, in the district made famous by that horse-riding music video. In a country where men and women are under enormous pressure to secure the ideal date or job, and CVs are expected to include a photograph, clinics nip and tuck away the undesirable, as well as, perhaps, people’s self-esteem more broadly.
At the same time, Korea is doing its utmost to defend its economic position, with national branding as its cultural weapon of choice. Hoping to bolster Korean enterprise by fostering admiration for Korean feats, it seeks UNESCO recognition of countless heritage sites, customs and products. Sociopolitical issues may continue to mar the national image in places where the Wave hasn’t swept away locals, but the worldwide consumption of Korean products is a fact, leaving considerable potential for further growth. Extreme pressure on students, high suicide rates, gender inequality, and corruption never affected Japan’s soft power, and they are therefore unlikely to affect that of Korea. Too obvious public or corporate involvement, on the other hand, will make audiences feel manipulated, so maintaining a degree of individualism and idiosyncrasy is essential. In China and Japan, where consumption of Korean popular entertainment shows no signs of abating, Korea’s rating dropped by 14 to 17 per cent in recent years, due in part to criticism of its products being repetitive and formulaic. The K-pop industry has taken note and has made an attempt to introduce a dash of attitude into the groups they churn out. After all, even the most conformist of consumers want their fad to appeal to their sense of individualism.
After more than a decade of being relegated to the virtual underground, indie bands are increasingly finding their way into the mainstream. Rather than K-pop’s offer of perfectly synced fashion skits to pre-arranged tracks, bands like Broken Valentine and Guckkasten create their own music and lyrics. In Seoul’s indie nexus of Hongdae, a growing number of people come to endorse their offerings. The surrounding area is a hub for creativity in myriad form: fashion, graphic art, designer toys, and interior design. But as conglomerates begin to invest in the local scene in a bid to add street cred to their operations, it appears that commerce is moving underground once again. One can only hope more and more young artists will be able to escape its conservative confines.
Despite the importance and undeniable attraction of the Street Gallery initiative, it must compromise to use the public spaces, which it therefore often fails to associate specifically with the local culture. A bold vision and the courage to take risks would remedy this. And they might generate soft power among those unaffected by the Wave.
Roald Maliangkay is head of the Department of East Asian Studies and convener of the Korean Studies program in the Research School of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University, Canberra.