Riding on the K-wave

Written by Anirudh Vohra | Updated: Oct 26 2014, 08:09am hrs
The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture

Euny Hong

Simon & Schuster

Rs 299

Pp 288

THATS COOL is an expression we have all used at some point or the other. But here is a country that has made cool a policy: the government of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) has taken it upon itself to make the country cool. A country where the government not just spends on education and healthcare, but also on methods to raise the Cool Quotient (CQ) of the entire population.

If you own a Samsung phone or television, drive a Hyundai car, have listened to a PSY or K-pop track, watched a K-drama or a Korean movie, you are a part of this too. Ever wondered how South Korea crept up on Japan as the go-to Asian nation for electronics and pop culture Till 1965, South Koreas GDP was less than that of Ghanas. Today, South Korea is the worlds 15th largest economy and has the fastest Internet connection in the world. Clever and engaging, The Birth of Korean Cool attempts to explain South Koreas rapid journey from an impoverished nation to the economic powerhouse it is today.

The author, Euny Hong, was born in America, but returned with her family to her parents native South Korea at the age of 12 years, gaining a unique understanding of the culture as a citizen, as well as a foreigner. She writes with humour and candour about growing up in South Korea during the 1980s before the era of coolher shock at learning that the toilets were the squatting kind, her experience of eating cookies made of caramelised sugar and baking soda, braving mandatory school thrashings and other delightful discoveries.

She writes and argues persuasively that its not an accident. The countrys leadership has made the Korean wave the nations number one priority. For two decades, public and private grants have subsidised the domestic film industry, elevating the quality of Korean filmsthey now regularly appear at the Cannes. And in 2009, $90 million in stimulus and heavy copyright enforcements went towards helping the countrys musicians. The aim, of course, is to use this soft power, this idea of Korea as a brand, to sell more phones and cars.

Korean movies, K-pop music acts and TV shows, in particular, have received so much popularity that the export of Korean culture has its own name nowHallyu, the Korean wave. Broadcasters in Philippines have abandoned South American telenovelas in favour of Korean TV dramas, which air in Brazil, Argentina and Chile.

The country is driven, Hong explains, by han, a kind of rage at the injustice that is tended and stoked as an engine of productivity. Her brief chapter on Koreas han against Japan is a great and concise explanation of the two countries complicated and ancient feud. Han helped build South Koreas dynamic economy, as per Hongs belief, and it also makes Hallyu possible. K-pop is ill-famed for the 12-year development contracts its producers hand to teenagers and the rigorous rehearsal schedules of its young stars. That regimen is no different from a normal Korean childhood, Hong writes. When she asked to transfer to an international high school, her classmates assumed she was too lazy to take Koreas university entrance exams.

Two decades before China loosened the shackles of Maos controlling gospel and began its own climb out of poverty, its smaller neighbours were dazzling their own trails, demonstrating how poor agricultural countries with little in the way of exploitable natural resources could transform their economies and societies. Their capital was human and needed government support to realise its potential.

Today, Seoul, the South Korean capital, is one of the most modern cities on the planet, while North Korea, historically the more prosperous half of the Korean peninsula, lives on the edge of hunger. South Koreas rags-to-riches story was rapid and inevitably wrenching, achieved through a fierce discipline that included routine thrashing and bullying of schoolchildren, enforced patriotic shopping habits and a dedication to hard work. It also benefitted from the governments determination to overcome setbacks like the 1997 Asian financial crisiswhich hit South Korea hardwith creative planning for the future.

How was all this done With the same formula that had brought Samsung from the mediocrity of Samsuck to world leadership in mobile telephony: a focus on key sectors, with government support and investment. The government, for instance, wired the entire country for high-speed broadband and is now wiring every household with a one-gigabit-per-second connection, 200 times faster than the US average Internet speed. The first South Korean soap to make it abroad, What Is Love All About, was dubbed into Cantonese at government expense, smuggled into Hong Kong in a diplomatic bag in 1992 and secured its place on Hong Kong TV. South Korean companies were arm-twisted into buying up the advertising slots. Strict discipline and hard work apply equally in the world of Korean pop. A K-pop band does not come together in the parental garage: its members are rigorously trained for seven years before ever being allowed to perform in public.

After South Korean musician PSYs infectious 2012 dance number, Gangnam Style, K-pop has now become a popular genre of music, a movement in itself, with its distinctive style and fashion. Which is why the third edition of the K-Pop India Festival this year in Delhi was brimming with contestants and spectators alike.

Interesting and well-researched, the book is informative without being dry or boring. Hong interviews people in various aspects of South Korean government and society. The only drawback is the light treatment of a few topics that warrant a deeper investigation. Like, for instance, South Korea has the worlds highest rate of plastic surgeries, but this fascinating national preoccupation and its causes are only briefly discussed. This is a quick read, so dont expect an in-depth take on South Korean history and modern development.