‘Korean Cool’ is a government job

August 15, 2014
Euny Hong's "The Birth of Korean Cool," Picador.

Euny Hong’s “The Birth of Korean Cool,” Picador.

Euny Hong’s book drawing rave reviews

By Tae Hong

For a country that was once called the Hermit Kingdom, Korea has come a long, long way.

Everyone’s registered it: South Korea is cool. It’s The New Thing. It’s hip, fashionable, trendy.

The unlikeliest of countries, one whose GDP was on par with North Korea’s as recently as the 1970s, has so fast become the hottest center of pop culture worldwide that the phenomenon associated with its expansion has gotten its own name, Hallyu.

Euny Hong, a Korean American journalist who grew up in the now-world-famous Gangnam district in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, released “The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation Is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture,” last week, an at-times personal, at-times outsider exploration of how the 38,000-square-mile country is out to take over the world through fast beats and pretty boys.

In June, Psy’s “Gangnam Style” surpassed two billion views on YouTube, by far the most-watched video in the world. Justin Bieber’s “Baby” music video is not even close, trailing second with just half of those views, at one billion.

Euny Hong, author of "The Birth of Korean Cool." (Courtesy of Euny Hong)

Euny Hong, author of “The Birth of Korean Cool.” (Courtesy of Euny Hong)

Two years ago, when the horse-dancing, sunglasses-wearing K-pop miracle burst onto the worldwide stage, Hong was working on a few books about France, her home for six years.

The author, who is a former Financial Times writer and currently an editor at Investopedia, is a Yale University graduate who had little interest in the Korean pop scene that had, even in 2012, long been bursting at the edges of Asia and spilling onto the rest of the globe.

S. Mitra Kalita, an editor at Quartz, screamed when Hong told her she’d spent a part of her childhood in Gangnam.

“Why did you wait this long to tell me?” Kalita said to a reluctant Hong. “You need to write a memoir.”

The resulting article, picked up by The Atlantic and titled “Growing Up Gangnam-Style: What the Seoul Neighborhood Was Really Like,” was the kickoff point for the book, an examination of the export of Korean pop culture peppered with her own experiences.

“Normally, I wouldn’t really disclose that much personal information. It made me feel kind of vulnerable,” she says. “But I realized I was in a unique position because I lived in Korea during the period of its sharpest, most significant change. A lot of economists have studied it and have tried to figure out how to duplicate the Korean economic miracle, but I actually just saw it from a child’s point of view.”

“Korea was not cool in 1985,” Hong says in the beginning lines of her book.

It wasn’t. In the ‘80s, her mother would scold her for not correcting Americans who called her Chinese; in the late ‘80s, when her family moved to the affluent Gangnam neighborhood for her father’s job, the 12-year-old Hong found herself living in a third-world country, the kind where children’s stool samples were collected in white envelopes in schools to test for worms.

It was “the painful period between poverty and wealth,” she writes.

A decade later, influenced by (ultimately failed) conglomerate-driven economics, the government’s resulting investment in Internet infrastructure and its quest to spread its “soft power” — the power wielded by a country’s culture and image — K-pop had sprouted.

A decade after that, Korean pop culture — its music, its television shows, its video games, its fashion, its food — had driven one of the biggest cultural shifts in the world, Hong says.

Through dozens of interviews, among them with the Ministry of Culture and K-pop stars, she suggests that the government-backed idea of a globally dominant Korean pop culture is a machine that is very, very real.

It’s difficult to talk about cultural exports without bringing America into the equation. Soft power is one of the U.S.’s biggest strengths, from the friendly familiarity of Coca Cola to the decades-long visibility of American cinema, music and clothing around the world.

Hong, though, says Korea is just fine without Americans knowing just what a G-Dragon or a Kim Soo-hyun is.

“America is used to being the country that exports pop culture, not the country that imports pop culture,” Hong says. “Americans don’t openly embrace foreign cultures as much as other countries do. The Korean Wave is much, much bigger in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, South America. … The world is changing, and Korea doesn’t really need the American market in order to be No. 1 in the world. They basically have every other continent locked,” she says.

Last year, pop exports brought $5 billion into Korea. The French love its cinema. The Iranians love its dramas. The Filipinos love its music. The Internet loves its professional gamers, heroes of popular RPGs like League of Legends. Korean fashion designers are increasingly visible on the world stage, from New York to Milan. Kimchi is a household name, even in America.

“Korea is the future,” Hong says at the end of her book. “Welcome to the future.”