New Korean Wave
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New Korean Wave

Transnational Cultural Power in the Age of Social Media

Dal Jin

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eBook - ePub

New Korean Wave

Transnational Cultural Power in the Age of Social Media

Dal Jin

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The 2012 smash "Gangnam Style" by the Seoul-based rapper Psy capped the triumph of Hallyu, the Korean Wave of music, film, and other cultural forms that have become a worldwide sensation. Dal Yong Jin analyzes the social and technological trends that transformed South Korean entertainment from a mostly regional interest aimed at families into a global powerhouse geared toward tech-crazy youth. Blending analysis with insights from fans and industry insiders, Jin shows how Hallyu exploited a media landscape and dramatically changed with the 2008 emergence of smartphones and social media, designating this new Korean Wave as Hallyu 2.0. Hands-on government support, meanwhile, focused on creative industries as a significant part of the economy and turned intellectual property rights into a significant revenue source. Jin also delves into less-studied forms like animation and online games, the significance of social meaning in the development of local Korean popular culture, and the political economy of Korean popular culture and digital technologies in a global context.

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The Political Economy of Cultural Industries


The Rise of the New Korean Wave

If it were not for the rapid proliferation of social media, the contemporary boom of the Korean Wave would have been impossible. Speaking from the perspective of an avid fan in the West, but also aware of the immense popularity of the Korean Wave in Latin and South America, where I am originally from, I was initially very impressed to see how it reached countries like Mexico, Peru, and Brazil with such fervor; but with this generation of youth that can easily access content online including subtitles, torrent file sharing, and media streaming, it is less surprising to me upon reflection when I began thinking of our increasing digital culture.
—Interview with a twenty-three-year-old female
student in Vancouver, Canada
In the early twenty-first century, Korean popular culture has become a global sensation. Several forms of culture, including television programs, film, music, and animation, have increasingly penetrated the Western cultural markets, including North America and Europe. While the influence of Western culture, including Hollywood films, has continued in non-Western cultural markets, the Korean cultural industries have expanded the exportation of their locally created popular culture to several parts of the world. Social media, both social networking sites (SNS, such as Facebook) and user-generated content (UGC, such as YouTube), have played a major role as new forms of platforms for Korean popular culture. Korean popular culture is arguably reaching almost every corner of the world, and popular culture fans around the world enjoy Korean music and television programs on these social media in addition to traditional media. Digital technologies and culture, such as video gaming and smartphones, have also become some of the major parts of Hallyu due to their substantial penetration in the global markets. These levels of successful cultural and technological exports and dissemination globally are not something that has yet materialized for other non-Western countries.
It was not long ago that South Korea (hereafter Korea) started to emerge as one of the major centers for the production of transnational popular culture. Since the late 1990s, the Korean cultural industries have developed many of their cultural products and expanded the export of these products to mainly East and Southeast Asia. Korea has become a new local force for the production of transnational popular culture, exporting its own cultural products into Asian countries. The sudden rise of Korean popular culture and its dissemination in Asian countries, known as the Korean Wave, or Hallyu, took many people in Asia by surprise, as foreign or transnational popular culture in Asia had often been associated with the United States, Japan, or Hong Kong (Joo 2011; Youna Kim 2013). Despite some concerns by a few media outlets and scholars who have argued that “Hallyu is a fad” that is going to disappear sooner or later due to both protective cultural policies in some Asian countries and the emergence of China and India as new powerhouses in the realm of popular culture, the Korean Wave has further developed from a regional reception to a global occurrence, although it has not yet fully bloomed. Many policy makers, cultural practitioners, media scholars, and, most of all, popular culture fans around the world are amazed by Korean culture and digital media, and they are keen to learn the reasons for the global popularity of a local culture originating from the small, once peripheral, country of Korea.

How to Define Hallyu 2.0

While the Korean Wave tradition has continued since the late 1990s, there are several major variances in this phenomenon, particularly since around 2008. Although we cannot fully isolate the current form of Hallyu from the previous manifestation lasting until 2007, the New Korean Wave, or Hallyu 2.0, existing since 2008, has its own distinctive characteristics differentiating itself from the previous Hallyu tradition. In order to historicize the growth of the Korean Wave, I characterize it into roughly two major historical developments: the Hallyu 1.0 era (approximately between 1997 and 2007) and the Hallyu 2.0, New Korean Wave, era (mainly from 2008 to the present). Although these two periods share some common phenomena, after my analysis, which can be seen throughout the chapters, I am certain that they are dissimilar in their major characteristics, such as the major cultural forms exported, technological developments, fan bases, and government cultural policies (table 1.1).1
Table 1.1: Comparison of Hallyu 1.0 versus Hallyu 2.0
Hallyu 1.0 Hallyu 2.0
Major points Period 1997–2007 2008–present
Primary genres started TV dramas, films K-pop, video games, animation
Technologies Online games Social media (SNS, smartphones), digital games
Major regions East Asia Asia, Europe, North America
Primary consumers In their 30s–40s teens–20s included
Major cultural policies Hands-off policies Hands-on policies
Source: Parts of the table are cited from “Hallyu 2.0 Has Begun” 2010.
To begin with, the trend in the global cultural trade for the Korean cultural industries has changed since 2008, when the export of cultural products, including broadcasting, movies, music, and games, surpassed the import of cultural products. The overall import of foreign cultural goods has consequently declined, with some exceptions, since 2008. During that same year, Korea exported $2.33 billion worth of cultural goods, while importing $1.98 billion, which was down from $3.35 billion in 2007 (Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism 2012b, 70). Korea finally achieved its surplus in cultural trade in 2008, and this trend continued until 2014, which is a major characteristic of the New Korean Wave.2
Second, in recent years, Korea has become the top non-Western country that meaningfully exports almost all of its cultural forms, such as television programs, film, popular music, animation, and digital technologies, including online gaming and smartphones (not only as technology but also as culture) to both Western and non-Western countries. There have been several other countries that have penetrated the global markets with their cultural products, but they primarily export only limited cultural forms. Mexico and Brazil, for instance, have exported television programs, known as telenovelas, and Hong Kong was famous for its Kung-Fu movies in the 1970s and 1980s. Japan has also become a global leader with its animation; however, its popular music and television programs have not been received well in the Western markets, regardless of their successful regional penetration in East Asia.
Third, the most noteworthy element of the current Hallyu trend is the swift advance of social media and their influence in the realm of local cultural products, because fans around the world heavily access social media to enjoy K-pop, video games (for example, online, mobile, and social games), television programs, and films (see Jin 2012). Korea-based smartphones and video games themselves have driven the Korean Digital Wave, which is the major part of Hallyu. In fact, at the center of Hallyu 2.0 is the development of new digital technology and social media.3 Until June 2007, there were no smartphones, and YouTube was created in 2005 and acquired by Google in 2006. Therefore, the influences of these digital platforms were not significant in the Hallyu 1.0 era,4 because such popularity of local culture in the global market is contingent upon a high penetration of digital technology and social media through which soft pop cultural content flows with ease. During my interview, an American female student, age twenty-two, stated: “I started enjoying Korean popular culture in 2008 when I was a junior in high school. The current Korean Wave seems to be more social media based to reach more of a global base than the older Korean Wave, which seemed smaller scale and largely kept to Asia. The most significant factor for the growth of the New Korean Wave is social media. If not for YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and Viki, many international fans would never have heard of the Korean entertainment industry.” In fact, as in the case of Psy’s globally popularized K-pop song “Gangnam Style,” which as of June 16, 2013, had more than 1.6 billion hits on YouTube, and again exceeded YouTube’s 32-bit integer-count limit in December 2014 (BBC News Asia 2014),5 social media have shifted the notion of global cultural flows of local popular culture.6 Many North American fans of Korean television dramas—in particular, entertainment genres—also enjoy these programs on YouTube. Without digital technologies and social media, the current form of the Korean Wave surely would not exist. Unlike other countries’ crossovers with one particular cultural form, the New Korean Wave has achieved, though not yet fully, this crossover with several cultural products and digital technologies as they penetrate Western markets with a substantial number of these products.
Fourth, government policy has shifted from hands-off (indirect support to the global trade of cultural products) in the early years of Hallyu 1.0 to hands-on (direct support) in the new Hallyu era as a result of changing political ideologies and the relations of each government to neighboring countries as well as the United States. Popular culture cannot be separated from cultural policies, and it is necessary to analyze the influences of key cultural policies in the development of Korean popular culture. In the Hallyu 1.0 period, the Korean government developed its cultural policy to initially support indirect intervention and deregulation so that the private sector could advance the Hallyu phenomenon. However, the previous Lee Myung-bak (2008–13) and the current Park Geun-hye (2013– ) governments have subsequently changed their emphasis on cultural policy toward a creative content policy and have begun to be actively involved in the cultural sector.
These latest two governments since 2008 have focused on the creative industries (previously the cultural industries) as a significant part of the national economy, with one of the emphases having been intellectual properties.7 Indeed, intellectual property rights have become some of the most significant revenue resources for the Korean cultural industries and performers, and they are much more important than future exports of cultural goods. This means the government and corporations in the cultural industries carefully develop their strategic policies because some cultural products, including those within the music industry, get benefits from intellectual property rights as well.
Of course, Hallyu denotes not Korean popular culture per se, but the high tide of Korean culture in non-Korea territory. Hallyu cannot be seen as a transnational cultural phenomenon only. Hallyu is not just cultural in its valance or determined solely by international fans. Instead, Hallyu has to be seen also as a national-institutional policy initiative with clear ambitions reaching beyond the cultural domain. Hallyu as a national policy initiative is a planned, concerted effort for the whole of Korea’s national interest and is helmed by a handful of entrepreneurs, mainstream media, state bureaucrats, and professional consultants, mostly based in Korea (J. B. Choi 2015).8 Consequently, these two governments have also expanded the scope of Hallyu, from the exports of popular culture to tourism, Korean food, and fashion, which seeks the crucial involvement of government initiative and participation.
These shifts together lead us to think that the historical evolution of the New Korean Wave must be understood according to a wider range of characteristics, such as major cultural forms exported, technological developments, and government cultural policies, in addition to the changing media texts themselves. The New Korean Wave, as the phenomenon of the growth of Korean popular culture in the international market, has continued traditions of the Hallyu 1.0 era; however, due to these major characteristics differentiating it from the early Hallyu tradition, it is crucial to analyze the backgrounds behind the Hallyu 2.0 development and its influences on both global and national cultural industries.

Major Features of the Book

This book, as the first attempt to comprehensively analyze the New Korean Wave in comparison to the initial stage of Hallyu, explores the recent evolution of Hallyu in a socioeconomic context alongside its textual meanings. Previous works primarily examined the major reasons for the success of specific Korean cultural products in the Asian cultural markets. The majority of studies on the Korean Wave (Huat and Iwabuchi 2008; D. Kim and M.-S. Kim 2011; Youna Kim 2013; Kuwahara 2014; Lie 2015) have been rooted in anthropology or cultural studies and have taken an ethnographic approach, with a focus on case studies. Their priorities aimed to analyze textual images used in popular culture and cultural reasons for the growth of Korean popular culture in Asia. They also did not engage with the increasing role of social media and digital technologies as a reflection of Hallyu’s short history.
Unlike these previous works, this book discusses not only the celebratory achievement of Korean popular culture through the analysis of media texts, but also the significance of social meaning in the development of local Korean popular culture. It is especially about the political economy of Korean popular culture and digital technologies in the global context. I look at the operations and globalization strategies of Korean cultural industries alongside changing cultural policies in order to comprehend the power relations within cultural politics, both nationally and globally. Because the political economy approach to the study of popular culture focuses on analyzing cultural industries and cultural policies, I emphasize the economic and industrial aspects of popular culture, explore questions related to the interaction of politics and economics, and provide a better view of the big picture by articulating the relations among cultural industries, the global cultural market, and government. “Since the political economy approach is itself focusing on digital technology because of its major role in changing the form of cultural flows” (Otmazgin 2013, 2–3), it is also critical to analyze digital technologies, which are rapidly becoming an integral part of the New Korean Wave.
As such, this book critically and historically contextualizes the nascent development of Korean popular culture and digital technologies within hybridization. The critical analysis of the New Korean Wave should not be taken as totally rejecting positive changes. Instead, I believe that constructive critique is a necessary deviation to contribute to the further growth of cultural industries and the quality of cultural content. Furthermore, as the methodology and theory sections explain, I also utilize textual analysis and in-depth interviews, which are primarily culturalist approaches, in order to fully understand several major characteristics of the current Korean Wave tradition.
More specifically, this book systematically analyzes several key elements for the change and continuity of the Korean Wave in very recent years compared to the early stage of Hallyu. Because my approach to the New Korean Wave is inclusive, this book encompasses not only popular culture, such as television programs, films, animation, and music, but also digital technologies, including smartphones and dig...

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