【by Sang-wook Nam, June 2021】
How can we understand the current boom of K-culture represented by the recent popularity of Korean music and cinema such as BTS and Parasite? Given the structure of intensive industrial competition among East Asian countries, the rise of the K-culture could also mean that Korea has earned a highly competitive edge in the cultural industry. Then how did Korea achieve such a cultural competitiveness?
What is often referred to as the origin of K-culture is the state-sponsored promotion of the culture industry since the late 1990s. Major entertainment companies quickly responded to the government’s cultural program which ranked culture as a new “growth engine.” Korean cultural industry was spurred by the joining of the people who belong to the lost generation of student movement in the 1980s; they lost themselves in the whirlwind of the unexpected end of the Cold War and the beginning of global capitalist system. They transformed themselves into the warriors in the field of cultural industry, utilizing their resistant experience for the political struggle against cultural capital.
While K-movie was mainly promoted by the same generation of people that led the student cultural movement in the 1980s and the 1990s, K-pop was launched and developed by those who had not much to do with student movement. The latter worked as musicians throughout the 1990s, founded their own companies in the late 1990s, and strengthened their influence by producing popular stars through auditions and specific trainee systems. The hegemonic confrontation among these generations of men in the cultural field made the current Korean cultural landscape possible.
Given that culture is no longer the matter of domestic production, however, such an explanation is not enough; it is also necessary to recall that Korean cultural industry then felt thirsty, and even greedy, for external expansion. Bong Joon-ho’s tributary to American directors is a case in point. He applauded Martin Scorsese at the Academy Awards speech; it is a representative example of the Korean cultural desire to catch up with American standard in the 1980s. K-pop producers, who share the same generational identity as the director Bong, attempted to absorb the needs of the diversified pop markets and J-pop audience in the 1990s. The aggressive integration of other cultural elements has been carried out since they felt dissatisfied with the reality that the Korean culture is not diverse and dynamic enough to cope with the desire for new cultural production.
Japan was the largest consumer of cultural contents in Asia until the 1990s. But as more and more cultural products turned into digital contents in the new millennium, Korea, with the help of advanced IT technology, became the greediest consumer market of cultural contents in Asia. The rapid development of IT technology infrastructure in Korea provided individual consumers with constant access to foreign movies and TV channels. Today, for example, Korean children start their cultural initiation with Disney animation, are baptized later by Japanese anime such as Demon Slayer (鬼滅の刃) and then immediately fall in love with K-pop idols and K-webtoons in their adolescence. When they become an adult, it becomes usual to go to a pop artist’s performance in Seoul and do a “sing-along” or to watch Japanese adult videos on illegal downloading sites and to enjoy, if getting tired of all these items, Chinese dramas on IP TV or American dramas like “Narcos” and “House of Card” on Netflix. The priority of consumption depends entirely on individual taste, but it is clear that today Koreans are more exposed to different cultural contents than the people of any other country in the world.
For some, this hybrid environment in the consumption of cultural contents could be an ideal model; it would be nothing more than contents pollution for others. But it is essential to recognize that the so-called K-wave has been tightly linked to such a massive, hybrid consumption of cultural contents up until now. In short, the unquenchable hunger and thirst of contents predators is the secret of the competitive edge in the current K-wave. From this perspective, shouldn’t the K-wave today include not only Korean artists but also other creative artists who dedicate themselves to actively confront with Korean contents predators, from superstars like Maroon5 to an unknown Asian artist?
Sang-wook Nam, Incheon National University, South Korea