Dramatic love affair
Are South Koreans becoming popular marriage partners in Asia? Last week, a group of Japanese women flew in to search for suitable spouses, meeting hopefuls at a luxury hotel in Seoul, all arranged by a matchmaking firm. It was just one of many such events held these days amid the rising popularity of South Korean men in Japan.
Given the history between the two nations, it is quite a surprising trend. Japan's harsh colonial rule during the first half of the last century kept the two neighbouring peoples apart during the second half of the century. Survey after survey revealed their uneasy - and sometimes hostile - feelings towards each other.
But South Korea's popular culture changed all that, almost overnight. After a successful television mini-series, Winter Sonata, was shown in Japan this year, everything South Korean suddenly became hot property in Japan.
In particular, Japanese women fell in love with the drama's leading male character, played by Bae Yong-jun. Many Japanese women even visit South Korea to tour the shooting locations.
Bae is not the only one to have made South Korean bachelors popular in Asia. In mainland China, Taiwan and other areas, South Korean movies and dramas draw huge crowds. The old notion that South Korean men are chauvinistic, macho wife-beaters is long gone. Instead, in the films they are portrayed as caring husbands and boyfriends who would do almost anything for their loved one.
Of course, in real life, South Korean men also get nasty and upset at times. But in the age of mass media and the powerful perceptions created, reality does not matter much.
Fortunately, these false images are not necessarily bad, as through Korean-Japanese marriages, for example, fences can be mended. In fact, Winter Sonata probably did more for relations between the two nations than any number of visits and talks by politicians.
The same thing has happened with Taiwan relations. When Seoul suddenly severed diplomatic ties with Taipei in the early 1990s, and took up diplomatic relations with Beijing, the Taiwanese were infuriated. They were particularly upset that the South Koreans left it to the last moment to inform them.
More than a decade later, the two still have no diplomatic ties. But their relations have improved greatly, largely as a result of cultural exchanges. Recently, direct flights have resumed between the two. According to fans of popular culture in Taiwan, the heroes of South Korea's dramas and films have helped Taiwanese forget about Seoul's rude behaviour.