Call for South Korea to go 'Gangnam style'

Finance minister makes plea to the nation to emulate singer Psy and to take on the world

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 October, 2012, 2:22am

It isn't every day that the finance minister of a major country mentions a rap star when talking up his economy. But then South Korea isn't your average economy, and Psy isn't your usual entertainer.

Bahk Jae-wan did that in an interview last week. South Korea's top economic official cited the singer of the global smash hit Gangnam Style as an example of the kind of creativity and international competitiveness the country needs.

It wasn't a laugh line. It was a plea for South Koreans to let their hair down and dream a bit.

It is something I had been wondering as Gangnam Style racks up hundreds of millions of hits on YouTube; earns Psy gigs on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and NBC's Today Show; works its way into North Korea's propaganda; and single-handedly strengthens South Korea's global brand.

It isn't a particularly brilliant song, nor is Psy (real name Park Jae-sang) a world-class singer, dancer or stage presence.

So how did a man who is ancient by South Korea's pubescent pop standards do what no one had done before - go global? The reason has more to do with economics than meets the eye.

Before his song went global, it swept through South Korea's 50 million-strong population. Sure, the tune is catchy, and his crazed horse-riding dance is a show-stopper. But its real appeal is the social satire.

Gangnam is an up-market part of Seoul that South Koreans see as an amalgam of Beverly Hills and Tokyo's Shibuya district.

Many young hipsters crave living the Gangnam style some day. Psy's song and video parody the classy neighbourhood and poke fun at the materialism that has consumed a country that just 15 years ago was beset by economic turmoil. Amid the 1997 crisis, households donated gold to shore up the national treasury.

Now, the well-to-do flock to Gangnam to buy gold and other conspicuous signs of wealth. Or just to wear black and sip overpriced coffee. By both celebrating this phenomenon and mocking it, Psy caught the bipolar nature of Korea's economy.

One face of today's South Korea is intrepid success. Just four years ago, hedge funds saw Asia's fourth-biggest economy as the next Iceland, but South Korea sidestepped Wall Street's meltdown. Its 3.1 per cent jobless rate is less than half that in the United States and a third of France's.

Yet Koreans have an identity crisis. They are proud of the Samsung sign towering over Times Square in New York and the Hyundai cars filling roads from Miami to Sydney. But it has gone as far as it can with the export-led model that powered its post-war boom.

And then there are the costs, both real and intangible. South Korean workers put in some of the longest hours in the world. Cram schools and after-class tutoring keep children off the playground. Anxiety pervades college students jockeying for coveted jobs at the family-owned conglomerates that dominate the economy. Household debt, meanwhile, has surged as more and more South Koreans strive for the Gangnam lifestyle.

All this explains why Psy struck such a chord. Koreans are coming to the realisation that GDP gains don't necessarily result in commensurate gross domestic happiness. Hence Psy's subversive message about class and wealth being false gods.

"Our service sector is a weak point," Bahk said. "Unlike competitive exporters with well-diversified goods and markets, the service sector is too much closed.

"We see gradual progress in some areas, but the success stories such as singer Psy are still quite an exception. They should open up the domestic market and compete with foreign rivals to grow up."

In other words, innovate to make the economy more entrepreneurial and globally nimble. Here, the country's cultural export industry, dubbed the "Korean wave", is an apt metaphor.

It is a cookie-cutter business - long legs, robotic dance moves and years of training and grooming to produce K-pop stars who tend to be as plastic as they are forgettable. Psy is the outlier who made it through hard work, humour and his own brand of talent. He is 34, portly and not a looker. He writes his own songs and has travelled a long, lonely journey that paid off in the end.

South Korea's economy should be a lot more like that. It has what it takes to go up against the best talent the world has to offer. It just needs to find its own groove. The government may want to call Psy in for pointers.

William Pesek is a Bloomberg columnist

Tom Holland is on holiday