K-pop fever sweeps the region, but it's no soft power

Rex Wang says as cribing soft power to currently trendy Korean pop culture is premature: fashion comes and goes while ideals endure

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 April, 2014, 6:18pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 April, 2014, 2:28am

When the drama My Love from the Star hit China, the popularity of Korean pop culture skyrocketed to new heights. Fans on the mainland flooded Korean shops and cafes, posing with life-sized posters and imitating main characters from the drama, which tells of an alien in human form who falls in love with an actress. At a Communist Party Politburo meeting, it was asked why China had not had such influence.

Commentators are linking the phenomenon with "soft power" in international relations. Yet, to truly elevate international prestige, there needs to be more than songs and television shows.

Korea has become a more popular tourist destination. In March, tourist arrivals rose 12 per cent compared with a year ago. But closer scrutiny reveals that 82 per cent of the visitors originate from Asia and overwhelmingly from China, whose growth rates exceeded 50 per cent. The country has thus been successful only at attracting a specific crowd. Interest from the West is far lower, while the declining number of Japanese tourists suggests that strained bilateral relations ultimately exert more influence than pop culture.

Japan is an interesting parallel. Hong Kong and Taiwan were exposed to Japanese culture in the form of cartoons, dramas and music in the 1980s and 1990s. Many chose Japan as a holiday destination, learned Japanese as a third language or trained in Japanese martial arts.

Then tastes started to change. Listeners of Japanese songs gradually converted to Korean pop while Korean drama gained a following. In 2012, the singer Psy came, saw and conquered with Gangnam Style, a song that went viral and put Korea in the international spotlight.

The Japanese-Korean shift is a testimony that pop culture - like fashion - comes and goes. Some say that Korean television shows are more creative and better retain the wow effect. Audiences crave surprises.

But beyond humour and entertainment, there are no cultural, moral or political ideals underlying this so-called soft power; Korean pop culture is a product of Korea's marketing machine. Contrast this with the American revolution and the movements it inspired in Latin America or the idea of universal human rights that flourished after the second world war.

Appealing as they may be, Korean dramas do not always reflect the reality. Like Japan's, Korea's culture remains highly exclusive. This is evident in business dealings, where most Korean businesses much prefer to deal with Korean counterparts. At its worst, non-Koreans in the same meeting room are ignored.

Short of calling it hypocrisy, the soft power marketing campaign can also be entangled with perceptions of Korea being desperate to champion the superiority of its culture. Examples include laying claim to the invention of Chinese characters as well as the nationality of a Buddhist deity. Some of the allegations were later dismissed as rumours, but such views cast an unfavourable impression.

It is speculative to say how trends will shift. But even as Korea's media exports continue to grow, its global position ultimately needs to remain grounded on economic and political legacies on the international stage rather than unrealistic storylines.

Rex Wang works in global logistics and has been stationed in Tokyo and Seoul for work in the past