Book Reviews and Highlights

The Birth of Korean Cool

Euny Hong

  • Asia
  • Biography & Autobiography
  • Business & Economics
  • Entertainment
  • History
  • Industries
  • Korea
  • Personal Memoirs
  • Popular Culture
  • Social Science
  • Korea was not cool in 1985.
  • Introduction | Page: 1
  • #first-sentence
  • It’s implausible, but sadly true, that eight- year- old boys would call me “Jap,” as if they were Marines during World War II checking trees for snipers.
  • Introduction | Page: 1
  • It’s easy to forget that in 1965, South Korea’s per capita GDP was less than that of Ghana, and even less than that of North Korea. As recently as the 1970s, North and South Korea’s GDP were neck and neck.
  • Introduction | Page: 2
  • Korea is widely considered one of the greatest economic miracles of the modern day.
  • Introduction | Page: 2
  • Within a matter of decades, South Korea went through changes that most wealthy nations took hundreds of years to achieve: social changes as radical as those brought about by the French Revolution and economic changes as radical as those brought on by the Industrial Revolution.
  • Introduction | Page: 2
  • The Korean wave of popular culture is called “Hallyu.”
  • Introduction | Page: 3
  • “Soft power,” a term coined in 1990 by Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye, is the intangible power a country wields through its image rather than through force.
  • Introduction | Page: 5
  • Korea has multiple five- year plans, the likes of which most democratic and capitalist countries have never seen. The government felt that spreading Korean culture worldwide was dependent on Internet ubiquity, so they subsidized Internet access for the poor, the elderly, and the disabled.
  • Introduction | Page: 6
  • The government felt that spreading Korean culture worldwide was dependent on Internet ubiquity, so they subsidized Internet access for the poor, the elderly, and the disabled.
  • Introduction | Page: 6
  • South Korea learned from having to rebuild its country after the Korean War (1950– 1953) that if you’re going to make change, the change has to be drastic, it has to be fast, and it has to be for everyone. E- mail is useless if only a few people have it.
  • Introduction | Page: 6
  • In addition to building a high- tech Internet infrastructure, South Korea is one of only a handful of countries whose government pours its own money into investing in its nation’s start- ups.
  • Introduction | Page: 7
  • And here’s another five- year plan: in 2009, when the South Korean record industry was suffering a loss in revenue because of illegal music downloads, the government allocated $ 91 million to rescue K- pop.
  • Introduction | Page: 7
  • My mother had forbidden my sisters and me to eat street food, but we did it anyway: roasted chestnuts and sweet potatoes, always cooked over a large tin with holes punctured in the lid and a piece of coal inside.
  • 1 Before Cool | Page: 11
  • Until as recently as 1991, South Korean women were not permitted to be the head of the household, meaning they could not make legal decisions on behalf of the family. In the event of a divorce, a wife was not entitled to an equal division of property and children were automatically granted to the father’s custody.
  • 1 Before Cool | Page: 16
  • Just two decades later, in December 2012, South Korea elected its first female president, Park Geun- hye.
  • 1 Before Cool | Page: 16
  • Irony is that special privilege of wealthy nations; the best purveyors of irony live at the very height of their society’s prosperity and influence, which allows them the leisure (if not the freedom) to wax philosophic and write.
  • 2 The Birth of Irony | Page: 19
  • Aristophanes, possibly the world’s first satirist, wrote his plays as Athens was becoming the dominant power in the region. Cervantes wrote at the height of Spain’s naval wealth. And Alexander Pope was born the year that England defeated the Spanish Armada. First, one scrambles for wealth; then one luxuriates in mocking the effeteness that comes with it.
  • 2 The Birth of Irony | Page: 19
  • “Gangnam Style” and its 2013 follow- up song “Gentlemen” signaled the emergence of irony in South Korea, marking the country’s final stage in its modern evolution.
  • 2 The Birth of Irony | Page: 19
  • We did not sit around making dry, witty existential comments as these vulgar nouveaux riches rose up among us and started showing up at the fish market in mink coats.
  • 2 The Birth of Irony | Page: 23
  • Psy is the paradigm shift within the paradigm shift. And his life and bewildering rise to fame are an embodiment of the changes in Korea and Korean society over the last few decades.
  • 2 The Birth of Irony | Page: 24
  • This reveals another cultural bias: in Korea, getting bad marks at school is tantamount to juvenile delinquency. It’s also a direct act of disrespect toward one’s parents, a core violation of Korean society’s ethical system.
  • 2 The Birth of Irony | Page: 25
  • Psy will go down in history as the first real twenty- first- century entertainer: who else could combine Confucianism and farting?
  • 2 The Birth of Irony | Page: 28
  • Well, other than that it’s considered slovenly to carry your drink around, I had also denied my hosts the chance to offer me a refreshment. I am appalled at myself. They do not know the protocol for what I have done. Neither do I. If they offer me coffee, I am obligated to say yes. If I refuse, they can’t have any coffee either.
  • 3 The Dying Art of School Thrashings | Page: 30
  • Why so much brutality for such young children? For starters, Korean culture views childhood as an extremely high- stakes period. If you screw up your early years, you are finished, finished, finished.
  • 3 The Dying Art of School Thrashings | Page: 34
  • Corporal punishment in Korea has been phased out over the last decade, and it became officially illegal in 2011— but there are loopholes. 1 The laws only prohibit a teacher from striking a student directly, but it’s technically still permissible for a teacher to ask students to punish themselves.
  • 3 The Dying Art of School Thrashings | Page: 36
  • Corporal punishment has persisted in Korean schools for so long partly because the parents sanction it, and partly because the students think they deserve it.
  • 3 The Dying Art of School Thrashings | Page: 37
  • Confucianism didn’t really get into full swing in Korea until its second wave— called neo- Confucianism— in the fourteenth century AD.
  • 3 The Dying Art of School Thrashings | Page: 39
  • The rulers adopted neo- Confucianism partly as an excuse to overthrow the old aristocracy (with whom they were fed up). Under this new system, anyone could become an aristocrat. All they had to do was pass an excruciating civil service exam, called the kwako. 3
  • 3 The Dying Art of School Thrashings | Page: 39
  • There’s a catch, though. A big one. Your male heirs have to pass the kwako exam as well. If your descendants failed the exam three generations in a row, you and your family were stripped of the yangban title and went back to being nobodies.
  • 3 The Dying Art of School Thrashings | Page: 39
  • Ever since then, Korean students have been studying as if their lives, their family’s lives, and the future lives of their entire bloodline depended on it.
  • 3 The Dying Art of School Thrashings | Page: 39
  • Confucianism in Korea is at the weakest point it’s ever been, but it still has not completely released its hold on the education system.
  • 3 The Dying Art of School Thrashings | Page: 39
  • Hakwons disrupt one of the best aspects of Korean education: its meritocracy. “In Korea you can gain upward social mobility through public school education,” Lee Dong- ho said. And this is why private tutoring really poses a problem: it favors families with money.
  • 3 The Dying Art of School Thrashings | Page: 42
  • Kim believes the reason for Koreans’ obsession with exam performance is based on Korea’s ancient tradition of civil service exams. Today’s Korean university exams have a much higher pass rate than the kwako exams of yore, but the stakes and stress level are still very high.
  • 3 The Dying Art of School Thrashings | Page: 43
  • My memorization skills were so well honed at Korean school that it’s now become an involuntary and automatic reflex. I have almost perfect recall of conversations I’ve had going back about twenty years or so.
  • 3 The Dying Art of School Thrashings | Page: 49
  • However, my gift of recall is very annoying to other people. They forgot to tell us at Korean school that memory does not lead to a happy life.
  • 3 The Dying Art of School Thrashings | Page: 49
  • Annoying or not, being trained in rote memorization, along with discipline, obedience, worship of authority, and good old- fashioned terror of failing is one of the cornerstones of Korea’s accelerated success.
  • 3 The Dying Art of School Thrashings | Page: 49
  • “[ Koreans] are the cruelest, most ruthless people in the world,” wrote Ian Fleming in Goldfinger, adding that Koreans have no respect for human life.
  • 4 Character Is Destiny: The Wrath of Han | Page: 51
  • The peninsula has been invaded four hundred times in its history, and it has never once invaded any other nation, unless you count its participation in the Vietnam War. 1 The result of all this abuse is a culturally specific, ultra- distilled form of rage, which Koreans call han.
  • 4 Character Is Destiny: The Wrath of Han | Page: 51
  • With han, the suffering never lessens; rather, it accumulates and gets passed on. Imagine the story of Job, except when God gives him a new family and new riches, he has to relive his suffering over and over again.
  • 4 Character Is Destiny: The Wrath of Han | Page: 53
  • Han reminds me of Carl Jung’s concept of racial memory— the idea that the collective experiences of a race are hereditary. Thus, the memories of our ancestors are encoded in our DNA, or at least in our unconscious.
  • 4 Character Is Destiny: The Wrath of Han | Page: 53
  • Korea’s more recent grievances against Japan stem from the fact that Japan invaded Korea and colonized it from 1910 to 1945. During this time, Japan famously forced Koreans into involuntary manual labor; thousands of Korean women were forced to become “comfort women”— sex slaves of Japanese military officers.
  • 4 Character Is Destiny: The Wrath of Han | Page: 54
  • Until 1992, Korean nationals living in Japan had to report to the immigration authorities and get fingerprinted every six months— even though one’s fingerprints don’t change every six months.
  • 4 Character Is Destiny: The Wrath of Han | Page: 55
  • Dokdo is to Japan and Korea what Alsace- Lorraine was to France and Germany— if Alsace- Lorraine were a tiny burp of skipping stones surrounded by a sea, hit with year- round gusts, and basically uninhabitable.
  • 4 Character Is Destiny: The Wrath of Han | Page: 56
  • Though many Koreans would not like to admit it, a lot of their drive and motivation arose from a desire to beat Japan at something, anything. In the 1980s, all of Asia had benchmarked Japan as the nation to aspire to economically.
  • 4 Character Is Destiny: The Wrath of Han | Page: 60
  • Shamanism is linked to animism, the belief that everything has a spirit, rather than the idea of transcendent gods, and it is the most primitive form of religion in the world.
  • 4 Character Is Destiny: The Wrath of Han | Page: 62
  • One central tenet of etiquette in Korea is that you have to pay attention to who you are in relation to those around you: Man or woman? Older or younger? Professional rank? Etc., etc. You base all of your actions on hierarchy.
  • 4 Character Is Destiny: The Wrath of Han | Page: 67
  • The reason you have to go through this whole rigmarole is based on the Confucian concepts of keeping order by everyone knowing their place in the social hierarchy, being respectful of those superior to them, and not rocking the boat.
  • 4 Character Is Destiny: The Wrath of Han | Page: 68
  • Perhaps a good metaphor for all these Korean traits— wrath, Confucian principles, and nature fetishism— is its famously pungent cuisine. Or, as one Korean American chef described his food, “aggressive.”
  • 4 Character Is Destiny: The Wrath of Han | Page: 76
  • “One time when I was in third grade, my mom packed jja jang myun”— noodles with black bean sauce—“ and kkakdugi”— pickled radish—“ and put it in a thermos. My teacher made me dump it because the kids were all like, “‘ Who farted?’” So I had to tie it up in a plastic bag and take it outside. I was the only Asian American in my school at the time.”
  • 5 Kimchi and the Cabbage Inferiority Complex | Page: 78
  • When my family moved to Korea, one of the biggest shocks for me was having to eat Korean food every day. The food was too spicy, and there were too many vegetables, some of them tough stems and roots that I was sure weren’t edible, and chewing them made me feel like a cow.
  • 5 Kimchi and the Cabbage Inferiority Complex | Page: 78
  • According to Choi, the popularity of kimchi spiked significantly after 2008; she believes this may have something to do with a campaign by former South Korean president Lee Myung- bak to raise global awareness of hansik, Korean food. His wife, Kim Yoon- ok, headed the government- funded Hansik Global Association, known abroad as the Korean Food Foundation.
  • 5 Kimchi and the Cabbage Inferiority Complex | Page: 82
  • “In the United States,” he said, “it stems from David Chang; he’s the first one to make really mainstream Americanized Korean food. After Chang, you started to see his influence in menus.… People are experimenting with kimchi, pickles, fried chicken. Korean ingredients are being incorporated into various cuisines.”
  • 5 Kimchi and the Cabbage Inferiority Complex | Page: 83
  • “The right way is always longer. The right way always costs more money. The right way is just more difficult. But the food doesn’t lie. People can really tell.”
  • 5 Kimchi and the Cabbage Inferiority Complex | Page: 87
  • “Looking, hearing is one thing. Tasting, touching is another. Smelling and tasting is the heart and soul of what Korea is. As much as pop culture wants to globalize, food is the best way for Koreans to share their soul and culture.”
  • 5 Kimchi and the Cabbage Inferiority Complex | Page: 90
  • In accordance with the 1953 mutual defense treaty between South Korea and the United States, South Korea cannot make any major military decisions without U.S. support. In other words, Korea can’t compete with the big technological players in certain areas. Thus it has been forced to focus elsewhere.
  • 6 Why Pop Culture? Or, Failure Is the Breakfast of Champions | Page: 96
  • The creation of pop culture doesn’t require a massive infrastructure; all that is required is time and talent. And countries have always exported goods that no one really needs.
  • 6 Why Pop Culture? Or, Failure Is the Breakfast of Champions | Page: 97
  • American pop culture was— for a time— the symbol of liberation for South Korea: American GIs introduced South Koreans to rock ‘n’ roll, Spam, and baseball— all of which became immensely popular and synonymous with freedom: freedom from the Japanese, freedom from communism.
  • 6 Why Pop Culture? Or, Failure Is the Breakfast of Champions | Page: 98
  • Korea looked to pop culture as a way to create new sources of revenue, unite people, and generate an exportable product that would help spread Korean culture globally.
  • 6 Why Pop Culture? Or, Failure Is the Breakfast of Champions | Page: 98
  • The Ministry of Culture oversees projects on a level of detail you could not imagine: for example, regulating Korea’s many noraebangs.
  • 6 Why Pop Culture? Or, Failure Is the Breakfast of Champions | Page: 102
  • To that end, the noraebangs are legally classified into three types: One type is not permitted to sell alcohol, but some owners sell it illegally anyway, so the government tries to monitor this. The second kind is allowed to sell alcohol. And the third kind, said Choi, blushing as he did so, “is the one where you can be with women.” The Koreans call the third type a “room salon.”
  • 6 Why Pop Culture? Or, Failure Is the Breakfast of Champions | Page: 102
  • There’s a very good reason for the lack of an original, homegrown Korean sound: the Korean pop scene got a very late start because of censorship that stifled musical talent and creativity. For a critical period during the 1970s, rock music was banned in Korea.
  • 7 When Korea Banned Rock ’n’ Roll | Page: 108
  • One act that got its start at the U.S. Army bases in Seoul was the Kim Sisters— Aija, Mia, and Sue. Most people have not heard of this singing trio, but at their height in the 1950s and 1960s, they were almost as big a Vegas act as the Rat Pack.
  • 7 When Korea Banned Rock ’n’ Roll | Page: 112
  • Furthermore, there is one major difference in western versus Korean culture: western kids can goof off. In the unforgiving Confucian culture of Korea, however, a young person who screws up has a hard time getting back on track. There aren’t really any second chances.
  • 8 The Lean, Mean, Star-Making K-Pop Machine | Page: 120
  • K- pop is a paternalistic system that disciplines its stars. This isn’t just a matter of whether band members get along; it’s also necessary to steer them away from drunk driving, drugs, or sex scandals. K- pop star training is an education of the whole person. Which is also why band members are taught etiquette.
  • 8 The Lean, Mean, Star-Making K-Pop Machine | Page: 129
  • Rain was the first K- pop star to break out internationally. In 2006, Time magazine named him one of the “100 Most Influential People Who Shape Our World.” In 2007, he made People magazine’s “most beautiful people” list.
  • 8 The Lean, Mean, Star-Making K-Pop Machine | Page: 130
  • The setting of most K- pop videos, by contrast, is sparse, futuristic, and sometimes wintry, like a space- age version of a Chekhov play. The girls always smile; the boys never do, instead bearing warrior expressions. Everyone is brutally attractive.
  • 8 The Lean, Mean, Star-Making K-Pop Machine | Page: 131
  • In 2011, some 1.3 percent of Koreans had some kind of cosmetic procedure; this is 35 percent higher than the United States and nearly double that of Japan or France. 3
  • 8 The Lean, Mean, Star-Making K-Pop Machine | Page: 137
  • Many locals harbor resentment that their tax money is being spent accommodating the refugees. South Koreans worry whether their economy can withstand the rapidly growing influx of refugees and the separate welfare category it creates.
  • 9 Northern Girls, Southern Boys | Page: 145
  • The Chinese veneration of South Korea partly stems from the popularity of “Korean cool,” and that obviously comes from Korea’s success in technology, business, and pop culture.
  • 9 Northern Girls, Southern Boys | Page: 148
  • But in the 1980s, Koreans worshiped, feared, and resented the United States. Korean university students staged violent protests— including an absurd number of self- immolations— against the U.S. military presence.
  • 10 K-Drama: Television and the Origins of Hallyu | Page: 163
  • K- dramas are soft power in action; they subtly and overtly promote Korean values, images, and tastes to their international audience.
  • 10 K-Drama: Television and the Origins of Hallyu | Page: 169
  • Under the new act, a movie theater that did not show Korean films for at least 146 days per year would have its business license suspended. 1
  • 11 K-Cinema: The Journey from Crap to Cannes | Page: 182
  • Rather, the man who pretty much single- handedly created the Korean movie industry from the ground up is a former career government official, Kim Dong- ho, who served as the Korean minister of culture from 1961 to 1988.
  • 11 K-Cinema: The Journey from Crap to Cannes | Page: 188
  • The timing was not coincidental; 1987 is the year South Korea became a true liberal democracy, and 1988 was the year Seoul hosted the Summer Olympics, forcing Korea’s government, industry, and people to be more open to the international business community.
  • 11 K-Cinema: The Journey from Crap to Cannes | Page: 191
  • A third factor in the flowering of Korean cinema is the cultural fund run by the KVIC— the Korean Venture Investment Corporation— a government- backed fund exceeding $ 1 billion of government and private money, solely devoted to promoting Korean popular culture. As a result of the fund, which was launched in 2005, the film industry no longer had to rely solely on studio financing.
  • 11 K-Cinema: The Journey from Crap to Cannes | Page: 192
  • The K- pop boy acts (Rain, Super Junior, Big Bang) were popular exports in Asia before the girl bands ever were.
  • 12 Hallyu: The Shot Heard Round the World | Page: 203
  • A big reason behind robust sales is that Japanese people still buy CDs. CD sales make up 80 percent of Japanese record sales, and digital music downloads actually dropped by 25 percent in 2012.5
  • 12 Hallyu: The Shot Heard Round the World | Page: 204
  • All content industries— games, books, comics, movies, songs— were tightly regulated by the government, which made it hard to import games from abroad.
  • 13 Korea’s Secret Weapon: Video Games | Page: 212
  • Fast- forward to 1998. It’s the height of the Asian financial crisis. Unemployment levels have doubled.
  • 13 Korea’s Secret Weapon: Video Games | Page: 212
  • It was the unemployment crisis that gave birth to the Korean video game industry, now the second- largest in the world after China’s.
  • 13 Korea’s Secret Weapon: Video Games | Page: 212
  • Once again, government and industry joined forces to create the online gaming industry. Kim significantly increased venture capital for computer hardware and online networks and created tax incentives for software start- ups, including video game designers.
  • 13 Korea’s Secret Weapon: Video Games | Page: 213
  • Korean- made video games now constitute a quarter of the world market.
  • 13 Korea’s Secret Weapon: Video Games | Page: 214
  • In fact, online games account for 58 percent of Korea’s pop culture export revenue (official term: the content industry): about $ 2.38 billion in revenue in 2012, out of a total of just over $ 4.8 billion. 1
  • 13 Korea’s Secret Weapon: Video Games | Page: 214
  • Samsung (which means “three stars”) began in 1938 as a Korean- owned fruit and fish company, during the period of Japanese rule.
  • 14 Samsung: The Company Formerly Known as Samsuck | Page: 225
  • Beginning in 2009, the country has stepped up its efforts in “knowledge sharing”— passing on the secrets of its affluence to some thirty- odd developing nations from four continents, from Algeria to Turkey to Bolivia to the Philippines.
  • 15 The Ministry of Future Creation | Page: 247
  • Korea is offering these countries a neat little package containing funding, nation- building experts, and strategies— the centerpiece of which is the advice that all countries build government- funded research and policy institutes whose sole purpose is to carry the country from third- world to first- world status.
  • 15 The Ministry of Future Creation | Page: 247
  • One of these is the need for a government that is unafraid to interfere with private business and its citizens’ private lives.
  • 15 The Ministry of Future Creation | Page: 248
  • In most capitalist countries, private industries would find this level of government intervention intolerable. Not in Korea, though: the Korean government has always run itself like the board of directors of a giant corporation with 50 million employees.
  • 15 The Ministry of Future Creation | Page: 248
  • Nearly every Korean triumph discussed in this book is attributable to this highly paternalistic, mostly benevolent system of what one might call “voluntary coercion.”
  • 15 The Ministry of Future Creation | Page: 249
  • At the end of the day, the most important factor in Korea’s success is its work ethic. Surpassing a certain threshold of effort is necessary to push a person or a country from being merely very good to being great.
  • 15 The Ministry of Future Creation | Page: 251
  • I remain convinced that han, that culturally specific, millennia- old rage against fate, is a huge motivating force in Koreans’ stamina and persistence.
  • 15 The Ministry of Future Creation | Page: 251
  • Another motivator is shame: deep, profound shame and self- flagellation for any and all failings, including allowing themselves to be colonized by Japan in 1910, for post– Korean War poverty, for having to take bailout money during the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, and for being second- best at anything. These two traits, han and shame, are deeply embedded in the collective Korean unconscious.
  • 15 The Ministry of Future Creation | Page: 251
  • If Korea were a person, it would be diagnosed as a neurotic, with both an inferiority and a superiority complex.
  • 15 The Ministry of Future Creation | Page: 251
  • Frankly, a great deal of Korea’s drive comes from trying to outpace its demons of past and present.
  • 15 The Ministry of Future Creation | Page: 251
  • #last-sentence
  • Welcome to the future.
  • 15 The Ministry of Future Creation | Page: 252