Why the Korean Wave Will Crash
by Michael Hurt
[Originally written December 9, 2005, but never completed, partially because I'm lazy – and have dozens of half-baked posts – and partially 'cause I was a bit chicken. Now, I wish I had just gone with my gut. But cut me some slack – that was a lot earlier in this blog's career...
I have to say thanks for Darcy Paquet for writing up something I read recently of his that reminded me of this stub of a post. I'm sure others saw the "wave" as potentially ebbing, but it's still interesting to look back through old posts and see exactly why, nearly two years after originally writing this, when it seems as though this is coming to pass.
There was also some interesting writing in an issue of the Korea Journal about the limits of the "wave," which talked about some specific aspects of things that also affected my thinking about the subject. To me, though, I started with the "wave" metaphor itself, and why the concept itself is unexpectedly appropriate.
For those who don't appreciate the "DVD commentary" version of my unfinished thoughts on this blog, I do apologize, but since I don't think it makes sense (or is fair) to try and finish this after-the-fact, I'm just putting it up as is, since this is old news now, and the only interesting aspect of this little essay is the fact that I wrote it in 2005. And wow – I was in an even more wordy mood back then!]
- the appropriateness of the wave metaphor...
In the end, all waves come to an end, as they crash hard against the breakers before the shore, wash up softly on the beach, or simply just losing their unique shape and distinctiveness as they lose energy and either merge into or are overcome by the myriad other waves all around. By definition, no wave goes on forever.
What would make for a more accurate metaphor would be a process, one in which the "Korean waves" are shown as temporary and transient aftereffects of some transmission of energy from a central point of origin. Perhaps this could be the "Korean earthquake" followed by the "Korean tsunami" or something equally awkward and unwieldy as a shorthand for talking about Korea's recent success in marketing the products of its newfangled "culture industry." Perhaps the term "Korean aftershocks" might work as well, since the reverberations that occur after an initial seismic event propagate in outwardly radiating waves that point at a distinct, central point of origin.
But that doesn't make for good copy, especially in overly optimistic news reports, the incessant and uncritical self-laudatory tone of all the pundits who talk about Korea's newfound "power," and the underlying-yet-obvious nationalism that underlies it all. "Korean wave" sounds good, works well on paper, and has a nice ring of cultural power. I must admit that this "ring" doesn't sit well with me, because I am, as a scholar of a frank and honest look at Korean history, quite distrustful of "nationalism," used as it has been by the state to put down political opposition and gloss over structural inequalities and injustices in Korean society. Now, I'm not saying that nationalism is always a bad thing – although in the final analysis and in most cases, it usually is – but I am saying that its primary purpose is to blind. But more than some academic critique of the theory, application, and excesses of nationalism, I am simply pointing here to the fact that it's not good to get caught up too much in one's own vanity. There's an old saying in public relations and Hollywood – "don't believe your own press" – that would behoove Korean journalists, pundits, and the general public to know.
It goes like this. When you're a star – an undeniably desirable, deliciously XXXable star – you bask in a extension past the "fifteen minutes of fame" that even the everyday person is entitled to enjoy once in their lives. No one denies that you stand out from the crowd, above the fray, are king or queen of the world. Your public relations team says glowing things about you in press releases, the press corps uncritically and gleefully recycles your public-relations-produced pap, and the star hopes that this lovefest continues as long as possible. But the star is warned against one thing – believing in the veracity of one's own press releases and in the new, artificially-produced self-image – and forgets the reality of the self that originally went into making the "you" in the first place. In many ways, Korea is the hometown boy from Iowa who, against all odds and expectations, move out and made it big in the "big city." Its "fifteen minutes of fame" has moved past being one of the "tiger economies" of Asia and transformed itself into a new kind of pride and identity, that of being a kind of pop culture producer, the Hollywood of Asia, ground-zero for a new "wave" of Korea's claim to cultural viability and even superiority.
But the Korean consciousness, as shot through as it was during the 1980's and 1990's with the hubris of real newfound wealth and the cultural sensibilities of the nouveau riche, and even after said hubris was humbled by the Nemesis of economic crash and national humiliation – that same old feeling is back, but in slightly altered form.
How much of a stroke must it be to the Korean ego for its cultural products to be consumed by two cultures that have, at different times and in relation to different historical circumstances, once asserted their superiority over Korea? Looking at how much China is looked down upon by many Koreans, and how much Japan has become a one-dimensional, nearly phantasmagorical object of hatred for many folks on the peninsula, the feeling of watching Chinese and Japanese tourist – mostly women...