Special to WorldTribune.com
By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com
Many Koreans don’t know it, but Korea is cool.
Three newly published books say so. Two of them even have “cool” in the title â€” “The Birth of Korean Cool” by Euny Hong, who describes herself as having “spent her childhood in Chicago and in the elite Gangnam neighborhood of Seoul,” and “A Geek in Korea: Discovering Asia’s New Kingdom of Cool,” by Daniel Tudor, a Brit who’s had an amazing array of experiences since coming here initially as an English teacher.
One reason that Koreans may not think of Korea as “cool” is that many don’t share in the exhilaration exuded by these books.
Psy and ‘Gangnam Style’
Sure, they know K-pop, the most often cited evidence for Korean coolness, but ordinary people may not appreciate the same glittery fun and games. The struggle to survive, often on part-time or casual jobs at the whims of the economy and shadowy business empires, makes it difficult to enjoy the party.
The foreign view of Korea as cool echoes the theme of “Cool Britannia,” a British slogan during the Tony Blair years. Didn’t “Cool Britannia” arise from the “British Invasion” of U.S. popular music, beginning with the global onslaught of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, etc.? And doesn’t “K-Pop Now!”, the title of Mark Russell’s colorful look at “the Korean music revolution,” suggest what makes Korea seem so cool to foreign writers?
“Cool” isn’t in the title of Russell’s book, but he does advise where to go “for fashion, style and coolness” and identifies “one of the coolest strips in today’s Korea” â€” cool, that is, for those with the money to pay for all those riches on display. And he acknowledges Korea’s “cool past” as well â€” so often have Korea and Seoul “reinvented themselves.” His book turns into a catalog of K-Pop stars including six pages of photos and text on Psy, whose “Gangnam Style” song-and-horse-dance routine probably did more to sell the image of “cool Korea” globally than any other single phenomenon.
Aside from “Cool Britannia,” Korea may be the only country on earth that’s described as so totally cool. That’s not just because of the new wealth that’s flowing downhill from the chaebol that dominate the economy. What helps make Korea “cool” is this gilt-plated overlay on an ancient society that shines so brightly despite the trauma of Japanese colonialism, the Korean War, the unending confrontation with North Korea â€” factors that these writers hint at but don’t really address.
Hong draws from her background in both the U.S. and Korea to give the impression of a country that’s transformed since 1985 when her parents returned to Korea from a Chicago suburb and Korea was “a developing country.” From that perspective, she offers first-hand insights into the cruelties of the school system, the petty corruption of which she became painfully aware, and the ethnocentric chauvinism that’s such an intrinsic element in Korean life.
Yet she’s overcome by “hallyu,” the Korean wave sweeping over much of the rest of Asia. She, like Tudor and Russell, describes the intense discipline, the “controversial” exploitation in the training of the groups that everyone sees cavorting on TV.
As a recurrent theme, she tries to explain Korean cool â€” what is it for instance, that “Asians found cool about Korea.” One answer is that “basically, Korea has never invaded anyone.” More pragmatically, she suggests the culture ministry’s understanding of “cultural technology” and “the confidence that Samsung created in Korea the Brand” for having “helped buoy the Korean economy, which allowed the government to finance popular culture products.”
Tudor does not indulge in such blatant propaganda. Rather, in a format lush with photographs for everything that he covers, he writes engagingly of traditional customs, of Koreans’ love of partying and drinking, of the emphasis on hard work, the zest for sports, the rise of Christianity and, centuries earlier, Buddhism. And, like Hong, he harks back to Confucianism, shamanism, the role of fortune-tellers, video games, plastic surgery, all that.
However, Tudor is not always accurate. Beneath a photo of the bridge linking the Chinese city of Dandong to Sinuiju on the North Korean side, he writes, “Only a very narrow river separates the two countries,” The river in the photo, Yalu in Chinese, Amnok in Korean, is rather wide. It’s the shallow Tumen River on the east that refugees typically ford into China.
Oh, and, riffing on Korean Christianity, Tudor observes that Korea, other than East Timor, has “the highest percentage of churchgoers in Asia.” In fact, nearly 90 percent of the 100 million or so Filipinos are Christian and go to church â€” though U.S. President William McKinley in 1903 did say one reason the Americans seized the Philippines, long since Catholicized under Spanish rule, was to “civilize and Christianize them.”
Columnist Donald Kirk has been observing Korea’s transformation since first visiting Seoul in 1972. He’s at email@example.com.