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Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ and Samsung smartphones

Publication Date : 03-09-2012


While Psy’s “Gangnam Style” is becoming increasingly popular abroad, one of Korea’s major conglomerates Samsung lost the first round of patent lawsuit against Apple in the United States. Other than the two being Korean, what do Psy’s “Gangnam Style” and Samsung’s smartphones have in common? In my view, the two cases are sending a very important message to Korean society.

Some Koreans are bewildered as to why “Gangnam Style” is receiving so much attention abroad, especially in the United States, while K-pop, which is believed to be creating a “tremendous” wave abroad, has yet to reach the shores of the West. “Gangnam Style” is very different from the mainstream K-pop music, which has a certain pattern and common characteristics.

So, what is the secret ingredient to Psy’s success? How is it different from the mainstream K-pop music? In my view, it is the combination of his artistic originality, individuality, and the humorous twist on a uniquely Korean social phenomenon, specific to “Gangnam” that brought Psy world fame. Gangnam-Style’s strength lies in the fact that it dealt with a Korean subject matter without necessarily branding it as Korean.

A new meaning or perspective was given to something that everybody here took for granted, and Psy managed to spice it up in such a way that it had a universal appeal. The dance moves are eye catchy and easy for everyone to follow. Thus, he is a living proof that innovation comes from our routine, everyday life and that being global starts at home (meaning, something Korean is the most global).

In the meantime, domestic newspapers’ front pages are covered with headlines about Samsung losing the first round of lawsuit against Apple. According to the California ruling, Samsung has copied the designs of Apple; but Samsung claims that the courts in Britain, the Netherlands, Germany and Korea have ruled that it did not violate the intellectual properties of Apple.

How matters will unfold remain to be seen; but it is quite worrisome that without some major turn of events, Samsung might become stigmatised as a “copy cat”. Personally, I would like to see Samsung fight this to the end to maintain its brand image.

It is especially of concern for someone like me who grew up in the West in the 1960s and 1970s when Korea was virtually a non-entity. Back then North Korea was better known than South Korea because it was economically more advanced than the latter. There were no major recognisable Korean brands boosting Korean image abroad. Nowadays, it is really something to travel abroad as a Korean and see big advertising signboards flashing names like Samsung, Hyundai, LG, SK, etc.

So what lessons can one draw from all of this? Recently, I came across an interesting article in a daily Health e-Newsletter(KorMedi) regarding Samsung-Apple lawsuit. The point was that in Korea’s rush to “catch up” and “rush ahead” in the hope of “living well (jal sara bose),” we forgot to encourage and nurture creativity and individuality in Korean society. It is so ingrained in our society that “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down” that Koreans still stick to conformity whether it be at home, in schools, at work places, etc.

A lot of us sacrifice our individuality to fit into society because we are so concerned about what others think. The irony is that when I googled to learn more about the background to the proverb, it was listed as a Japanese proverb. Perhaps, it is time for us to stop and think about our own true identity.

In my view, the rise of K-pop is an expression of the young generations’ need to let out their creativity and individuality. These days young people do not want to fit into the established social framework of going to good schools and finding so-called good jobs for the sake of “what other people think”. They want to become “pink-collar” workers or celebrities because it is creative work involving fame, money and, most importantly, enjoyment. Although I find K-pop performances very exciting and fun, I also find that K-pop may be following a new pattern of conformity. The continuation of K-pop wave will depend on whether it can keep its creativity alive.

Perhaps, that is the challenge that K-pop and all of Korean society has to overcome in order to remain competitive in the future. We need to create a society that embraces and is tolerant of individuals that stick out. We need to introduce systems, mechanisms and others that can truly bring out the creativity and individuality of all people alike whether it be at home, at school, at work or elsewhere in society.

As a small step in this direction, perhaps, the Korean Cadastral Survey Corporation, which has over 3,700 employees, can provide a small insight. I think the tiny ripples it is making could eventually form a wave of creativity. The current president has introduced a so-called memo reporting system, which he believed was necessary for increasing work efficiency and better communication between him and the employees.

The system allows all employees, especially junior employees to send a memo directly to the CEO, skipping the standard decision-making procedure, if they think what they have to report is important and requires the immediate attention of the CEO. A positive side effect of this reporting system is that it makes junior employees feel that they are in charge of their work. This new system is contributing to instilling a sense of responsibility and creativity in each and every employee.


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