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Korean wave: From fast food to gourmet cuisine

Publication Date : 03-10-2012


A few days ago, Guy Sorman, the celebrated French economist, thinker and culture critic, visited Korea to participate in a book festival sponsored by Paju Book City. In his short lecture before the opening ceremony, Sorman assured the audience that globalisation will neither harm nor eradicate Korean culture.

I cannot agree with him more because, according to the co-evolution theory, cultures constantly merge and one culture is enriched by another, not endangered by it. And yet, many Koreans still seem to worry about the possible extinction of Korean culture due to globalisation.

After the lecture, Sorman and I had a conversation on the globalization of Korean culture, which was open to the public. Both of us agreed that hallyu, or the Korean wave, has been enormously popular all over the world for the past few years. K-pop has been quite successful in attracting ardent fans even in Europe and the United States. Needless to say, the Korean people are greatly encouraged by this astonishing phenomenon which they could not dream of only two decades ago.

However, the popularity of Hallyu has its own ups and downs. For example, critics argue that the positive feedback is vastly inflated by the press and the Korean government. To a certain extent, it may be true. Nevertheless, no one can deny the worldwide popularity and spread of Korean pop culture these days.

Critics also criticise the Korean government’s involvement in promoting hallyu overseas. Yet the Ministry of Culture’s interest in and support of cultural events overseas seems only natural. In order to let hallyu spread all over the world without any resistance, however, the Korean government ultimately should back off and let civilian entertainment companies do the job instead. Sorman aptly made this point, saying, “The success of hallyu is made possible by the efforts of pop artists, not the Korean government.”

Will the popularity of hallyu, then, automatically draw foreigners’ attention to serious Korean literature and culture? Sorman was skeptical and said, “K-pop is a mixture of two cultures: Western and Korean. To foreigners, K-pop is like a smartphone, which is a mixture of television and telephone. People just like it because it is new but at the same time, familiar to them.” Then he continued, “These days, pop culture is universal. Thus foreigners may not think of K-pop concerts as particularly Korean. They may think of K-pop groups as pop singers who happen to be Koreans. But Korean literature is different from K-pop.”

I told Sorman that despite his skepticism, foreigners who like Korean television dramas, movies or K-pop tend to be interested in Korean literature, history and language. However, Sorman was not particularly optimistic when he said the following: “Unlike pop culture whose market or audience is huge, serious Korean literature has to be promoted in the small international market for a limited number of buyers. Worse, it has to compete with more attractive literary works from more influential countries such as France and the United States.”

To my question, “How can Korean literature survive, if not win, in the intense competition, then?” Soman provided his insight and wisdom: “First, we need internationally influential Korean writers. Second, the translation must be superb, if not impeccable, and thus appeal to foreign readers. For example, Yi Mun-yol is well-known in France, thanks to excellent translations. Third, Korea urgently needs unique cultural icons that would remind foreigners of Korea instantly. Toward China and Japan, Westerners have a positive fantasy. Toward Korea, however, few people seem to have a fantasy or positive impressions yet.”

Sorman was right. Following his advice, we should try very hard to improve the image of our country in the international community. Promoting hallyu is a good way to induce foreigners to be interested in Korea and Korean culture. We must conjure up some charming cultural icons that can signify Korea. At the same time, we should refrain from political skirmishes or factional brawls, and thus improve our political image as well.

Sorman and I also discussed the possibilities of electronic devices and SNS such as the iPad, smartphone, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. We agreed that due to such electronic devices, cross-over and cross-cultural activities are now being pursued every day on the internet. Surely, we can take advantage of the new electronic media to promote Korean literature and culture overseas in this age of the smartphone and iPad.

Sorman said: “When we try to promote literature overseas, we should embrace and maximize new digital technologies. The world is connected by way of SNS and we need to use it in order to reach the younger generation.” Sorman added, “Nevertheless, promoting traditional Korean culture overseas is equally important. The symbolic connection between the past and the present is splendidly exemplified in Seoul City Hall buildings.”

Professor Carolina Mera, who teaches Korean literature in Argentina, said, “Hallyu is like fast food. We now need to introduce yukgaejang (Korean hot beef stew) to the world.” Indeed, fast food is not enough. We should let the world know about Korean gourmet cuisine as well.

Kim Seong-kon is a professor of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. ― Ed.


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