by Raizel Liebler
To badly quote Bart Simpson after going on a Squishee bender, this is the book I’ve been telling you about. Or at least this is the book I have been waiting for — to explain everything from Psy to kimchi to soft power. Euny Hong‘s The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture is a book about Korean culture from the perspective of an insider/outsider, a Korean-American who spent much of her formative years in Korea, at the point the country was moving from a third-world country to one where luxury brands set up shop. This book is not a snapshot of what is cool now, but how Korea got here — and why it is likely staying there.
Unlike many of the other Korean culture (and specifically kpop books) reviewed here at TLF, The Birth of Korean Cool isn’t academic. Instead, it is somewhat personal essay — in the style of Oliver Sacks — but more than the story of one person, it is the story of a country that has decided to focus on supplying pop culture to the world. Hong writes the improbable tale of a country that went from banning rock music up until 1978 to being the pop music factory that is K-pop. Hong’s understanding of Korean culture helps to elucidate many answers to questions about “why Korea?”, including the factory-style produced music via trainees that within a different cultural context would not exist. As Hong puts it about one interaction that is
“emblematic of the absurdity of modern Korea: in what other country would a B-boy [breakdancer] try to make the case that he deserves his government’s support?”
And Hong explains how hallyu — exported Korean culture — is different than Japanese cultural production. Japanese cultural production is turned internally rather than externally, considering the size of the country allows for cultural production, like music, to be focused on domestic, rather than international audiences.
On the other hand, Hong explains how the Korean government specifically is interested in exporting Korean culture — and has spent the last twenty years helping home-grown culture make it worldwide. Hong doesn’t ignore economic influences, such as the IMF impact on Korea due to the 1997 Asian financial scandal. In the midst of the discussion of soft power, Hong titles chapters things like “K-Cinema: the Journey from Crap to Cannes”. And “Samsung: The Company Formerly Known As Samsuck”.
Is there anything negative about this book? Considering I know that I will be quoting this book all over the place I really wanted an index — but at least there are some sources listed. And of course, in addition to the government policy and economics issues, I wanted to know more about the legal environment, especially with the spread of Korean products worldwide based on the creative industries (copyright!), brands (trademark), technological industries (patent), and stars (rights of publicity). The one teaser about these issues is that according to Hong, Korean industries fit an
“apparent paradox: Being number one matters, but being first does not.”
If readers are looking for a show that helps to demonstrate the just a little-bit-old environment Hony grew up in, I strongly recommend the first half of Answer Me 1997, before the time jump.
Even if you have had no previous reason to read anything about Korean pop culture, you will not be disappointed with this book.
Summary: Detailing the present and past of Korean cultural production, from kimchi, to k-dramas, to k-pop, to k-cinema, to Korean video games, to electronics, in a lively book that will be of interest for everyone — with or without previous interaction with Korean culture. Because after you read this book, you will understand why Korean cultural products have become so ubiquitous worldwide. Super highly recommended.