How Korean Pop Culture Took The World By Storm
Following the opening of London’s V&A exhibition Hallyu! The Korean Wave, Fiona Bae, the Seoul-raised writer and author pays homage to Korean pop culture
I’m writing this on a plane from Incheon in South Korea to London Heathrow. I’ve just attended the inaugural Frieze Seoul art fair, which elevated the city’s status on a global culture map. Thaddaeus Ropac, an influential European art gallerist, told me how astonishing it was to see the enthusiasm and knowledge young Koreans have about arts – more so than anywhere else. He also cites that RM – rapper, singer-songwriter and member of South Korean boy band BTS – posting about arts has had a positive impact on drawing young fans. (Just last month, it was revealed that RM donated 100 million won to the Overseas Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation.) People are ever more curious about the unique energy Korean culture exudes; there is an explosive energy and solidarity among young Korean creatives. Musicians, fashion designers and architects are gathering to ride the big wave they have all been waiting for.
The ingredients for Korean culture’s success have long been present: hard-working people with a huge appetite for learning based on Confucianism, an adaptability and practicality that has roots in Shamanism, hyper-competitiveness, and a yearning for international recognition resulting from a rapidly developing society. Combined with the context of technology, sophisticated Koreans’ tastes and imagination, and a corresponding interest in non-Western values – boom! – Korean culture exploded.
Over the last few decades, the country has gone through a remarkable transformation. South Koreans were not allowed to freely travel overseas until the country hosted its first Olympic Games in 1988 because the government worried that North Koreans would turn them to communist values. But such suppression also brought about the rebellious spirit that suffuses K-style. Be it through fashion, music, art or film, K-style is a bold and brave attitude remixing everything Koreans find to be cool with zero inhibition. Breaking out of traditionally oppressive social constraints, K-style celebrates newfound confidence, pride and independence. It has resonated across continents with those disenchanted by the cultural dominance of the West who want to rebel against the old order and make something of their own. In a world where the boundaries between originality and copying are increasingly blurry, the mix created by K-style can lead to a ‘new authenticity’.
Just like Seoul itself, what makes K-style fascinating is its complex mix and contrast of old and new, Western and Eastern, high- and low-brow. The film director Park Chan-wook says the Korean audience is so hard to please with a single genre, which is why he infuses thriller, drama, horror and comedy into one film.
Still, Korea is going through a fragile transition. People have begun to realise that personal assessment of their choices can be more important than external validation and the mould is being broken. However, young Koreans are still in a deep search for their identity. But with passion and sustained meditation on creating something of one’s own, I believe K-style will continue to reveal itself in strong, diverse forms.
Raised in Seoul and now based in London, Fiona Bae is the author of new book Make Break Remix: The Rise Of K-style, published by Thames & Hudson. She handled communications for Frieze Seoul and is creating a Korean gin with her 12th-generation gin-distiller husband in London