Okay-everything: the rise and rise of Korean tradition | South Korea


Last week, I used to be standing in an enormous dance studio – considered one of 12 – close to the highest of a cool new workplace tower simply north of the Han River within the South Korean capital, Seoul. The constructing is residence to an organization referred to as SM Leisure, which has sturdy claims to have invented one of the potent cultural actions of the twenty first century, the phenomenon of Korean pop music – Okay-pop.

Every era creates hit factories in its personal picture. The “SM Tradition Universe” was initially the imaginative and prescient of a Korean pop entrepreneur referred to as Lee Soo-man who, after a quick profession as a singer and DJ, studied laptop engineering within the States within the Nineteen Eighties. He returned to Seoul “with the dream of globalising Korean music”.

Within the dance studio, his nephew Chris Lee, now the chief government, is speaking me by all of the methods through which this dream got here true. To start with, Okay-pop idols conquered Asian charts; currently, after the extraordinary success of Okay-poppers BTS (the biggest-selling band on the planet for the previous two years, managed by rival conglomerate Hybe), they’ve been increasing their attain to all corners of the globe. New members of boy bands and woman bands – aged 11 upwards – are recruited by SM annually on lengthy contracts and this constructing turns into their digital residence. It’s designed as an inside-out place, with each room a stage set for press conferences, fan chats and livestreams; one ground is an “artist’s home”, a spot the place “idols” can chill or do some cooking (whereas their followers watch and scream outdoors); one other is a “track camp” the place songwriters from internationally are flown in on rotation to create a worldwide sound.

A mural celebrating RM, lead singer of K-pop band BTS, in his hometown of Goyang.
A mural celebrating RM, lead singer of Okay-pop band BTS, in his hometown of Goyang. {Photograph}: Lee Jae-Gained/Aflo/Rex/Shutterstock

“One of many issues we inform [new talent],” Lee says of this operation, “is that they’re representing our nation. When you had been on an Olympic crew you would need to be skilled and we see no distinction. In the event that they wish to be one of the best on the planet, it takes loads of work. They get media coaching. They research languages in order that they’ll talk with many alternative audiences. We train them methods to have good personalities.”

Probably the most profitable merchandise of that system is Taeyoung, who joins our dialog. Taeyoung is the chief of a bunch referred to as NCT 127 (NCT stands for “neo-cultural know-how”, 127 is Seoul’s line of longitude). NCT’s final album, Sticker, reached No 3 on the US Billboard chart. Like all boy band and woman band members, Taeyoung has the bone construction and flawless complexion of an avatar and a form of androgynous vulnerability. He was, he explains, noticed for his seems to be by SM expertise brokers on the road in Seoul a decade in the past. “Taeyoung didn’t dance nicely on the time,” Lee says. “He didn’t rap in any respect. He’s now one of the best dancer, an awesome rapper. He has lived on this constructing, in that practising room.”

Taeyoung is 27, although he may very well be 17. Because the chief of NCT 127, his duties are onerous. Okay-pop bands are all about accessibility. Taeyoung is in near-permanent contact with NCT 127’s fan neighborhood, partly by a “digital metaverse”, a form of players’ dreamscape through which followers can meet digital variations of their idols. (Two years in the past, SM launched a brand new woman band, Aespa, through which there are 4 actual members and 4 avatar members, every with detailed backstories and digital lives.) That need for ubiquity isn’t just on-line. “NCT 127 are one of many greatest boy bands on the planet,” Lee says. “However bodily there are 9 of them and they’re in Korea. They can’t be in every single place on the planet on a regular basis.” In consequence, there are actually NCTs in China and plans to roll out variations elsewhere on the planet.

The boy band as franchise? “Not a franchise, a cultural model.”

Table-Turning by Korean artist Hejum Bä, part of the inaugural Frieze Seoul
Desk-Turning by Korean artist Hejum Bä, proven on the inaugural Frieze Seoul in September 2022. {Photograph}: courtesy of Hejum Bä and Whistle

Even earlier than the pandemic, SM was creating on-line live shows for its teams involving digital actuality and holograms. The present goal is “a 2.0 model of an internet live performance”. One current stay present that includes a roster of SM acts had an interactive livestreaming viewers throughout the globe of 56 million.

Mother and father, Lee suggests, can ensure that their youngsters are in secure arms. “We don’t sing about intercourse or medication or golf equipment. We don’t promote unhealthy desires however good desires.” That spirit apparently engages Okay-pop fan armies not a lot to lust after their idols however to guard them. There have been high-profile circumstances of Okay-pop stars taking their very own lives after being focused by on-line abuse. Followers of BTS and NCT not solely organise 24-hour vigils and authorized motion in opposition to critics and trolls on-line but in addition search to do charitable works of their idols’ names. BTS final yr addressed the UN on local weather change. Okay-pop appeals, lucratively, to that era much less taken with revolt than in policing kindness and inclusion.

Earlier than I depart his studios, Lee places up on a display aphotograph of the place it began. The image comes from the Shanghai Night Submit in 2000. The unique SM Leisure boyband, H.O.T., had simply held their first live performance in Beijing and the newspaper headline cash the thought of hallyu “the Korean wave”. “There’s something very attention-grabbing on this {photograph},” Lee says and zooms in on members of the Chinese language crowd who’ve the Korean flag sewn on their backpacks. “There is just one cause for that flag: as a result of they really feel, maybe for the primary time, that Korea is cool.”

The collective outcomes of that Korean coolness, which has flourished internationally over the previous decade or extra – not solely in music but in addition in movie and video video games and TV and vogue and meals – can be celebrated in a main exhibition on the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London on the finish of this month referred to as Hallyu! The Korean Wave. My go to to the Okay-pop manufacturing facility was a part of a quick tour by Seoul – following the town’s precept of ppalli-ppalli (hurry-hurry) – to get a really feel for the place that Korean wave began and a way of the place it’s more likely to break subsequent.

Within the ebook that accompanies the V&A’s Hallyu! exhibition, SM’s Lee Soo-man claims that the Korean leisure business has created a brand new paradigm for cultural export. Up to now he suggests, efficient “delicate energy” – notably, the cultural exports of Britain and the US – adopted on from financial empire constructing. The Korean mannequin, in contrast, was “tradition first, economics second”: export the thought of “Korean cool” and watch Samsung and LG, Hyundai and Kia reap the advantages.

Seoul-based rapper Psy.
Seoul-based rapper Psy’s 2012 track Gangnam Type is credited with sparking a brand new curiosity in South Korean music, changing into the primary YouTube video to be considered a billion occasions. {Photograph}: Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters

Ever since Elvis, it has been understood that there isn’t any extra ardent love than that of youngsters for pop idols. One of many masterstrokes of the federal government of Korea was to recognise that such love is perhaps weaponised, a drive for nationwide good. This mission was given larger urgency by South Korea’s fragile geopolitics. Throughout my temporary hallyu tour, I spent a day up on the border with the north, contained in the demilitarised zone, trying by binoculars throughout the rewilded no man’s land at North Koreans going about their enterprise in distant mountain villages.

It’s throughout this border that the bluntest expression of hallyu takes place. For many years, the rival nations have bombarded one another with loudspeaker propaganda. From the north, songs eulogising Kim Jong-un are periodically amplified. From the south, in recent times, the dominant beat has been Okay-pop – BTS, NCT and Women’ Era – blasted by huge audio system.

Based on some North Korean defectors, the pop barrage is profitable. Regardless of the ban on all outdoors media, Okay-pop tracks appear to have turn into seductive earworms in Pyongyang. Their softly subversive lyrics have been described as “cultural Trojan horses”, alongside addictive South Korean cleaning soap operas smuggled throughout on CDs and exhausting drives. “Within the north, dramas and movies are all about making sacrifices for the chief,” the defector Lee Je-son famous. “However throughout the border, shockingly, characters are seen to make sacrifices for love.” Some commentators evaluate the impact of samizdat and the Velvet Underground in serving to to deliver down the iron curtain. There may be some proof that it’s having an impact, not least in chilling stories of mass executions of celebration officers caught with CDs imported from the south.

The sense that hallyu can penetrate probably the most closed of societies maybe emboldened Korean creators to consider there was no territory their work couldn’t invade. In her ebook The Start of Korean Cool (subtitled How One Nation Is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture), the Korean-American journalist Euny Hong quotes Korea’s influential cultural critic Lee Moon-won in regards to the audacity of that enterprise: “Only a few international locations have ever tried to promote their popular culture to america.” For a couple of decade, when Okay-pop and Okay-dramas had been ascendant throughout Asia, that ambition was stubbornly resisted. The unlikely detonator of the Korean wave within the English-speaking world was Gangnam Type, the 2012 monitor by the Seoul-based rapper Psy that grew to become the first YouTube video to be considered a billion occasions. Gangnam Type – a high-octane dig on the pretensions of Seoul’s newly minted and plastic surgery-obsessed elite – vocalised a straightforward and irreverent spirit at odds with obtained concepts of the earnestness of Korean tradition. It provided dramatic proof that the west’s complacent sense of a monopoly on irony and nuance is perhaps underneath severe risk.

Esports star Lee Sang-hyeok, better known as Faker, competes in T1’s League of Legends team.
Esports star Lee Sang-hyeok, higher referred to as Faker, competes in T1’s League of Legends crew and reportedly turned down a $20m wage not too long ago to hitch a rival outfit. {Photograph}: Riot Video games Inc./Getty Photographs

The worldwide success of Psy’s rap may very well be traced again to the dramatic rises and falls in fortune which have characterised Korean historical past (the peninsula has been invaded and colonised many occasions, with out ever encroaching on its neighbours). After the Korean struggle, South Korea was ranked among the many poorest nations on the planet. With a combination of authoritarian repression and collective will, the “hermit kingdom” had by the late Nineties turned that round to appear to be a tech and manufacturing success story. That rise got here to an abrupt finish with an financial crash in 1997, when the Korean authorities was pressured to ask the IMF for an emergency mortgage of $57bn. The day of that request continues to be referred to as the Day of Nationwide Humility. With a purpose to repay the debt there have been many collective sacrifices (together with a drive for gold that noticed tens of 1000’s of bizarre Koreans donate marriage ceremony rings to the nationwide trigger).

The Seoul authorities nonetheless confronted severe hurt to Korea’s credibility as a spot to do enterprise. Former president Kim Dae-jung determined that what was wanted was a large train in nation rebranding. Based on ministers quoted in Hong’s ebook: “Kim marvelled how a lot income america introduced in from movies and the UK from stage musicals. He determined to make use of these two international locations as benchmarks for making a popular culture business in Korea.”

After the IMF disaster, the president threw cash at a brand new cultural content material workplace, supported by a multibillion-dollar public-private funding fund to advertise Korean artistic industries and people. The hassle was galvanised by a flood of cultural imports from Japan (if one factor unites Koreans, it’s a lengthy reminiscence about brutal Japanese imperial rule). The drive to eclipse J-pop and J-movies with home-grown tradition grew to become a nationwide obsession. Koreans couldn’t cease singing. The launch in 2009 of Celebrity Okay, Korea’s model of Britain’s Acquired Expertise, noticed greater than 700,000 folks apply to audition. By the fourth season in 2012 that quantity had handed 2 million.

The opposite strand of the Korean authorities’s rebranding programme was a dedication to a digital future. Broadband was delivered to almost all Korean households by 2010. One end result of that early adoption of know-how is that the Korean wave tends to blur distinctions between actual and digital worlds. Simply as Okay-pop stars exist each on live performance phases and in an imagined metaverse, so esports merge real-world competitors and on-line gaming. Throughout my time in Seoul, I visited the futuristic HQ of T1, the “Manchester United of esports”, in Gangnam. As with Okay-pop, T1 recruits and nurtures teenage stars for its all-conquering League of Legends crew. Semi-nocturnal gamers (the meal schedule on the T1 complicated is all the time one step behind – breakfast is at lunchtime, dinner is within the early hours) are inspired to work together with armies of followers on-line, earlier than and after stadium-filling livestreamed matches. Faker – actual title Lee Sang-hyeok – the star of the T1 (who seems to be a bit of extra like Harry Potter than Cristiano Ronaldo), reportedly turned down a $20m wage not too long ago to hitch a rival crew.

For all that digital interactivity, there’s, too, a powerfully conventional sense about a lot Korean tradition. One evening in Seoul I had dinner with 84-year-old Shim Younger-soon, who’s the one thing like a cross between Delia Smith and Elizabeth David in Korean delicacies. She appeared in her daughter’s restaurant carrying stiff Korean silks. Shim has evangelised Korean cooking for 50 years and watched it develop from being the poor relation of world delicacies to an antioxidant-rich, Michelin-star flip.

Kimchi is on the coronary heart of that revolution. The spiced cabbage dish holds a novel place in Korean hearts partly due to the collective reminiscence of kimjang, the communal autumn ritual of massaging vats stuffed with cabbage leaves with crimson pepper, salt, garlic, ginger and anchovy paste. It was kimchi – fizzing and fermenting in clay pots underground – that received Korea by the harshest winters of its war-torn historical past.

Kimchi queen: the 84-year-old chef Shim Young-soon.
Kimchi queen: the 84-year-old chef Shim Younger-soon.

Shim has travelled by Korean areas gathering dozens of various recipes for kimchi with information courting again to the fifteenth century. She places her personal well being, psychological and bodily, right down to her adherence to the refined checks and balances of Korean delicacies. These viral beliefs in kimchi’s health-giving properties went correctly world, together with Okay-pop, throughout Covid. In between temporary lectures on the significance of meals preparation inside a fertile marriage, Shim provided me an extended and impassioned argument in regards to the inferiority of Chinese language and Japanese variations of the dish. At one level in a wonderful meal, she had a quick coughing match. She put that right down to her daughter’s introduction of an “alien” piece of parmesan crisp on an in any other case “true” Korean dish of grilled ribs.

If Korean meals desires to have fun the native authenticity of its origins, nevertheless, a lot of the remainder of its tradition is exuberantly hybrid. This weekend, the primary Seoul Frieze artwork truthful is happening, cementing the town’s repute as south-east Asia’s artwork capital. Subsequent month in London, there’s a pageant of crossover Okay-pop and Okay-classical. Ten years in the past, the critic Lee Moon-won was suggesting that “Koreans are usually not good at creativity”. However simply because the tiger economies had imported and copied and eclipsed western manufacturing excellence by the top of the final century, Korean artists have introduced residence and remodeled western concepts of cool.

Nowhere has that effort been extra profitable than in movie. Whereas Hollywood repeats ever-more bloated Marvel franchises, Korean film-makers have discovered that Nineteen Seventies Hollywood trick of creating considerate, auteur-led movies go mainstream. Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite was a groundbreaking Oscar success – the primary overseas language winner of finest image – not for any form of worthiness however for its sensible up to date storytelling, the sharp and resonant issues it needed to say about inequality and sophistication and poverty and extra – topics about which mainstream American movie is generally silent. The Netflix blockbuster Squid Recreation, too, gave a complete new tone of voice to its playful, compulsive, brutal tackle late-stage capitalism. Squid Recreation was the primary non-English Netflix present to prime world viewing charts, breaking all earlier information for the platform (in its first month, it clocked up 1.65bn hours of viewing in contrast with what was then the earlier finest, the first season of Bridgerton, with 625m hours).

Its success opens up scope for extra Korean exports. Whereas I used to be in Seoul, a really completely different Korean drama, Extraordinary Legal professional Woo, was a shock fixture on the prime of Netflix’s world scores charts, above the much-hyped adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Extraordinary Legal professional Woo is a courtroom sequence that includes an autistic junior barrister with case-cracking powers of recall. It proves an urge for food for Korean kookiness in addition to high-concept violence. The star of that present, Park Eun-bin, began out as a toddler actress on Korean tv 27 years in the past. She instructed me how gratifying it was to now be reaching a worldwide viewers. She mentioned: “It’s unbelievable that we are able to now share much more parts of Korea with the world.” There was a confidence that nothing wanted to be modified to seek out these viewers, even within the west. “What works right here works outdoors as nicely.”

Bang Jinah is director of the Korean Tradition and Info Service. In her 13 years in that division, she has seen the Korean wave transfer from a ripple to a deluge. “About 10 years in the past, we seen the massive shift,” she mentioned. “Earlier than that, a lot of the protection of Korea within the overseas press was about nationwide defence. And now it’s all about tradition – Okay-pop, Okay-classical, Okay-movies. There has on this time additionally been a threefold improve within the variety of articles.”

Bong Joon-ho’s biting class satire Parasite was the first foreign language film to win the best picture Oscar.
Bong Joon-ho’s biting class satire Parasite was the primary overseas language movie to win one of the best image Oscar. {Photograph}: AP

I discussed to her an attention-grabbing metric, the annual Good Nation Index, which makes an attempt to quantify how efficient international locations are in promoting optimistic concepts of themselves. Final yr, Korea was at No 6 in its checklist of world cultural affect (Britain was at No 23).

Bang smiled. What they had been doing in her division, she recommended, was actually attempting to emulate the effectiveness of the British Council and the BBC, these prime movers of sentimental energy. She was stunned once I talked about how the present British authorities appeared intent on ravenous that success story, undermining the BBC, slashing the price range of the “woke” British Council, shutting down college artistic and design programs. “Why?” she requested. “Search me,” I replied. However then I assume that’s the factor about waves: for each one which advances, there are all the time loads of others in retreat.