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Nationalism Weakens 'Hallyu'

2006/08/08 Source

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This is the second in a series of articles on the repercussions of rising nationalism in Korea and East Asia. _ED.

By Kim Tae-jong
Staff Reporter

Nationalism has emerged as a major hindrance to the globalization of the Korean wave.

The popularity of Korean pop culture products, or "hallyu", seemed like a fad limited to Asia, much akin to Japanese pop singers in the 1980s, and Hong Kong movies in the 1990s. But hallyu is extending its influence to several Middle East countries as well.

"Korean pop culture inherently contains an understanding of broad Asian cultural notions with which Asians all over the world can identify. The themes differ from Western pop material, dealing much with human relations and love, that strikes a chord with many Asians", said Joyce Ang, 25, an office worker in Singapore.

But a combination of factors is posing the question whether the wave can maintain its momentum _ the same-old storylines of Korean dramas and movies, the rampant commercialism, and the general rise of nationalism among countries that already share a complicated historical past.

Three major local television networks have started airing big-budget historical dramas featuring the ancient Korean kingdom of Koguryo (37 B.C. - A.D. 668).

But as their main theme is about restoring the lost history of Koguryo, which at one point dominated the northern part of the Korean Peninsula and much of the territory that is in today's modern China, they have drawn criticism from Beijing.

Chinese TV officials expressed embarrassment and displeasure over Korea's aggressive production and promotion of dramas featuring Koguryo.

""It can be worthwhile to look at parts of the little-known Korean history", pop culture critic Kim Heoun-sic, said. "But the approach shouldn't be made through emotional nationalism without proper research and study. This is highly likely to trigger unnecessary disputes with neighboring countries".

"As their production budgets have soared to 10 billion won due to spectacle scenes, how could they manage to make profits only in local markets without selling the productions in Asian countries?" Kim added.

Another example is the movie "Hanbando" (Korean Peninsula) which deals with the hypothetical premise that Japan will emerge in the near future as the main opponent of a unified Korea, and also criticizes Japan's allegedly historical distortions of its rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

There is no doubt that such "nationalistic" dramas and films will not appeal to people in China and Japan, two of the biggest markets for Korean pop culture, and they could lead to the spread of an anti-hallyu movement.

Hallyu Stars and Nationalistic Fans

Nationalistic Korean fans have often embarrassed the hallyu stars.

As more and more local stars have made their ways in other Asian countries, local fans want their stars to show patriotic behavior when it comes to politics and diplomacy.

In a press conference last year, big hallyu star Bae Yong-joon, better known as "Yonsama" in Japan, was asked about his views on the conflict between Seoul and Tokyo over the Dokdo issue.

He refused to give an immediate response, saying that he would speak about it later. But his reluctance drew criticism from many Koreans who wanted him to take a stronger stance on the issue.

Through his Web site ( Open the link ), Bae later expressed concern that an emotional backlash could lead to a worsening of relations and called for "rational response".

Korean pop singer Boa participated in year-end festivals in Japan without visiting her country, and many people blamed her for neglecting her duty to take care of home fans and criticized her preference for Japan over Korea.

Such emotional nationalism has eroded the popularity of hallyu as the Korean wave is largely dependent on individual stars.

"It is a negative aspect of nationalism for Koreans to force their stars to take strong stances on political and diplomatic issues. It is especially troublesome when they are popular in both countries which are disputing a certain issue", said Kang Myoung-seok, a culture critic who writes a column for the Hankook Ilbo, a sister paper of The Korea Times.

"The real irony is that while local fans download MP3 files of their favorite singers, fans in China and Japan buy their albums. Who do you think they will care more for later?" Kang said.

Cultural Imperialism

When a homemade drama is a hit or a popular singer has a concert in other Asian countries, the local media here competitively dedicate much space for their coverage.

One example is Rain's concert in Vietnam in July. Vietnamese media were highly critical of his "lack of preparation", but local media used headlines such as "Rain Wins All Hearts of Vietnamese".

"It was probably a very proud experience for Koreans to see their stars and movies loved by people in other countries as before they had only imported Western culture and other Asian cultures' influence", Kang said.

Kang believes that Koreans are easily fascinated by the massive success of their culture in other Asian countries, but it could be very dangerous if that pride in their culture develops into cultural imperialism as culture is a matter of taste, not of superiority.

Many experts say that to continue hallyu, an effort must be made to understand the difference in culture between Korea and other countries.

Early this year, Vietnam took the strongest action against the one-way influx of Korean pop culture. The Vietnamese government insisted that they would ban the import of Korean dramas and movies unless Korea imports Vietnamese cultural products.

Such a strong stance comes from the awareness of the Korean culture's strong impact on its people.

"Vietnam was one of the countries where the Korean wave was initiated, but it is also true that people there have also raised the first protests against Korean pop culture", said Kim Su-yee, a professor at Kyunghee University. "It's exceedingly pitiful only to think about economic profits".

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