The Power of Korean Dramas

By Park Chung-a
Staff Reporter

Late last month, a woman in Nanjing, China, threw herself into a river after arguing with her husband. At the center of the argument was a Korean drama "A Jewel in the Palace" - "Dae Jang Geum", which stars top actress Lee Young-ae as Changgum, a palace maid who becomes a royal physician in the Choson Kingdom.

The woman's act was in protest against her husband who insisted on watching a soccer game over the drama. Fortunately, she was saved by her neighbors and made her husband change the channel.

Following the success of "Winter Sonata" that created "Yonsama (Bae Yong-joon) Syndrome", a historical soap opera "A Jewel in the Palace" has again created a stronger Korean wave (hallyu) hitting East Asia on an unprecedented scale.

Chinese president Hu Jintao, Hong Kong film stars Chow Yun-Fat and Andy Lau have publicly announced that they are the drama's fans. The serial topped the TV ratings chart until its end on Oct. 16 and China Youth Daily even declared that "all Chinese people" love it.

The final episode of the drama this year became the most-watched television show in Hong Kong history. More than 40 percent of the city tuned in. The show aired on TV from January to May in Hong Kong.

In Japan, after its successful debut on satellite channels, NHK, a Japanese public broadcasting company, has been airing the drama with the title, "The Promise of Changgum" on terrestrial channels beginning on October 8, once a week at 11:00 p.m. It is the same tim e "Winter Sonata" used to be aired.

NHK plans to air another Korean drama, "Damo", as soon as "A Jewel in the Palace" - "Dae Jang Geum" comes to an end.

Tashiro Chikayo, a Japanese expert in Korean culture who came to Korea this month through an invitation by Korea National Tourism Organization (KNTO) said that "A Jewel in the Palace" is appealing to a wide range of viewers.

"It is popular even among men, as opposed to Winter Sonata's popularity primarily among middle-aged women", said Chikayo. He said that heroine's struggle for overcoming hierarchy of the society and struggle for victory are fascinating male viewers.

According to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, this year's export of broadcast programs is likely to surpass $100 million (105 billion won). Compared to 10 years ago, it is a sum that is 20 times larger. (See graph.)

KNTO also announced that the number of foreign tourists who visited Korea through "Korean wave" tourism package from January to August reached 320,000. Packages offer a sightseeing of shooting places of smash hit Korean dramas.

While the number of tourists to the shooting place of "Winter Sonata" has been slowly decreasing from early this year, Taejanggum Theme Park, Kyonggi Province used to attract 3,000 foreigners a month. It has now emerged as a major tourist attraction attracting 120,000 foreigners a month. The number especially increased from March, right after the drama "A Jewel in the Palace" went on the air in Hong Kong.

And there is an increasing number of women from around the region coming to Seoul to have their faces remodeled to look like Lee Young-ae or other hallyu stars.

"Many of my foreign patients bring me a picture of a Korean star from a magazine and ask me to make them look like that". said Chong Jong-pil, a surgeon who runs cosmetic surgery clinic in southern Seoul. "The number has been increasing dramatically since the Korean wave started".

Signs of Backlash

However, along with the fever, signs of backlash against such Korean boom are beginning to appear.

Shanghai news magazine, Xinmin Weekly, for instance, has warned of a potential cultural clash between South Korea and China.

"South Korea's government does not see the Korean Wave just as a way of spreading its culture, but also wants it to represent Asian culture", it wrote in a recent article.

Zhang Guoli, one of China's top TV actors recently called Korean wave a "cultural invasion" and publicly complained about the drama "A Jewel in the Palace" which portrayed acupuncture as a Korean invention although it was developed in China. He was quoted in a report on China's as saying: "How can it be? It should be that acupuncture was invented by Chinese, no?"

He also criticized the Chinese media for being overly critical of mainland shows and too kind to Korean serials.

Hong Kong actor Jackie Chan also urged the Chinese media to support Chinese stars so they can compete with the Korean wave, saying all Korean newspapers were promoting Korean stars.

Speaking in Singapore last month, the kung fu star reportedly said Hong Kong newspapers would devote four pages to a visiting Korean starlet but "give very little coverage to our own people".

"When a Hong Kong star goes to South Korea, it's the opposite. The Korean media would still support their stars", he said. Chan later denied making such remarks.

In Japan, signs of backlash can be seen in a comic book titled "Hyom-Hallyu" meaning "Anti-Korean wave". The story is of a Japanese high school student who subscribes to Far-East Research Group to know the history of Korea and Japan. But at the end he comes to realize "the real ugly nature" of Korea.

Future of Korean wave

Although such a backlash has up to now not been something of major, there are increasing voices which call for hallyu stars and producers to take modest attitude and seek a bilateral relationship in terms of cultural exchange.

Uri Party lawmaker Chung Eui-yong recently said while there was nothing wrong with being proud of the Korean boom in China, it was an exaggeration to think Korean soap operas dominated the entire mainland. "Korea should take a more modesty attitude in its relations with China", Chung said.

Jang Nara, an actress and singer who is widely popular in China said: "In many times, I found that Chinese dramas or entertainers are neglected or unwelcome in Korea as opposed to Korean entertainers who are well received in China. It is important to give more attention to cultural products and stars from other Asian countries".

Park Beom-hoon, the chairman of Joongang University who manages Hallyu Academy, a graduate school on studying hallyu, said that rather than making unilateral inroads into foreign countries only through economic perspective, we should expand network for exchange of human resource as well as cultural products with neighboring Asian countries.

Lee Sang-gil, a professor from The Yonsei Graduate School of Communication and Arts said that the dramas that largely depend on the popularity of stars will no longer be effective.

"Rather than focusing on making dramas that target at foreign market, it is important to increase the quality of the drama by diversifying genre and contents of the drama", he added.

Experts also chastise Korean drama productions that demand excessive payment when exporting them.

The price of exporting dramas stayed around at $2,000 per one episode in the 1990s but has gone up more than 10 times in recent years.

"Although the most important thing is expanding market, Korean drama productions always just try to increase price of their dramas when exporting them", said Park Jae-bok from international business department of MBC production which exported "A Jewel in the Palace". "Because of such attitude, some of Asian countries are beginning to ostracize Korean dramas".

Kwon Oh-dae from KBS' Global Center who exported "Winter Sonata" said, "I heard that some Japanese broadcasting stations are seeking an alternative to Korean dramas as they get more and more expensive".

In Japan, the overall number of Japan's terrestrial broadcasting stations which telecasted Korean dramas decreased from 63 in February to 20 this month.

Others also say that although dramas are at the center of the Korean wave and will keep playing an important role, in order for Korea to make further advances into non-Asian market, it should promote more various genres of cultural products such as documentaries and animations.

According to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, amongst all the broadcasting programs exported abroad last year, drama accounted for 91.8 percent. It has been on steep increase from 76.8 percent in 2002 and 85.7 percent in 2003.