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Hallyu: How Far Has It Come?

Kim Dae Sung
The Hankook Ilbo
Since the Middle Ages, Asia had been cast in a marginal role in the world history led by the West. Moreover, Korea was a small country within this marginalized Asia. In addition, it experienced considerable difficulty lying between China with its great power, and Japan, which became powerful enough to confront the United States after the Meiji Restoration.
   The images of Korea were no doubt negative as the country underwent change from a calm land in a marginal part of the world to Japan`s colony, then to a war-inflicted impoverished country, and a nation ruled by a dictatorial regime when President Park Chung Hee came to power after a military coup d`etat, similar to other newly independent Asian and African countries.
   Such a country, however, has now become an exporter of its culture. Products of Korea`s popular culture, such as TV dramas, films, and animation, are in the spotlight of Asian markets thanks to their strong consumer appeal. Korean TV dramas are now being viewed by households in East Europe, the United States, South America, and even Africa, where they have received favorable responses overall.
   In March, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism released "Analysis of Import and Export of Broadcast Programs 2004," which documented the substance of hallyu, or the "Korean Wave." According to this report, the export value of Korean dramas last year amounted to some $57.71 million. The average rights fee per TV drama increased from $2,198 in 2003 to $4,046 in 2004, representing an incredible 84 percent increase.
   The economic impact of the Korean Wave, including TV dramas, games, films, and animation, as it becomes part of the global popular culture scene is impressive indeed. According to "Analysis of Economic Effects of Hallyu"by the Korea International Trade Association`s Trade Research Institute, the amount of foreign currency earned from hallyu products last year was estimated at 2.14 trillion won (about $1.87 billion). The economic effect of hallyu within Korea is reported to be valued at some 1.43 trillion won during 2004.
   The Korean people pridefully refer to this extraordinary cultural phenomenon as hallyu. It is not hangukpung (Korean wind) or hanguk style (Korean style), but hallyu (Korean Wave). Flowing naturally like water, hallyu is a peaceful link bringing together the three countries of Korea, China and Japan in Northeast Asia, where confrontation due to nationalism and historical relations remains a serious concern. As such, it provides freshness to Southeast Asian countries, which have been uncomfortable with long-held antagonism toward Japan; meaningfulness to the seemingly materialistic and pleasure-seeking cultures of Singapore and Hong Kong, the most affluent areas in the region; and cultural harmony in contrast to Chinese hegemony.
   The hallyu trend first washed ashore in Japan. Chanting a slogan, "Escape Asia and Join Europe," Japan became the first Asian country to succeed in modernization, which subsequently led to its forcible suppression of Joseon. Before Japan forcibly colonized Korea, Joseon served as a cultural conduit to Japan. The general trend of cultural exchange in Northeast Asia during pre-modern times involved the creation of advanced culture in China, which was localized and refined on the Korean peninsula and then transmitted to Japan.
   However, under Japan`s colonial rule, Korea came to receive modern civilization through Japan. Korea was basically an imitator, mimicking Japan`s economic system and culture for the next 60 years. As such, Korea was overwhelmed by Japan`s state-of-the art electronic products, like the Sony Walkman, as well as its popular culture, ranging from animation to TV dramas and fashion. With Japan being several steps ahead of Korea in the field of popular culture, many Koreans expressed serious concern, just four or five years ago, about the unrestricted opening of Korea to Japanese popular culture, worrying that Korean culture might be absorbed into Japan`s culture.
   Then somewhat unexpectedly, Korea`s popular culture came to be transmitted to Japan. As is well known today, this reversal of direction, under the hallyu trend, began with Winter Sonata, a KBS TV drama featuring Bae Yong-joon and Choi Ji-woo that created an unimaginable phenomenon in Japan. Through Winter Sonanta, hallyu laid a foundation for establishing itself as a long-term cultural trend in Asia, rather than simply the temporal success of a Korean TV drama.
   The various results of Winter Sonata are truly amazing. Winter Sonata, generated some 3.5 billion yen (about 35 billion won) of revenue for Japan`s NHK in 2003. According to NHK`s financial report for 2003, overall revenues, including affiliates, amounted to 144.5 billion yen, an increase of 9.8 billion yen from the previous year, including 3.5 billion yen of income from the sale of DVDs, videos, and books related to Winter Sonata.
   In addition, about 300,000 Winter Sonata DVDs, priced at 350,000 won per copy, have been sold since its release in 2002. Also, sales of original soundtrack albums (2,500 yen per album) have reached 600,000. The sales revenues of original soundtrack albums, including single recordings of instrumental arrangements, amounted to more than 20 billion won. Another 13 million copies of related publications, including the Winter Sonata novel upon which the series is based, guidebooks, and Korean-language textbooks with tie-ins to the series, have been sold as well. From such data, Winter Sonata is unofficially estimated to have generated some 100 billion won of revenue in Japan.
   Thanks to Winter Sonata, its lead actor Bae Yong-joon became an entertainment superstar in Japan. When Bae, known respectfully as "Yonsama" in Japan, visited Japan to publicize his new film April Snow, Japanese broadcast media allocated more hours to coverage of Bae than to Hurricane Katrina, which wrought extensive damage in the United States and otherwise dominated the headlines worldwide at that time.
   As of October 13, April Snow had attracted more than 2.2 million viewers in 27 days since its opening at 320 cinemas across Japan on September 17. This is a record-breaking gate for a Korean movie released in Japan thus far. The film distribution rights were acquired by Click Stars of the United States for a hefty price at the tenth Pusan International Film Festival. It is scheduled for showing in Hawaii in late November and then across the United States. It has also been invited for screening at the 30th Toronto International Film Festival and the 24th Vancouver International Film Festival.
   While the romantic Winter Sonata laid a foundation for hallyu, a history-based drama Daejanggeum (Jewel in the Palace) has been stirring up its own waves in China and other Chinese-speaking regions. The MBC serial, about a court lady Janggeum who becomes a court chef and then a royal physician, was dubbed a "national drama" in Korea last year, when it attained an unprecedented viewer rating of 50 percent. Now being shown in various countries around the world, it is enjoying tremendous popularity and opening new horizons for the Korean Wave. The popularity of Jewel in the Palace started out in Taiwan in May 2004, swept through Hong Kong and Singapore, and then arrived on China`s mainland in September.
Attracting strong viewer interest from its very first episode, Jewel in the Palace is now aired by Hunan Satellite TV throughout China, making it the latest hallyu sensation.
   NHK, which enjoyed a financial windfall from Winter Sonata, is also re-broadcasting Jewel in the Palace on its terrestrial TV channel beginning in October. In conjunction with its airing of Jewel in the Palace in July on its satellite TV channel BS2, at the request of viewers, NHK featured a special program known as "Guidebook for Jewel in the Palace" to enhance audience understanding about the historical details of the series.
   The popularity of Jewel in the Palace, which surged in Hong Kong this spring, is still going strong there. Recently, Kelly Chen, who gained popularity by singing "Hope," a Chinese version of the Jewel in the Palace theme song, made headlines when she visited a sick boy in a hospital and sang "Hope" to him as encouragement for his recovery. Responding to a boom for learning the Korean language, the national RTHK is now airing a new program for the study of Korean instead of Japanese.
   Jewel in the Palace is also being broadcast in other Asian countries, such as Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia, as well as Uzbekistan and Iran. Indeed, it can be regarded as a kind of "Global drama," in light of the fact that it is being aired on Japanese- and Chinese-language channels in Europe, the United States, and Australia.
   Since spreading throughout Asia, hallyu has also reached the shores of South America and Eastern Europe. Another television series, Stairway to Heaven, starring Kwon Sang-woo, Choi Ji-woo, and Kim Tae-hee is now being broadcast in eight South American countries, including El Salvador, Peru, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Guatemala, and Costa Rica since October. In Mexico, Korean TV series like All About Eve and Wish Upon a Star, which have been broadcast on several local TV channels since October 2002, have proven to be tremendously popular among viewers. Mexican fan clubs for Jang Dong-gun and Ahn Jae-wook were formed in May 2004, which are said to have memberships of about 2,000.
   hallyu is gaining momentum in Eastern Europe as well. For example, Arirang TV has been airing the popular SBS drama series All In in Macedonia since August. Although All In failed to elicit an enthusiastic response from viewers in Turkey when it was aired in February, it is now being re-broadcast in Macedonia at the request of local audiences, two months after its original showing. Arirang TV also airs a variety of Korean programming, including Korean TV dramas, in Eastern European countries and the CIS, such as Poland, Bulgaria, Russia, Lithuania, Belarus, and Uzbekistan.
   The success of hallyu is attributed, in large part, to a combination of Oriental sentiments and aesthetics, as a contrast to Western lifestyles; an ability to portray lyrical as well as passionate sensibilities; and cultural traditions that have evolved over thousands of years. However, there are a number of problems that need to be addressed as well. As such, the current production system for Korea`s popular culture needs to be further refined. The most serious pitfalls to the continued success of hallyu include an over-reliance on individual stars, mass production of cookie-cutter dramas with similar story lines, and a lack of creative talent, including writers, directors, and production crews.
   "Cultural imperialism" is another matter that calls for careful attention. There are already hints of a hallyu backlash in Japan, China, and Mongolia. Such resistance will be further intensified if hallyu is limited to unilateral export of popular cultural products and becomes viewed as a form of cultural hegemonism. In this regard, there are those who say that it is now necessary to focus on a world-oriented hallyu, which embraces non-Koreans as well as Koreans, as compared to existing Korean-made hallyu pop culture, in order to sustain its appeal.
   hallyu will be the most innovative creation of the Korean people in the 21st century, if the various problems at home and abroad that might undermine its popularity can be adeptly overcome, so that it can become a permanent fixture of the global cultural scene.

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