Book Review: The Birth of Korean Cool – Euny Kong


Some countries are already deemed to be cool. I would argue that most people would consider countries such as say, Sweden, with its great design and socially progressive policies to be cool. This book argues that in the recent years the republic of South Korea has become famous the world over for its cuisine, technology and its music scene.

It hadn’t always been this way. In the Eighties Hong and her family left the Korean district of Gangnam to move to the US. There was nothing special or enviable about coming from Korea. To most westerners, Korea was just a poor country which had fought an unpopular war and was famous, if for anything at all, for making cheap electronics.

It’s quite remarkable that Korea has moved from the 115th  to the 15th largest economy in forty years. But the book’s position is that this has been down to the Soft power, or the idea that a county may build its status through its culture rather than through its military industrial complex. This idea is known as Hallyu, and the book gives plenty of examples of the way governments have used it to increase Korea’s global influence.

A great example is K-Pop. Now, no-one would  ever have thought of Korea as a country that would become famous for pop music. But if you think about it, music is a great way to get your ideas out there. To get an idea of how seriously the business of making music is taken, consider that K-pop artists spend years practising their craft before releasing a single record. It’s an example of the 10,000 hours theory used by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, that anyone can become skilled at something if they practice for long enough.

K-pop is serious business. It doesn’t really matter that most Korean songs aren’t sung in English. It didn’t make any difference to the popularity of Psy’s Gangnam Style – officially the most video on YouTube. Largely this was due to the comedy of the song, it was essentially satirizing the wealth of the district – and a sure sign of a confident country is one that understands irony and can recognise it when it is about itself.

Another example is movies. After the government relaxed the censorship laws considerably, there was an entire movement of Korean cinema, that represented something of a new wave of Asian Cinema like the cinema of Japan led by Kurosawa. All of a sudden there were new directors emerging, making entirely distinctive works of art, such as Park Chung Wook’s Oldboy, winner of the Golden Palm at Cannes, and the more recent Pieta. Again, language is no barrier to these film’s success, since they are popular in countries such as France, where there is already a great love of subtitled cinema. Korean films tend to be made on lower budgets, and there are fewer big names, certainly none who are known internationally. Whilst such films as Oldboy, and the other film in teh director’s Vengeance trilogy have tended to explore extremes of violence and torture, the most popular films in Korea have been romantic comedies or historical epics. And last year saw the release of the very stylish and creepy Stoker, the first English language feature from Chan Wook.

There is much in the book about food. For most people, eating out has meant a lot of Chinese and Japanese restaurants, but fewer Korean options. Again, this is changing and fast. Korean dishes such as Bibimbap, a rice and vegetable dish cooked in a stone pot, could soon be as ubiquitous as burgers and tacos.

The author is sometimes mocking of her countries traditions. For example, in Korea it’s considered discourteous to eat in the company of someone else who is not eating. To outsiders, the country’s focus on work and study can be off-putting. And there is the statistic that the suicide rate in Korea is the highest of any country in the world. The country is in many ways very traditional, in spite of its technological developments. Another fact (the book is full of them) – Seoul has the fastest internet connection anywhere. Then there is the Samsung Galaxy, apparently the world’s most popular phone. These things make the country hard to dislike. In fact most people’s understanding is that it is a remarkably successful nation based on the hard work of its people and the government’s enthusiastic support of art and culture.

Music, film and food, a great combination for non-military world domination.

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