Can Korea Sustain its Cultural Leadership?
Beyond the Korean waves, a vast ocean and growing expectations
by Stephane Mot
December 11, 2023 | Article
At this moment in time, Korea can be considered as if not the, at least a cultural leader. But what kind of leadership are we talking about, and can this momentum last?
For now, Korea’s cultural leadership is recognized by the masses as well as by experts and elites:
Popular leadership? A legitimate claim when you produce such global phenomena as (yes, them again) PSY, Squid Game, or BTS.
Cutting edge leadership? Impossible to top the technical and visual perfection of K-pop groups developed like high tech products over years of intense training by ultra-pro entertainment companies; hard to rival with a creative ecosystem that churns out every year scores of One Source Multi Use or transmedia hits (webnovel-webtoon-seriesgames-OST…).
Avant-garde leadership? Elites consider the nation as a whole as the ultimate influencer and trendsetter. This is where you post your observers and researchers if you want to detect the next big thing; this is where you scout your curator if you want your art institution to shine; this is where you let your kid study for one semester even if you know they just come to live the Hallyu life – who knows, some of that magic could rub off on them...
If Korea’s cultural leadership translates into considerable economic impacts, and not just for Korea Inc, the nation as a whole is not perceived as an overpowering or threatening leader. Unlike the United States, China, or Japan in the late 80s, Korea has never been a contender for the World’s biggest economy. This tiny peninsula (de facto an island) hosting 0.6% of mankind, and surrounded by bullies is more a David than a Goliath. Korea didn’t force respect by the scale of its market; rather through repeated over-performances. Even Korea’s soft power heroes look pretty soft: a buffoon performing a silly horse dance, losers trapped in a survival game, cute youngsters heralding love and compassion… not really Rambo material.
Without dictating anything, Korea somehow manages to set the tone, the pace, the rhythm. This strange leader is more inspirational than visionary, more praised for its way of sorting things out than for its charisma or authority. Clearly, this is not the kind of leader you fear, rather the kind you enjoy being around, the kind you like to follow.
Quite a quantum leap from Korea the ultimate best follower, the ‘we try harder’ Korea, the benchmark fanatic always eager to close the gap with unattainable role models. Yes, Korea has long been a role model for developing countries, but being looked up to by cultural superpowers, that’s a completely different game.
Korea couldn’t have reached the top by just following others. It took a cultural change to become a cultural leader. In turn, this leadership is now changing the very way Koreans see themselves.
‘Good artists copy, great artists steal’, and Korea didn’t hesitate to source creative talents overseas, particularly from Europe. For instance, many K-pop hits were made with the help of Swedish music producers, and Hyundai Motor Group owes in part its cultural revolution to Peter Schreyer, the German designer recruited in 2006 (a model recently followed by Korea’s fashion industry with Belgian designers). Yet opening up the creative pool or attracting the best talents shouldn’t be seen as a sign of weakness, rather as smart decisions to lead a group to the next level.
Protecting the local creative ecosystem when it was too weak was also good leadership because it was designed to help it grow stronger, not just curl up defensively. A few decades after Hollywood threatened to overwhelm Korea’s movie industry, a subtitled Korean movie triumphed at the Oscars, and Busan International Film Festival has become a locomotive for all Asian cinemas. If France inspired Korea to take action (screen quotas in 1995, BIFF in 1996), now the former is more trying to learn from the latter, and the recently created Academie France Coree du Cinema puts both nations on the same footing.
Korea’s startup scene wasn’t weak to start with, but it became even more competitive after Google, Facebook, or big international VCs barged in, offering new alternatives and global perspectives: local players upped their game, and young talents became less reluctant to start their own business or to join a startup instead of aiming for the usual conglomerate. A lot of them fail, but the local ecosystem needed talents who accept failure and risks as part of the creative process and their own training. Even beyond tech sectors, the lack of perspectives in the job market also forced many to try and create their own niches, to seek different approaches. Now Korea’s young leaders in tech are not chaebol heirs anymore, but successful entrepreneurs – a genuine cultural revolution.
If external influences did contribute to Korea’s cultural change, that’s only in supporting roles, as accelerators or catalysts for a country that still depends a lot on others for its survival (food, energy, raw materials, exports, security…). The nation’s fabled resilience became universally acknowledged during the pandemic: when other nations were at a standstill, Korea kept producing series and movies or holding art exhibitions, catching all the spotlight and drawing all media attention (coincidentally, the New York Times chose Seoul to move its Hong Kong hub in 2020). More eyes on the nation, more stories exposing all sides, even the dark ones (after all, isn’t that what many ‘k-contents’ are about?)... for better or worse, Korea was in the news, Korea became the news.
Now it’s not just the core K-drama fans that are familiar with how Koreans live, eat, love, work, or struggle; everybody knows what’s happening here, and many have realized that beyond Hallyu and K-pop, beyond these repeated Korean waves, a vast and diverse cultural ocean waited to be discovered.
Of course, Korea has brilliant creators, top notch players, and a (sometimes too) proactive government, but as always, its most precious natural resource remains its people. Many have in mind the usual cliché of the ever resilient, hard-working Korean that helped the nation become the best follower of the pack, but the shift to leadership was made possible by the growing influence of different profiles: not just these elites of young risk takers with innovative mindsets, but also masses of merciless ubersumers.
Korean ubersumers want everything now and exactly as they want it. They may not have much money or power as individuals, but collectively their reviews can make or break everything they touch. They’re the ones who force webtoonists and webnovelists to fine tune their series in real time and improve their stories after each episodes, they’re the ones who make Korean cosmetics so competitive (and they already have to be to resit such extreme winters and summers), they’re the ones who push customer and after sales services to their extreme limits, demanding absurd delivery delays or return rates.
Of course, companies have learned how to tame, cajole, or manipulate macro and even micro influencers, but netizens have also learned how to cut through corporate storytelling and to expose any weakness or wrongdoing. From product quality to food safety to abuses in the workplace, once something pops up somewhere, the culprits have no choice but to fix things or to go bust.
In a nation where one-term presidents become lame ducks as soon as they’re elected and where chaebols are losing some their overpowering grip, netizens have also become the only unchecked political power. This formidable force showed its most positive side during the unprecedented democratic movement that united the nation towards Park Geun-hye’s impeachment in 2017. But these crowd dynamics also have less positive effects: disinformation can spread like wildfire on both sides of the aisle, and ever-growing consumer demands can lead to non-sustainable standards (Korea’s excellence in last mile economics does have a social cost).
For better or worse, internet and mobility were from the beginning meant for such a reactive, swift, and (literally) interactive people. Here, User Generated Contents were harnessed much earlier than anywhere else in the World: the first social network service, Cyworld (1999), was launched long before MySpace (2003), and OhMyNews (2000) predated all other citizen journalism platforms. At the turn of the millennium, when all eyes were on Scandinavia or Japan, SK Telecom was the World’s most innovative operator but back then, only experts knew about what was going on in Korea, and language barriers prevented a global success, delaying at the same time the emergence of truly open and competitive models. Now Korea’s webtoon and webnovel platforms aim at global domination.
The key factors of success had been there for a long while, but the mirror effect from the rest of the World proved crucial for cultural changes to overcome certain inertia, for a people of great achievers to get used to being on top, to gain the confidence of leaders. Accolades for Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Parasite’ were less perceived as a surprise than as a long overdue recognition for Korean cinema. Cannes and Hollywood knew this movie was not a flash in the pan because they had already been impacted before by movies like Park Chan-wook’s ‘Old Boy’. And now even subtitles aren’t an obstacle for generations used to surfing videos full of captions and comments.
Can this momentum last? Momentum means mass in motion, and Korea’s challenge is getting at the same time tougher and easier: on one hand, this mass is growing and requires less effort to move, on the other, it’s getting harder to surprise audiences expecting more, to make a bigger splash than past giga-hits. Yet even if Korea can’t pull out another tsunami, a great part of the public is now aware of its ocean, its smaller waves get easily noticed, and even its wavelets enjoy a greater visibility and impact than before.
The pedagogy is done. A lot more dimensions of Korean culture have been exposed than the usual suspects (K-pop and Korean drama), and the classic pushing forces (Korean companies and authorities promoting k-content from home, ecstatic fans from overseas) have been joined by millions of people boasting a more direct contact to Korean culture after visiting the country and/or learning the language in record numbers. Foreign companies and institutions follow the demand and add their own pulling forces when they opt for Korean brand ambassadors, when they seek Korean contents for their cultural events.
The risk of K-fatigue remains, of course, particularly with that pervasive, heavy ‘K’ branding. But now that the World’s cultural taste buds have been trained to Korean contents, more people know about Korean music beyond K-pop, Korean series beyond K-drama, Korean food beyond K-food. More people appreciate good music, good series, good food that happen to be Korean or to have some Korean touch; and they don’t need all that branding anymore. Inviting top European chefs to Korea to discover, taste, and test Korean dishes and ingredients over a decade ago had probably much deeper and longer lasting effects than all these costly advertising campaigns for ‘K-food’.
One can also wonder if the recent boom in tourism can last, but even now that top destinations have reopened in the region following the pandemic, and even after such dramatic failures as the tragic Halloween 2022 Itaewon stampede or the embarrassing Jamboree 2023 meltdown, tourists keep coming in record numbers. And in spite of a tendency to disgrace each new popular spot with architecturally debatable landmarks, Korea has become an expert at turning its assets into sustainable magnets, proposing such unique experiences as hanok stay or temple stay, and boasting 16 sites and 22 intangible assets on the UNESCO World Heritage list today compared to zero until 1995.
Is there a risk of hubris, then, with Koreans basking in global recognition, and younger generations far less prone than their elders to an inferiority complex towards Foreigners? Well to start with, Koreans never had doubts about a culture they struggled to defend when it was under existential threat during the Japanese occupation. And their new confidence makes them more daring than arrogant: after overprotecting their traditional arts, they are now much more open to mix them with modern influences. Pansori became a rock opera at the Jeonju Sori Festival with Miyeon and Park Jechun, or a madcap pop performance with Leenalchi and Ambiguous Dance Company.
Korean culture is here to stay, but in order to maintain global relevance, embracing cultural diversity and crossfertilization will be key. Korea’s main cultural challenge will be to overcome persisting discrimination towards certain minorities, to remain a leader who opens doors for others as well, to succeed its evolution into a more multicultural society. This aging nation will lose 40% of its population by the end of the century, and can’t afford to waste the endless potential of future growth drivers: Korean diasporas, Foreign Koreanophiles, and most existentially multicultural nationals.