The World Domination Of Korean Pop Culture, Decoded

book-slide1Photo: Courtesy of Picador.
Maybe you've noticed from the onslaught of infectious K-pop, addictive beauty products, a stronghold in tech, and imitable street style, that South Korea is absolutely crushing it these days. (And, that's just the tip of the iceberg, folks.)
Advertisement
History books will tell you this wasn't always the case for the now-prosperous country. Back in the '70s and '80s, South Korea was drowning in overwhelming debt. So, how did a country pull itself out of the hole and rebrand as one of the most innovative developing nations in the world? In her new book, The Birth of Korean Cool (Picador), journalist Euny Hong takes on the challenge of decoding the success of South Korea, peeling back the layers of the culture's stronghold in music, film, style, technology, video games, and more. Through Hong's interviews with the nation's biggest influencers, and through her own humorous anecdotes (Hong moved to the Gangnam neighborhood from Chicago when she was 12), this fascinating read is an essential for anyone obsessed with South Korea's fast-track to pop-culture dominance.
We caught up with Hong, who has since lived in Paris, Frankfurt, Berlin, and the U.S., and asked her questions about South Korea, the country that is not only of the moment, but also the future. The Birth of Korean Cool is out today, August 5.
Your book is full of illuminating insights about South Korean culture — is there any fascinating piece of research that got cut from the book that you can share with us?
"I originally had a section comparing modern-day Korea to modern-day Israel. (I'm Jewish, so I'm inherently attuned to these kinds of observations.) Both nations lack natural resources and thus rely almost entirely on intellectual capital for their source of revenue. [In fear that] their best minds will decamp for Silicon Valley, both nations have set up multibillion-dollar, government-run funds to foster start-ups and VC culture. Their economic profiles are very similar."
South Korea is a pretty conservative country on the topic of gay rights, but then you often see K-pop boys in makeup or gender-bending outfits. How's that work?
"It's true that Korea is not the most LGBTQ-friendly nation in the world. Korean men don't have hangups about their masculinity the way a lot of Americans do, because Korea still has mandatory military service for all able-bodied men — even if a man appears to be short or effeminate, everyone knows that he's done the same insanely rigorous physical training as every other guy. So, experimenting with a little camp is something Korean men can get away with. The U.S. is relatively progressive in terms of LGBTQ rights, but Americans are very, very binary in terms of what constitutes men's clothes and what constitutes women's clothes."
How has the explosion of pop culture affected the old trope of Korean parents pressuring their kids into becoming lawyers and doctors?
"Well, I interviewed someone from the Korean Ministry of Culture in the process of writing The Birth of Korean Cool, and he said that, although it was the case not too long ago that the top students in the class were the popular kids, it's now the case that kids who can sing or dance well are popular. Still, I don't think that Koreans will ever, ever come to a point where they cease being study-aholics. What might happen instead is the creation of more arts-focused schools."
Advertisement
For all its progress, it seems like South Korean media and culture still places a lot of pressure on being successful and beautiful. What's your take?
"I think of Korea as being like one of those very beautiful women who have body dysmorphia. You know, those women who look in the mirror and see a horribly disfigured monster. It is a highly successful society, but it is not at all a healthy society. I tried not to dwell on the latter in my book, mainly because that would be an entirely separate book (which I really don't want to write)."
I loved the section of the book where you candidly talked about your eyelid surgery — what were the reactions like after you decided to do this for yourself?
"Seriously, absolutely no one noticed except my immediate family (who already knew I was getting it)."
Did writing this book solidify your connection to your Korean heritage?
"I think a lot of my fellow nomads — people who lived and/or grew up in multiple countries — will understand: I never felt comfortable identifying with any one country. If I had to pick one national/cultural identity, though, it's actually French. I lived there for six years, and it's the comfortable middle ground between the excessive formality of Korean culture and the excessive informality of American culture."
What do you think will be the next breakout trend from Korea that Americans will eat up?
"G-Dragon, the male K-pop star who was previously in the band Big Bang. And, duh, Korean fried chicken."
Advertisement

More from Books & Art

Sneak peek inside book ^^^^! Link to order in bio. #carrythisbook A video posted by @abbijacobson on Sep 25, 2016 at 10:33am PDT Abbi Jacobson, ...
Back in the early 1970s, Pierre Le Guennec was Pablo Picasso's handyman and electrician. Le Guennec had such a good relationship with the artist that he ...
J.K. Rowling, the reigning queen of the Wizarding World, has a present for you. That present is a quiz in which Pottermore will select your patronus. We ...
Vanessa Bayer of "SNL" interviews author Jessi Klein
I do not recognize Mara Wilson when she arrives at an ice cream shop in Brooklyn, wearing a red dress and a sweep of black eyeliner. When she says hello...
In honor of National Support Teen Literature Day, we've collected the best books to pick up if you're in the mood for a little young adult lit. YA has only...
There are some books you pick up because you know they'll be tear-jerkers, and you're not opposed to a good cry. Then there are the books that sucker-punch...
Whether rooted in reality or a glamorized rom-com, job stereotypes make it easy to assume the voices behind most runway reviews, PR pitches, and cover ...
It's been a big year for the Winnie the Pooh characters. This summer, the original stuffed animals the literary characters are based upon (who reside in ...
Even if you're not actually going back to school, there's something about September air that makes it feel as though it's time to go buy pencils and ...
As long as books have existed, there have been people trying to stop people from reading them. And though the practice is widely condemned, it is also ...
If you're anything like the R29 crew, chances are you spend a lot of time engaged with a screen during the day. So maybe the last thing you want to do ...
Fans of Zayn Malik that wish he would (finally, at the ripe old age of 23) release an autobiography will soon have that wish granted. The former ...
Julianne Moore is mainly known for her work on the big screen. But the actress also happens to be an author, nine times over — her children's series, ...