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."
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."