Shots Fired O’er the Starboard Bow: Ishmael takes on Euny Hong, OR, a Lesson on How NOT to Write About Hallyu

(WARNING: this is a really monstrous rant, full of vitriolic ferver and stuff, but I have truly censored myself).

OK, so my research is sparkly and has some eyeliner issues. That doesn’t mean that just anyone can do what I do. Hell, I barely feel qualified to do what I do because I understand how tremendously complex it is. So I was excited and apprehensive when a friend told me about a book that seems to have been peeking at my thesis drafts: “The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture” by Euny Hong, the stunning tale of how an “uncool” and repressive country transformed itself through an “extraordinarily elaborate and effective strategy to become a major world superpower by first becoming the world’s number one pop culture exporter.”

…but as it turns out, the whole book is bullshit. This book hurt me so much, I came perilously close to literal tears of frustration (and Ishmael is not a crier). Hong took the seeds of something brilliant and utterly failed to nurture them into so much as a sprout, while wasting resources some of us may need later in order to do it right.

I cannot believe that this book has been published and sold in Korea. It is not doing Korea any favors. It is RUDE and grossly inaccurate. This is NOT how to write about Hallyu. As far as I can discern from Hong’s resume, she has spent most of her life outside of Korea, aside from junior high and high school, and during that time she had difficulty assimilating and transferred to an international school for high school. Hong’s only claim to expertise on Korean culture and society is her ethnicity and this limited lived experience. Her writing in this book makes it absolutely clear that she misunderstands and/or disdains not only Hallyu, but many elements at the core of Korean history and culture.

While Hong is a particularly bad example, this is a problem that applies to many publications in the Hallyu genre. So I am writing this long, long, rant to set the record straight. What entitles me to claim that I’m doing it right? I suppose my literal title of “Korea Studies M.A.”. I have had to actually defend my ideas on Hallyu and Korea to an academic committee.

Perhaps an advanced degree isn’t necessary to analyze Hallyu. Hong has a BA in Philosophy from Yale and has international experience as a journalist. She spent her formative years witnessing Korea’s transformation in a way that I never have or will. But none of that helped her write a book that wasn’t a flaming pile of shit. So while I am loathe to pose as an expert, there is no way I am letting her pass herself off as one. Thus I submit to you my humble resume as an American who has witnessed the discovery of and reaction to Hallyu over seven years in Japan and the US, plus that whole “Korea Studies M.A. with a focus on the evolving role of popular culture in nation branding” thing. Obviously we’re coming at it from very different perspectives, but I will demonstrate that Hong committed a dozen unpardonable sins that prevent this volume from having any redeeming qualities. After I eviserate it, I’ll share my humble opinion on how it should be done.1

1. The All-Or-Nothing Argument That If The Government Is Involved, Then It Must Be A Massive Conspiracy Envisioned And Implemented A Quarter Century Ago

Hong’s main argument is that Hallyu is primarily envisioned and carried out by the Korean government. Conspiracy is actually her word, not mine. Choi Bokeun, director of the Popular Culture Industry Division of the Ministry of Culture, directly and bluntly disagreed with her “characterization that the government was the invisible hand behind Hallyu” and informed her “The Korean Wave is not guided by the Korean government; we just serve a coordinating function” but she chose to pass over this without much consideration (p. 100). By making this a government conspiracy, Hong neglects the vast majority of actors shaping and producing Hallyu. She credits no agency to the entertainment industry and idols who are literally the stuff Hallyu is made of; or the academics whose publications influence rhetoric and perceptions of Hallyu; or the audience’s power through consumption, distribution, commentary/analysis, or fan-production; or other industries’ influence and support; or external influences like foreign media and collaboration. And that list only took me a few minutes. One simply cannot explain Hallyu through government conspiracy alone. Believe me, it would have made my research a lot easier.

The other producers and gatekeepers of what has collectively come to be known as Hallyu are not minor supporting characters. In fact, I argue that the government is essentially a reactive sector, with little influence over the production of Hallyu materials. It spins what it is given and may offer advice and support, but it cannot keep Hallyu going if the raw material is bad (or worse, stubborn and rebellious).

If the central tenet of this book cannot stand up to the mildest of criticism, why should we listen to Hong? If you want to know about the “K-pop Idol Machine” (God, I despise that term. You know what, don’t listen to anybody who uses that dehumanizing crap. Once again looking at you Caramanica of the NY Times), you’re infinitely better off reading Peter Russell’s work. He is much better at tracking development and trends.2 It’s informative without the snarky condescension or delusions of grandeur. This narrow-minded focus costs Hong the opportunity to examine many of the most fascinating nuances and potential developments of Hallyu.

2. Hong Reaches Insupportable, Sensationalist Conclusions (and Hyperbole, Oh God, the Hyperbole).

A lot of the claims she makes are just astounding. If I uttered any of this tripe in front of my advisor…..

P. 3 “Western expansion [of Hallyu] is inevitable”

No, it’s not. That’s why they’re working so hard.

P. 4 “It would not be an exaggeration to say that Hallyu is the world’s biggest, fastest cultural paradigm shift in modern history.”


P. 5 Hallyu’s main aim is to dominate untapped “third-world” markets ignored by the West.

P. 6 Because Korea was once a “third-world” country it understands the stages of other nations’ development and thus has a “peculiar, unreproducible advantage” in analyzing which “K-culture” products have the best odds of success there. Also, any country that enjoys “K-culture” will loyally buy Korean brands once they can afford luxuries like mobile phones and appliances.

No expert really calls it the “third world”, a problematic Cold War term, which technically never referred to Korea, a nation firmly in America’s anti-communist “first world”. Hallyu’s primary targets are not developing nations. Korean rhetoric on development is quite problematic in its insistent recycling of Park Chung Hee’s philosophy and the belief that if other nations follow Korea’s example of hard work and sacrifice their problems will be solved. Also, very few people purchase appliances or electronics out of loyalty to a popular culture.

P. 6 “The South Korean government has made the Korean Wave the nation’s number one priority.”

I’m pretty sure that’s ridiculous. Education reform, North Korean security, historical and territorial disputes with Japan and China, and burgeoning demographic crises are all priorities that probably exceed the Korean Wave.

P. 18 Korea decided to invest in pop culture exports in order to beat Japan at something, anything.

I sincerely doubt that was in any way a primary motivating factor. Seriously. It’s more like a bonus, and since they tend to export very different cultural products it’s debatable to what extent they are in direct competition, let alone one beating the other.

P. 98 “Hallyu, not politics, will bring north and south together.”

Well… where to start? Hallyu is already intensely political, as Hong herself is inadequately trying to argue. Engagement, which  can come in many forms, is what will improve North Korea’s relations with the world. Experts on Korea rarely call for outright reunification, which could prove disastrous in the short term. Hallyu has the potential to play a role, but I don’t think it will be a leading one.

That’s it, I’m not picking them all out because there are way too many. It’s insane. Is it the journalism background that encourages these sensationalist statements? As a book that claims to make a single revolutionary argument, it should stay focused on supporting that argument in order to convince readers. It doesn’t need catchy headlines to draw people in.

3. Hong Fails to Define Hallyu, Pop Culture, Export, or Korea (kinda key terms)

Hallyu is a very nebulous term that is frequently expanded and altered. Thus definitions are very important. Hong describes it as exporting pop culture. This doesn’t explain why she is also discussing Samsung appliances and she completely misses other crucial non pop culture Hallyu components like skin care, medical tourism (plastic surgery but possibly also maternity services), and traditional culture (still culture, but sooooo not pop). She does say that Samsung is related to Hallyu because they were one of the earliest companies to rebrand, which spilled over to rebrand Korea, but she never clarifies why Samsung chips in iPhones are part of Hallyu (spoiler: They’re not, but VISIBLE Samsung products can be. p. 3). Those facets are now part of Hallyu and should be discussed, but she doesn’t explain in how the campaign expanded to integrate such disparate products or how this reflects the interplay of diverse agents and priorities as Hallyu develops.

I reject her overly simple assertion that the popularity of Korean media will throw open the doors and secure consumer loyalty based on products’ country of origin. I know a lot of people who love Hallyu, but none of them drive a Hyundai and most use Apple products. She also misses all of Hallyu that isn’t exported, which as it turns out is an awful lot. Gee, that has a few implications. If you’re a follower of Hallyu, think about how much you get from official sources and how much comes from fan-translations, unofficial news sites, unoffical youtube channels, or even knock-off fan goods shops in Seoul.

Furthermore, she lumps Korean and Korean-American into a single homogenous category. That’s a problem; a problem so big it deserves its own post. I’ll sum it up: Koreans and Korean-Americans are different and there is diversity among Korean-Americans. Ethnicity does not make you an expert on the place your family once came from. Even if you maintain a relationship and visit often, there are differences. This is often extremely obvious when these “overseas Koreans” go to their “homeland” and are met with disapproval (Jay Park is a famous example of this, but many “diaspora” Koreans I’ve met share similar experiences and sentiments). There is also considerable discrimination amongst the Korean diaspora based on what country they are now from and when they emigrated. Furthermore, the influence of the Korean government over members of the diaspora is limited. Finally. she repeatedly says that 12 is too late for an American to adapt to Korean culture, but misses all the implications of that for her own research and claims to expertise.

This is why I think Korean food, for example, does belong in this book, but not bulgogi taco trucks of the American West Coast. Seriously, c’mon, even China doesn’t try to claim General Tso’s chicken. China may try to claim Hallyu as Chinese culture, but they know Moo Goo Gai Pan is as American as it gets. Hong didn’t even pause when writing about a Korean-American chef’s restaurant with a Japanese name (Momofuku), or when he declared that the French way is the only way to cook, or when Koreans were outraged at his terribly un-Korean gall to *gasp* charge for kimchi!

4. This is where a Korea Studies M.A. is Handy. Hong Gets Almost Everything About Korea Wrong. Really Wrong. And Weird. Also, She’s Rude.

These are just basic things that you should know. If you don’t know these, you shouldn’t write about Korea. Also, it’s not that hard to find correct information. She’s so wrong it’s almost impressive. If Hong’s theories are based on this faulty foundation, she should be stopped.

    “the most stressful belief system on Earth”. Basically she plays the Confucianism card to explain Korea as it pleases her while resenting the hell out it. Her expert on Confucianism is a German who “went native” and is now head of the Korean Tourism Organization (not like, you know, a scholar who has studied Confucianism). She parrots his belief that Confucianism was great and all people were equal if separate under it but that “Korean ancient rulers corrupted Confucianism and turned it into a political tool.” (p. 67-70). Sorry? What? I’m not an expert, but I’m pretty sure that Confucius himself advertised it as a political tool. Also, he was not a champion of women’s rights or children’s independence. Besides, Korea specifically embraced Neo-Confucianism. Yes, women had a lot more rights until the fifteenth century, but you need to explain what was going on then and why things changed socially and politically (like war). It wasn’t the beliefs that changed, it was the degree to which they were followed.
    Although theoreticallyyangban (aristocrat) status was determined by performance on exams, it was never actually a meritocracy. When the old aristocracy was overthrown at the start of the Joseon dynasty, the new aristocracy was not chosen purely through exams. That’s ridiculous. If you were educated in Korea, you should know that. There were many restrictions on who could sit for the exam and even being the son of a yangban  family didn’t necessarily qualify you. Also, families managed to keep power nicely consolidated over generations even without impressive exam scores. This is information that one can acquire through graduate courses on pre-modern Korean history (as I did) OR through just about any Korean historical drama (secondary sons: a classic plot device since Hong Gil Dong) OR Wikipedia OR quite possibly you can glean this knowledge from the ever-resentful-of yangban ether in Korea to this day.
    Hong goes off on a bitter diatribe against shamans that depicts them as mentally ill or witches who illegally con the superstitious and ignorant out of their savings. But that’s not all, she goes on to claim that shamanism corrupted Confucian rites and crept into Korean Christianity, which is why they go into trances and speak in tongues. Ishmael doesn’t even know where to start with this. It’s rude and uninformed. She may have spoken to an “expert”, but guess what? I studied under an expert too (plus I kinda have a shaman friend; it’s complicated). She brings up shamans for no reason and then gets everything wrong. For shame, madame. Also, depictions of shamanism are an increasingly important and frequent aspect of Hallyu, particularly in their status as a “purely” Korean belief system that predates Chinese influence.3
    Connected to this, Hong dismisses Korea’s traditional belief that “the body and earth are one” as”nature fetishism”. Because Seoul is not a natural environment, it must all be nonsense. Ishmael once again doesn’t know where to start. Most societies believe that the environment and consumption of local products are important, often to an extent that outstrips common practice. Though I, like Hong, am not an avid camper or hiker, I cannot share her disdain of these activities as hypocritical or pointless. This belief is in fact at the core of many aspects of Hallyu, such as skin care products and tourism as well as the growing “traditional culture” sector.
    Arirang and Early Korean Music:
    She brings up “Arirang” as a song that represents Korea, which is absolutely correct. However, she brings it up in order to emphasize that it’s all about han. “That first stanza is spiteful and vengeful. And it speaks volumes that Koreans have used ‘Arirang’ as their international ambassadorial song [ ]. They don’t question whether it’s okay to air this kind of hostility in public” (p. 51). Wow. Hong clearly knows nothing about this song. “Arirang” has a complicated history and there are countless versions and lyrics connected to it over the decades. Despite its popularity in Japan during the colonial period, it is generally believed that the lyrics were a cleverly disguised protest against the Japanese. This history has a lot more to do with why it is representative than the expression of han alone. Surprised that “Arirang” was  a hit in Japan? Actually, E. Taylor Atkins does a good job of discussing Koreana in Japan during the colonial period in Primitive Selves.

    The Japanese were not in Korea with the single minded purpose of destroying all traces of Korean history and culture. We don’t have to be happy about colonization, but we do have a responsibility to look it directly in the face for what it was, and by “we,” I mean scholars. Hong claims that “Korea had very little musical identity for much of the twentieth century. During the Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945, the use of the Korean language was banned, and by default Koreans adopted Japanese cultural trends” (p. 111). That’s an exaggeration. Preventing the entire Korean population from speaking their native language ever was too much even for the stringent controls of the Japanese, particularly as they were very actively promoting the widespread use of radios. In fact, many Japanese and Western musical styles filtered into Korea and were explored during the twentieth century.4

    “‘Gangnam Style’ and its 2013 follow-up song ‘Gentleman’ signaled the emergence of irony in South Korea, marking the country’s final stage in its modern evolution.” (p. 18) If Hong really believes that Koreans have never laughed at their own society, particularly elites, then she needs to get herself educated. Pansori and masked dances would be a good start. I am quite certain that Psy is not the first to combine “Confucianism” and dirty or scat humor. Just look at the yangban masks. You think they’re twisted and pock-marked because commoners and performers were reverent? Yes, the military regimes were repressive, but Psy is not the “Birth of Irony” in Korea.

5. Hong Spends Half the Book Talking about Korean Social Transformation Without Actually Explaining How or Why it Happened.

Now this one really is a complicated topic. As much as the transformation of Korean society is described as a miracle, there’s no real explanation of what changed or how in this book. Yes, it was a time of great political change as Korea had finally shed Chun Doo Hwan’s military dictatorship and moved towards a more democratic government. Just before the IMF Crisis shook Korea, Kim Dae Jung had become the first President truly from an opposition party. This had tremendous implications for his ability to adapt/fulfill the political hopes/ambitions/promises that had accompanied his election. Yes, there was an economic transformation as Korea rebranded and started to gain the world’s attention as a prosperous nation. Recovering from the financial troubles of the IMF Crisis was fairly easy compared to coping with the tremendous social change that came with the new economic policies.

Hong mentions a loss of faith in chaebol and a new willingness among youth to engage in venture capitalism. OK, that’s close-ish. Of course, the government was also strongly supporting venture at this time and the reorganization of chaebol and their financing was often mandated, not solely their own wise insight and subsequent self-correction. Hong does not discuss the havoc this wreaked in the family and the considerable generational conflict. She also lightly skips over the fact that many of those employees laid off were middle aged men in mid-level positions, whereas the youth were struggling with finding any job in the first place. A great deal of pressure and blame were put on women, who now must support the family financially but were criticized for inadequately supporting their husbands emotionally in this trying time. Let me put that another way, this was a time when the government was promoting new ideals for individuals and newly defining who was deserving of government aid, while the population was renegotiating many social expectations and relationships.5 These new ideals turned a lot of things on their heads, holding the youth in higher estimation than anyone expected (and higher than many elders could tolerate). Hong doesn’t address the new emphasis on youth, beyond grousing over the deterioration of good manners.

This is not the place where I want to explain all of this. However, if you want to make the transformation a major part of a book you’re publishing, you should take the time to spell it out and get it right. Particularly because Hallyu and idols can be considered a product and/or representation of the new ideals promoted and neoliberal reforms implemented during the 90s. That’s one big reason it matters. The other reason is because the financial recession hit a lot of countries, who could then no longer afford to import Japanese media products. Without this opportunity, Hallyu may never have gotten off the ground, no matter how carefully the Korean government was planning.6

6. Hong Really Doesn’t Get Hallyu Media and it Kills Me

I would bet my last dollar that Hong doesn’t personally follow K-pop. This book reeks of someone who just looked up some articles on events that seemed pertinent to her project and attended a Psy concert. A lot of band names crop up, but there isn’t much actually said about them or the members. Grossly generalizing K-pop is not the way to write about Hallyu. Even if you believe that the government is covertly orchestrating everything, the different management and product styles of various entertainment companies is rather significant in analyzing the rise and spread of Korean “cool”. She had the sources to do this. She even cites Russell, but doesn’t use his account of how Lee Soo Man devised his own business model for SM Entertainment.

I just have to question how well you understand Hallyu when you describe it as a “shock-and-awe cultural invasion” (p. 23). On the same page she claims that “conventional, beautiful K-pop bands never really gained significant appeal in the West” (which is really odd, given a. REALITY and b. the European reaction to SM concerts that she describes later in this book).

“The girls always smile; the boys never do, instead bearing warrior expressions.” (p. 131).

OH MY GOD, Really? How many K-pop videos have you seen? It’s atypical that “Gangnam Style used real street scenes and unadorned locations? Ummmm, except the dozen or so videos featuring foreign street scenes, or all the studio/practice room themed videos or the ones that feature dramatic versions in cafes or parks or schools, or early Big Bang videos, or recent folk Hallyu stars, or other Psy videos…. I’m not saying it’s a majority, but it’s not insignificant or obscure. I could name thirty in under a minute (that’s the kind of thing you can do when you actually follow K-pop in order to analyze Hallyu, Ishmael said with smug condescension as if she hadn’t been reduced to an apoplexy of not being able to can or even mere seconds before). I’d say “sparse, futuristic, and sometimes wintry, like a space-age version of a Chekhov play” is not the norm. “Gangnam Style” is the song that “put K-pop on the map” (p. 4)? OK, which map are you using honey? Focusing so much on Psy makes it seem like you didn’t care about Hallyu or come into this project until Psy’s hit, aka about a decade late.

Still, the best example of cluelessness is her description of G-Dragon, which works great for me as watching people who are clueless about Hallyu describe G-Dragon is becoming something of a hobby. “When I first saw him on stage [at a Psy concert], I didn’t know who he was or what to make of him” (p. 136). Oh, you didn’t have to spell that out for us. Everything you say makes it very clear. An obvious blunder was thinking that “Crayon” is literally about art supplies. Hallyu does terrible things to English, but this is by no means the most convoluted. Cray=Crazy, Get Crazy/Get it on + Dragon … Cray on, Get your Cray-on… If you don’t approve of this linguistic contortion, that’s fine. I’m not really a fan either. Yet I don’t try to compensate for being out of my comfort zone by trying to sound smart. When a performer asks you to answer their call with a set response back and forth, like a cheerleader, you can just call that a chant or something, not a “neo-Dadaist chorus.”

Also, don’t mock his understanding of English or rap culture: “He bellowed to the audience what the non-English speaking world believes to be a universal rapper cry: ‘Whassup!'” OK, given that many of her American culture references are the Brady Bunch or Gidget, I’m guessing Hong’s not an afficionado of American rap culture.7. Cultural appropriation in Hallyu is definitely something to talk about, but Hong is not doing that. She’s snidely implying GD is ignorant, and that’s uncalled for. It’s a relatively common greeting, one of many that GD uses. Big Bang generally doesn’t mangle English pronunciation or grammar (*cough*Beast*cough*BAP*cough*Block B*cough*) and they work with native English speakers. GD, Big Bang, YG? Given their current prominence and careful strategizing, these are the names crucial to understanding the direction and future of Hallyu. Don’t waste our time with comments like these when there are truly important issues to discuss on language and cultural appropriation.

I’m getting a little worked up here and it’s not entirely Hong’s fault. She is merely the most recent in a long line of writers who discuss Hallyu while evidently not engaging it. It comes across like your grandparents explaining Backstreet Boys and Snoop Dogg. It’s hard to accurately explain why people like it when you don’t like it. One can like different components of Hallyu for very different reasons.

I guess I’m saying that important voices are missing. When I decided that I wanted to research Hallyu, specifically K-pop, I didn’t actually listen to that much of it. However, I set out immediately to change that. Sometimes I thought I’d go insane. I went months on end without touching any of my classic rock, indie, or jazz. I forewent most American TV so I could watch Korean variety shows and dramas. Sometimes it was fun, but sometimes not. I tried to follow as many major bands as possible, even ones I really don’t enjoy. I went to as many concerts as I could afford, even for a group I not-so-mildly despise, because I thought I could learn from the experience (and I really did learn a lot). I have a lot of trouble accepting the work of Hallyu’s armchair anthropologists. It’s more than catchy tunes and pretty faces. It’s more than enraptured teenage fans. Someone who is unfamiliar with even the most famous bands and basic trends of K-pop gets to publish their insupportable theories before me?

7. Hong Really REALLY Doesn’t Get the Appeal of Hallyu to Fans

OK, #7 is probably part of #6 but it felt important enough to earn it’s own separate rant. First, Hong argues that the primary appeal of K-pop aside from physical beauty is that “large groups acting in unison are catnip to fans” (p. 131, and again, I find catnip a bit dehumanizing as a metaphor). People are addicted to K-pop because of the precisely synchronized dance moves (note: this is also an aspect that leads many journalists to dehumanize K-pop by comparing it to machines).

Yeah, about that … no. I mean, it’s nice, and I’m impressed by the hard work it takes to accomplish that, but it’s neither mandatory for all videos nor actually a main reason Hallyu is addictive. How does one even come up with that? Did Hong even ask fans? They can be far more articulate than people give them credit for. In fact, the hard part is actually getting them to stop explaining why they like it so much.

Here’s where she not only gets it wrong, she gets it the dead opposite of the truth:

“If this sounds like a marketing plan for mix-and-match shirts and pants of different colors at the Gap, that’s exactly the effect the producers are going for. You don’t need to know what the individual singers’ back stories might be – which ones grew up in a trailer park or started singing gospel in their church. I mean, how interesting can a twenty-year-old’s biography be, anyway? K-pop labels love stars, but not superstars: they don’t want to get into a situation in which one band member becomes indispensable.”

It was a mistake for Ishmael to read that paragraph in public. NO. nononononononononononono. WRONG. Make the bad person stop.

In fact, Hallyu and K-pop are all about the persona of the artist. Please see the (currently upcoming) post “Hallyu is people” (spoiler alert: Hallyu is literally made out of people). Idols are at once affective products and performers of affective labor. An incredible system is in place to convey a mind-boggling amount of personal information about idols through social media, books, concerts, magazines, and a plethora of variety shows. This can make fans feel as if they know the idol as well as their best friend despite having never met. Perceived intimacy is absolutely crucial. If your band members are interchangeable or replaceable, you have done a bad job. As bands develop over time, they push for more solo projects. No one debuts as a superstar, but it is possible to become one. Labels generally don’t resent this kind of success either. GD is a good candidate to consider (although all Big Bang members have achieved individual success). One could make a strong case for Siwon of Super Junior based on social media, acting, and modelling. The goal is to have a band that is strong collectively and individually. Media format crossovers can raise one idol’s fame, but the entire group benefits. Being a “superstar” also varies based on region.

8. Only Hong is This Incredibly Stupidly Exceptionalist, OR Korea: a Beautiful, Unique, Snowflake Where Normal Rules Don’t Apply

Hong frequently exclaims that an idea, attitude, product, or policy could only exist in South Korea. This is just ridiculous. No matter how beautiful and special Korea is (and I really believe that. I mean, look at my life. Look at my choices. You think this dedication is easy or without sacrifice?), no matter how fantastic this country is, there’s nothing in this book that is only possible in Korea. In fact, some of the things she cites as “unique” exist in several places if she bothered to look around. Plus, Hong describes these examples in incredulous and negative terms, like “It’s an idea so ridiculous that only South Korea would think of it.” (p.8)

As much as she doesn’t get Korean media, she also doesn’t get American media or culture. She’s so busy talking about how much Psy’s music and life represent Confucian influence (“self-flagellating, Confucian filial piety) that she steamrolls right ahead to portray American as devoid of any love or respect for family. Seriously. It’s ridiculous: “No western pop icon would write a song about his or her parents, with the possible exception of Eminem’s song “Cleanin’ Out My Closet,” which contains the line, “You selfish bitch, I hope you burn in hell for this shit.” (p. 27). I beg your pardon? There are dozens of heart-wrenching songs dedicated to parents in Western pop, from John Lennon and Cat Stevens to N*SYNC. Let’s take another moment to consider this quote “Psy will go down in history as the first real twenty-first century entertainer.” For the love of God, REALLY?)8

I despair of the lack of good comparative analysis of nation branding campaigns through popular culture at least once a week (literally once a week; Ahab is kind of sick of it). This is a legitimate problem with the academic literature on Hallyu. However, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to look around and realize that Korea is not the only one who has had this idea. Perhaps the best case to compare with Hallyu is “Cool Japan”. Hong was so busy researching this unique Korean political approach to popular culture that she never got around to checking whether it actually was unique. For example, she discusses the government’s attempts to influence Korean cuisine abroad but misses the controversial “sushi police” incidents from Japan. She never provides figures for what other governments invest in cultural and information technology for comparison (plus she sloppily implies that investments in IT were primarily intended for the promotion of Hallyu, despite the fact that IT gets more money than cultural tech and it came first, as in before Hallyu existed). Even though she is citing others, it’s dead wrong to claim that Japan never tried to export popular culture to the US and Europe. If you don’t believe me, check out the work of Anne Allison, Christine Yano, Susan Napier, and maybe Thomas Lamarre or Ian Condry. Or just go with your gut instinct based on the popularity of Hello Kitty, Pokemon, Nintendo, and all the other manga, anime, games, and characters. In fact, ask a random American what they know about Japan and I’d be shocked if they don’t primarily focus on pop culture.

9. Just Plain Shitty Research: I’m Sorry, You Cited WHO?

Worst bibliography ever. If you’re blowing the cover on “the world’s biggest, fastest, cultural paradigm shift in modern history”, shouldn’t you address what people like Koichi Iwabuchi or Chua Beng Huat have been saying about it for almost a decade? I mean, she connected with some interesting people to interview, but I can’t see any evidence of even a cursory lit review. Although I complain about the paucity of analysis that has been published, there is some great work out there. In fact, there’s no theory in this book. There’s no framework for her analysis. She explains one of the most remarkable social transformations of the century primarily through personal anecdotes. If you really believe that you are shedding light on a government conspiracy that is revolutionizing the world, you need to do more homework.

She speaks to or cites a few government officials, a few people in the entertainment industry, some chefs, other journalists, bloggers, and a cultural critic. Aside from the fact that most of those people are literally selling something, basically selling Hallyu, she cites almost exclusively Koreans or Asian-Americans as experts. Trust me, if you are already making the error of focusing on Hallyu in the West and the neglected (non-Asian) “third-world”, you should talk to those people, even the white and brown ones. Here’s another crazy idea: talk to some people from China, Japan, Vietnam, or Thailand, which are all significant current markets for Hallyu. Or maybe I’m just prejudiced against anyone who cites the “Ask a Korean” blog (which is authored by a Korean-American no less). Since when does citizenship or ethnicity qualify as expertise?

Also, I’ve notice that “Eat Your Kimchi” is being cited in books on Hallyu. I have very mixed feelings about this, despite liking “Eat Your Kimchi.”

10. Hong is Totally Off Topic for Half the Book. Literally HALF the Book is NOT about Hallyu.

The first half of the book, about 100 pages, is almost entirely devoted to her version of why Korea used to be a shithole, but how all those things she hated were the backbone of Korea’s current success. Seriously. Chapter 1 is just her reminiscing about Korea sucking in the 80s and she survived by imagining that she was a “street urchin” in a primitive land. Chapter 2 is all about rich kids in Gangnam. Neither of these chapters have anything to do with Hallyu. She just wants to prove Korea wasn’t cool. Chapter 3 is incredibly titled “The Dying Art of School Thrashings”, in which she details the psychotic cruelty of punishment in Korean schools where teachers are worshiped (because Confucianism), before hakwons destroyed the nation and young people lacked respect and manners.

I half loathe, half love Chapter 4’s title “Character is Destiny: the Wrath of Han”. Frankly it’s a clusterfuck, but eventually it seems like her point is that a nation under constant threat for 5000 years gains the confidence to survive anything. ….. Well, that’s a special view of Korean history. If memory serves, Joseon was a pushover in the Imjin War because they’d had peace for so long they had no clue what to do during an invasion. A nation that is being constantly invaded does NOT develop a culture that disdains martial arts. Not to mention that 5000 years and 400 invasions are problematic numbers. Long story short, this chapter has a lot of extremely politically loaded and some overtly nationalistic statements.9

That’s just the tip of the iceberg with the bile she spews in this chapter praising han10 for providing the kind of embittered stubbornness and hair-trigger rage that enabled Korea to prosper. This is also the chapter where she gets most of Korean culture and history wrong, simultaneously mocking and deriding it. Then she delivers her brilliant conviction that Hallyu was all about beating Japan at something, anything, to cope with their rage and inferiority complex. That’s it. That’s all this chapter had to do with Hallyu.

Chapter 5 is a major waste of time. She bitches about kimchi, unconnected to Hallyu. Then talks about Korean-American chefs, which honestly is more about America than Korea. This section does not involve any Koreans. There’s a way to talk about the role of food in Hallyu, but she doesn’t really do that. This is bad. This is not how you write about Hallyu. There’s also a chapter (9) on North Korea that is unrelated to Hallyu. She almost had something interesting about a TV show featuring attractive female emigres from North Korea, but it’s actually about domestic perceptions of North Korea, not the international campaign that is Hallyu.

11. Excuse You, NO. That’s Just Rude.

There is no way I could possibly list all of the rude and condescending things Hong says in this book. It’s just inappropriate. Hong vomited poisonous bile onto every page of this book. She should be embarrassed of flaunting her ignorance and prejudice in this way. There, I said it. Hong should be ASHAMED, not just of how she describes Korea, but of how she describes other nations as well. I’m not even going to try to list the examples, but if you don’t believe me just send me a message and I’ll give you a taste. But be warned, it’s pretty stomach churning.

On making Kimchi:

kimjang – the nationwide custom of making enough kimchi to last the winter. This seemed to me like the lamest seasonal ritual ever. To me this makes about as much sense as making sure there were enough cow pies to last the winter. From an early age, I found kimjang absurd and irrational, which of course it wasn’t. Witnessing this ritual made me feel like Gulliver in all those strange lands with their incomprehensible customs. Gulliver arrives in new land and discovers acrid smell, finds whole country massaging cabbages, concludes they are doing it in service to the Wicker Man. Surely there must be a human sacrifice involved because such a society could not be sane. We were cabbage eaters, like the Irish. We delighted in the cheapest vegetable.”  (p. 78-79)

She also includes a quote from Goldfinger, “[Koreans] are the cruelest, most ruthless people in the world, Korean have no respect for human life” when the villain is referring to his bodyguard, Oddjob. However, Hong does not reference this in order to contradict it. Instead she continues “Fleming’s description of Koreans is regarded as widely racist, but my desire to be offended is contradicted by a sheepish ‘How did he know?’ sort of feeling.” (p. 51).

12. As If That’s Not Bad Enough, Hong Misses the Big Picture Several Times Over

There is a right way to talk about Hallyu. There are a lot of important issues that need to be discussed, preferably by people who not only have a solid foundation in Korean studies and relevant academic theory, but are actively and consistently engaging Hallyu products and scholarship (ideally, some experience in the industry could be added to that list, but that’s awfully ambitious … I am that ambitious though). I’m talking about people who are invested in researching and understanding Hallyu in the long term as part of broader international trends in increasingly globalized societies because let’s be honest, Hallyu scholars take a lot of shit for the glittery nature of the field and we don’t need people like Hong making it harder to earn academic and professional respect.

Hallyu started almost twenty years ago and has been going particularly strong for a decade (which is almost as long as experts have been predicting its demise). It has proven both resilient and adaptive, expanding and re-branding to attract new audiences and keep them coming back for more. It is a mistake to write about Hallyu without analyzing how both the phenomenon and strategies to capitalize on its popularity for political and economic gain have developed over a generation. That’s right. A generation. Aspiring young trainees were born into a Korea that was already exporting popular culture. We’re now dealing with a generation of Hallyu idols and fans that have only known post-IMF Crisis Korea. By the same token, we’re dealing with international audiences that have potentially grown up with a very different image of Korea. The music isn’t the same. The dramas aren’t the same. The means of transmission aren’t the same. Therefore, analysis of Hallyu must likewise reflect Hallyu as a process evolving in response to both domestic and international forces. It didn’t explode out of nowhere as something cool and appealing and it isn’t coasting on what it has achieved so far.

There are dozens of other issues that Hong doesn’t consider; doesn’t give us the implications, the “why it matters” of her argument. Here is a brief overview of some issues to consider. As Hallyu is very much being used as a campaign to promote Korean influence, you can be sure that there has been backlash. Some of the negative reactions are tied to protection of their own culture industries; some is tied to bigger geopolitical conflicts; some is probably tied to perception of relative economic status and gender issues. Backlash is just one part of the many ways to approach the complex relationships between Hallyu as a nation brand and nationalism (pro-tip: sports are a good angle to use too). Then that leads to consideration of Pan-Asianism rhetoric, which itself recalls rhetoric of the Great East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere (which is why we really need more comparative analysis of Hallyu and Cool Japan). Pan-Asianism is a huge area for research. It’s also tied to nation branding through popular culture as a contraflow of global culture and media. Hallyu has implications for other aspiring nation brands and for intellectual property law. Hallyu needs to be considered from both international and domestic perspectives.

You could have a field day researching all the ways that Hallyu is increasingly international in its production, not only as many products are hybrid in nature, but because the stars themselves represent a more diverse Korean and non-Korean cultures and languages. Hallyu is rife with politics of representation, but Hong barely touches on the complexity of who is not included or supported, or how those idealized portrayals reflect changing expectations of gender. Hallyu products are broadly about selling a lifestyle, but there are consequences to commodifying and consuming “culture”, particularly “traditional culture”. The music and drama genres themselves are also exploring more diverse styles and images to generate new appeal.

Thus I must conclude that this book is highly offensive trash; an obstacle in the path of others trying to write on Hallyu as a nation branding strategy. I’m not saying that she didn’t get a few things right. I liked the chapter on video games and she makes an excellent point that Korea’s fame for gory horror and revenge films (thank you Old Boy) is not actually representative of Korea’s most successful films. The interview on the Korean government official’s involvement in organizing flash mobs to demand a second SM concert in Paris was also quite interesting. Still, that doesn’t fix these massive gaping holes in her work.

I’ve been trying to develop an analysis of Hallyu as a government strategy for a couple years now, so I am intimately acquainted with the difficulty of sorting out Hallyu’s development and the diverse conflicting opinions within its production. It is not an endeavor to be undertaken lightly.

Personally, I believe there are four sectors involved in Hallyu which need to be considered: government, academia, industry, and audience. Industry I would probably divide between the entertainment industry and other major Korean industries. One also has to decide whether their research will focus on top-down strategies and development or bottom-up studies of reception. Defining parameters can be very tricky, such as how one defines a “fan” or which news sources (official/unofficial) to examine. Up until now, almost all serious scholarship on Hallyu has been done by academics with a background in cultural anthropology. Koichi Iwabuchi has rare insight from having worked for NHK for many years, but the industry perspective is generally limited. There is still a lot of room for research on Hallyu, but books like “The Birth of Korean Cool” do a disservice to anyone genuinely seeking to understand policies of public diplomacy through popular culture.

Notes and Citations
01. Ishmael should perhaps add that she has found the right research institute to continue her projects, but is somewhat irrationally resentful of other people here writing on Hallyu. It’s not just that Ishmael is a terribly selfish academic (though she really is … bitch). Rather a string of disappointing publications have made her pessimistic about anyone getting it right. This field has enough problems without wading through a mire of bullshit from people who tried to jump on a trendy bandwagon.

02. For which I truly commend him but sadly he’s so relentlessly positive about everything that there’s not much of an argument or analysis. That and he obviously bowed to pressure from SME to leave some people out of his book.

03. “I have always thought shamanism was some embarrassing part of Korea’s primitive past, practiced only by the illiterate.” “It was mostly a loose agglomeration of female witches and soothsayers often viewed as mentally ill women” “When Mason told me more about shaman rituals I couldn’t see how anyone could help but find it embarrassing and stupid.” p. 62-65

04. See E. Taylor Atkins “Primitive Selves”

05. You really want to look at Jesook Song for this topic.

06. Less importantly, she claims that bobki biscuit makers have all but disappeared which is kinda bullshit. I saw one yesterday. There are tons still around, as evidenced by the fact that I knew immediately what she was talking about. Seriously, has she been to Seoul or Busan lately? I’m not saying it’s a popular snack, but they’re definitely still around.

07. Hong seems unclear about who her intended audience is. Cultural references for comparison range wildly from Brigitte Bardot to the Fonz to Eminem to Harry Stiles. People who buy a book on Hallyu probably have already heard of G-Dragon.

08. So in addition to not knowing much music and using primarily 50s and 60s Americana to describe Western culture what other atrocities did she commit? Oh yes, there’s more. She believes that “in the West, hell-raising celebrities are celebrated. They take pride in bad behavior.” (p.25) While that is true to an extent, there is also significant disapproval of stars who behave poorly (Bieber) and adulation of stars who are down to earth, kind, and generous, like the internet popularity of Dave Grohl perhaps. The bad boy rock star image is a product of the 1970s and is not unproblematic in the West. She’s not wrong that K-pop demands a cleaner image, but I don’t think she’s really thinking about this in depth or critically.

09. The recent dramatic increase in plastic surgeries in mentioned in this book, under the heading “Gangnam Chainsaw Massacre”. Hong brings it up mainly to refute accusations that Koreans are trying to look more caucasian. She’s right. It’s not about looking caucasian. However, she doesn’t address how biopower has positioned the body as another asset requiring investment and development as a tool in an ever fiercer competition for employment. She also overlooks the social significance of a massive increase in surgery as opposed to an individual’s personal motivations for surgery. This is precisely the kind of situation where one cannot explain things away with “Confucianism”, instead begging for a reexamination of social influences.

09. Exibit A: “Korea was the whipping boy of fate for 5000 years”. Honestly, I think a lot of historic figures would be insulted by this dismissal of their cultural, academic, political and yes, also military achievements. On a more personal note, I sorta think they were asking for a Qing invasion when they dethroned Gwanghaegun in favor of Injo. I mean, really… that’s not being abused by fate. That’s making a dumbass political decision because elites value Neo-Confucian principles or factional politics over the well-being and safety of citizens. I’m getting off topic…

10. Han is a Korean-specific accumulation of rage and sorrow over injustice which can never be resolved. The Han card is played almost as often as the Confucianism card for explaining anything about Korea, only slightly more than the Kimchi card

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.