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Keeping the 'Korea Wave' washing onto Asian shores

2004/08/26 | 1867 views | Permalink | Source

When President Roh Moo-hyun invited Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai and his delegation for a luncheon meeting last September, something unexpected happened. After a moment of calm, the Vietnam officials stood up one by one and started to line up in front of a woman, asking her to sign their menus.

The woman was actress Kim Hyun-joo, heroine of the SBS TV drama "Yuri Gudu" (Glass Shoes - "Glass Slipper")), which had been shown on Vietnam television in May 2003. Actress Kim had become well-known in Vietnam after the drama became a big hit there.

The commotion settled down only after a Korean general promised the actress's autographs for everyone after lunch. The center of attention during the luncheon apparently was not President Roh or Prime Minister Khai, but actress Kim, showing that perhaps the Korea Wave is stronger than diplomacy.

The word "Hanryu" (Korea Wave) was first used by the Chinese press in the late '90s. The term refers to the popularity of Korean pop music, TV dramas, movies, fashion, food, and celebrities in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and Vietnam. This cultural borrowing from Korea is especially popular among young people in these countries.

The Korea Wave first began when Korean TV dramas and Chinese-language remakes of Korean pop music began to win popularity in China and Hong Kong. Following that lead, many Korean singers including Baby Vox, NRG, Shinhwa and SES made entries into the neighboring countries spurred by a successful Beijing concert by H.O.T in 2000.

After the faces of these singers became widely known, their wannabes visited Korea for cosmetic surgery to get their faces made more like their idols'. Later, responding to the overwhelming demand, some Korean plastic surgeons actually flew over to these countries to perform such operations there.

SM Entertainment was the first production company to cleverly target this international market with its singers, when it set out to create the international pop idol who became known as Boa.

As is well known, Boa underwent tough training before her debut. The preparation included not only singing and dancing, but also studying English and Japanese. Shortly after making her debut on her home turf, Boa concentrated on getting known in Japan. Today, she has become one of the most popular female singers in both Korea and Japan, earning more than 100 billion won in Japan alone.

SM Entertainment did not stop there. H.O.T had been received very well in China, but unfortunately the group broke up shortly thereafter. Many fans began to forget the group's five members while the group's members were embroiled in contract disputes with SM Entertainment. In the end, only three members remained under SM Entertainment and the now smaller group was reborn as jtL.

SM Entertainment never missed a beat. Besides jtL, it produced the dance group Dongbangshingi (Tong Vang Xien Gi). SM Entertainment is continuing to target the whole of Asia. Last month, Boa and Dongbangshingi signed a license contract with China Records, one of the biggest record companies in China, to release Boa's fourth and Dongbangshingi's first and second albums in China. SM Entertainment is also planning to establish SM China soon, to concentrate on making inroads into the Chinese music album market.

Meanwhile, Samhwa Production was the first to plunge into the Asian TV broadcasting market by selling Korean TV dramas to other Asian countries. As various Korean soaps gained popularity in Asian markets, they also helped launch Korean clothing brands in China and Vietnam, where many fans were eager to dress like the stars in the Korean dramas.

Now, many fans from elsewhere in Asia fly over to Korea to visit the places where the TV dramas took place. Travel packages have been created to lure these fans to Korea, and according to research by the Korea National Tourism Organization (KNTO), more than one million people visited Korea last year on Korea Wave-related visits. The Korea Wave is indeed helping the nation's economy.

In China, this atmosphere is moderating now, however, because the Chinese government has began to curb broadcasting Korean programs in order to restrain their runaway popularity. Also, Chinese and Taiwanese audiences seem to have turned cooler toward Korean TV stars.

In Japan, however, the Korea Wave has been enjoying a second surge as Japan appears to be in the throes of "Winter Sonata" fever. The television drama series featuring beautiful winter scenery and a touching love story about a woman and a man suffering from amnesia has been so popular that Japan's public broadcaster NHK aired it twice on its satellite channel last year.

Japanese fans especially raved over Bae Yong-joon, the actor who played the main character in the drama. When Bae visited Japan in April, he was enthusiastically welcomed by fans. Interestingly, most of Bae's Japanese female fans are in their mid-thirties to forties. The character that Bae played reminded them of heroes in romance comic books that were popular in 1980s and early 90s, they said.

Gangwon Province, which is the main shooting location for "Winter Sonata", received over 110,000 Japanese, Chinese, and other Asian tourists last year - more than four times the number of foreign visitors in 2002, according to the Gangwon Province officials.

The drama's revenue in Japan has exceeded 30 billion won, and Korea's total exports of TV dramas reached $ 28.3 million in 2003, a sharp rise from $16.3 million a year earlier, according to KNTO statistics.

Right after his return from the Korea-Japan Summit in Jeju Island, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi met Choi Ji-woo, the heroine of "Winter Sonata", and revealed his interest in the drama. He and President Roh had talked about the drama during the summit talks also.

With the huge success of "Winter Sonata", many more Korean TV dramas are getting ready to hit the Japanese market.

SBS productions, which produced the popular "Stairway to Heaven", recently sold that drama's broadcast rights to Japan's Asahi TV for 1.2 billion won, a record for any Korean TV mini series sold abroad. The price is attributed partly to the fact that actress Choi appears in Stairway to Heaven, too.

Experts offer several reasons for the Korea Wave phenomenon. Among them are the facts that most Asian countries share Confucian culture, that Korean culture professes nonviolence, and that the quality of Korean culture and communications have risen sharply in the past few years.

In other words, fans embrace Korean cultural products because they convey similar Asian cultural sentiments in sophisticated packages.

However, problems remain. Until recently, there has been a lack of any unified policy for effectively promoting the Korea Wave. In addition, many of the most popular stars have been slow to change their styles and images, causing fans to get tired of watching the same thing.

Performers' failure to change their images and their lack of musicality has also been an obstacle for Korean pop groups that have seen their popularity fade at home. Music industry experts say that to sustains fans' interest, musicians must keep on developing themselves. Pretty faces and flashy styles aren't enough.

For TV dramas, the same old plots and faces have been pointed out as problems, as well. Production companies tend to rely on popular actors and actresses in order to guarantee a program's popularity, and also repeat story lines that have been popular in the past. Naturally, this bores audiences, making them lose interest quickly. This was one of the reasons for the drop in the popularity of Korean dramas in Taiwan, which had been their biggest buyer.

The temporary slump that had threatened the Korea Wave before Japan fell for "Winter Sonata" and Bae Yong-joon, were largely due to these problems.

Realizing the importance and merits of the Korea Wave, the government and the artists have been pushing forward more concrete plans to keep the wave going, and to gain as much from it as possible.

In its marketing plans, the KNTO has declared 2004-2005 as "The Year for Promoting the Korea Wave". The organization vows to use the Korea Wave effectively and turn it into a source of steady income for the nation.

In January, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism established the Korean Foundation for Asian Culture Exchange, a foundation to lead the Korea Wave. Celebrities of the Korea Wave, including Ahn Jae-wook, Kim Hee-sun, Jang Dong-gun, Boa, Kangta and Jun Ji-hyun received commendations from the ministry for their contributions to promoting the Korea Wave.

The plan now is for the government, businesses, and individuals to work together to make the Korea Wave a foundation via which Korean culture can be promoted throughout the world.

"Korean TV dramas remind me of the good times Japan had in the past. I think it's the nostalgia that draws people to Korean dramas", said a 50-year-old Japanese woman in a fan-letter to Bae Yong-joon.

She added: "One thing's for certain. I have never been so absorbed in Korea until now. I want to see, feel and read about the beautiful country over and over again".

Only time will tell whether the Korea Wave will subside, or turn into a storm, said Park Byung-jik an executive at the KNTO. "But now that Japan has joined in the Korea Wave, our pie has become much bigger, making the Korea Wave something worth working hard on".

Shin Hae-in

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