In the last few years, Korean films, TV dramas and pop music have become immensely popular abroad, a phenomenon known as the Korean Wave. This is the 32nd in a series of essays by a select group of scholars and journalists looking at the spread of Korean pop culture in Southeast Asian countries and beyond. - Ed.
Korea - both North and South - has long been unfamiliar to most Spaniards. Rising tensions between the two Koreas, derived mainly from nuclear development by North Korea, were the only news we heard from Korea. Before that, we knew a little about the Korean War in the 1950s, but did not know the cause of it.
In the 1960s, a famous comic depicting the war led by the "good" Americans against the "bad" communists was published and accepted by the anti-communist regime of Franco. This is how Spanish people of that era remember the Korean War.
But the majority of Spaniards may still have difficulty finding Korea on a world map. High-level visits from the King of Spain, politicians and members of parliament to Korea usually get little attention in the national media. However, Korea appeared on the front page of several major newspapers in Spain only a few months ago when then-President Roh Moo-hyun visited Madrid.
So, it is not surprising that there has not been a great deal of trade relations between Spain and Korea. Spain is the world's eighth-largest economy, while Korea is the 12th. Yet these economic figures are not enough to represent any particular relationship between the two countries, not to mention that our cultures do not have much in common.
Meanwhile, Korean companies chose not to label their products as "Made in Korea", instead veiling them among well-known Japanese products in Spain. This all combined to keep Korea a mystery, except to those few who found the culture interesting.
Building relations with Korea
In 1996, the Autonomous University of Barcelona expanded its number of Korean language classes, which had been developed by the School of Languages of Barcelona years prior. This effort was supported by Samsung, which iinitially helped introduce Korean studies to Spain. Later, Doosan also provided financial support to the UAB to promote Korean activities, in particular enabling the university to establish an exchange program between Korean and Spanish students. These Korea-related activities slowly succeeded in introducing Korea to Spain.
Furthermore, the Barcelona Chamber of Commerce, headed by President Antoni Negre, was one of the early pioneers in promoting business relations between Spain and Korea. Then the Hispanic-Korean bilateral committee was established, and the two countries engaged in various activities in connection with each other.
In 1999, the first Congress of Korean Studies was held by Spanish Korea experts, in Spanish, at the UAB, which included sessions on topics such as Korea in Catalonia. This Congress led to the official launch of Korean studies at the Center for International and Intercultural Studies of the UAB.
The Korea Foundation also played a crucial role in promoting Korea in Spain. By that time, numerous activities regarding Korea had been in place - for example, official coursework for studying the Korean language, economy, politics and history, as well as exhibitions on Korean art and cinema and two symposiums of Spanish sculpture in Korea.
In 2001 and 2003, Gyeonggi province organized the symposiums at a ceramic museum in Ichon. At least 40 Spanish sculptures, along with pieces from Koreans and foreign sculptors were displayed in the so-called Spanish Sculpture Park in Ichon. The open-air surroundings of this park, although affected by heavy rain and wind, gave a symbolic value to these sculptures.
One of the eminent sculptors, Mr. Subirach, is well-known among Koreans for his piece in the Olympic Park in Seoul. Mr. Samaranch, who took the presidency of the Olympic Committee when the Seoul Olympic was decided, is also well-known in Korea.
The President of the Government of Catalonia, then Molt Honorable President Jordi Pujol, visited Korea in 2000. He witnessed firsthand a country that had transformed its sluggish economy, especially following the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which was exacerbated by scarce natural resources, into a democratic and technology advanced society. This significant transformation in a relatively short period of time was only possible from individuals who highly valued hard-work, education and nationalism.
In 2000, President Kim Dae-joong visited North Korea for the first time since the separation of the two Koreas. This historic news appeared in Spanish newspapers, which helped make Korea more familiar to Spain. Following that, various universities in Spain began to develop activities related to Korea as well as Korean language classes, and now the annual International Congress on Korea is celebrated.
Over time these efforts created a positive image of Korea among the Spanish people. Here it is worthwhile mentioning some major figures that represent today's closer relation between the two countries: The same water fountain around a luminous bridge both in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, and the Montjuich hill in Barcelona, the sister city relationship of Busan and Barcelona and the fact that the composer of the Korean national anthem married a Spanish woman from Catalonia who is currently living in Majorca.
These are a few of the concrete individual examples that have been slowly transformed to an institutionalized way of representing the development of the two countries' relation. Meanwhile, the Korean products of Samsung, LG, Hyundai and Daewoo, to name a few, have managed to penetrate effectively in the Spanish market clearly showing "Made in Korea".
The wave begins
1999 was a significant year for Korea. Korea paid back all the debts accrued in the financial crisis. It realized the vulnerability of a closed economy and joined the flow of globalization. Koreans began to give up the concept of permanent, life-long employment. Chaebol had to sacrifice their long-lasting immunity.
The year 1999 was the year of letting go of Korea's inefficient traditions and actively seeking ways forward. However, there were negative consequences such as higher suicide and divorce rates, which nobody could ever thought of in a traditional, Confucius society. Women became more independent in all aspects, and new ways to choose partners for marriage were put in place following the changes in the familial values. This naturally began to give less weight to family when it came to making a decision such as marriage.
In other words, Korean society has developed gradually and is continuously changing its traditional values, particularly in relation to family, business entities, political parties and Confucianist values. This even included opening up toward Japan.
As for Korean movies, it was in 1999 that they started gaining momentum among Koreans. (Until then, Korean viewers were biased toward Korean movies as low quality with uninteresting plots.) "Shiri
" by Kang Je-gyu
, which interestingly depicted the power of love over political differences between South Korea and North Korea, was seen by more people than "Titanic" in Korea. This was something refreshing for Korean viewers, although it was still a sensitive issue to be dealt with politically.
Also, the screen quota system that was considered unjust by many Koreans became hot potatoes in various social debates in Korean society. It was around that time when the concept of creating a multi-cinema complex was implemented, providing another way to spend time.
Some chaebol that controlled the distribution of movies began to streamline their business by giving more opportunities to small- and medium-sized businesses. Based on these significant changes, Korean movies finally could reach Spain, mainly through Barcelona, including the annual Asian Cine Festival, and Sitges.
The Korean Wave in Spain
The Korean Wave was introduced in Spain relatively rapidly, but only within the field of Asian studies. The movies "The Isle
" in 2000, "Sang-woo and His Grandmother" in 2001 and "Bichunmoo" in 2003 were seen in Spanish movie theaters, and they were quite successful at attracting audiences.
Now, Korean movies continue to be included in the Cine Festival of Sitges, where "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... And Spring
" by Kim Ki-duk
received a lot of attention from European movie experts. "Old Boy"
by Park Chan-wook
, was profiled in the CineAsia Magazine. (Korea used this channel actively to promote the image of Korean movies, as this magazine is distributed widely among various groups from movie experts to the embassies.) Since then, Korean movies have shown in public movie theaters in Spain and are becoming more popular among Spanish audiences.
The seats were almost empty during the very first annual Cine Festival in Barcelona, but in the past three years it was necessary to book a ticket in advance to be able to see a Korean movie selected for the Festival. In 2003, CasaAsia (literally meaning House of Asia) was established in Barcelona as a public institute by the central Government of Spain.
CasaAsia immediately implemented a range of activities involving Asia, including Korean movies, art exhibitions and music, to name a few. This initiated a new age of experiencing Korean culture in Spain. Cineasia, which is responsible for disseminating information on Asian movies through CasaAsia, facilitated a course on Korean cinema in the UAB, organized by the Center for International and Intercultural Studies.
This course aimed to increase the understanding of university students about Korean politics, economy and society through the lens of film.
Between 2004 and 2007, more than 13 Korean movies arrived in Spain, including "Memories of Murder
", "Run Dim", "A Tale of Two Sisters
", and "The Host"
. During these four years, the percentage of Korean movies shown in theaters went up by 400 percent. This is a significant development within a short period of time, especially when Korea was hardly known in Spain several years ago.
Last year's "Arch of Madrid" fair subsequently invited Korea to represent more Korean values with its art, artists and movies as well as its advanced technological products. Today, there are academic dissertations on Korea, a good collection of Korean classic literature Spanish and books about Korean politics, economy and society of the past and present.
Korean movies have common elements that attract Spanish viewers. They often tell love stories accompanied by violence and sorrow, but always end happily and humorously. Also, they indirectly show Korean culinary habits that are quite different from that of Spain. Besides the different food, what is more interesting to the Spaniards is how the food is displayed in a table based on a combination of colors, size and portion. There is no single way to eat Korean food. People can enjoy the liberty of choosing what they want to eat and how much they want to eat.
Future of the Korean Wave
What can be done to insure the success of the Korean Wave in the future? First, it is necessary to establish connections and make official agreements between Korean and Spanish distributors of cultural products such as movies. The appropriate mediation by experts will help strengthen the future of the Korean Wave in the long run, given the current limited number of people interested in Korean culture in Spain. Second, it is necessary to bear in mind that there is not much room left for a new competitor to enter the market since North and South American movies or soap operas have already built a firm base in the market. Given the fact that Korea is so little known in Spain, it may be more effective to target more traditional, historical Korean values and images than to make it modern, since this tends to fail to impress upon the viewers with a particular, rememberable image. In addition, it might be useful if the Asian Cine Festival is expanded to other major cities in Spain besides Barcelona to attract a larger population.
Spain, with a population of 45 million, receives 66 million tourists per year, while Korea only receives 7 million. Promoting Korean movies in Spain can be a way to penetrate European markets at large by targeting a number of European tourists who come to visit Spain on a regular basis.
The Korean Wave occurred in Spain without a specific strategy. It is now only enjoyed by those interested in movies as well as university students who have been exposed to new cultures from traveling and through efforts made by a few institutes such as CasaAsia, Cineasta and the UAB. It is necessary to come up with a delicate marketing strategy to reach out to a larger population in the long term. Korean people are known to be peace-loving, integrationists and nationalists. They deserve to be proud of their own country and of escaping from the extreme poverty in the 50s and 60s with hard work and individual motivation. Spain finds all of these factors interesting, once they are exposed to them.
There have been a number of Korean students who came to Spain and vice versa. Today, international marriage is becoming more common. As the activities between Korean and Spain are increasing, it would be a good idea to create a Hispanic-Korean movie which shows these connections between the two countries, incorporating stories of both countries in the past and today. This will require a good scriptwriter who can express key elements well, investors, directors and good marketing strategies.
We hope that Korea will become more active in acknowledging the importance of exporting its culture as a way to introduce the country. The Spanish people who love Korea expect to see and learn more of authentic Korea in the days to come.
By Josep Manuel Branas i Espineira and Kim Boram