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[THE HIGH TIDE OF THE KOREAN WAVE(35)] Mongolians fascinated by the Korean Wave

2008/05/07 Source

"Hallyu" seems to be on the wane. It is ebbing in China, Japan, and Southeast Asia, where the fascination with Korean TV dramas, pop music and films known as the Korean Wave, peaked in the last few years.

However, the Korean Wave is still flourishing in Mongolia. Several Korean TV dramas are broadcast every day at prime time. The number of people learning the Korean language is increasing remarkably, with many Mongolians rushing to Korea in search of the "Korean Dream".

"Jewel in the Palace" ("Dae Jang Geum") has been a big hit. The drama has fascinated Mongolians so much that it has been aired five times here. Other dramas such as "Autumn in my Heart" "Winter Sonata" and "Stairway to Heaven" have also been popular. These dramas have kept Mongolian viewers glued to their screens and have become daily topics of conversation.

Korean pop singers have been also immensely famous in the country. Songs by Rain, Big Bang, Shinhwa, Boa and Jang Nara all top the charts and keep young Mongolians hooked.

The high popularity of Korean pop culture in Mongolia has indeed contributed to the surge in Korean language studies in Mongolia, as well as Mongolians traveling to Korea, increasing mutually cooperative relations between the two countries accordingly.

Korea is "Solongos" in Mongolian, which means "Land of Rainbows". Mongolian people describe Korea as "a country of hope", and "a model country" that they should emulate. This desire, together with the affection for Korean culture, is reflected in the number of Mongolians staying in Korea - as many as 34,000, or 1.2 percent of the Mongolian population. Among these people, the number of students is about 1,700, making Korea the biggest destination for Mongolians receiving overseas education.

Mongolians pursue the "Korean Dream" at universities, laboratories, offices, shops or assembly lines in Korea. The annual remittances from Mongolians working in Korea are estimated to total approximately $200 million, which greatly helps low-income families move out of poverty.

Mongolian universities have played a crucial role in promulgating the Korean Wave by opening or expanding Korean language programs. The National University of Mongolia made a start by setting up a Korean language department in 1991 right after diplomatic relations between Korea and Mongolia were forged in 1990. Since then, as many as 22 prestigious universities, including the National University of Science and Technology, have taught Korean politics, history and culture, as well as language, in their Korean studies departments. The total number of students studying Korean in universities is about 2,500 throughout the country.

Schools have jumped on the bandwagon, too. More than 1,000 students learn Korean at 12 elementary and secondary schools. Korean is the second-most popular language of study after English in Mongolia, far ahead of Russian, Chinese or Japanese.

As a result, the number of Mongolians who take the Test of Proficiency in Korean is on the rise. The number doubled to 825 in 2007, compared with the figure in 2005. A total of 3,500 Mongolians have taken the TOPIK since 1999. Additionally, as many as 15,000 Mongolians took the alternative, the Korean Language Proficiency Test, in 2007, which is designed for people who want to work in Korea.

It seems to be a virtuous cycle. The popularity of Korean pop culture increases interest in the Korean language among Mongolians. The desire to learn the language boosts demand for structured and systematic language studies. Understanding of the Korean language and culture spreads the Korean Wave. This virtuous cycle undoubtedly makes an important contribution to strengthening and deepening the relations between the two countries.

The ascendancy of the Korean Wave also attests to the number of visitors to the 2008 Korea Education Fair held in Ulaanbaatar in April 2008. The fair was the center of attention in the country, with more than 6,000 students, parents and educators attending. It was a great success, as 50 percent more people than the previous year filled the auditorium, taking care not to miss any word of advice or information on studying in Korea. The students made themselves knowledgeable about studies and life in Korea through lectures, interviews, one-to-one consultations with experts, and information materials at the fair.

It is expected that the Korean Wave in Mongolia will continue spreading. Any story or scene of Korean dramas or lyrics of famous Korean songs are frequently referred to during casual conversations among young Mongolians. Most young children have stationery with photos, signatures, or caricatures of Korean TV and movie stars or pop singers. The hot pursuit of the Korean language also appears to be continuing.

However, Mongolians are now a little bit fed-up with the monotonous plots and similar storylines of Korean dramas - an ordinary woman falling in love with a man from a rich family, young executive or a high-flier; fortuitous family relations and events, etc.

This common characterization of Korean dramas could be an obstacle to the continuous spread and long-term development of the Korean pop culture wave in Mongolia. It is high time that new types of creative Korean TV dramas and other programs are introduced in Mongolia, so that Mongolians can keep relishing a variety of Korean cultural products.

Furthermore, more strategic support and cooperation in the Mongolian educational sector should be given. The sharp rise in the number of Mongolians learning Korean and studying in Korea is duly attributable to the well-organized assistance and cooperation of Korea's IT technology and know-how in the educational sector, under a memorandum of understanding signed in 2005 between the two countries.

Yet Korean teachers and educational infrastructure and materials are still scarce, compared with the high demand for Korean language education. In particular, students living in the countryside do not have access to Korean language learning at all. Therefore, it is worth having the Korean side conduct a forward-looking assessment for providing full support to establishing an educational broadcasting station in Mongolia, together with sufficient support for Korean language education.

The project to open the educational broadcasting system would certainly benefit children who are left behind in sparsely populated areas across the country. But the effect will go far beyond narrowing the educational divide. It will have a great impact on methods of learning and teaching, the supply of educational software and hardware, and IT technology in education, thereby creating a chain reaction. Mutual benefits and further development in relations between Korea and Mongolia are definitely anticipated.

Korean government scholarships should also be extended to students with great potential. In addition, various training or research courses should be widely open to officials or experts in sectors that Korea can expected to play a leading role in, such as IT technology, telecommunications, finance or banking, along with Korean language training courses. Mongolian beneficiaries of the scholarships will certainly play a crucial role in relations between Korea and Mongolia in the future. They will be valuable human resources not only for Mongolia but also for Korea for further cooperation and development.

A visa-exemption program between the two countries would clearly stimulate frequent visits between the nations, along with cultural exchanges and various activities. The two nations would begin to share values, ideas, thoughts, and their ways of living. In this way, Mongolia can stand at the forefront of reigniting "Hallyu", which is now fading away in the Asian region.

Mongolia is one of the 10 most mineral-resources-rich countries in the world. As the price of raw materials reaches a record high, Mongolians are benefiting, and more people can afford to spend money on overseas trips. Many Mongolians who have wanted to go to Korea for medical services, business, or tourism have been crowded out in the visa- application process.

Frequent contacts, visits in both directions, and constructive business cooperation expected by the visa-waiver program will greatly move relations forward. Therefore, the visa-waiver system should be strategically reconsidered on the basis of its political, economic, cultural and social impacts on the two countries. Mutual benefits from the visa exemption would ultimately outweigh the possible problems caused by illegal immigrants.

The Korean Wave cannot continue forever if people do not find it new, creative, fresh, funny, and fashionable, with an element of sophistication. Mongolia is no exception. Different types of content, a refined structure, and the timely promotion of Korean pop culture will no doubt keep it in high regard, not only in Mongolia, but throughout the world. Mutually beneficial relations cultivated through support and cooperation between Korea and Mongolia, and convenient access to each other will certainly lead to prosperity and wellbeing.

By Park Jin-ho Ambassador to Mongolia

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