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Hallyu Story

A Cultural Win-Win for Korea-ASEAN Relations

The Republic of Korea successfully hosted its third special summit with ASEAN, in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of their dialogue relations, and its first summit with the five Mekong River countries in November. Seoul’s New Southern Policy, which seeks to create a “people-centered community of peace and prosperity that connects hearts,” was well-received by ASEAN countries, giving a boost to future cooperation between the two sides. The main topic throughout the summit was the Asian spirit, wisdom, harmony, and common prosperity and peace that bring Korea and ASEAN together. Hallyu, or the Korean Wave, served as a catalyst to make the summit a more intimate and heart-warming occasion. Hallyu stars such as Psy and BoA, as well as pop stars from ASEAN countries, performed at the ASEAN Fantasia concert on November 24, the eve of the ROK-ASEAN summit. By singing in chorus “Side by Side,” a song written by a Korean composer for the summit, the artists showed that Korea and ASEAN can become one despite different nationalities, religions, and cultures. In addition to the Korea-ASEAN Culture Innovation Forum and K-Beauty Festival, a variety of events introducing ASEAN films, fashion, and food offered an opportunity to better understand Southeast Asian cultures and discuss ways to promote cultural exchanges and cooperation between Korea and ASEAN. Hallyu is immensely popular in ASEAN countries because they are open to foreign cultures and share a regional cultural background with Korea, which makes it easier to connect. Increased cooperation and travel between Korea and ASEAN have raised the awareness and popularity of Korean products, and in turn expanded the market base for Hallyu. How long will the popularity and influence of Hallyu last? What kind of problems is it facing and how should they be resolved?


Universal and creative content the key to success

In March 2013, a Music Bank (Korean TV show) concert was held at the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium in Jakarta as an opening event to celebrate the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Korea and Indonesia. K-pop groups such as Super Junior, 2PM and SHINee, as well as a number of Indonesian pop stars, performed at the concert which was attended by high-profile figures including Joko Widodo, then governor of Jakarta and currently the president of Indonesia. Widodo at the time was a leading presidential candidate in the upcoming elections, garnering more of the media spotlight than the incumbent president. With dozens of reporters following him, Widodo attended the concert with his daughter, a Hallyu fan, and was stunned to see the stadium packed with tens of thousands of cheering Indonesians. I wonder what passed through his mind at that moment as he aspired to be the political leader of a multireligious, multiracial, multilingual, and multicultural nation. He appeared to be shocked at the sight of the entire audience standing up to sing along in Korean to K-pop songs. Differences in or conflict over faith, political ideology or social classes were nowhere to be found among the audience.


I was visiting the ancient Buddhist capital of Bagan in Myanmar as a tourist. A group of young students came over to me with a camera, not asking me to take a photo of them, but asking me to take a picture with them. They had overheard my wife and I speaking Korean, and said they were so happy to hear the Korean language in person as opposed to on TV. We were no Hallyu stars, but they queued to take photos with us. Korean diplomats are often asked questions like “What makes Hallyu so successful?” or “What kind of policies did the Korean government promote and how effective were they?” A number of factors are in play behind the success of Hallyu, so it’s not easy to explain in a nutshell. As someone mentioned before, I’d like to point to gi (氣), heung (興) and jeong (情) as the fundamental elements of Korean culture. The theory is that, compared to other cultures, the special gi (spirit) and heung (excitement), and deep jeong (affection) and han (恨, sadness) infused in the temperament of Koreans make Korean culture more transfusable. It is true that the government has supported Hallyu through various policies. But what made Hallyu a global phenomenon is the nature of Korean culture and the passionate efforts of the artists and professionals who created and developed it.
Bang Si-hyuk, the chief producer of K-pop sensation BTS and CEO of Big Hit Entertainment, lucidly explained what brings about success in the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution at the Korea-ASEAN Culture Innovation Forum on November 25, which was held on the sidelines of the special summit. Good content is the key to success, he said. Content with proactive, or sometimes provocative, messages about the contemporary world touch many souls and draw enthusiasm from a community that shares a special perspective. Technology is also an important factor. Over-the-top media platforms such as YouTube allowed the culture of Korea, once a mere semi-peripheral country, to attract fans worldwide in real time. Hence, BTS is called “the Beatles of the YouTube generation.”


Being considerate of another’s culture and two-way cultural exchanges, cooperation

I received a phone call from a diplomatic aide to the Indonesian president one day. He asked me if we could give him two more tickets to the SuJu (short for Super Junior) concert. He said he told his two daughters that he turned down the Korean embassy’s invitation to a Super Junior concert because he was too busy, and they furiously scolded him for being “out of his mind.” He attended the K-pop concert for the first time and appeared to be more surprised at the audience going wild than the concert itself. He kept on looking worriedly at where his two daughters were sitting.


An Islamic preacher in Indonesia, who said he was previously drawn in by Hallyu, told Muslims to stay away from Korean popular culture as its drama and music exposed people to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) lifestyles and free sex.


During a summit with President Moon Jae-in, Myanmar’s State counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi requested that a boy band in Myanmar called Project K receive K-pop training in Korea. President Moon said the group, which combines K-pop and Burmese traditional dance, could be a symbol of the two countries’ cultural cooperation.
For Hallyu to continue, we must first be show a greater interest in?and understanding of?other countries’ cultural pride and sensitivity, while also paying attention to criticisms of Hallyu. We shouldn’t forget that every country has a strong desire to create its own cultural tides, and that other foreign cultures, such as those of Japan and China, are also popular. People’s tastes can change at any moment. Instead of just focusing on the proliferation of Hallyu, we must accept the cultures of ASEAN countries, deepen mutual understanding and expand cooperation. It is encouraging that people have started talking about promoting an “ASEAN Wave” in Korea. The Asia Culture Center in Gwangju and the ASEAN Culture House in Busan have been working on introducing and spreading ASEAN cultures, but have not seen much progress in areas other than cuisine. As the number of people from ASEAN residing in Korea has increased to over 600,000, including marriage immigrants, migrant workers, and students, they could contribute towards introducing and spreading their cultures, and promote cultural exchanges with Korea. Diversity and dynamism are the key qualities of ASEAN cultures. Accommodating such diversity will enhance Hallyu content, making it attractive not just in ASEAN but throughout the world. A good example is Forever Young, a drama series co-produced by Korea and Vietnam, which was a major hit in Vietnam and also broadcast in Korea. I totally support the decision made at the summit to hold the Korea-ASEAN Culture Innovation Forum annually and to establish a bilateral film cooperation body as part of efforts to strengthen cultural content collaboration. The influence and the role of soft power in international relations are increasing. In this respect, two-way cultural exchanges and cooperation are essential to develop a Korea-ASEAN strategic partnership of co-prosperity that connects hearts. A sustainable partnership is possible only when the two countries are able to truly understand, respect, and appreciate each other.


Written by Kim Young-sun, former Korean ambassador to Indonesia, former chairman of the ASEAN-Korea Centre, and currently visiting scholar at the Seoul National University Asia Center


Source: Hallyu Story, Issue December+January 2019