The Golden Age of Korean Boosterism

8 Jul

By now, word has gone ’round the world – Korea will host the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. It is indeed an honor and an acknowledgement of Korea’s new role in the world. The Seoul Olympics in 1988 were that of a very different Korea – an emerging industrial workshop that had only barely moved beyond the pale of a military dictator. The Olympic Korea of 2018 will be a very different one.

But despite Korea’s success, despite whatever merits it might have as an Olympic venue, the securing of the 2018 bid cannot be seen outside the lens of the immense tide of boosterism that has defined much of Korea to the rest of the world. The Korean Olympic bid effort was indeed a massive marketing campaign and well played in many ways. The charisma of gold medalist Kim Yuna may have been been a deciding factor, as may have the fact that no Winter Olympics has been held in Asia since Nagano in 1998. But many countries make a concerted propaganda effort to snag an Olympic bid for themselves. Others, especially the European countries who have the longest tradition of and most invested in winter sports, undoubtedly have more experience at this than Korea.

What we must realize is that the Pyeongchang bid was never a completely independent campaign. It was an intrinsic part of the rest of the Korean booster efforts. The manufactured buzz and excitement over the G20 last year, the Korean F1 Grand Prix in a country with no racing legacy, the efforts to brand makgeolli and ddeokbokki as signature Korean foodstuffs, to promote every region of Korea as a shining opportunity for both investment and tourism – all are one and the same. They are a concerted effort to sell not just Korean products or services to the world, but to sell Korea to the world. It is an attempt to establish the blue-chip credibility of the country itself. And what better way than for the world to come to your shores and be awed at your ability to put on a spectacle as complex and dazzling as the Olympics? That is why the Pyeongchang bid was never a separate effort, but actually the pinnacle, the jewel in the crown, of Korean boosterism.

The world has thus been sold Korea. But this begs the question, what sort of product has Korea become? To convince a modern consumer to buy a product, the package and marketing must be slick and focused, all of the negative aspects hidden or minimized in appearance. Only the benefits must be emphasized and in particular the moment of thrill and excitement, of ecstasy when that product is finally taken and a new world or self revealed. To look at Korean boosterism is to see exactly that. Before I came to Korea, I had an image of the country as a land of traditional hanok houses on every corner, of exquisite and serene natural purity everywhere, and of traditional culture permeating everything.  I’d gotten those images from what little I could gather on TV or from tourism websites or any other normal form of marketing.  When I first arrived in Korea, I thought that I’d taken the wrong plane.  Those images may convey tiny corners of this country, but the truth is actually glaringly ugly.

Yet boosterism is how Korean government and business bring awareness and money to their country. Does it work well? Perhaps. What they haven’t considered is people’s reaction when the image does not match up to reality. In the consumer world, this usually means ditching whatever product failed to satisfy you and going in search of another one. So while Korea is prepared to do anything and everything to snag an ever-larger portion of the world’s pocketbook, what it doesn’t realize is the eventual backlash that will come. And this will have an even more damaging effect because Korea has not made its products an expression of itself, but its very self a product in order to sell goods.

The way this attitude perverts attitudes of Korean culture is palpable. Consider these two videos about the Korean music group 2NE1:

2NE1 was explicitly started as a music group to defy all of the other cookie-cutter, cutesy Korean girl groups out there. Their objective was not to appear coy, submissive, or aegyo (애교) as has been traditionally expected of Korean women. They were aggressive, assertive, independent women. Even though they were a contrived effort by an entertainment company, their music nonetheless stirred real reaction. When I have mentioned 2NE1 in a positive light, I’ve seen men make faces of disgust and pass them off with, “But they’re so ugly.” I also have heard women speak very positively about the quasi-feminist attitudes in the songs. 2NE1 has achieved some impact on Korea culture and their domestic success indicates that they could accomplish more.

But it should be evident from the videos that however grand and noble the intentions of their managers were in the beginning, they have been cast aside in favor of pure success. The very fact that Will.I.Am from the Black-Eyed Peas will produce their album, not for the sake of making a good album, but to specifically tap the world market, shows that international recognition is their new god. And if as a group 2NE1 is supposed to be for Korean women above all else, giving them an alternative model in popular culture, then why in the world is 2NE1 promoting a dance contest on iTunes, one which is for the whole world?  Are Korean women their focus or the world music charts?  I don’t think that this is the group members’ doing, but that of their entertainment company. What is clear, though, is that Koreans are increasingly prepared to sacrifice any sort of healthy cultural evolution to jump on the bandwagon of international recognition.

The very fact that Korea feels this desire to be recognized by the rest of the world indicates a deep-seated insecurity with itself. It is a far cry from the days of the Hermit Kingdom or even earlier days of Joseon, when Korea was content to be itself, keep outsiders beyond their borders, and manage its own affairs. Korea historically was never a conquering nor exploring power, concerned with what others were doing or new places. It looked inward and was content to know and evolve in its own way.

Perhaps it was the Japanese occupation, perhaps the Korean war, perhaps the long struggle with poverty. Whatever the cause, something made Korea believe that looking inward was no way to survive in a harsh world of trade and violent neighbors. It decided to move forward as quickly as possible, doing whatever it took in order that the nation might be strengthened. To look at Korea today is to see that it has achieved that goal in many ways. Yet when one ceases to look inward, one becomes concerned with outward appearances, with the approval of others. Thus, in the Korean mind of today, it is not enough for the world to buy Korean products so that the country might be rich. Only if those consumers know that a product is Korean, is an expression of being Korean, is only great because it is Korean, can the producers be satisfied. The reflection upon the body politic is a reflection upon the self.

Yet what happens when the aforementioned backlash comes? It will not appear merely as a rejection of an inferior product; it will be a rejection of Korean culture, of Koreanness. And what will Koreans do when the world does eventually leave them for something new? They will have prostituted their culture for the favor of outsiders, and when those outsiders are gone, what will they have left for themselves?

Koreans may think that with riches they have escaped their tragic past and are entering a new and better era. Yet that is not true. Tragedy is not an external event that befalls us. It is an internal flaw, which, given the right opportunity, turns into our undoing. Pyeongchang 2018 may represent the Golden Age of Korean Boosterism, but, like any golden age, its success obscures the truth about our very nature.

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