Gender Inequality Threatens to Make the Korean Wave a Ripple

By: Matthew Maurice

In 2012, a historic milestone was reached in pop culture history. For the first time, a YouTube video reached over a billion views. While this was bound to happen eventually, most would have guessed that it would be a popular Western artist or YouTuber, or a hilariously rewatchable animal video that broke the record. Instead, it was a music video for a song featuring an artist little known in the West, sung in a language spoken by roughly 80 million people, and about a neighborhood that a vast majority of international viewers had never heard of. This song was Gangnam Style, by Korean pop star Psy. Since then, Korean media and culture have exploded onto the international stage in what is known as the “Korean Wave” or “Hallyu,” whether it be through K-Pop, K-Dramas, or last year’s highly successful Winter Olympics. This is a product of one of the most successful government campaigns to promote a national culture in recent history. Still, this campaign may also expose the dark side of South Korean society, thus negatively impacting this wave’s longevity.  

Since 1994, the South Korean government has promoted policies meant to spread its cultural influence, and thereby “soft power,” around the world. In 2014 alone, the South Korean government spent over five billion USD on cultural promotion. The largest portion of this spending goes to the Korean Ministry of Culture and Tourism. Throughout its existence, the KMC has implemented numerous policies and programs to increase Korea’s global influence. Early on in its history, it supported training programs in the cultural and entertainment industries in order to make sure that Korea’s cultural exports would be of the best quality. Over the years, it has established dozens of Korean cultural centers around the world and has funded numerous Korean festivals, including K-Pop concerts. Within the KMC, exists the Korea Creative Content Agency (KOCCA), which had the goal of making South Korea a top five “content power” since its creation in 2001. Most uniquely, the Korean Government tasks multiple agencies with conducting analysis to find which cultural products are better suited to which country. While it would be unfair (and untrue) to give the Korean government sole credit for the increased awareness of Korean culture around the world, it has clearly helped foster an environment which has made it easier for Korean cultural advancement and the spreading of said culture.

With all this effort put towards spreading its culture, it is reasonable to ask whether or not it has paid off for Korea. From an economic standpoint, the results are mixed. In spite of the massive success of Korean cultural exports abroad, it’s important to remember that South Korea is one of the richest countries in the world, meaning that Hallyu’s estimated 11.6 billion USD boost to Korea’s economy is only a small portion of its overall GDP. The effects of these cultural boosts on South Korea’s soft power, though, have been immense. Studies have shown that Hallyu has increased positive perceptions of the country throughout Asia. Most significantly, Japanese citizens have become some of the largest consumers of South Korean media in the world despite decades, if not centuries, of animosity between the two nations. The South Korean government has even used the success of K-Pop to improve its relationship with North Korea. In 2018, it brought a delegation of K-Pop stars to Pyongyang to host several concerts, one of which was attended by Kim-Jong Un himself. Despite the insular nature of North Korea, the stars were greeted by an enthusiastic crowd who knew all of the lyrics to their songs. While that is a particularly striking example, there are numerous accounts of foreign dignitaries flocking to take pictures with the various K-Pop and K-Drama stars brought along to international meetings.  Hallyu has also been a source of great national pride for Koreans at home and abroad.

Despite all this success, the Korean entertainment industry finds itself at a crossroads in terms of discontent with gender relations in Korean society. Korea has the lowest gender equality score in the developed world, and a recent epidemic of spy cameras being placed in bathrooms and hotels has left many Korean women angry and afraid. The ousting of multiple politicians due to sexual misconduct has been undercut by scandals involving some of the nation’s biggest stars. Lee Seung-Hyun, better known as Seungri, a member of one Korea’s biggest boy bands, was recently charged with soliciting prostitutes for business associates and for allowing women at his nightclubs to be drugged for VIP guests. Another scandal he is involved in involves a messaging chat room, in which he and multiple male Korean celebrities shared sexually explicit images and videos of women taken without their consent. This is not a good look for an industry with a history of exploiting young women and threatens Korean entertainment’s ability to appeal to the “Me Too”-conscious West. As Korean culture and media become more popular around the world, the South Korean government must realize it shall also come under more scrutiny. Should it fail to heed the many cries of its female population begging for change, the supremely entertaining romantic melodramatics of K-dramas may seem paternalistic and the girl-power themes espoused by its girl groups tinged with cruel irony.

The Korean government has worked for decades to prime itself to become one of the cultural power-houses of Asia, if not the world. This is not surprising for a country that in a generation transformed itself from one of Asia’s poorest countries into one of the world’s richest. The only question is, what will Korea do with its new-found influence? Will it continue to use this influence for clout and economic benefit at the risk of Hallyu’s lasting impact, or does it look inwards and truly help lead the world into the 21st century? 

Photo courtesy of Busan Metropolitan City on Wikimedia Commons.

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