Jan 25th 2010 | SEOUL AND PHNOM PENH
AT FIRST glance, one might take Prum Seila to be the epitome of Westernised youth, a living stereotype born of two decades’ globalisation in Asia. This modish 23-year-old Cambodian film student cuts a striking image in a country of temples and rice paddy, his tilted newsboy cap and lavender sunglasses making the young ladies swoon at local film festivals.
But Mr Prum isn’t aping Western fashion. Like many Asian youngsters, he considers the trends of North America (and Japan) to be insipid relics. “In Cambodia we watch Korean dramas, listen to Korean music, and take our fashion from South Korea,” he says. He names the South Korean singer Rain and the Korean soap opera “Full House” as his favourites. Next year he hopes to attend film school in Seoul, and eventually to bring more of their artistic nous to South-East Asia.
The Koreans have a word for Mr Prum’s infatuation:hallyu, or the love of South Korean cultural exports. An international phenomenon, hallyu is driving Seoul’s nascent but growing influence across Asia. South Korean popular culture rose from relative obscurity in the late 1990s when, after decades of draconian internal censorship came to an end in the 1980s, its television dramas began to be broadcast widely in China, Japan and South-East Asia. Exports of Korean video games, television dramas and popular music (“K-pop”) have all doubled since 1999, while the total number of cultural products exported since then has increased almost threefold, to $1.8 billion in 2008. In terms of market share, these numbers still rank modestly against the Japanese comic-book industry, which dominates 80% of the worldwide market, but sales of Japanese manga have halved since reaching their apex in 1995.
Some scholars find an explanation for hallyu in the family-friendly, Confucian teachings typical of South Korean dramas; these values, they say, appeal to Asians more than does the usual Western fare. But this explanation seems to require imputing a uniform mentality to at least two billion people. Michael Shin of Cornell University argues instead that by their rags-to-riches storylines these dramas are able to speak directly to audiences who have lived the Asian economic boom of the past two decades. Popular characters often abandon monotonous middle-class jobs to seek fame, or a “dream job”—perhaps suggesting that many Asians feel dissatisfied with their careers, despite the prosperity that has come with growth.
The first hints of hallyu came just as South Korea’s economy collapsed during the 1998 financial crisis in Asia, when GDP plunged by 7%. In the stagnant decade that followed, three administrations looked to hallyu as a tool of soft power, hoping to expand South Korea’s profile abroad along with demand for its cultural exports and tourism. Since 2005 the government has taken a more mercantilist approach. Organisations that introduce Korean culture overseas have won millions of dollars in government grants.
The efforts may be working. A survey conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in 2008 found that about 80% of respondents from China, Japan and Vietnam (three of the largest markets for hallyu) look to South Korean culture with high respect. It is not clear however that this esteem has increased trade and tourism. Park Jung-sook, a former soap-opera actress and now a scholar of hallyu, thinks the government should relax its aggressive marketing, lest foreigners recoil from the smell of nationalism. China is used to running a trade deficit with South Korea, but its deficit in the trade of cultural goods is ten times greater than in industrial goods. On several occasions since 2006 China has threatened to limit the number of South Korean soap operas and concert tours allowed into the country.
North Korea’s method is blunter. Pirated South Korean soap operas have become so widespread there that in recent years the regime mobilised border squads to execute DVD smugglers, according to the Korea Institute for National Unification, a think-tank funded by the South Korean government. A police commander who defected from the North last year says its leaders are getting nervous about the free-market fantasies spun by the imported dramas. (When North Korea revalued its currency in November, it essentially wiped out the country’s personal savings—and with them the black market for foreign goods.) Yet this backlash, uniquely, could work in Seoul’s favour. Roh Moo-hyun, the late president of South Korea from 2003 to 2008, once remarked that hallyu will someday unify the peninsula.