Academic journal article Asian Perspective

The Cultural Political Economy of the Korean Wave in East Asia: Implications for Cultural Globalization Theories

Academic journal article Asian Perspective

The Cultural Political Economy of the Korean Wave in East Asia: Implications for Cultural Globalization Theories

Article excerpt

In this article I examine the Korean Wave as an illustrative case of cultural globalization. I examine this new cultural phenomenon in light of the realignment of Korean media and cultural industries. The Korean Wave is a symptom of the discursive formation and practice of Korea's national cultural policy, which aims to advance Korea's global economic competitiveness by promoting innovation and expansion in the creative industries. I identify implications of the Korean Wave for critical theories of cultural globalization and for the Asian region in fostering or hindering regional cooperation and cultural diversity. KEYWORDS: Korean Wave, globalization, cultural and media imperialism, cultural political economy, post-Fordism.

DURING THE PAST DECADE, SOUTH KOREA (THE REPUBLIC OF KOREA; ROK) has emerged as a new epicenter of mass media and popular culture in East Asia.1 South Korean media have now become omnipresent in the Asian media landscape. The mushrooming popularity of Korean TV dramas, movies, popular music, fashion, foods, and video games, in tandem with fancy Samsung, LG, and Hyundai products, has been dubbed the "Korean Wave" by the news media. Although the neologism's origin is not officially documented, a search through the Korean Integrated News Database System (KINDS) reveals that it was mentioned by the Korean news media as early as 2000.2

Because of its increasing influence in the East Asian region and beyond, the Korean Wave has often been cited to justify "the world is flat" thesis due to its presumed contribution to increasing equality and decentralization in the global creative and cultural economy. The Korean Wave, with its own unique cultural and aesthetic styles, along with other media and cultural hubs in India and Brazil, is said to enhance cultural diversity in the US-dominated global media and popular culture (Cho 2005; Shim 2006). Whether the phenomenon is actually the antithesis of the homogenizing force of cultural and media imperialism requires a more nuanced and critical analysis. In my view, the Korean Wave is an interesting embodiment of the logic of cultural globalization in the Asian context. It demonstrates the subtle yet unmistakable process, mechanisms, and outcomes of cultural globalization among culturally proximate yet still distinctive East Asian nations. In general, the Korean Wave capitalizes on hegemonic cultural globalization rather than defies or contradicts it.

This assessment raises some important questions. For instance, is the Korean Wave an ephemeral fad or something substantial? Is it a commodity, myth, narrative, ideology, state propaganda, or all of them? How do we come to terms with it in the context of globalization? Is the Korean Wave a forceful antithesis to US-centric globalization, or is it a slipshod copy of Hollywood at the periphery of global cultural geography? In order to address these questions, one must move beyond simple, naive optimism about the phenomenon, as such optimism obfuscates certain stark realities of the inequality that still makes up much of cultural globalization. Studies on the Korean Wave suffer mostly from narrow and often overly microscopic, regressive textual analysis. While that approach may offer certain insights into why Eastern Asian audiences voluntarily embrace Korean cultural and media artifacts, it fails to consider the Korean Wave within the larger context of the neoliberal realignment of the global creative economy.

In this article, I shed new critical light on the Korean Wave as a symptom of cultural globalization in the neoliberal, post-Fordist global economy. Overly romanticized views of the Korean Wave tend to obscure the underlying logic of cultural globalization as a constitutive force of globalization writ large, and in so doing they fail to capture the intricate yet unmistakably manifest workings of the statist realignment of creative and cultural industries. In this sense I try, on the one hand, to problematize certain limitations and inadequacies of current scholarship on cultural hybridity in general and the Korean Wave in particular. …

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