Newspaper article International New York Times

Seoul's Plot for World Domination

Newspaper article International New York Times

Seoul's Plot for World Domination

Article excerpt

Cultural influence has kept pace with South Korea's growth.

The Birth of Korean Cool. How One Nation Is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture. By Euny Hong. 267 pages. Picador. Paper, $16.

In 1985, a 12-year-old Euny Hong moved with her family from suburban Chicago to Seoul. Not just any place in Seoul, but a neighborhood known as Apgujeong -- the wealthiest, most exclusive cluster of addresses in the Gangnam district. The Hongs, in short, went "Gangnam Style" 27 years before it was a thing. And when it comes to South Korean history -- as with meme superstardom -- three decades is a long time.

Ms. Hong's new book, "The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation Is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture," loosely follows South Korea's growth from the mid-1960s, when the country's per capita G.D.P. was less than Ghana's, to now.

South Korea is now the 15th-largest economy in the world. From Psy's "Gangnam Style" video to the chips that Samsung furnishes for Apple's iPhones, the book explores the confluence of factors that make for Korea's pop-cultural perfect storm.

South Korea's vitality lies in hallyu -- a wave of cool so pervasive that President Obama name-checked it in a speech. Ms. Hong asserts that Korea's rise is attributable to what the Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye calls "soft power": The country wields influence not through military might but "by peddling a desirable image."

South Korea's government has earmarked a billion-dollar investment fund dedicated to fostering popular culture, and for Koreans raised abroad during the 1970s and early '80s like Ms. Hong and myself, the notion that Seoul has become this fashionable is startling and deeply fascinating. After all, Korea was nicknamed the Hermit Kingdom by 19th-century Western explorers for its reluctance to play with others.

"Korean Cool" chronicles the author's period of trying to fit in. She recalls toilets that don't flush, corporal punishment and a Confucian catechism so entrenched that defying your parents results in agonizing shame. Just as Western kids feared the boogeyman, Korean children abroad lived under the constant threat of being "sent back to Korea" for delinquent behavior like smoking cigarettes or getting a C. …

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