Maxwell Coll: Korea is killing its own Wave

Maxwell Coll: Korea is killing its own Wave

Government initiatives and nationalistic observers threaten the movement’s inherent allure

There is something remarkable happening in Asian pop culture, and it’s stemming from Korea.

While India’s Bollywood exports grip South Asia, Korean celebrities are beginning to make headlines across the region. The proliferation of Korean music, cuisine, drama, fashion and film has implications that should not be underestimated as Asia rises in the information age.

It is transforming old perceptions of the country -- the stereotypical images of the Korean War or the peninsula’s colonization -- and branding Korea as a hub of high technology and trend-setting cultural phenomena. Interestingly, it is also becoming a driving force in Korea's tourism. 

Unfortunately, the potential of the Korean Wave has caught the attention of policy makers and nationalistic observers who today threaten to wash out the movement and impede its natural course.

But it is the people with the best story to tell, not the governments with the strongest nationalistic campaigns, who will have the ability to affect change in the era of Facebook and Twitter.

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Washing out the movement

The government, with its cultural initiatives, and nationalistic commentators are hurting Korean artists and limiting the potential of the Hallyu. They are doing a disservice to the actors, singers, producers and directors whose talents and appeal have naturally drawn worldwide support and enthusiasm.

The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism plans to launch a US$1 billion program that will fund massive global projects exporting Korean culture. This year alone, the government opened cultural centers in Australia, Spain, Indonesia and the Philippines.

In addition to federal initiatives, regular nationalistic media reports focus on minority groups in Japan protesting the rise of Korean celebrities or connect a 2NE1 MTV award to Korean exceptionalism.

“The Japanese protesters are disgusted at the idea of a former colony having such increased exposure,” wrote one columnist in a local daily. 

If policy makers and observers would limit the connection between pop groups and Korea as a nation, the movement’s inherent allure will continue to grip consumers in all markets.

More on CNNGo: Anti-Korean wave in Japan turns political

One example

An earlier cultural phenomenon can serve as an enlightening comparison: Disco Fever.

The disco era, James Brown and “Kung Fu Fighting” included, emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s primarily in New York City clubs. Disco fever spread quickly throughout the West and would eventually become ubiquitous in Moscow’s 260 dance clubs, according to a 1980 Newsweek article. The movement struck the right chord at the right time and connected with a youth that was ready to get on up and stay on the scene.

But while some U.S. government-led initiatives did export this movement -- mainly soft-power radio stations like Voice of America and Radio Liberty -- Soviet teenagers violated Party laws in order to access the latest records because of the phenomenon’s natural appeal. Had the disco movement been known as the “Washington D.C. Boogy” or the “Capitalist Fever,” The Jackson 5 would not have stood a chance in the Communist bloc.

Limiting power

The Korean Wave has of course emerged in a different international scene. The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism is not trying to bypass radio-wave jamming to spread the popularity of Girls’ Generation. (Leave that to the Ministry of Unification.)

But the government still has the potential to seriously limit Korean artists’ reach in Asia and beyond. 

To keep the movement authentic and its appeal widespread, drop “Korea” from the Wave and watch how far the talents, looks and appeal of the Korean people can really go. 

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Maxwell Coll.

More on CNNGo: K-Pop taking over the world? Don't make me laugh

Maxwell Coll, a New Delhi-born Washingtonian/New Orleanian, works for the Korea JoongAng Daily in association with the International Herald Tribune.
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