If you read the Korea Blog regularly, you more than likely have an interest in Korea. And though it’s far from guaranteed, you may well also be a Westerner of one kind or another. If both of these conditions hold true for you, then the odds say — albeit with plenty of room for exception — that your interest in Korea was sparked by the fruits of the “Korean Wave,” which over the past couple of decades has crashed onto many a shore throughout the non-Korean world. Though some definitions encompass film, comics, and literature, the Korean Wave as popularly understood consists primarily of two cultural forms: pop music and television dramas. And as Youjeong Oh argues in Pop City: Korean Popular Culture and the Selling of Place, their popularity in foreign countries has been powerful enough to alter the landscape of South Korea itself.
The operative phenomenon is, in a word, tourism. From far and wide come both “K-pop” fans seeking closer proximity to their singing idols and “K-drama” addicts hoping to re-live emotional moments from their favorite shows. Local economies have rapidly adapted to cater to them not just in Seoul, home of all the big entertainment companies and management agencies, but also across the rest of the country, where dramas often film their most memorable scenes. Both types of tourist inevitably encounter disappointments: major K-pop stars are seldom if ever publicly seen when not in concert, and the drama sets maintained as attractions, often in far-flung areas, tend to be smaller and situated in much less romantic contexts than they look on television. Yet the enthusiasts, as their demographics shift with time and their interests change with the trends, have for most of the 21st century kept on coming.
Oh uses a more descriptive term than enthusiast: “As celebrity involvement is often tantamount to worship,” she writes, “visiting a destination associated with the adored star can be perceived as a pilgrimage.” For many tourists, coming to Korea is an “overwhelmingly pop culture-focused journey to attend concerts and television shows, to go on pilgrimage tours to entertainment agency buildings and restaurants operated by K-pop stars.” I won’t pretend not to have made any such pilgrimages of my own, at least if visiting the pubs and coffee shops that have appeared in Hong Sangsoo movies counts. Such a practice may reflect the fact that I came to my own fascination with Korea through Korean cinema — or that I’m not a middle-aged Japanese woman, the demographic group who first proved the economic value of the obsessed foreigner not just to the Korean entertainment industry, but to Korean cities as well.
The Korean Wave rose with Winter Sonata (겨울연가), a “conventional melodrama” that first aired here in 2002. Soon after its broadcast in Japan the following year, its male leads became living gods in the eyes of women of a certain age in that country, many of whom came to see the locations for themselves. This was a boon to the northeastern provincial capital of Chuncheon where the series happened to be set. “The drama’s director intentionally chose the lyrical landscapes of winter in Chuncheon as the drama’s controlling image,” writes Oh. “The accidental popularity of the drama and the city, however, taught both drama producers and Korean cities about the benefits of preplanned and refined marketing strategies of city placement.” The Chuncheons of the country, remote and undistinguished in the eyes of most tourists, identified in dramas a way to get out of Seoul’s shadow.
Before reading Pop City I’d known of Winter Sonata (as does everyone with an interest in modern Korean culture) and I’d also enjoyed visiting Chuncheon, but I’d never associated the two. I now happen to be planning a trip to the even smaller towns of Mungyeong and Chungju, and sure enough, both have also thrown in their lot with the drama industry. In fact, the former pioneered the use of shooting locations as an engine of domestic tourism: in 2000, as Oh tells it, its city government provided the equivalent of $300,000 for the construction of a set for Taejo Wang Geon (태조 왕건), a drama set in the tenth century. Owned by the city, that set has since grown into a complex used for the shooting of many period stories — lack of development being one of the few unambiguous advantages a place like Mungyeong has over Seoul.
In the nearly two decades since Winter Sonata, dramas set in the modern day have also continued to make use of places far from the capital: in 2019, Chungju successfully put in to provide a location for Crash Landing On You (사랑의 불시착), a love story between a South Korean corporate heiress and a North Korean army captain. The series itself was a success, but whether or not Chungju has thus experienced a resulting bump in domestic tourism, few foreign visitors can have come its way since it concluded in February of last year, just as the COVID-19 pandemic all but shut down international travel. Even the eponymous “international district” of Seoul featured in Itaewon Class looks to have benefited little from its celebration in that hit drama, continue to struggle as it has in the aftermath of its own local outbreak of the virus.
For “marginal” Korean cities, as Oh explains it, making a deal with the drama industry has always been a long shot. But then so has making dramas, a function performed by countless perpetually cash-strapped independent production companies forced to negotiate with relatively few high-powered television networks. Recent years have no doubt altered this dynamic to an extent, as illustrated by dramas like Crash Landing On You and Itaewon Class. Both of them were carried not by the major networks but by more recently established cable channels, and both were financed in part by Netflix, whose considerable investment in Korean programming suggests a certain confidence in its potential for wider international appeal. A professor of Asian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, Oh performed most of Pop City‘s research in the early 2010s: Netflix doesn’t appear in the book at all, to say nothing of COVID-19.
A decade ago, Korean dramas were often still produced “live,” a standard operating procedure under which, “apart from the first few episodes, filming is usually done only a few days in advance of (or on the same day as) the airdate.” (The last episode of the 2011 medical crime series Sign, Oh chillingly notes, was completed less than an hour before broadcast.) This, combined with the need to put out a feature film’s worth of new material each week, goes some way to explaining why uninitiated Western viewers might have had trouble getting into Korean dramas at that time. At the constant risk of shoddy, occasionally nonsensical storytelling, the advantage, as industry wisdom then had it, was a greater responsiveness to popular demand. More screen time for a favorite character, a guaranteed happy ending: productions could and would incorporate the audience’s demands, no matter how philistine.
Oh notes that such seat-of-the-pants production has since gone out of fashion, primarily due to the newly felt pressure to sell complete series in advance to China. But other factors have also diluted Korean dramas’ sense of authorship, which had never been strong to begin with. Here one looks in vain for equivalents of the Davids — Chase of The Sopranos, Simon of The Wire, Milch of Deadwood — whose creations kindled America’s ongoing “golden age” of dramatic television. Oh describes Kim Eun-sook as “the top drama writer,” but even her best-known work is shaped by considerations unbecoming of an auteur: Secret Garden, for example, is cited as the prime example of a series conceived to “attract large-scale sponsorship for the display of luxury cars and designer brands.” Even tolerant Korean audiences have been moved to complain when a drama becomes “a collage of commercial advertisements without a solid narrative.”
As with product placement, so with what Oh calls “place placement,” which also “reconfigures dramas’ story lines, leading to a mutual construction of drama and place.” Ideally, the story remains essentially plausible and the Chuncheon, Mungyeong, Chungju or wherever it may be gains a new identity as a city worth visiting. “The underlying political reality is that drama sponsorship costs less than building infrastructure. Moreover, when the sponsored drama is a hit, the gains on investment become exponential.” Yet though the dramas are many, the hits are few, and any money spent attracting and supporting shoots is money not spent improving the city in ways more immediately beneficial to the people who actually live there. “Regional cities’ very marginality leads to such speculative ventures,” as Oh sums it up, “putting them in an ironic situation in which such speculativeness accentuates or deepens their peripheral status.”
As Oh tells it, that peripheral status was quickly and deeply entrenched during “the developmental period from the 1960s to the 1980s,” when “local areas were mere utilizable parts with which the central government orchestrated the nation’s economic development.” South Koreans couldn’t even elect their own local governors and mayors until 1995, but by that time of administrative decentralization the capital has already been made the center of the universe — or perhaps made a black hole, insatiably absorbing everything in its orbit. This goes even more so for Gangnam, the southern half of the city (“Gangnam” literally means “south of the river”) that consisted mostly of bean fields until the mid-1960s. Then a government development scheme dramatically pumped up the value of its land, creating an affluent middle class in the area and relocating to it the prestigious schools and other institutions necessary to perpetuate that class.
Whatever you think of Korean pop music, you most likely know the name of Gangnam because of it. “Until 2012, Gangnam’s hegemony operated locally,” Oh writes, “but in that year Psy’s song ‘Gangnam Style’ unexpectedly became a global phenomenon and introduced Gangnam to the world.” (Oh’s frequent use of hegemony in various forms reminds you that this is an academic book, as does her readiness to apply labels like “neoliberal.”) Since suddenly finding itself in possession of a world-famous brand, the district government has since made attempts to capitalize on its associations with K-pop. None are particularly impressive: Oh examines a stretch of Gangnam street called “K-Star Road,” which I’ve spotted through bus windows but which turns out to amount to a row of cartoonish statues and a handful of businesses with tenuous connections to idol singers. (“Kamong Café is owned by the sister of one of the EXO members.”)
At least the center of Gangnam is indeed the center of the K-pop industry, in that the relevant companies have offices there. Less truthful are Gangnam’s efforts to banner itself a “global city,” first because it isn’t its own city, and second because it isn’t in any meaningful sense global. It is, admittedly, built in a generic, large-scale international style of urbanism that makes it “difficult to think of Apgujeongro, where K-Star Road is located, as a ‘street,'” as Oh writes. “In reality, it is simply a road where car traffic is heavy and fast moving. Interactions between the road and nearby buildings are scant. Few people actually walk along the sidewalk, since upper-class customers mostly use cars to enter shops.” (Certain parts of Los Angeles come to mind.) But to foreigners — a certain class of foreigners — it offers little more than shopping, medical tourism, and Korean-Wave diversions.
After the pandemic, the kind of tourists Gangnam desires will return. “Whether or not the mere attraction of vast numbers of foreign travelers could render Gangnam a global place remains questionable,” writes Oh, “a more notable point is this endeavor’s obsession with the foreign.” South Korea developed through exports, and in decades past, “the imaginary existence of the foreign gaze was harnessed by the developmental state to mobilize the population to accelerate industrialization.” Now, Korean cities “capitalize on the physical presence of foreign bodies to make their areas look more diverse, cosmopolitan, and global.” As in cities, so in culture: Oh documents the many ways in which creators of K-pop and K-dramas deform their products in order to better conform to what they see as the tastes of the target foreign audience du jour (a practice not unknown in film and even literature), alienating those who came for the Korean-ness.
All this perhaps explains why I now watch Korean dramas from the 1980s, a time before foreign audiences figured into network calculations. Or why I’ve never considered living in Gangnam, remaining instead in the capital’s much older and less orderly northern half. Or why I so enjoy the Korean cities that haven’t become international tourist destinations. The past year has proven an opportune period for domestic travel, but like everyone else, I’m planning to go abroad as soon I can. Still, last I did so, I found myself in Quebec City watching a pack of Korean girls photographing themselves in front of a red door. It turned out to be famous from Guardian (도깨비), an enormously popular time-travel drama written by none other than Kim Eun-sook. Even when you can fly to the other side of the world, it seems, you can’t get away from K-culture.
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall hosts the Korean-language podcast 콜린의 한국 (Colin’s Korea) and is at work on a book called The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles. You can follow him at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.