By Marinus Schepen


The purpose of this thesis is to map out and assess the rise and changing path of (visual) South Korean [hereafter Korea] pop culture at a broad stroke. The intention of this thesis is to provide useful signposts toward a more nuanced understanding on the politics of culture and the popular culture within the mainstream in its complex potential, which means that culture is more than just a set of rules. It also represents formalities and norms of a society, including its language, art, graphic design, fashion, laws and religion. Meanwhile, the goal of this thesis is to make Korean culture understandable by drawing on examples of the history of Korea and Confucian sensibilities that still have a big prominence in the Korean (visual) cultural field, but also daily life as it is today. Admitting that a European perspective colors my interpretation of the Korean culture since I was born, raised and educated in Europe, I will nevertheless do my best to look at this case with a neutral mindset. In the rear of my trip to Seoul, at the end of October 2014, there was the opportunity to observe the Korean pop culture and a lot of perspectives are based on my observations and talks with the inhabitants of Seoul.

For this thesis the need of information on historical events should give a better understanding of the Korean culture. Thanks to oppression by other nations for decades the Korean Culture did not have the freedom to develop itself through its own sensibilities, but most likely are affected by other sensibilities like Western globalization. Furthermore this thesis will draw parallel lines between North American, and European popular culture to the Korean popular culture as an attempt to look for similarities between Korea and the West. This is because Korea has gone through an intense period of modernization after the Korean War and has been heavily exposed to the process of a globalization. Also through this thesis we will look at events that have been the first sparks of a pop culture and eventually the beginning of an export of their culture through ‘low’ culture like K-pop and television dramas. As an effect of these events my the expectations for this thesis would be that through the experience of oppression and exposition to globalization, Koreans always manage to give it a twist with typical Korean ideals. It could be that this fuse of different sensibilities, so called eclecticism is a typical Korean sensibility and could be a blueprint of possibilities for the potential of the Korean culture in the near future.

I will research the question “What is typical about the Korean (visual) popular culture from 1960 onward?” Through this research I am going to write about the history of South Korea and how it became this high tech nation and cultural superpower.

A big inspiration for writing this thesis is from a quote of John Tomlinson, an English writer and professor on globalization. “What is an authentic national culture when some alien cultural practices are so quickly assimilated that after a short while they are no longer remembered as alien?” 1 With this quote as a resonating question I will write this thesis.

One of the most special moments I had in Seoul was, travelling by metro through the city. In the metro there was an older man. He kept staring at me, which made me ask myself why he was staring. As a result of this he put up his hand as a friendly notion to say hello to me. I bowed and he started talking. He asked me where I came from. I told him that I was from Holland, visiting Korea to do research on Korean pop culture. He was very interested and was also telling me a bit about himself. He told me he was 76 years old and still working. The man was very small; he only came up to my chest. He explained that Koreans stopped growing due to malnutrition. In the Korean War and right after, there was hardly any food available. He was very happy to see that more and more foreigners are visiting South Korea so he could still keep up with his English.

And it pleased him that Korea gained so much in wealth. After this conversation I noticed what an impact the Korean War had on the people, and how little I knew about this war. This is why I want to understand the culture, their drive to become a cultural superpower and what makes them different form other Eastern Asian countries.



1.1 What is a pop culture?

To understand a pop culture it is recommended to have a better understanding about visual culture. This raises the question: what is visual culture? A visual culture has different meanings: in this thesis the term will be used as a predominance of visual forms of media, communication, and information in the postmodern world 2. This term is nevertheless a bit vague; it implies that there could have been a cultural shift to the visual the verbal and textual. But the ‘visual culture’ supports the reality of living in a world with interventions on different levels while in history before the digitalization and globalization these expressions were less visible. Our experience of culturally meaningful visual content appears in multiple forms that could be subdivided in “high” and “low” cultural forms with “high” as an innovative art style or art movement and “low” such as print images and graphic design, television and broadcasting networks, film and video, computer interfaces and software design, digital multimedia, fine art and photography, fashion but also architecture, design, and urban design 3. This growth of “low” culture of visual culture that started in the 20th century has a lot to do with technical development but also with the upcoming of postmodernism, a movement that started between the two world wars Postmodernism assumes the idea that we cannot speak of any universal truth, reason or morality. We just have fragmented perspectives. But what is a pop culture? Pop culture is heterogeneous, and the entirety of ideas, perspectives, attitudes images and other phenomena that are within the mainstream of a given culture, which is different than folk culture. Folk culture is a culture that is homogenous in ethnicity, is rural and consists of a smaller population than pop culture. Where folk culture is only linked to ethnicity, pop culture exists out of many ethnic groups and develops itself quicker than folk culture. Folk culture is what we could see as traditional 4.

Norman Mailer (1923 - 2007), an American journalist and essayist, suggested that a pop culture starts when there is a counterculture upcoming, a youth culture. Norman Mailer first noted an upcoming movement of a pop culture in the west in his essay: “The White Negro: superficial reflections on the hipster” 5. (Fig. 1) In this essay he described American Existentialists, who he called “Hipsters”. He described young white people in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. The described hipster refuses submission to the anxieties that are the result of various wars. In fact, the hipster can only function on the outskirts of society. The hipster defines himself in opposition to any notion of collective responsibility. He is “rarely an artist,” and “never a writer”, but more likely “a minor criminal, a hobo, a carnival worker or a free-lance moving man in Greenwich Village” 6. (Fig. 2) He is his only engagement. The hipster wanted to make his own decisions and started to listen to typical “black” music like jazz and swing music and dressed himself in a different fashion so much that he adopted the “black” culture as his own culture to break free from the paths of society and previous generations. Living a life surrounded by death, as a result of various alarming wars, and being constrained by social conformity, this movement eventually resulted in a youth culture and by the 1960s it became a part of popular culture.

Fig 1. - Cover of “The White Negro” an essay by Norman Mailer (1957).
Fig 2. Marlon Brando, archetype of The White Negro

1.2 What is interesting about the globalizing (visual) Korean pop culture compared to the West?

Korea was once one of the poorest and least fashionable countries in the world. But over the last couple of decades it changed itself into a High-tech nation and cultural superpower. Korean popular culture is mentioned as one of the quickest flourishing pop cultures in the world. The song ‘Gangnam Style’ (Fig. 3) from Korean rapper PSY has over 21 billion views on YouTube. Filipinos are hooked on Korean dramas, the French love Korea’s pop music and their movies 7. In 2013 Korea made $5 billion from its pop-culture exports and the country has set its sights on doubling that by 2017 8. This describes more the attitude of the country.

There are nevertheless also visual differences in the Korean (pop) culture. In writing you can see that Korean writing is different from other Asian writings. The text used on the streets and other visual material is set in Hangul, the native alphabet of Korea. This script was created during the Joseon dynasty in 1443 9 and is based on phonetics (Fig. 4). The script exists out of 24 letters but is grouped in blocks instead of in a row what is done in Latin alphabet. In the west we mainly see Hangul through the bright colored video clips of K-Pop. K-Pop is a musical genre originating from South Korea and stands for Korean Pop music. The music is a visual and musical mix of different genres like pop, rock, hip-hop, RnB and electronic music. K-Pop can be seen as globalized music; it is a mixture of North American and European sounds with an Asian flavor of performance 10. Contemporary Korean art could also be suggested as globalized art, which rapidly gains ground in the international art scene. With their artists often educated in London or New York 11.

Based on these statements there is a suggestion that most of Korea’s pop culture is a fusion between Western, European and other cultures which could be due to the fact that their students study abroad at European and North American universities and after their studies will move back to Korea to start their careers.

Fig 3. - Screenshot of the videoclip “Gangnam Style” by PSY
Fig 4. “Hangul” written in Korean script

1.3 This could be interesting because?

There are two ways to look at this question. Firstly, as I observed Seoul and had conversations with Koreans about the Hallyu (The Korean wave), they mentioned to me that people say that the three economic powers (Japan, South Korea and China) in East Asia that succeed each other. In the beginning you have Japan, as a follow up Korea would join ten years later and ten years after that China would follow as the economic power. That being said, China will do this most likely with a quick economic growth that is quicker than those of Japan or Korea. Stating this, it could be interesting to see how the Chinese growth will develop and using these growths of Japan and Korea as a theory you could predict the growth of China.

Secondly, another interesting fact is that as mentioned earlier, Korea is an eclectic fusion of different cultures. Although Koreans would see themselves more as a member of an ethnic group living in a nation state that has been fighting for its independence from foreign domination. Their national identity has a solid thread of “self-reliance,” and mistrust in outside influences running through it. While things are evolving rapidly, it is still sufficiently normal for foreigners as a part of understanding Korean social norms to be at a loss to understand what Koreans are thinking in many situations. At the point when addressed around an especially odd or nonsensical appearing perspective for instance in everyday life, a typical answer is “Because I am Korean,” which says everything and nothing. Additionally, Koreans have a tendency to view society, nationality, dialect, and race as one-and-the-same and this may result in a genuine inability to grasp Western concepts of multi-cultural societies, where individuals are equal to each other. A Korean might, quite accurately, point out that indeed we are not equal and find it strange that we in the west ‘imagine’ being different.

2.1 History of Korea

To get a better understanding of the culture and the drive to become a cultural superpower it is essential to have an idea about the history of Korea. Before the Korean War, which caused the split of North- and South Korea, Korea was a part of the Japanese empire 12. In 1592 Japan invaded the peninsula to pave its way for its incursion into China. This however failed and Korea remained to be a “Hermit Kingdom”. Over time, a few Asian and European countries with imperialistic ambitions competed with each other for influence over the Korean Peninsula. But Japan, after winning wars against China and Russia, forcibly annexed Korea and instituted the colonial rule in 1910. The colonization process stimulated the patriotism of the Korean population. Korean intellectuals were angered by Japan’s cultural assimilation policy, which even banned Korean language education in schools. The colonial rule ended by the end of the Second World War in 1945 13.

South Korea could not enjoy the fruits of their freedom due to the surrender of Japan after WWII. The liberation did not bring the independence the Koreans have fought so hard for. Instead it resulted in a country divided by ideological differences. Korean efforts to gain an independent government were frustrated as Soviet troops took control over the northern half and U.S. forces occupied the southern half of the peninsula and with the emergence of the Cold War this was not going to end soon 14.

Fig 5. - A girl with a baby during the Korean War

On June the 25, 1950, the Korean War (Fig. 5) began when North Korea poured 75,000 soldiers across the 38th parallel 15. A division between the Soviet-backed (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) North Korea and the pro-Western (Republic of Korea) South Korea was based on the circle latitude that is 38 degrees north of the Earth’s equatorial plane. This invasion was the first scale military action between the East and West, respectively, North and South. And as far as American officials were concerned, it was a war against the forces of international communism itself. At the same time, American officials worked fearful to construct a peace between the two Korea’s. The alternate, they feared, would be a wider war with Russia and China. Or even, as some people warned, World War III. After more than two years of negotiations the adversaries signed a treaty on July 27, 1953 16. The agreement allowed the prisoners of war to stay where they liked, drew a boundary near the 38th parallel (Fig. 6) that gave South Korea an extra 3500 square kilometers of territory and created a 3-kilometer-wide ‘demilitarized zone’ that still exists today. Although the Korean War was approximately short, it was extremely bloody. Nearly 5 million people died. More than half of these people were civilians, which was about 10 percent of Korea’s prewar population. Almost 40,000 American soldiers died in action in Korea, and more than 100,000 were wounded. North Korea was left under communist rule after the treaty of 1953, and to this day it remains a poor and troubled nation 17 (Fig. 7).

Fig 6. - Traffic sign on the 38th parallel line to split North- and South-Korea
Fig. 7 - Delegates sign the Korean Armistic Agreement

South Korea’s growth and national culture oriented development was led under the leadership of Park Chung-Hee 18, the general-turned-president, from 1960 following 18 years of authoritarian rule. His effect on Korea’s development was so remarkable that it earned the name “the Miracle on the Hangang River”. During the busy efforts of restoration after the war, education became South Korea’s highest priority. Although it was a day-to-day struggle for children to travel over long distances to go to school, Korean parents did not ignore the importance of education. This dedication to, and investment in, education produced a highly trained workforce that would later become one of the forces behind Korea’s economic turn-around. These days education is still one of the highest priorities. And putting your kids on private schools and get extra classes to prepare them for the best universities in the world is seen as prestige.

2.2 First notions of a counter culture

In Korea the formation of a pop culture happened in a different way than in the west and was heavily forced by American GI’s. After the Korean treaty was signed, American GI’s stayed in South Korea for the protection of a second threat of North Korea. For the entertainment of these troops the AFKN (American Forces Korean Network) (Fig. 8) was broadcast in this area. The AFKN is a radio and television service for the entertainment of U.S. Troops. Korean teenagers would gather around small transistor radios to listen to the music from this broadcast station 19. Without doubt this was influencing the music culture in Korea and can be regarded as one of the first notions of Cultural Imperialism. Cultural Imperialism refers to the creation of a clear line between the political and economic domination of a more powerful civilization over its colonies. In this case the U.S. over Korea. The U.S. Military base was an improbable incubator of a fledgling Korean counterculture movement.

Fig 8. - Sign at the entrence of the AFKN radio station
Fig. 9 - Marilyn Monroe performing at an American Military Base in Seoul

These influences started when there was a growing need of entertainment at American military bases. Usually these entertainments came from American artists, like Elvis Presley, Nat King Cole or Marilyn Monroe (Fig. 9), and were flown in to Korea though they could not satisfy the huge demand coming over more than 150 camps around the country. Therefore U.S. Army hired Korean musicians to fill the void, and amid the destitution of postwar Korea. Many hungry musicians flocked to bases for the precious jobs. These musicians had already been exposed to American artists through the AFKN and this imitation of imported styles became a stimulus to the creation of hybrid styles, in which musicians blend elements from local musical traditions into Western songs and add native language lyrics. Performing in these camps usually started off with a pre audition at an agency and when musicians or bands were considered valuable they were allowed to join the show ensemble to perform in an audition in front of the U.S. Military authorities, which would make the final decision whether the ensemble were qualified. These ssoydan (Korean for ensembles) (Fig. 10) would not just give a simple music concert but gave an entertainment variety show consisting of a big band, singers, comedians, dancers and other performers with a band as a center point. These bands usually did not play one style or genre. Versatility was crucial to the survival of a band and therefore tried to master as many styles as they could with an enormous pressure to learn the latest hits on the U.S. Pop chart. Without any sheet music available the only way to learn these songs were through recordings of the AFKN broadcast and then practice day and night.

Although these bands were popular among American troops, only a small Korean public was receptive to their music. The bands had time on their side, but when the big public was opening up to them the state-led “Choguk Kŭndaehwa” (Fatherland Modernization) period of the 1960s and 1970s started. This high-speed industrialization and growth of nationalism was the state’s policy which was started by a military coup in 1961 20. This led into a rapid urbanization and harsh oppression of dissenting voices.

2.3 Oppression by Park Chung Hee

In 1971 the three-day Cheongpyeong Festival drew a crowd of thousands of people. This festival, whose communal experiences were similar to Woodstock and the ‘Summer of Love’, was the arrival of the global youth counterculture in Korea. People had long hair, flared jeans, used recreational drugs and had an anti-authoritarian attitude 21. Korean rock music along with fledgling modern folk movement provided a soundtrack for this new cultural drama. But the authoritarian Park regime decided to take action against this new culture as it was deemed “vulgar” and “decadent”. The police began stopping young people for a snap inspection. Men got a free haircut on the spot if their hair was considered too long and the skirt of the women had to be long enough to cover their knee (Fig. 11). The streets of Seoul changed into a theater of the absurd where police officers were armed with measuring sticks and imposed the “discipline of the body” to the unlucky spectators. Between 1965 and 1975 this oppression eventually led to a total of 223 Korean songs and 261 Western pop songs that were blacklisted 22.

The goal of all of this national culture revival was ultimately political and was an opportunistic move to recover from the Korea-Japan normalization treaty that had put constraints on the national culture by its former colonial master. Although the Rock movement in Korea neither offered social nor political critique, it was seen as a political threat by the regime because it had something so unsettling about it. Basically this was an American cultural import that was spontaneously accepted and glocalized by the Koreans themselves.

Fig 10. - Korean Ssoydan performing at an American Military base in Seoul
Fig. 11 - Korean “Fashion Police” inspecting the length of the hair

3.1 The detraditionilazation of society

Korean culture has been and still is conceived and rearticulated along the lines of Confucian legacies and ideals. Besides is the Korean culture an official homogenizing and highly collectivistic ethnic and patriotic nationalism. Later on in this thesis the topic of Confucian legacy will come back. This collective ethnic- and patriotic nationalism has created a unified ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mindset against invading foreign powers. However in the 1980’s and 1990’s the mainstream became a fertile field of difference where a multiplicity of social forces struggle to secure their cultural hegemony and dominance 23.

In the late 1980s, at the socio-economic level, Korea had achieved a high performing economy (Fig. 12). This all was due to the mass-production electronic industries where Korea copied western products to sell for a cheaper price on the market. The Hyundai Pony (Fig. 13), a car designed by Europeans but produced in Korea, is an example of these growing industries 24. As a result of this economic welfare the standard of living has been drastically improved. Quick and profound cultural, spatial and technological changes and mutations appeared in the South Korean daily life. Maybe there is no clearer example than the spatial landscape of the capital city of Seoul. Where in the glitzy and active urban scenes, in particular the pleasure-sites and cultural areas in Seoul, Euro-American cultural products and styles popped up among the youth and urban professionals. It is generally accepted that, in the late 1990s, Korean society had grown so much that it entered a highly consumption-oriented phase where people gained a passion for foreign travel and a better quality of life 25. Therefore it was no wonder that there are rising concerns on practices of consumption, life styles and identities.

Fig 12. - Seoul around 1980
Fig. 13 - Hyundai Pony, Korea’s first mass-produced car

As mentioned, in the past and until recently, culture in Korea was largely treated as almost homogeneous. A country bound by an ethnic belief and territorial logic focused on the ‘imaginary Korean nation’. Historically there was an assumed comparison in Korea, or strong organic ties, between culture, people, territory and language where the relative homogeneity of linguistic, ethnic and cultural characteristics were set up as an justification for the inner self and masculinized Korean cultural nation 26. Even though the nation lost considerable hailing power during the 1990s. Stereotyped nationalism and other authoritarian ideas and Confucian discourses are still potentially powerful forces to look upon with in the local setting (Fig. 14).

Fig 14. - Koreans protest to overthrow the authoritarian regime and place democracy in the Korean Society

The first changes in the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ perception appeared around the 1980s when the traditional culture was questioned and the country was exposed to a growing economy. For the Korean bourgeois culture is like a strong organic glue that binds Koreans within the national space where any potentially violation against moral or social boundaries should be kept out. While before the culture of the people was been applied to a valuable resource and powerful history. This is one of the reasons why they expanded traditional folk and the minjung (a Korean word which is hard to describe but literally means ‘mass of the people’) cultural forms like, folk music, dance, songs and drama against the official (sanitizing) discourses of accepted nationalism and the alienating consumerist culture. The previous government had the idea that the culture of the working class and farmers should have an authentic, healthy, and less perverted way of life and everyday struggles 27. However in the 1990s, with the rise of popular youth culture and new generations of ‘cultural tribes’, consumers and manufacturers were stimulated and the once secured image of an hegemonic national culture and collective construction of Koreanness seemed to be turned upside down. Heterogeneous sets of ideas, passions, aspirations, life styles and the ‘toolkits’ for a counter-identity formation in everyday life became the new ethos. This was especially because of the flickering images of daily doses of global popular culture on the streets. And in the current Korea the presence of diverse, and clashing cultures of different generations of people and their structures of feeling, the ritual mystique, organic, united and homogeneous model of national culture is definitely under pressure and losing ground.

3.2 Confucianism/ Social order

Admitting Korean culture has undergone a rapid change, the values of Confucian ideals are still at the basis of their society. But what actually is Confucianism? Confucianism is to some extent Humanism, a philosophy or attitude that is concerned with human beings, but in Korea conceived as a religion with its own rituals.

It is developed from the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Kong Qui, a Chinese intellectual (551–479 BC) 28. The Latinized name Confucius was created by 16th-century missionaries in China. Some people say Confucianism is not a religion because there are no Confucian supreme beings and no teachings about the afterlife. Confucius himself was a strong supporter of the ritual, however, and for many centuries there were state rituals associated with Confucianism. The most important tradition of Confucianism is about the shaping of social relationships and moral thoughts 29 (Fig. 15). Confucius was a teacher to the sons of the upper class when formal education was just beginning in China. He traveled from region to region with a small group of disciples, which would later become important government officials. Confucius was not particularly famous during his lifetime and even considered himself to be a failure. He became an advisor to a powerful ruler and believed that such a ruler, with the right advice, could bring an ideal world. Confucius said heaven and the afterlife were beyond human capacity to understand, and therefore one should concentrate on doing the right thing in his life instead. Early records from one of his students indicate that he did not provide many moral commandments. He would rather taught an attitude toward one’s other fellow humans of respect, particularly respect to one’s parents, teachers, and elders. He also encouraged his students to learn from everyone they would meet, and honor to others’ cultural norms. Later on his teachings would be translated by authoritarian political thinkers into strict guidelines and would be associated with a permanent hierarchy of authority and unquestioning obedience.

Fig 15. - The symbol of Taoism and Confucianism. When Yin and Yang embrace each other, they reveal that they are not a world that can be divided into black and white, but black-in-white and white-in-black, forming a unity.

Talking with Koreans in Seoul, they explained me a lot about how this idea of Confucianism would apply itself in everyday life as social norms. In life Koreans make Confucian-style thoughts, but this does not mean Korean people consciously try to follow Confucian laws. It is very rare to find a Korean person who explicitly connects her code of conduct to Confucianism. Relational understanding of humans is absolutely the most important aspect of Confucianism that operates in Korea today. A Korean considers this aspect to be the most significant, not only because it is the strongest influence of Confucianism that can be observed in modern Korean society, but also because it is the most different from the Western mode of thought. With a greater emphasis on relationships, individuals are on a second place. In Confucianism, a person does not exist autonomously. To exist alone is not enough. It is the link to another person that makes that person a human. This relational understanding of humans thoroughly pervades Korean society, affecting their behavior as well as their thought process. When two Koreans meet for the first time, they spent the first few minutes asking each other how old they are, what they do, where they come from, etc.

Relational understanding is about classification and is also pervasive in Korean culture. Except for close friends it is rare for Korean adults to call each other by name only. In fact, even the word “you” is rarely used. Various “relationship words” are used instead. If there is no direct relationship to be found, then one’s social position is a decent substitute. In addition to this classification, social interactions of Koreans also tend to be a constant recognition and reaffirmation of relationships. Koreans bow to elders and seniors. Polite Koreans give things with two hands as a way to show respect. Korean manners require that you never show up empty-handed to go to visits at another person’s house. And maintaining a relational understanding of humans leads to a constant assessment of everyone’s “place.” If you want to know your relationship with regard to someone else, you need to understand your position relative to another. And your position always comes with a certain set of “what you are supposed to do.” The natural outgrowth is that Koreans end up caring a great deal about social status. And as specified before it is not just the individual that makes a person; it is also the type of social links that the individual creates with other individuals and the larger society. This necessarily involves a constant survey of one’s place in relation to the world, which in turn fuels one’s desire to have a higher social status whenever possible.

4.1 The Korean Dream

In the 1980s Korea was, as mentioned before, mainly a manufacture country and was known because of its copies of Western products. When the country changed its ideas on copying goods in the 1990s they were determined to become more influential. The country already learned a lot about modern techniques and now started to make its own products, which became the front-runners of technology and slowly Korea became a High-Tech nation. One should think of brands like Samsung, LG, Hyundai and Kia, but also in fashion they became more known with designers like Juun.J and Wooyoungmi (Fig. 16, 17).

Fig 16. - Designer Jung Wook Jun dressing a model backstage at the fashionshow of Juun.J
Fig 17. - Backstage at the fashionshow of Wooyoungmi, SS 2015

But how did they start to export their own culture? When in 2001 by “accident” the song ‘Honey’ by musician Park Jin-Yeong and several other Korean pop artists became a hit in China, Korean newspapers started to write about this new phenomenon, which is they called ‘The Korean Wave’ or Hallyu 30. The Korean Wave is additionally seen as a manifestation of 5,000 years of pent up energy as a result of oppression. This Korean boom was further boosted by the advance of Korean movies but more than anything else Korean pop music, which often incorporates dynamic rhythms, powerful dances and lyrics that felt progressive and rebellious enough to attract the youth. These new adapters are classified as the “Korean Tribes” and are aggressively adopting and mimicking Korean lifestyles ranging from fashion, food and consumption patterns and even to plastic surgery 31. The latter has gone so much out of hand that the city of Seoul is now restricting advertisements on plastic surgery because they were fueling an unhealthy obsession with the body image. Under the new regulations metro stations can only allow 20% of the advertisements to be connected to plastic surgery and overly sensational before and after pictures and slogans are going to be banned 32 (Fig. 18). The Hallyu was first praised as a pride of “Korean Culture” most likely because nationalistic people felt that Korea finally joined the ranks of advanced nations. This pride is linked to the notions of cultural essentialism and the prevalent of this popularity in other Asian countries stems from family values and Confucian sensibility 33.

But is the Korean Pop Culture essentially different from other pop cultures? In cultural and nationalistic discourse it is voiced that Korean culture compared to American and Japanese culture is less violent. Another argument is that it is more popular in Asia is because of anti-Japanese and anti-American sentiments. China is ideologically opposed to America and this is the same with Japan. For Korea this is entirely different, China sees no sense of competitiveness with Korea, which does not say that they disdain Korea, they view Korea as a country to learn from 34. And over discourse it’s being mentioned that when China emerges as a new cultural furnace, it will most likely mean East Asia’s emergence from cultural colonialism 35. But to counter this cultural colonization Korea should search for something “authentically Korean” instead of copying the homogenous pop culture. One of these options was coined by the television documentary producer Seo Hyeon-cheol, he was convinced that Korean dance music could be a world competitive export item and said that even though Korean dance music was derived from Japan or America, it is inevitably colored by Korean sensibilities during the process of copying. The people who created the so-called Hallyu are not people who create the so-called “high” or traditional “Korean culture”. But mainly it comes from Korean dance music. Seo calls this love of music and dance a “Korean sensibility” 36.

Fig 18. - Plastic surgery advertisements at metro stations in Seoul

In 2005 the Samsung Economic Research Institute published a special report on the economic effects of the Hallyu. Entitled “The Korean Wave Sweeps the Globe” the report classifies countries that import Korean pop culture into four stages. The first stage is that of simply enjoying Korean pop culture, this is applied to countries as Egypt, Mexico and Russia. The second stage involves buying related products such as posters, character items, and tours, the countries classified for this stage are Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

The third stage is buying “Made in Korea” products and China and Vietnam are qualified for this stage. The fourth and final stage reflects the development of a general preference for Korean culture itself. According to the report, there are no countries that could be applied for this stage. To accomplish this fourth stage it is suggested by the report that people need to be made interested in Korean culture through “feeling Korean” by increasing the export of Korean food, drinks and lifestyles which contains the essence of Korean aesthetics, emotions, traditions and culture by modelling itself in the rear of “Japonism”. The style that made Japan its existence known to European culture at the end of the nineteenth century. The report added that when the sensibility contained in these contents go beyond “Korean sensibility” to include Asian values such as Neo-Confucian and family values, then it would be more appealing to non-Koreans and in that way South-Korea could build a cultural Silk Road 37.

4.2 K-Pop

As specified before, K-Pop or Korean Pop Music is one of the biggest (pop) cultural export products of Korea. Since the late 1990s, K-pop has been regarded as one of the most successful cases among Asian pop music. The danceable rhythms and catchy melody performed by good-looking singers and groups were first swept across East and South-East Asia but later on to other parts of the world as well. These singers and groups are no amateurs but actually have a big organization behind them, a kind of education system. This ‘star manufacturing system’ came up in the early 1990s 38 and eventually expanded itself into a specific training and education system. Star aspirants register at an academy as trainees and take the lessons necessary to be a star. After learning applicable skills, the chosen few are entitled to become members of idol groups, usually this would be boy-groups or girl-groups. Later these idol groups would go to the next stage of hard training that mostly begins with living together in a house provided by the company. By this, stars are discovered, educated and exploited through consistent control by the entertainment companies, which on itself is a hard working industry 39. Where before the Korean pop stars were a stereotype of pretty boys and girls lip-syncing and dancing on music, by the early 2000s the new type of star had to look more ‘real’ or ‘less artificial’. This was a result of the target audience that moved from teenage girls to women who were in their mid-20s to 30s. This was mainly because these women had a larger buying power. After the Hallyu, K-pop became more popular and the entertainment companies focused themselves on the global market as well. An explanation to this global approach of the music industries could be that they found that ‘Asians’ are everywhere on the globe. Beyond Asia, this music existed as a form of Asian migrants´ culture in America and elsewhere in the West 40.

The biggest breakthrough of K-pop occurred in 2012 and was a result of the popularity of the song ‘Gangnam style’ by the Korean rapper PSY. The song is referencing a sort of elite, “Nouveau Riche”, wealthy culture and lifestyle that has sprung up around Gangnam, a small area in Seoul. PSY explained: “Gangnam residents are seen as “good-looking because of plastic surgery, stylish because they can splurge on luxury goods, and slim thanks to yoga and personal trainers. But People who are actually from Gangnam never proclaim that they are – it’s only the posers and wannabes that put on these airs and say that they are “Gangnam Style” – the song is actually poking fun at those kinds of people who are trying so hard to be something that they’re not.” 41 ‘Gangnam Style’ might look like it went spontaneously viral on the Internet. Actually it was a precisely executed campaign by the Korean entertainment company behind the song to make a definite breakthrough of K-pop music in the North American and European market 42 (Fig. 19, 20).

Fig 19. - Still from the videoclip of K-pop girlgroup Orange Caramel
Fig 20. - Still from the videoclip of K-pop boyband Block B

4.3 Contemporary Korean art

A possibility to grow this “Korean Sensibility” could be through the arts. Arts are a good cultural export product and are completely different from the pop culture. Korean art could create a modern view on traditional “Korean Culture”. Recently Korean artists are mentioned as one of the new tastemakers and history-making headliners in the global art scene 43. One of the better known Korean artists and from one of the first generations of modern Korean art is Nam June Paik. Born in 1932 he is an artist that experienced this whole change in Korea. In the 1950s, during the Korean War, he and his family left their homes and fled to Japan. His art works are mentioned as futurist and he was part of the Fluxus movement that was highly inspired by the composer John Cage. As one of the first artists to work with television and video, transforming both forms of popular media into art. He stressed that electronic media is not sculpture or painting, but a ‘time art’. A prescient theorist whose writings were as visionary as his art, he has been credited with inventing the term ‘electronic superhighway’ and stating that ‘the future is now’. His most famous work is ’TV Buddha (Fig. 21), here Paik brings together the past and present, the old and new, the real and illusory. The Buddha perpetually gazes at the TV screen, on which he sees an image of himself recorded by the closed-circuit camera 44.

Fig 21. - Nam June Paik, TV Buddha (1974), Mixed media
The Buddha, the founder and signifier of a doctrine which espouses relinquishment of the ego or petty, individual self, is sat viewing an image of himself on a television screen. Ultimately, the pieces correspond with, represent and reaffirm Buddhist teachings: that external appearances and perceived reality are illusory.

Another artist is photographer Park Sung Jin, born in Seoul but studied painting and photography in New York. Since 2001 he has worked on a series of portraits called ‘Kid Nostalgia’ (Fig. 22, 23), which are portraits of teenagers in Seoul. After spending his 20s in New York he decided to go back to Seoul and was ‘shocked’ by the existing youth culture how everyone looked the same. But also saw the little gemstones that as little rebels don’t fit in with their clothing and looks. These youngsters have different haircuts or dress themselves differently and therefore they are not accepted by society 45. The way they reveal themselves as they roam around the periphery of the school system is so raw that there is an ironic beauty to it. There is a sort of imperfect freedom and recklessness to their rebellion and sadness, to their style that the older generation refuses to tolerate. While Park was doing this project, he often thought that he was, in a sense, trying to find his own forgotten roots. Although he found out that it wasn’t so much about finding an “answer”.

Fig 22. - Park Sung Jin, Kid Nostalgia II (2005),Photography
Fig 23. - Park Sung Jin, Kid Nostalgia III (2007),Photography

Most of the artists that are the “new tastemakers” in the art-scene are educated in London or New York at the most renowned schools. By fusing cutting-edge technology and popular trends these artists reflect the disturbing yet celebratory, self-contradictory clashes and divided psyche. They do this by reflecting on topics like K-pop, ancient Confucian values, the latest cosmetic surgery as a possible subject and historical events.

4.4 Korean Graphic Design

The growing focus of Korea on “high” culture also affected the graphic design scene. Thanks to the Hallyu there has been an increase in the number of cultural and social events. The younger generations of designers have the opportunity to explore this growth in the cultural field. These young designers have an ability to look at the real happenings in society and realize that adjustment without questioning has nothing to do with real life. With various social influences, young designers are ready to make their own opinion on finding value in life, rather than just following the mainstream 46. This is a reason why more designers who studied abroad but are originally from Korea are coming back to the country.

Fig 24. - Graphic designer, Na Kim
Fig 25. - GRAPHIC, a magazine launched in 2007

Na Kim (Fig. 24) is a graphic designer and founder of GRAPHIC (Fig. 25). After graduating in 2008 from Arnhem’s Werkplaats Typografie, a two-year masters program run under the ArtEZ Institute of the Arts, Kim launched her own studio. She’s won worldwide recognition for her vibrant, stripped-back graphic style, and her work has been exhibited everywhere from Milan to New York. She was one of these designers who moved back to Seoul. Na Kim mentions in an interview that many things are still in process in Korea, this process is not completed yet but there is still enough potential to take the next steps forward. This was also a reason for her to launch GRAPHIC, a magazine that was first published in January 2007. Through this magazine she wanted to explore other trends of graphic design that are different from the mainstream. GRAPHIC is an independent magazine that does not depend upon sponsors or any governmental organizations for financial help but rather aims at more creative and independent journalism by emancipating its own editorship from them. This trend of independent publishing is becoming bigger and bigger and many graphic designers start their own publishing houses.

Spector Press, an independent publishing house from Seoul, is another example. Founders Sulki & Min (Fig. 26, 27) started Spector Press after they gained enough experience in the European graphic design field and wanted to explore this further in Korea by publishing books in their own language. Asking Sulki & Min on the traditional aspects of design in connection to contemporary designers they say that they don’t think the contemporary culture has any strong connection to the country’s history 47. Though Korean typeface design has some connection with it as a result of evolvement of Korean type designers by basing fonts on old publications.

Fig 26. - Graphic designer duo, Sulki & Min Choi
Fig 27. - Exhibition poster by Sulki & Min, commissioned by Feminist Artist Network, 2005

In conclusion, Korea has grown rapidly in a short amount of time. Over the last couple of decades it has shown itself to the world as a new world power. But what is typical about the Korean (visual) popular culture from 1960 onward? Being oppressed for decades and going through several crises’ Korea has lost its cultural identity. The “Fatherland Modernization” under the authoritarian rule of Park Chung Hee was supposed to be the solution of the country to recreate a traditional history. Though as a result of globalization the country accelerated itself into a modern high-tech nation where Koreans are still searching for certain traits. Typical Korean traits are easier to find in certain values and ideals. An example for certain values is Confucianism, an Asian philosophy that has a lot to do with how people interact towards each other and still is deeply rooted in everyday life.

One of the limitations of this thesis is that these days the changes are still gradually happening. Koreans prove to display that through copying products of globalization they give it Korean ideals. A character of these Korean ideals is that it is very eclectic by fusing different counter cultures. Also Korea is known for its focus on high technology. The country has many revolutionary brands like Samsung, Hyundai and LG and Kia. And even contemporary Korean artists and K-pop stars are known for its usage of modern technology in performances. And thanks to the growing events and happenings in the cultural scene more and more artists and designers are commenting on this popular culture. These comments will contribute to a formation of “high” culture and a better understanding on the new Korean culture.

Furthermore the moment when Korea changes its focus on creating Korean sensibilities and would focus on Asian sensibilities, it could mean the end of the cultural imperialism from the West and could create a cultural silk-road to the West.

For me as a graphic designer this research means a lot. Personally I have a big interest in different (sub-) cultures that I try to approach in my work. And I do acknowledge that this is something you also will be in touch with in the professional design field, this all thanks to the growing market from local to global due to the internet where you can be easily in contact with other parts of the world. With Korea and other Eastern Asian countries as a growing market it is important to have certain awareness about their culture as well.

South Korea was once one of the poorest and least fashionable countries in the world. But over the last couple of decades it changed itself into a High-tech nation and cultural superpower. Undergoing colonial domination by other nations, the Korean War, rapid economic growth and a financial crisis. This all happened within the same century. Korean pop culture is mentioned as one of the quickest flourishing pop cultures and has fans all over the world. The French are a big supporter of K-pop music and their movies, while Filipinos are hooked on Korean dramas. This all started when Hallyu, which in English is named as the Korean Wave, was evoked and was first mentioned by media in 2001 and over the years developed itself to what Korean culture is viewed as today.

With this thesis I tried to solve my research question “What is typical about the Korean (visual) popular culture from 1960 onward?” Through this research I am going to write about the history of South Korea and how it became this High-Tech nation and cultural superpower.

“What is an authentic national culture when some alien cultural practices are so quickly assimilated that after a short while they are no longer remembered as alien.” This quote by John Tomlinson will be resonating as a question in my research to find an answer to my research question.

Overcoming a war with North Korea, which lasted from June 25 1950 until July 27 1953, that was very violent. After the ending of the Korean War, South Korea was left devastated and had to build itself up from zero. This resulted in a hard work ethic. Kids would travel over long distances to go to school. That would later bring a high-educated nation that caused the technological development around the 1980s. The first notions of a popular culture came when U.S. Armed Forces, a powerful symbol of postwar American hegemony, introduced western pop culture in South Korea. Here was the start of “Rok” the Korean appropriation of Rock music. But this counter culture was later banned by the militaristic regime of Park Chung Hee because it was deemed “vulgar” and “decadent”. The new culture that arised in South Korea came with the American GI’s was a so-called youth counterculture because it was too expensive to fly in entertainment like Elvis Presley, Nat King Cole or Marilyn Monroe. As a result of this Korean musicians and entertainers were asked to perform at the American military bases. These musicians trained hard by copying the songs they heard with their transistor radio on AFKN, a broadcasting service for American troops.

When in the 1980s and 1990s the country grew economically and on a cultural field it changed from a homogeneous country into a country with multiple cultures. Korea slowly started to make this globalization their own and through the process of copying they gave it Korean sensibilities like Confucian ideals and family values. The most important tradition of Confucianism is about the shaping social relations and moral thoughts and is a tradition in most of the Eastern Asian countries. This is one of the reasons why K-pop and Korean television drama’s got popular in Eastern Asia. This happened by the end of the 1990s/ beginning 2000s and this influx of popularity was called the Hallyu. Being said that K-pop is one of the strongest cultural export products of Korea and it changed the music business. As a part of this music genre it is eclecticism by fusing different music genre’s together, this is a strategic tactic of the big corporation who are behind this music scene. Youngsters could go to a certain academy set up by these corporations where they are trained for years to become the new boy- or girl-group. One of the critical comments on this popularity of K-pop is that it’s “low” culture and to create a certain Korean sensibility you need to export all the aspects of a culture. Nevertheless this is changing these days with a growing popularity of Korean artists who are addressing this so called` ‘low’ culture in their works. And the same goes for Korean graphic designers. Thanks to this growth of events in the cultural scene, graphic designers are more and more challenged to explore this “new” field and comment on the so-called popular culture.


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