[Kim Seong-kon] The Globalization of Korea and the Prefix “K-“

[Kim Seong-kon] The Globalization of Korea and the Prefix “K-“
Nowadays, the South Korean government as well as pop culture promotion agencies attach “K-” to almost anything that is of Korean origin popular abroad, such as K-culture, K-literature. , K-pop, K-food, K-cars, K-dramas, K-quarantine and a host of others. Maybe politicians and promoters want to inspire patriotism and pride by marking all of these cultural exports with a “K”, suggesting that anything that raises Korea’s profile abroad is uniquely “Korean.”

However, they can be wrong. Take Korean literature, for example. When Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian” received the International Man-Booker Award in 2016, Korean newspapers headlined it as official recognition of K-literature in the international community. However, Deborah Smith, the translator of the award-winning novel, argued that we should not use the term K literature for “The Vegetarian” because it limits the novel to the category of regional literature.

Smith was right. “The Vegetarian” received the prestigious award not because it was a Korean novel, but because it caught the minds of readers around the world. Indeed, foreigners read “The Vegetarian” because it has a universal appeal, transcending the borders of nations. Attaching a “K-” to the internationally renowned Korean novel is not entirely correct, as it will prevent the novel from becoming world literature. In fact, a number of Korean writers have recently achieved international recognition as global writers without the help of “K-branding”.

We live in an era of globalism, postmodernism and transnationalism which embraces the crossing of borders. Nationality no longer matters when it comes to globally influential pop cultures, literature or songs. Strictly speaking, K-pop isn’t even uniquely Korean. Rather, it is a mixture of Western and Korean songs and dances. BTS also enjoys enormous popularity overseas due to its charming hybridity and cultural fusion, not its uniquely “Korean” qualities. Young people around the world love BTS not because it is from Korea, but because its songs and dances have universal appeal. If BTS had sung and danced in traditional Korean genres, it wouldn’t have appealed to young Westerners as much.

In addition, other developed countries do not attach their country’s initials to their culture, literature or pop songs. For example, Americans do not call their globally influential pop culture and songs “A-culture” or “A-pop.” They also do not label their internationally renowned fast food franchises such as McDonald’s, Burger King or KFC “A-food”. Likewise, we have never heard of “B-culture” or “B-pop” in reference to British culture and pop songs. There is also no “F culture” or “G literature”, only French culture and German literature. Korea seems to be the only country that attaches “K-” to anything Korean. There was Japanese “J-pop” briefly, but that’s long gone.

So, it might not be a good idea to attach “K-” to Korean things. To reach the global village, we no longer need to specify or insist on the country of origin. To illustrate the absurdity of K-branding, take manufacturing, for example. Everyone knows that “Made in Mexico” or “Assembled in India” does not necessarily mean that the manufacturing company is Mexican or Indian, but that the production is relocated there. Likewise, many foreigners buy Samsung or LG electronic devices without knowing that they are from Korea. Samsung and LG have already become global brands.

As for K-quarantine, it’s a bit embarrassing as it looks like our politicians are congratulating themselves on their solemn duty. It is also embarrassing because a few countries that have done better than Korea in quarantine have not bragged about it by affixing their country’s initials to the word “quarantine”. Moreover, it was a bit of an exaggeration to say that the whole world admired the Korean method of quarantine and were eager to learn from Korea.

Critics cynically mock Korean politicians, pointing out that they might as well advertise and export “K-politics.” There is a saying in Korea that politicians belong to the 19th century because they think and act as if they lived in the Karl Marx era when industries and factories exploited workers. However, we are now living in the 21st century, when virtual cryptocurrency and Bitcoin threaten to dominate real money, and capital has turned into mere numbers on the computer screen.

To keep pace with globalization, therefore, we must overcome parochial nationalism and excessive patriotism and reject the prefix “K-”. Instead, we should be trying to achieve global recognition independently. Until we are exempt from the “K-” prefix, we cannot be truly global. Think of luxury cars, like the Lexus, the Infinity or the Acura. They do not bear the names of the well-known Japanese manufacturers Toyota, Nissan or Honda, and yet they have become world famous luxury brands. Genesis is doing the same in the global market without the name of the manufacturer, Hyundai.

Likewise, we can make Korean pop culture a famous global brand without depending on the country name or government intervention. Now let’s remove the ‘K-‘ prefix from our highly competitive pop culture, which has enchanted the Global Village.

Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is Emeritus Professor of English at Seoul National University and Visiting Scholar at Dartmouth College. The opinions expressed here are his. – Ed.

By Korea Herald ([email protected])


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