[Kim Seong-kon] The globalization of Korea and the prefix “Ok-“
Nowadays, the South Korean government and pop culture funding agencies assign “K-” to practically everything of Korean origin that is popular abroad, such as K-culture, K-literature, K-pop, K-food, K- cars, K- Dramas, K quarantine and many others. Politicians and promoters may wish to instill patriotism and pride by adding a “K” to all of these cultural exports, suggesting that anything that raises Korea’s profile abroad is uniquely “Korean”.
However, you can be wrong. Take Korean literature, for example. When Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian” won the Man-Booker International Prize in 2016, Korean newspapers headlined as official recognition of K-literature in the international community. However, Deborah Smith, the translator of the award-winning novel, argued that we shouldn’t use the term K-literature for “The Vegetarian” as it limits the novel to the regional literature category.
Schmidt was right. “The Vegetarian” received the prestigious award not because it was a Korean novel, but because it appealed to the minds of readers everywhere. In fact, foreigners read “The Vegetarian” because it has universal appeal and crosses the borders of nations. Adding a “K-” to the internationally acclaimed 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 gained international recognition as global writers without the aid of “K-Branding”.
We live in an era of globalism, postmodernism and transnationalism that includes the crossing of boundaries. Nationality no longer plays a role when it comes to globally influential cultures, literature or pop songs. Strictly speaking, K-pop isn’t even entirely Korean. Rather, it’s a mix of Western and Korean songs and dances. BTS is also very popular overseas because of its charming hybridity and cultural fusion and not because of its exclusively “Korean” qualities. Young people in the world like 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 would not have appealed to western young people as much.
In addition, other developed countries do not add their countries initials to their cultures, literature, or pop songs. For example, Americans do not call their globally influential culture and pop songs “A-culture” or “A-pop.” They also do not refer to their internationally known fast food franchises such as McDonald’s, Burger King or KFC as “A-Food”. Likewise, we’ve never heard of “B-culture” or “B-pop” in relation 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 has “K-” attached to anything Korean. There was a short “J-Pop” from Japan, but that’s long gone.
Therefore, associating “K-” with Korean things may not be a good idea. To join the global village, we no longer need to indicate or highlight a country of origin. To illustrate the absurdity of K branding, let’s take manufacturing as an 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 production is outsourced there. Likewise, many foreigners buy Samsung or LG electronics without knowing that they are from Korea. Samsung and LG have already become global brands.
As for the K quarantine, it’s a bit embarrassing because it sounds like our politicians are congratulating each other on their solemn duty. It’s also embarrassing because some countries that did better than Korea in quarantine didn’t brag about it by appending their country’s initials to the word “quarantine.” Also, it was a bit of an exaggeration to say that the whole world admired the Korean method of quarantine and was eager to learn from Korea.
Critics cynically ridicule Korean politicians by saying that they might as well promote 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 where virtual cryptocurrency and bitcoin threaten to overwhelm actual currency and capital has become mere numbers on the computer screen.
Therefore, to keep up with globalization, we need to overcome narrow-minded nationalism and exaggerated patriotism and discard the “K-” prefix. Instead, we should try to gain worldwide recognition independently of one another. Unless we are free from the prefix “K-“, we cannot be truly global. Think of luxury cars like the Lexus, Infinity or Acura. They do not bear the well-known Japanese manufacturer names Toyota, Nissan or Honda, and yet they have become world-famous luxury brands. Genesis does the same in the world market without the manufacturer name Hyundai.
Likewise, we can make Korean pop culture a famous global brand without depending on the name of the country or government intervention. Let’s delete the prefix “K-” from our highly competitive pop culture that has enchanted the global village.
Kim Seong-kon is Professor Emeritus of English at Seoul National University and visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. – Ed.
From Korea Herald (email@example.com)