Lately I have been watching a lot of Korean TV dramas. For some reasons it would be interesting to understand better, Korea has been moving up as a leader and provider of pop culture. Certainly the technical reasons are obvious. Korean dramas are made with style while preserving a contemporary edginess. There are good production values with the ability to provide sets, locations, good photography skilled script writers–enough to turn out the video at a rate the exceeds the ability of any one viewer to keep up with it. In short it is rather like the situation that prevailed in the Holywood studies during their so-called Golden Age. Why this happened in Korea with so much of the rest of the world still grinding out cheap trash it to me the most interesting question.
Besides this, one can observe in these dramas a sort of convergence of world culture with at lot of Euro-American cultural values now taken as common places. At the same time there seems to be an emerging Asian style that suggests a self-confidence and self-direction rather than imitation of foreign popular forms. Along side of this convergence there is still a lot of Koreanness to these dramas, which adds greatly to their interest to someone like me who is drawn to understanding the dynamics of different cultures. Dramas of this sort rely on a lot of clichés and caricatures, to set up the situations. This might seem a shortcoming to the more sophisticated members of the home audience, but is precisely what is fascinating to the outside viewer, because they are things that would not work to motivate and move things along in a foreign drama, but show the unique aspects of Korean attitudes.
There seems also to be present in Korean drama some of the same antagonism toward traditional culture and values that the European and American media have long exhibited. There are frequent efforts to insert homosexual themes and other taboos, to condition people to their acceptance. This shows the hand of a certain self-regarding elite in effective control of Korean organs of popular culture.
There also seems to be a preoccupation with identity. Drama after drama involves some switched at birth scenario where eventually DNA testing comes into play to resolve people’s true identity. But then, if circumstances turned their lives upside down until then, how real its this “natural” identity that is finally revealed? Similarly, class differences are constantly played off: the arrogant, corrupt, spoiled families of the corporate elite, vs. the downtrodden, but also vice-ridden (drunks and gambling addicts) poor who never get a fair chance at escaping their situations. Yet, as vile as the rich are portrayed to be, there is always a sense that that is what everyone wants to be.
Religions are taken in rotation. Buddhist, animist, Protestant and Roman Catholic identities seems to be assigned by quota. Religion is seldom a determining factor in behavior, however, and often comes across as a bit silly. The drama consensus is that it is not really important. So class and family membership especially as it relates to wealth and power are important to identity, but not religion.
Returning to the question of Why Korea now? it appears that the Koreans have some idea of a dualism in their identity. They are still an ethnic nation-state yet the Korean diaspora has also made them a world-people with a constant coming and going from abroad. Unlike a third-world country, the homeland side of this dualism is strong enough to maintain this polarity. Korea draws people back not just as a place for nostalgia, but as a center that is powerful, dynamic and with prospects to offer. It appears that this dynamic has affected the production of popular culture. And now it also affects its export, as Korean drama has become popular world-wide.