The unstoppable Korean Wave
Korean culture also contributes to enhancing the country’s image and national brand, says Kilhwa Jung, Chairman of the Korean Foundation for International Cultural Exchange (KOFICE), whom we interviewed at the Budapest Eurasia Forum.
The unstoppable Korean Wave
Culture and Innovation

The unstoppable Korean Wave

Photo: Róbert Hegedüs
Mariann Őry 02/05/2024 09:00

Korean culture also contributes to enhancing the country’s image and national brand, says Kilhwa Jung, Chairman of the Korean Foundation for International Cultural Exchange (KOFICE), whom we interviewed at the Budapest Eurasia Forum.

Recent years have seen several highly successful examples of Korean cultural exports, ranging from the popularity of K-pop to film, but gastronomy should also be highlighted. What makes South Korea more successful than other countries in this field?

Experts point to Korea's industrialization and democratization as one of the reasons for the success of the Korean Wave. This means that we were able to secure economic infrastructure and freedom of expression. The subject matter covered in Korean cultural content is universal but also unique. Looking back, Korea has been influenced by other cultures throughout its long history and has embraced it creatively. Along with cultural hybridity, it also acquires universality. So foreign recipients will be able to feel familiarity and uniqueness about Korean culture.

The acceptance of Korean cultural content overseas started in Northeast Asia and spread to Southeast Asia, the Middle East, the Americas, and Europe. It can be said that it has been going on for about 30 years up to now. The first started with K-dramas and movies, soon followed by K-pop(‘K’ means Korean.). Since then, the area has diversified into games, webtoons, etc. This is also thanks to high internet penetration and fast mobile infrastructure. As a powerful country of the IT industry, Korea's advanced digital environment has contributed to the expansion of the Korean Wave overseas.

Korea's domestic market is relatively small. Therefore, the overseas advancement of content was also an essential process for survival. Creators and production companies tried to make diverse and creative content. The government established infrastructure by enacting content-related promotion laws and expanding the size of support organizations. Overseas interest in Korean culture, which was centered around K-pop and dramas, naturally expanded to various genres such as food and beauty.

You mentioned cooking. That's a good question. In fact, Korean food has a lot of interest overseas. As attention in health increases, fermented foods such as kimchi and healthy ingredients such as seaweed are popular. In particular, overseas exports of Korean food, which is exposed in Korean dramas and movies, are increasing along with the popularity of the content. Above all, Korean cuisine will be new compared to the existing Asian food that Westerners are familiar with, such as Chinese and Japanese.

How does KOFICE contribute to the promotion of Korean culture in the world? What personal experiences, stories, memorable anecdotes do you have from your travels around the world?

KOFICE is pursuing various projects with the goal of becoming a ‘network hub that connects the world through culture.’ Culture is an important medium that connects people. We don't just promote culture, we focus on creating mutual understanding through exchange. In that respect, content can be said to be both a means of communication and the essence itself.

To achieve this goal, the projects promoted by KOFICE can be broadly divided into three categories. The first is connection. It connects various stakeholders surrounding culture and the cultural industry, such as artists, producers, and public institutions. We directly connect overseas organizations interested in Korean culture to support joint projects, and we also invite cultural administrators and artists to provide training and study.

The second is to produce an atmosphere of exchange. By holding festivals or cultural events in which artists and audiences participate, we create opportunities to enjoy and share each other's cultures together. Festivals are held overseas, and in Korea, we also create joint cultural projects by collaborating with diplomatic missions of foreign countries in Korea, such as embassies or cultural centers.

The third is to strengthen social contributions through culture. KOFICE provides cultural facilities and content to various countries, or participates in Korean Wave artists to provide cultural education such as K-pop dance classes. We also invite cultural artists from around the world to Korea to provide training and support them in pursuing collaborative projects with Korean cultural artists. In the K-pop field, we also supported artists from ASEAN countries such as Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia to receive K-pop training and debut in Korea.

So far, I have been to Mexico, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. These countries wanted to share Korea's successful experience with the Korean Wave. At first, some countries were wary of Korea, but later some countries wanted to use Korea’s example as a ‘role model.’ The atmosphere has changed from ‘discourse of concern’ to ‘discourse of opportunity’. We are willing to share Korea's experience with these countries and strengthen exchanges and cooperation.

Do you expect other areas of Korean culture and industry to benefit from the successes achieved so far?

The success of the Korean Wave has a positive impact on various areas. Korean Wave content includes dramas, movies, K-pop, games, webtoons, etc. This will first have a positive effect on the cultural content industry. For example, last year, exports of Korean broadcast content increased by 30% compared to the previous year. These K-contents increase favorable interest in Korea. Afterwards, it will have a spin-off effect on industries exposed to Korean Wave content, such as K-food and K-beauty(fashion and cosmetics).

In fact, when KOFICE conducted a survey of foreigners who had experience using Korean cultural content to identify images associated with Korea, popular culture content such as K-pop and dramas appeared the most highly. Recently, food, beauty, and fashion are also popular. In this way, Korean culture also contributes to enhancing Korea's image and national brand.

The Korean Wave also affects tourism and education. According to a survey conducted on tourists visiting Korea, approximately 12% of all visitors responded that they visit Korea because of the Korean Wave. Many foreigners like Korean culture so they learn Korean or come to Korea to study. In fact, the number of applicants for the Korean Language Test (KOPIK) and international students are increasing every year.

How do cultural exchanges contribute to strengthening connectivity in Eurasia?

As I announced at the Eurasia Forum, the Korean MBC broadcast production crew entered Hungary before Korea and Hungary established diplomatic relations. A special program was produced to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Franz Liszt's death in 1986. Next, Hungarian band Neoton Family performed in Seoul. Hungary was the first country in the Eastern Bloc to declare participation in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. The result of this movement was the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1989. This is a representative example that shows the role and importance of cultural exchange.

In 2008, the Korean drama Jewel in the Palace aired on MTV in Hungary. I know that as this drama became very popular, Hungarian people's understanding and interest in Korea increased. Since then, Korean dramas have spread rapidly to Hungary, and I believe that Korean dramas have helped strengthen cultural exchanges between the two countries. In this atmosphere, the Korean Cultural Center opened in Budapest, in 2012. It has become a hub for Korean culture in Hungary, the center of Europe.

Let’s take a look at the exchanges between the two countries’ languages. In 1988, the Hungarian Department was first established at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Korea. It began to serve as a venue to introduce Hungarian language, culture, and society and to enable full-scale academic activities appropriate thereto. Afterwards, as enthusiasm for learning Korean increased in Hungary, the Department of Korean Studies was opened at ELTE University in Hungary in 2008. This trend later expanded to social scientific exploration of economic development with a focus on Korea. In this way, cultural exchange contributes to strengthening friendship, solidarity, and connectivity in international relations. In particular, I believe that Hungary plays a role as a gateway to Europe, connecting Europe and Asia geopolitically. Connectivity in Eurasia is strengthening as Korea's Northern Policy and Hungary's Eastern Policy meet. In that respect, I think it is possible to say 'Asirope' along with 'Eurasia' in the sense that Europe and Asia are well connected (laughs).

South Korea is one of the largest foreign investors in Hungary. What do you see as the secret of its success? What makes Hungary attractive?

I think the key to success is mutual respect and trust. Especially in Korea, Hungary is an attractive country with a long history and beautiful scenery. The two countries have a mutually beneficial relationship, and there has never been a period of mutual hostility. As you know, Korea and Hungary are building a ‘strategic partnership.’ Especially in the economic aspect, the two countries have maintained friendly and cooperative relations consistently since the establishment of diplomatic relations.

According to experts, Hungary's main strengths include ▲business-friendly policies ▲simplified regulations ▲transparency and accountability-oriented systems ▲strategic location ▲abundant skilled manpower... Taking these points together, Hungary can be said to be an ideal base for Korean companies expanding into Europe.

Recently, as cooperation partners, the two countries agreed to actively cooperate in green and digital transition, a key global task in the post-corona era. Additionally, I understand that the Hungarian government will continue to cooperate closely to improve the investment environment, including resolving difficulties faced by Korean companies, in order to continue to expand trade and investment between the two countries. Considering this series of movements, I am confident that the relationship between Korea and Hungary will develop further.

The author is managing editor at Eurasia

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