Skip to main content

Is S. Korea the coolest place on earth?

By Jeff Yang
August 8, 2014 -- Updated 2219 GMT (0619 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jeff Yang: For many years, I was never one of the cool kids, part of the in crowd
  • Yang: I was surprised when Japanese and Hong Kong pop culture became popular
  • He says South Korea is now hot -- with K-pop, Samsung, "Gangnam Style," movies
  • Yang: Latest Korean cool can be sampled at KCON this weekend in Los Angeles

Editor's note: Jeff Yang is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal Online and can be heard frequently on radio as a contributor to shows such as PRI's "The Takeaway" and WNYC's "The Brian Lehrer Show." He is the author of "I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action" and editor of the graphic novel anthologies "Secret Identities" and "Shattered." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- For many years, I had a pretty good working definition of cool: It was the thing that I was not.

I was a chubby, bespectacled kid with a bowl haircut and my nose buried in the nearest book. When it came time to choose up sides for sports, they assigned me to the team with the best players — as a handicap. The cool kids came to school in Jordans and Polo. I rocked Keds and fake Sanrio T-shirts my aunts sent to us from Taiwan.

And that, of course, pointed to the biggest and most insurmountable obstacle standing in the way of my joining the ranks of the cool — the fact that I was one of just four Asian kids in my entire school, a tally that included my younger sister. The cool kids were all white, except for a handful of black and Latino athletes. My fellow Asian students, meanwhile, were to varying degrees just like me: We were seen as permanently different, always out of sync with the shifting tides of style and status. Not quite outcast, but never part of the in crowd either.

Jeff Yang
Jeff Yang

So when the phenomenon of Asian cool first arrived, I was caught off guard, and frankly, more than a little suspicious.

When I was in college, Japanese and Hong Kong pop culture were first catching fire at the fringes; they'd attracted plenty of enthusiasts, but those fans were no cooler than I was. (Possibly less cool.) By the time I was working as a young journalist, I found myself on a beat covering anime and action cinema, J-rock and Cantopop, gadgets and gaming — all things I was personally fascinated by, but couldn't quite believe had attracted the attention of the so-called mainstream. And I secretly thought that it couldn't last. The popularity of Asian pop culture was a fad, and like all fads would eventually fade.

I wasn't entirely wrong. After 1997 and reunification with mainland China, Hong Kong's star ebbed. Anime and manga remain hugely popular, but have lost the dominant position they once held among youth. Japan's once unassailable titans of technology — Sony, Panasonic, Toshiba — have seen their products fall out of place as the must-haves among mobile millennials.

Is this the next 'Gangnam Style'?
Does Samsung's S5 deliver?

And yet, even as Hong Kong and Japan have moved out of the centerpoint of cultural cool, another Asian nation has stepped into the spotlight: South Korea — the origin point of Samsung, "Snowpiercer," Girls Generation and "Gangnam Style."

The surging popularity of Korean pop culture can be seen in the booming attendance at KCON, the annual California-based gathering for fans of Korean music, TV and cinema, which opens its doors this weekend at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena.

KCON 2013
KCON 2013

"Our numbers have doubled each year," says Angela Killoren, chief marketing officer of the event's organizer, the North American subsidiary of Korean entertainment giant CJ E&M. "We had 10,000 fans at the first KCON 2012, 20,000 in 2013, and expect 30, around 40,000 to 50,000 persons overall enjoying the KCON experience this year" — which includes the appearance of major TV drama stars, a head-to-head pro gaming throwdown, a talent contest called SuperstarKCON and a concert featuring chart-busting idols Girls Generation and G-Dragon as headliners.

But even if Korea is the king of pop-culture cool now, can Korea hold onto the crown better than its Asian predecessors? That's a question Euny Hong addresses in her new book, "The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation Is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture."

"I think it can," she says. "The difference between cool Korea and earlier Asian pop culture waves is that Korea has been working to make this happen for almost two decades. Korea is cool because it decided to be cool — it's the first country in history that has made being cool a massive policy priority, backed by the Korean government to the tune of billions of dollars."

The fact is, the machine of Korean pop culture is as sleekly designed, systematically engineered and massively marketed as any Samsung gadget. It's not just a gigantic money-making industry, it's also the primary source of "soft power" by which the nation seeks to shorten its path from war-torn, third-world country to the top ranks of world influencers.

"Koreans have a deep-seated desire to see the nation recognized and validated," Hong says. "We study harder than anyone in the world, we work more hours, and it's all because of this need to see us finally come on top."

Japanese cool is quirky, the sum of the nation's eccentricities. Hong Kong cool is frenetic, representative of the society's freewheeling striving spirit. American cool is casual: It's cool that's anchored in doing without trying, it's about being quintessentially effortless.

By contrast, Korean cool could not be more effort-ful. The hypnotic appeal of K-pop videos are not just their candy-colored, otherworldly aesthetic, it's also because their performers — sometimes numbering in the dozens — are invariably dancing in perfect sync, with a level of precision possible only because candidates for K-pop glory are recruited as adolescents and trained for years in groups that are required to live, take classes, eat, sleep and rehearse together until they've achieved a transcendent level of harmony.

It all underscores the fact that the rise of Korean cool was hardly an accident — and that it could well have staying power.

American pop is often seen by nations around the world as an invading force, crushing native alternatives with the unfair-to-the-point-of-being-weaponized scale of its marketing budgets. Korean cool, by contrast, is recognized as the product of hard work and ingenuity, developed by a nation that just a few generations ago was newly bisected by war and mired in desperate poverty. In the fastest-growing markets in the world — Southeast Asia, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East — K-pop is aspirational in part because it holds out hope that they, too, will someday be able to join the ranks of the global economy's cool kids.

Which means that lifelong nerds like myself might not be a completely lost cause, either. Back to practicing my precision dance routines.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT