By Andrew Salmon
Korea Times Columnist
This is the 10th in a 60-part series featuring 60 major events in Korea’s modern history from 1884 till now.
The project is part of the 60th anniversary of The Korea Times, which falls on Nov.1.
For South Korea, the last three years of the millennium would produce a parade of unthinkables.
At the end of 1997, a regional economic tsunami had threatened to swamp the achievements of the previous three decades.
Unemployment arrived in Korea, but by the end of 1998, the banks appeared to have stabilized: Was the crisis over? No. In 1999, Daewoo Group, considered “too-big-to-fail,” collapsed under debts of $80 billion.
A second financial crisis cut a swath through the investment trust sector.
Things looked more promising politically. Kim Dae-jung won the presidency at the end of 1997, the first opposition politician to reach the Blue House.
His brave new “Sunshine Policy” of engagement with North Korea bore its first fruit in 1998, when a joint North-South tourism resort opened, marking the first time since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War that large numbers of South Korean citizens could tread on northern soil.
And in cinemas, in 1999, Koreans were flocking to a very new kind of movie.
Across the globe, economic and political pundits studied and debated the former incidents, but such debate was nothing new: The Korean Peninsula had been telling an economic story since the late 1960s, and a political one since 1950.
What was new and surprising was the film, for it would lead a pop-culture renaissance that would win Korea previously un-reached audiences across Asia and beyond. For the first time in its history, South Korea — a nation whose brand had been defined by war and by generals; by metal-bashing factories and ruthless businessmen; by violent rioters and dour, economic shock troops — would be seen as cool.
The film was a North-South thriller: “Shiri.” Some claimed that this was the first film to portray communists as humans but that is inaccurate; books such as “Taebaek Mountain Range” (1986) and movies like “Nambugun” (1994) had done that previously.
More important than substance was style. “Shiri” was a production of Bondian proportions, Korea’s most expensive movie ever. It blended attractive actors, tense plotting and bags of action. It became the first local blockbuster, and then did strong business regionwide.
Other movies followed. Some, like “Shiri,” mined Korea’s political division for their plots: “JSA” (2000), “Silmido” (2004) and “Taegukki” (2004). But genres were not restricted to North-South confrontation.
The zany comedy “My Sassy Girl” (2001) spawned three remakes, in Japan, Bollywood and Hollywood. Noirish “Old Boy” (2004) won plaudits from Quentin Tarantino and a Cannes Grand Jury Prize.
And it was not just films. Japanese housewives flocked to Korea in tens of thousands in hopes of landing a beau like Bae Yong-joon, star of syrupy soap “Winter Sonata” (2002).
Korean restaurants in Hong Kong saw sales soar as locals queued to sample the dishes they had seen in “Jewel in the Palace” (2003), the costume drama that recorded the highest TV viewer ratings in Hong Kong history.
In 2000, H.O.T. brought China to its feet, while rapping boy bands and weepy balladeers sold out across the region and online games caught fire across Asia.
What was behind the explosive new creativity? Firstly, newly educated returnees were arriving home from overseas. Historically, few Koreans had been permitted to travel or study overseas, but these restrictions were relaxed in 1991. By the late 1990s, internationalized Korean film and musical producers returned with skills and ideas picked up in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Moreover, a 1996 Constitutional Court revision had struck down censorship laws, and the 1997-98 economic shakedown had driven many old players from the entertainment sector, and lured new ones in.
Moreover, the wave was not just pop culture. Industry was changing. Forced to divest peripheral assets after the 1998 crisis, the chaebol refocused on core competencies, climbing the value ladder with a new emphasis on design and marketing, rather than price.
World-leading technological networks in mobile telecommunications and Broadband Internet were, by the millennium, being optimally leveraged, creating new ways to communicate and market. All this was reflected in the soaps, pop videos and films.
And society itself was changing. In the atmosphere surrounding Korea’s first-ever liberal presidency, younger Koreans questioned old orthodoxies.
By 2002, the nation was bright, passionate, welcoming; the spontaneous street carnivals of the World Cup were a vivid contrast to the regimented festivities of the 1988 Olympics.
Fast forward to 2010. While crooners like Rain remain regional hits, much of the “Korean Wave” has subsided. Film exports have been falling since 2006. Hit games are equally thin on the ground, and while Bae Yong-joon still has matrons swooning across Japan, no follow-up has approached the success of “Winter Sonata.”
But so what? The much-feared phase-out of the screen quota did not damage the film industry; in fact, domestic movie audiences have increased, with slick new cineplexes fuelling demand.
TV stations crave hit dramas as much as ever, while cable provides new channels, and extended sales outreach exports dramas beyond Asia, notably to the Middle East and CIS.
Local conglomerates are heavily invested in entertainment, bringing professionalism, liquidity and financial discipline to the sector. The content industry has matured; local market loyalty appears established.
So while the wave may be at a low ebb, it did its job. A bright new arrow was added to Korea’s brand quiver. Hundreds of millions of people across Asia and further afield now see Korea not just as a land of rioters, riot police and salaried men but actors, singers and gamers.
The country itself is not seen as a battlefield or an industrial park, but a stage where action unfolds, where high technologies are deployed and where romance awaits.
The more lasting change, however, may be at home. Koreans have adjusted to the five-day workweek and the business of leisure — for decades, a frivolous diversion that was sacrificed on the altar of national development — is now receiving appropriate investment from business.
Post-wave Korea is a land of increased creativity and increased diversity of aspiration: in surveys, ever-greater numbers of young Koreans now want to enter creative industries rather than simply wear suits as doctors, lawyers or salaried men.
Eleven years after the wave first broke, South Korea is arguably a land more at ease with itself than at any time in the 20th century.