South Korea, the brand

When I first heard this song remixed on a Top 40 radio station, I was surprised. Then I just felt silly that I didn’t see it coming.

South Korea exports a lot of things: electronics, semiconductors, traditional food, Korean language centers, plastic surgery and a highly streamlined pop media empire. In my opinion, though, its most important export is the halo of benevolence that seems to accompany all of the others. Merely 60 years ago, the country was pushed into its first moment of international fame (or shame) as the Oops! of World War Two – it was a diplomacy disaster, a Third World wreck. Maybe that moment was addictive, though, because the country followed up with rapid, globally-hailed development. Today, it’s not only the “most advanced” information economy on the planet; it’s the First World’s preferred guilty pleasure. Every time I meet a non-Korean with K-pop playing in the car or a Korean drama plot twist in their head, I still think, “Whoa! Random!!” But it shouldn’t surprise me anymore.

The South Korean government strikes me as one of the best self-managed brands I’ve ever seen (yes, in my two-ish decades of life). It’s steadily stealing the heart of mass America, the most sought-after audience in the entertainment world. The thing is, this involves much more than the entertainment industry. Mass media is a common denominator for the American public. With a happy foothold there, much can be launched into other more specific sectors of American life.

I basically mean politics and economy.

NPR posted about the power of Psy’s song (the one above), suggesting that the pop phenomenon isn’t just a pop phenomenon – it’s a symptom of South Korea’s reach into the developed-country club. The world we live in is pegged to a cultural and economic standard called the U.S.A., which can bring countries up or down as it goes. If South Korea continues to anchor itself into American culture and befriend the American people, it can bolster interests of its own. The crux of my international studies in college was this connection between culture and economy, the leverage of “soft politics” for the hard. The wave of mass entertainment, media and culture affects all of the “serious” subjects in a hugely unquantifiable way. I felt this when learning Korean in freshman year bolstered relationships with family, my understanding of a culture, and ultimately my interest in East Asian politics.

Anyway, that’s why hearing Psy’s song on the radio put a smile on my face.

(Also, the song is so funny!! I love that the guy looks antithetical to most Korean boyband starlets – and their eyeliner. I also love that he is implicated in the K-pop thing, even as he parodies the beauty parade of it all. I’m, like, really into the self-reflexive stuff. Hehe.)

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