By Christine Byrd

Signs of Korea’s pop culture dominance span every media platform these days: the world’s most-watched Netflix show is “Squid Game,” the first foreign-language film to win the Best Picture Oscar was “Parasite,” and the boy band BTS outsold Taylor Swift internationally last year.

For decades, what Americans knew of Korea came almost entirely from the TV show “MASH,” about a team of medics during the Korean War. Now that’s changed. So much so, that one sunny afternoon recently, hundreds of students gathered outside the School of Humanities to learn ddakji, a popular children’s game that appears in “Squid Game.”

“I get invited to talk about what my childhood was like in Korea now, and that’s really strange,” says Kyung Hyun Kim, UCI professor of East Asian studies. “Nobody ever cared where I was from.”

Kim’s lifelong interest in Korean cinema and culture has transformed from a niche academic specialty to the subject of news articles and social media threads around the world. Amid the backdrop of this firestorm, Kim this month released his third book, Hegemonic Mimicry (Duke University Press, 2021), which examines the historical, economic and political influences of Korean pop culture that’s sweeping the globe.

“My job is to better understand things that are pop. To crack it open and see if we can actually have a critical understanding of the things that are relevant and popular today,” Kim says. “It is possible to historicize, theorize and even politicize things that we tend to think are just entertainment.”

American influence

Growing up in South Korea, Kim remembers waiting on Saturday afternoons for “Soul Train” to come on the family’s TV and picking up bits and pieces of English from watching “Sesame Street.”  Starting in the 1950s, generations of Korean children grew up with American music, TV and movies as their primary source of entertainment – thanks to the more than 30,000 American soldiers stationed across the southern peninsula. Kim was raised on the same diet of American music and TV as “Parasite” director Bong Joon-Ho and “Squid Game” creator Hwang Dong-hyuk, who grew up around the same time.

“Talking about our childhoods, we all share similar stories about developing an ear for American music and cultural sensations,” Kim says. “That is where Korean popular culture was born.”

The foundations for this are partially logistical: The strongest radio and TV signals came from the American forces and carried popular American shows. Early Korean rock stars launched their careers performing for crowds of American soldiers who paid to hear music familiar to them, whether that was country tunes or R&B. Among the complications of military presence is that the soldiers brought U.S. racial dynamics of the 1950s and ’60s to Korea, including the occasional riot over which music the local pubs played that was often a point of contention between white and Black soldiers.

“Korean pop culture was incubated out of that tension between Black and white, which meant that you understood who you’re going to play for,” Kim says. “Koreans had to incorporate their experience of straddling the two ethnicities, and how to negotiate between two dominant forms of music.”

America’s cultural influence on South Korea isn’t only a product of geography and military presence, but also a reflection of Korea’s place in the American sphere of influence post-World War II. In the 70 years since the Korean War ended, three generations of South Koreans have had to learn not only the language, but also the mannerisms, business rules and cultural innuendoes of America to be successful in their own country. Kim says this leads to a Korean “double consciousness” that requires both accepting and rejecting subjugation by a foreign power.

“My biggest goal with this book was to consider Korea not just as an independent nation, but as a very important cultural, political and economic junior ally to the Pax Americana,” Kim says. “Korea is essentially another ethnic group within the Pax Americana sphere of influence, which includes Germany and Japan.”

And by embracing American-style capitalism, as so many other countries have done during the 20th century, Korea went from one of the world’s poorest economies to one of the world’s wealthiest. “Because of that, it’s a country that laments a loss of values,” Kim says.

Korea’s love-hate relationship with capitalism drives storylines that resonate around the globe. Kim points out that both “Squid Game” and “Parasite” focus on infighting among the poor and disenfranchised, not on conflict between the haves and have-nots. It would be too much, he suggests, for Korean film and media to imagine overthrowing the powers that be; instead, they must fight among themselves.

“Unfortunately, I think this is a point of identification for many people around the world, that we’re just going to have to accept and fight each other for that last toilet paper on the shelf,” Kim says. “That’s the energy that drives these storylines.”

UCI’s Hallyu

Kim’s first two books focused on Korean cinema, but Hegemonic Mimicry expands to embrace pop culture more broadly, an evolution he said is driven by the changing interests of UCI students.

“Streaming TV and social media are what drive the 21st century, like it or not – and I hate a lot of it,” Kim says. “But I really do care about what the students like to be taught and I’ve always been driven by contemporary interests and concerns, and this is what speaks to the present-day audience.”

Kim started teaching at UCI in 1997 and even then, he says the campus was a hub for Korean studies, with a sizable student population interested in learning more about Korea. But starting in the early 2000s, Kim says he noticed an influx of UCI students from a variety of backgrounds enrolling in his classes on Korean literature, culture and media. This coincided with the beginning of Hallyu, a Chinese term for “Korean Wave,” in which Korean TV, movies and music started gaining popularity first in Asia and then overseas.

By 2016, student interest in Korean popular culture and society was so intense that UCI launched the Center for Critical Korean Studies to facilitate and coordinate faculty expertise in Korean studies, and Kim was the founding director.

Now, Kim’s courses easily fill 100-seat lecture halls. The Department of East Asian Studies offers both a major and a minor in Korean literature and culture. Over the last five years, Korea has been the most popular destination for UCI students through the Education Abroad Program, and Korean is one of the most in-demand languages taught in the School of Humanities.

The phenomenon is not unique to UCI. Language learning apps have reported significant increases in Americans trying to learn Korean since the release of “Squid Game.” But UCI students may well have been the bellwether. Kim says he first encountered a student picking up Korean from television more than 15 years ago, watching the viral hit “One Night Two Days.” Kim recounted the story earlier this year when the variety-reality show’s producer Na Young-seok spoke at the Center for Critical Korean Studies – a talk that’s the most viewed event on the center’s YouTube page.

“I’m glad I have been here for the ride with the students who grew up here in California who are attuned to K-pop, K-dramas and K-cinema,” Kim says. “Every year, I get a new crop of students who arrive with an academic interest in learning more about Korean culture.”

Mimicry goes global

After decades in the U.S., Kim remembers very well the first time he heard Korean language on popular American radio: It was Psy’s hit song, “Gangnam Style.” Kim’s reaction was mixed.

“I was proud but insulted at the same time,” Kim reflects. “By the virtue of his success, I was proud. But I was also irritated by the fact that there’s a lot of self-ridicule going on with this funny, chubby Asian man doing a horse dance.”

Satire and self-deprecation are common themes in Korean culture, Kim says. But he holds onto his own tension between love and hate as he explores the complexity of Korean culture and its increasing traction worldwide.

“Korean cultural producers need to have a warring vision: I am Korean, but I also have to make sure that my music or show is popular overseas and legible to non-Koreans,” he says. “Koreans always insist on trying to appease both things, and I was drawn to that.”

But as Korean pop culture gains popularity worldwide, Kim sees a reversal of sorts: Americans are now imitating Korean culture, whether it’s Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” horse dance that recalls Psy’s signature moves or American students playing ddakji.

“That to me is the idea of mimicry. You’re approximating from a greater political, economic and cultural force and trying to imitate along the way. But always making sure that there is that gap between the two and producing your own hegemonic expression along the way,” Kim says. “That, to me, was a fabulous way of thinking about the success of Korean pop culture in the 21st century.”

Hegemonic Mimicry (Duke University Press, 2021) is available now.

Photo credit: Micherlange Francois-Hemsley

Center for Critical Korean Studies
Korean Studies