In late November, the TCD Global Room saw itself playing host to an overwhelmingly large gathering of students and local Dubliners for the Korean Society’s culture day. Packed to the rafters, the sound of music and voices spilled out into the hallways of the Hamilton Building. Inside, it was difficult enough to manoeuvre around the peripheries. Crowds were crammed around food stalls, passing around gimbap seaweed rolls, tteokbokki rice cakes and glasses of black raspberry wine. Countless numbers honed in on attractions obscured from view by each group’s close-knit formation, while many more stood hypnotised by the nine plasma screens with the almost blinding glare of neon and spandex coming from an endless roll of K-pop music videos.
The event was the first of its kind and from brief conversations that I could manage with the six people running the show, in between their frantic attempts to dole out food for insatiably voracious attendees, they seemed equally surprised. Yet the Korean Embassy had been advertising this event on their Facebook page for weeks, and about 10 days prior, they had already called upon non-students to register in order to gain entry, such was the glut of interest that the exhibition provoked.
The Embassy had been devoting a significant amount of time and resources, hoping to make the cultural exposé a milestone to capitalise on the success of their Fantasia Music Festival during August, which I learned more about from Sangyeob Han, the society’s head. “The Korean Embassy has been very proactive and helpful in terms of financial resources and tangible assets,” he told me. “Our society has been facing greater difficulties in receiving funds for from our university despite recruiting more members than last year. We had been in close contact with the Embassy as it was our first time to try something new; moving away from the popular belief that K-pop is at the heart of Korean culture and towards more traditional values and categories.” In the run up to this day, he continued, the two parties exchanged a vast swathe of ideas to bolster the event’s strength, with the embassy offering various books, DVDs and their secretary, to give a talk on the Korean economy.
What struck me as interesting here was the fact that this showcase came at a time when various other similar organisations were making efforts to solidify a sturdy base of followers on these shores. While Hallyu, otherwise known as the Korean Wave has become a bona fide global phenomenon, its impact seems to have gone unnoticed in Ireland. However, having seen a noticeable rise in popularity here over the past two years, 2015 gives the impression of being a fertile year for growth as its various exporters and supporters are attempting to move out of niche circles and reach a broader Irish audience.
Hallyu has been championed the world over as the first economic phenomenon of the 21st century and a cutting edge example of marketing one small nation’s distinct lifestyle and culture, without compromising its values in the process. The concept originally came about as a means of reviving the Korean economy after it plummeted into serious debt during the Asian financial crisis of 1997. The economy was further hindered by a 1953 US Mutual Defence Treaty, which restricted their developing of military-based technology.
Through a radical form of rebranding, Korea rose to its feet as innovators of soft power, information technology and popular culture. Taking its extensive history as a third world country into account, the movement spread outwards with a view towards marketing in other developing countries.
In the words of American-Korean journalist Euny Hong, the state salvaged itself by audaciously “peddling cool”.
First, it captivated audiences across the far and south-east areas of Asia, before making a major impact on the Middle East. Then, once Hallyu reached the United States in the late 00s, its presentation was of such high a standard that Korea became the underdogs of style. In the words of American-Korean journalist Euny Hong, the state salvaged itself by audaciously “peddling cool”. However, Europe remained outside its grasp, at least until April 2011, when the Seoul-based entertainment company SM brought several of its idol groups to perform in France. The event sparked a media circus after Choe Junho, a theatre director, orchestrated a pop coup d’etat of flash-mob protests in eleven French cities, which was allegedly backed by the South Korean government. With this, the doors were thrown wide open. Europe saw eight more K-Pop concerts over the next two years, while 2013 brought 12 and 2014 exceeded 40.
Plans for Ireland
Now, the next in line appears to be Ireland, and there are two groups working towards making this so. While the TCD Korean Society work on a broader level of showcasing more traditional forms of the culture, Japako, a Cork-based magazine, which distributes globally, and a Facebook page known as Kpop Ireland, which serves as a hub and merchandise exchange site, are campaigning to emanate the Paris phenomenon, albeit on a smaller-scale. Within these circles, I spoke with a significant number of people who travelled as far as Las Vegas to see their favourite idol groups. They are now actively fighting to bring groups to Dublin.
As co-founder and CEO of Japako Magazine, Sandie VGA plays a major role in attempting to bring Korean and Japanese performers to Europe. Her magazine, originally based in Germany, began to recruit writers globally two years ago with the purpose of promoting far-east Asian pop culture on the continent. However, the magazine relocated to Cork in order to break new ground, as opposed to blending in where such waves had already established a mass following. “We were used to seeing artists come over to France, Germany, Poland and sometimes the UK,” she told me. “However, many other countries were forgotten, so we want to be able to bring a few artists to those places too now.”
In regards to Ireland, Japako are currently in the process of bringing several performers over here, including the male idol group Block B, otherwise known as that band who can send 1.5 million people into convulsions. To secure this show, which would most likely open the floodgates in Ireland, they have worked in conjunction with the K-Pop Ireland Facebook group, by creating online petitions. After months of campaigning, they are nearing their goal.
At the helm of this online hub is Carrie Moon, one of those in attendance at the now infamous Parisian SM concert in 2011, who is now known as the Mom of Irish K-Pop. Having unified a group of over one thousand impassioned Hallyu fans nationwide by creating events in both Dublin and Belfast, her activities have led to this partnership with Japako and sponsorship from the Parnell Street Korean restaurant Kimchi. She is creating a budding network, which after four years, has made enormous strides for Korean culture here.
When I asked about how this movement has progressed in Ireland, she came back to me with an immensely optimistic and ambitious view for the coming year, based on what she has seen occur over the last twelve months alone. “There are now Korean societies in almost all of the major colleges,” she said. “K-Pop is being included in the Irish convention scene at last, the Embassy held their first ever K-pop festival (in which an Irish dance team were sent to Korea and won the grand prize), and now we have the Block B campaign, so from this, I can really see things getting better.”
“It’s funny, because in the beginning, I just wanted to bring fans together so I could have more friends who liked K-pop, but after that, it became so much more. It is amazing that we could now join a global community. We just hope people can continue to support our campaign.”