The Korean soap opera theory of everything

Korean soap operas… er, make that “Mandarin Pronunciation Listening Comprehension Exercises”.

I’m beginning to think that what there really needs to be is a “Korean soap opera theory of everything.”

Granted, infiltration of South Korean soap operas into North Korean VCRs (by way of China) is only part of the information revolution that shows that in the brave new world of high technology, it is no longer possible to control what news and images of the outside world get into a closed state like North Korea. But Korean soap operas mean so much more than that.
The combination of complicated and angst-ridden story lines; good-looking, kind and appropriately filial young men; and (in the ones I watch anyway) sticky-sweet happy endings have made Korean prime-time soaps the rage across East Asia.

When living in Taiwan, it was debates over Kim Jae Won versus Kim Rae Won in “In Love with Red Bean Girl”: each faction had its own arguments, its own sense of the merits (Kim Rae Won, the poor seal trainer, was a fiercely loyal friend whose devotion, and highlighted hair, earned rightful praise. Kim Jae Won was the amusement park boss’s son, rich but unspoiled, and debonair in his western-style suits). Before I came to China, a friend in the US told me that whatever else I do when I’m here, I need to pick up a copy of “Winter Sonata” and watch it (he made, interestingly enough, no recommendations for Chinese soaps at all). I’ve seen parts of ROK soaps, broadcasted with English subtitles, in Singapore. I’ve heard of them sweeping through the Philippines and Thailand. Soon there will be no place in Asia yet untouched by the colorful productions.

Divided states, one side developed and democratic, the other communist and closed, have a history of tipping under the weight of cultural onslaught. There is Germany, of course. In China, anything Taiwanese is popular – music, movies, and soap operas, of course, but everything from coffee shops to hot dogs advertise as being “Taiwanese style” and pull in better business as a result. This sparks interest in the free society – freedom makes for more creativity, which in turn makes better television. The news that South Korean soaps are now reaching homes in North Korea should come as no surprise – no one can escape the tide of history forever.

The key now, of course, is to ensure that they continue to be a force for good. Beyond their great revolutionary potential in the DPRK, reports have hit the AP wires of middle-aged Japanese women swooning over Winter Sonata star Bae Yong-joon (who is, incidentally, also prominently featured in my 2005 Dynamic Korea calendar issued by the Korean Embassy in Washington), and of the rise of dating services that promise to introduce Japanese women to eligible Korean men. Think, if you will, about the deep historical wounds that always kept Korea and Japan at odds. With cultural exchange, and soap-opera-driven widespread intermarriage, we could be seeing a whole new era of positive Northeast Asian relations.

Last year marked a new era in Chinese television production when the state-run CCTV collaborated with KBS to create the first ever joint Chinese-Korean soap opera, set mostly in Beijing (but, as is always the case with the soaps set outside of Korea, with a few gratuitous trips back to Korea to add conflict and confusion) and centering on the Korean diaspora. Conveniently, most characters were bi-lingual for one reason or another, and the free-wheeling codeswitching only added to the delight of seeing Chinese and Korean young people work so closely together for mutual good.

The one place where the Korean soap operas threaten the peace and harmony in the region is in the area of trade – Korea is exporting such great volumes of its cultural products that Taiwan and China are starting to protest and call for parity. The problem, of course, is that unless it is a Taiwanese soap staring F4, no one in Korea is particularly interested in the Chinese productions. But even this can have a positive effect on the region. The Chinese people will not stand for a cut-off of their beloved soaps – every population has its breaking point, and sometimes one suspects that this is it — so dialogue and compromise are necessary.

Perhaps “Romance,” or “Sweet 18,” or yes, even “Lovers in Paris” might not conquer the world. Asia is enough. To be a force for good in a region this complex and divided is enough. A unifying factor, a source of agreement, a movement we can each, in our own way, get behind. An example of the power of pop culture to infiltrate where governments and high politics cannot. That is what the Korean soap opera is to the world. We can only hope that this important work will continue.

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