The “Global Fetish” and the “Korean Wave” Ascendant

It is useful to characterize the way in which fetishized young female bodies as part of the commercialization and commodification of Korean culture and the desire to promote and export it abroad fits into Hyunjung Lee's notion of a greater “global fetish.”  I lifted this concept from Hyunjung Lee's  dissertation on "Global Fetishism: Dynamics of Transnational Performances in Contemporary South Korea,"  in which she talks about how the notion of the “global” in South Korea having become so elevated that it has become its own rationale, one capable of explaining  just about 
anything, or alternatively put, has become a rationalizing framework able to give meaning and worthiness to just about anything put into it, just because it promotes Korea or Korean culture in the global realm, or has functioned  to “globalize” South Korea. The two major examples she presented were those of Nanta and the musical production that told one of Korea's most tragic historical tales, The Last Empress. Any and all Korean cultural products and productions are seen to be worthy of representing Korea in the global arena and market. Indeed, in recent decades, the idea of the “global” has been raised to the  level of fetish, as a rationalizing desire unto itself. When combined with another prevailing wind of the times, that of “identity consumerism,” which I have defined as an ongoing process and tendency for people in  South Korea's runaway consumer capitalist culture to define existential questions at the macro level through consumptive behavior  as individuals,  the result is “the answer” to a certain kind of existential angst that was articulated especially loudly and clearly in the early 1990s in South Korean culture --   the question of “who are we?” and "where are we going?" became paramount once the material success of the nation became South Korean puritanical justification of the nation’s long-past articulation of sanctification, so the only question left remaining to ask is the most logical and inevitable ones, which would be, “what does this all mean?” And “was it all worth it?"

The inevitable answer might be “yes,” if one thinks about the advent of the “Korean Wave” and the discourse that has arisen around it since the term was coined back in 1999. Strangely and unexpectedly, modern Korean development dreams seem to have come true through this Korean Wave. Despite South Korea’s much-lauded success in shipping and steel production, and no matter how high the GDP rises, what this type of development-erathinking has always yearned for was a spiritual, Hegelian kind of recognition. It hurts the Korean nationalist to hear that Samsung is a globally-recognized company but yet nearly 60% of Americans think it to be Japanese, with a similar story being true for Korean conglomerate powerhouse Hyundai. Despite the bottom line being good for the Korean economy, this is still not as direct a form of recognition as a  public, international talk of the quality of Korea’s cultural products with Korea being mentioned by name. It is not just coincidental that the term “Korean Wave” itself was coined outside Korea. As a form of “soft power,” the Wave has been quite successful in expanding Korean cultural influence in a way these thinkers could scarcely have imagined: 

‘Korean Wave’ first began in the early 1990s in the film industry under the surveillance of the Korean government. It then spread throughout Asia’s rising middle-class in Asia as Internet technology penetrated the region. During the 2000s, ‘Korean Wave’ rose to become an economic phenomenon that contributes significantly to Korea’s national economy (Kim 2006). It has become both a national as well as transnational phenomenon (Ravina 2009). Here, Korean popular culture provides a form of pop nationalism that allows the nation-state to engage the forces of globalization in order to produce a transnational popular culture (Joo 2011). 
soft power that enables the state to promote Korean culture by capitalizing on cultural themes that are popular among Asian consumers. In this way, ‘Korean Wave’ provides an effective mean of cultural diplomacy. For example, Korean-Malaysian relations have improved with the rise of ‘Korean Wave’ in Malaysia. Many Malaysians develop favourable views toward Korean society through their consumption of popular Korean television dramas (Cho 2010). The popularity of Korean celebrity also has contributed to closer ties between the Korean government and other Southeast Asian countries (Shim 2011).

K-pop is like a mutant cultural form that really doesn’t represent the culture it hails from. But it is a product of the society that produced it, in that it is an end-justifies-the-means kind of organism, and is analagous to a cultural “cancer” that grows in the host, expanding unchecked past any internal controls that society can place upon it, and in the Korean case, is enabled by the will to power that defines the “global fetish,”  possessed of an inexorable power to propogate that bursts past any attempt to curb its inexorable advance. Much like junk food fuels the obesity epidemic in industrialized nations through food markets driven by pure consumerism, K-pop resembles the aspects of other items within its conceptual category, but is certainly not art. It is something that resembles art that fulfills other carnal pleasures for the sake of doing so. Junk food is indeed something that one puts in the mouth and ingests, but it has no nutritional value; it is merely pleasant to eat and sates hunger. K-pop girl “idol groups,” replete as they are with teenaged girls in fetish clothing performing sexually suggestive dances, indeed sates the “hungry eye,” but there is little else of value other than simply encouraging catering to the base and most vulgar of tastes while encouraging the ratcheting up of market competition in music in the singular dimension in which it is the most apt pupil – brazen sexual titillation.  In this way, the social harm is done, albeit slowly, like the proverbial frog not in the well, but the stewpot, heating up so gradually that the frog never even realizes it is, indeed, cooked. But like everything in present-day South Korean culture, as long as someone’s buying, it’s going to be sold. Combined with the all-rationalizing power of the “global fetish,” such runaway cultural mutations become pushed by a culture industry intent on fulfilling development-era fantasies of Korean cultural dominance, albeit with a kind of cultural product that is no more Korean in form than the ever-popular Korean snack food the Choco Pie. Although made in Korea, and a product of Korean culture in the strictest sense of the definition, it says absolutely nothing about the culture it came from in the greater sense that development-era thinkers seem to be using. What is peculiar about the K-pop idol group cancer is its ability to mask itself from the obvious fact of its non-Koreanness. It metastisizes even as it becomes more invisible and impervious to the obvious critique its existence begs for in South Korean culture that in the not-too-distant past was concerned with the encroachment of Western culture and habitually describes itself as “conservative.”. But it does its damage nonetheless.