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Sunday, June 23, 2024

On Korea's Jigsaw, Urban Footprint, and Urban Replanning

If you're a frequent flyer on my Korean errlines, you've had your fill of rants about recurring blunders in urban planning, the persistence of obsolete visions of urbanism, or (re)development equations that totally ignore plummeting demographics.

Well criticizing is easy. Urban harmony is like life or democracy: a very delicate, dynamic balance of power, a complex, evolutive system of checks and balances. No one will ever achieve perfection, and that's the beauty of it.

Besides, I see some glimmers of hope. Korea has eventually started worrying seriously about its shrinking population, seeking more inter-regional solidarity and cooperation, thinking about reviving ailing city centers in smarter ways... 

Korea is starting to realize that the real estate paradigm it's been addicted to for decades has become a Ponzi scheme, a sub-zero sum game where eventually everybody loses, even the wealthy ones who won't be able to resell their 'luxury condos' with a profit after paying much more for them than they would have for the most outrageous Manhattan penthouses.

Korea is starting to realize that it can't afford 'affordable housing' if that means building apartment blocks in greenbelt areas, that when a 'new town' succeeds somewhere, it means that somewhere else, an older town in depleting.

Korea is starting to realize that it can't keep adding new non-matching pieces to an ever growing jigsaw puzzle on an ever shrinking table, that these absurd urban footprint dynamics can't be sustained any longer.

The 5th Comprehensive National Territorial Plan, which covers the most critical 2020-2040 period, already mentions sustainability and other sound principles, but all is not set in marble and a lot has happened since it was released 5 years ago: rural desertification and fertility rate diminution accelerated dramatically, the GTX and other projects reshuffled whole decks... So a revised version is expected next year, for the 2026-2040 period.

Improving inter-regional solidarity and cooperation remains a key goal, particularly where they prove already challenging at the intra-regional level because of political divisions or fierce city rivalries. 

In addition to their autonomy, such special self-governing provinces as Jeollabuk-do or the recently upgraded 'Gangwon State' don't have to deal with special cities punching holes in their maps. In comparison, Gyeonggi-do must cope not only with giant neighbors nesting in its midst (Seoul and Incheon*), but also with a complex history of city creation explaining odd administrative shapes, or new towns stretching over different cities (e.g. Dongtan).

Granting a special status to a local government was generally done without much concern for the impacts around, which prevented all parties from reaching their full potential.

Wherever you stand on the fierce political fight over the creation of Sejong City (the left wanted to move the capital city to a new, central location to balance development across South Korea - the right refused to undermine Seoul and maintained part of the government there), you have to admit that from an urbanism point of view, things could have been done a bit better.

We're not talking Brasilia or Nusantara, a new capital erected far away from existing hubs: Sejong City seats right* next to the metropolitan city of Daejeon, South Korea's 5th largest cit, its central hub, and already the seat of several  central administrations, and right next to Cheongju, Chungcheongnam-do's capital.

Daejeon lies less than one hour away from Seoul via KTX but no, Sejong City must not enjoy express connectivity with the 'old' capital because then civil servants would commute instead of moving to Sejong**. And no, Daejeon's subway shouldn't come all the way to Sejong's vital parts. At its inception, it's almost as if Sejong City was designed as a local competitor instead of a national facilitator.

17 years after its creation, Sejong claims 400k souls, Daejeon remains around 1.5M, and Cheongju inched up from 650 to 720k. Common sense would have led to something more  rational, even simply two cities instead of three: the regional capital Cheongju and a-name-it-whatever-you-fancy-as-long-as-you-spare-local-susceptibilities national capital bis. If arranged harmoniously, I bet the latter would be today a thriving 2.5-3M strong metropolis.

Mind you, both Daejeon and Sejong are faring relatively well nowadays, but I'm not surprised to see the Sejong City - Daejeon - Chungnam - Chungbuk ensemble included in the potential revisions to Korea's 5th CNTP. Some consistency would clearly make the meta-region more competitive internationally - with the caveat that it wouldn't present an official one-stop front. 

Same with 'sudogwon', the capital region (Seoul-Incheon-Gyeonggi-do): unlike say the Ile de France region that encompasses Paris and its surroundings, it doesn't really exist as an official entity with representatives. It does make sense for the national government to be directly involved in an area representing half the nation's population and GDP, but the World's 4th metropolitan bloc can't fully leverage its potential. Of course, adding another administrative layer and the tensions that go with them, particularly with dwindling resources, may not necessarily be the panacea. Some even envision Daejeon + Sejong + Chungnam + Chungbuk as an 'ultra-wide megacity' - at least that would avoid the ego problem of who gets to be granted the regional capital status...

The debates promise to be complex and animated, but it's important to get every stakeholder involved, to identify all the impacts of each option, to learn from past mistakes, to minimize / optimize the urban footprint, to think urbanism beyond cities, towns, and other labels, wherever humans decided to settle or to build (be it a road, a remote factory, a farm, or even a field), and not to build for builders' sake.

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* If the cities are administratively continuous, there's no actual urban continuum... but then again, few cities in Korea excel at urban continuity.

** Likewise, I still can't stomach the fact that the railway from Seoul to Incheon Airport was deliberately delayed until a few years after inauguration because that would have hurt taxi businesses. Or that Songdo didn't have a subway from day one (hello? a ginormous polder built from scratch?). At least nowadays, if new big fat greenfield 'new towns' keep popping up, most of them include a railway connection.

Monday, April 15, 2024

Short termed, short sighted

For the second time in a row, the left won in a landslide elections they were losing a few weeks earlier: in 2020, COVID19 replaced the election by a self congratulatory referendum on how the nation contained the pandemic, and in 2024, the executive power piled up unforced errors at an almost comical pace. In-between, conservatives did win the 2022 presidential election, but only by the narrowest of margins, a litany of gaffes and disastrous campaign choices almost fully depleting the considerable headstart the unpopular outgoing administration had kindly granted them.

YOON Suk-yeol simply forgot his core mission: restoring Korea's moral compass following the PARK Geun-hye and MOON Jae-in failures. Instead of defusing crises by discarding bad apples early on, he stubbornly protected people who kept undermining his whole administration, and reforms led by moderate pragmatists went unnoticed as reactionaries sparked new outrage all over the place. The former prosecutor never understood what politics and campaigning entail, never realized how disconnected he looks, never measured how good PR at home matters more than easy stunts overseas. 

If we all knew he wasn't much of a visionary leader, we didn't suspect him to be that blind. YOON can't remain this clumsy, old school administrator wasting time and energy micromanaging everything instead of delegating and focusing on the big picture. Typically, why put yourself in the position of the target for a reform as tricky as healthcare, when presidents usually use ministers as fuses they can discard when things go sour?

Now this lame duck has no choice but to take a step back, get rid of the swarm of old* retrogrades torpedoing his every moves, and focus on his core mission with a more inclusive approach. Get the nation ready for its next big crisis (Trump 2?)... If he can.

Now YOON is not the only major loser of these elections.

Yes there was simply no contest between a well oiled blue machine and a rickety red mess, yes the record turnout (67%, a 32-year high) made even clearer the victory of the former, but for all that progressives didn't win either.

The left (in blue, and also on the left of the map) won 63.6% of all districts (81% in the capital region)

Because LEE Jae-myung managed to get rid of all opposition within his ranks, leaving no platform for the progressives and moderates who wanted to restore the values of KIM Dae-jung and ROH Moo-hyun to stand upon.

LEE is clearly not a KIM or a ROH, an inspiring leader with a strong sense of justice. More like TRUMP, he mostly cares about himself and avoiding justice, and his program essentially consists in retribution against his opponents.

Actually, YOON's failure is best illustrated by LEE Jae-myung, CHOO Mi-ae, and CHO Kuk emerging as the ultimate winners. The first words of CHO Kuk, as exit polls predicted a supermajority for the left, said it all: it was all about changing the constitution, impeaching president YOON Suk-yeol and PPP interim leader HAN Dong-hoon. But exit polls were spectacularly off the mark, and the left didn't increase its tally all the way to the 200 seats that would have enabled CHO's dreams.

Where's the hope? Where's the vision for the future?  Who can emerge left or right to prevent a LEE Jae-myung presidency or another disappoinment? 

And how will LEE himself evolve to seize the opportunity? Because LJM is not DJT; he's much smarter, he knows that he can't hide anymore, that he must propose something with his large majority. Maybe expose new faces, new masks to hide behind.

Korea can't hide anymore either. Demographics, the long neglected elephant in the room, have at last become a national emergency. Like the environment, North Korea, the economy, justice, internal divisions.

I keep hoping common sense and common ground will prevail, but time is running out.

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* as well as the young ones. LEE Jun-seok has survived the blue tsunami and remains a toxic nuisance.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

GTXtension(s) - fast transit rather than mass commuting?

In case you missed it, three new projects of GTX (Great Train eXpress) lines were announced earlier this year. Since we're getting closer to the inauguration of the first section on March 30 (GTX-A from Suseo to Dongtan), but also to key elections on April 10, I'll spare you all the wonderful urban development pledges that have popped up from all sides (I guess merging Gimpo with Seoul was one of the most radical), and talk a bit more about these Great Train extensions and GTX-tensions.

By stretching ABC and adding DEF, the network reaches further North, South, West, and East, and draws a first ring around Seoul and across Gyeonggi-do (GTX-F):

If GTX clearly brings places closer together, dividing by 3 the time to join Suseo and Dongtan, and if it reaches relatively fast speeds (105 km/h in its inaugural section, with peaks at 180 km/h), the system is 'express' in the sense that it makes few stops. And so far, it has more or less managed to resist intense pressure to add intermediary stations, particularly within Seoul. 

Which makes the success of seamless multimodal transport hubs even more critical, and I'm not sure that will be the case from day one. 'Luckily', the traffic shall not be too massive, because as it is conceived now, GTX can't really handle mass commuting. 

Beyond the limited number of trains per hour, their shortness is an issue, and commuters may struggle to find a spot to hop in, particularly in intermediary stations. I've experienced rush hour on Paris region's RER, with its long, double-decker trains, and that's not always pleasant... We may not see scenes similar to Line 9 saturation on steroids, but expect at least significant frustration from a lot of people who were expecting GTX as the instant panacea.

GTX provides fast transit before mass transit, it shortens connections before coping with mass commuting, and that's already something big. Even if you won't commute to work there, simply knowing that you can go to Seoul very quickly for lunch, dinner, or on a weekend can make moving far away less alienating. 

These massive and costly extensions do add Gangwon-do (Chuncheon and Wonju) and Chungcheongnam-do (Cheonan) to the equation, but also risk of further widening the gaps between sudogwon (Seoul-Incheon-Gyeonggi) and the rest of Korea as well as within the capital region and within the capital itself. With its relatively cheap fees (KRW 3.2K + 250 per 5 km), GTX may even cannibalize such alternatives as KTX.

The choices of routes and stations is always debatable and many areas within and beyond Seoul will remain underserved, but I always welcome transversal approaches in transport, and cooperation within the capital region. Nowadays, Seoul is collaborating much closer with Gyeonggi-do, including for its Climate Card now, and a ring bringing Gyeonggi closer together and bypassing the capital altogether marks a significant step.

Somehow, GTX is forcing the emergenceof  the grand vision, the great debate that's always been lacking. The way this whole region keeps developing remains a litany of missed opportunities, particularly since most of this urban and transport development (or lack of) relied on new towns built from scratch. And you know how often I complain about so much urban planning without urbanism or planning.

Now we're hearing about covering the Gyeongin Expressway and the rift between the Eastern and Western sides of Dongtan new town, and both will cost a fortune, but the Seoul-Inchon axis dates from ages ago, and that rift should have been solved from Dongtan's very conception. As demographics plummet and finances shrink, Korea can't afford not to get it right from the beginning. 

This nation is so great at alphabets, it should contemplate beyond ABCDEF.

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Friday, January 12, 2024

Seoul Smart Life Week - What happens in Vegas stays in Seoul?

So taking more space at CES was not enough: Seoul wants to be a match with the World's leading consumer electronics show and launch 'Seoul Smart Life Week' later this year (Oct 7-9 in COEX).

Mayor OH Se-hoon announced the event at the 640 sqm Seoul Pavilion in Tech West Eureka Park, where 81 companies exhibited their solutions and gizmos (very strong biotech and A.I. verticals behind  Seoul Biohub and Seoul AI Hub). 18 of them claimed a CES Award, but the prize OH and Seoul Business Agency are after means even bigger bucks.

Well the first edition 'only' aims at 100 cities and 200,000 visitors, but it takes time to install a big show in a crowded calendar, and COEX can't host a Barnum the size of CES.

KINTEX would gladly oblige, but Korea's biggest exhibition venue is in Ilsan, Goyang, Gyeonggi-do, with limited hospitality capacity nearby. Seoul wants to become a global or at least an Asian leader, to put for good Tokyo, Hong Kong (and its half-yearly Electronics Fair), or Singapore (COMEX- ITSHOW-The Tech Show-Consumer Electronics Exhibition) behind. 

Seoul plans to change venues after the Jamsil Sports Complex is fully transformed into the Jamsil Sports MICE Complex, with a business hub connecting the COEX, SETEC, Hyundai Motors Global Business Center, Dominique Perrault's new Yeongdong-daero, and of course the Han River in this very vegassy vision mentioned in my recent focus (see 'Seoul waterways and urbanism - the full story'):

Seoul already hosts many tech-related events, but no top-of-mind brand emerges. At least, if it may not seem very original, 'smart life' sounds definitely more human-oriented than the old-tech-y 'electronics' or 'IT'. Unlike CES with the CTA, this new SSLW will not be led by an industry but by a local authority, with city pavilions rather than national spaces. To compete with Vegas, Seoul will not only need new hardware and software, but also the power hitters Korea Inc. sends to the national pavilion. And ultimately, Samsung LG, and Co. will have to be convinced to release buzzworthy novelties 3 months earlier than usual.

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Monday, January 1, 2024

Seoul Village Season XVIII

(*NB I was finishing this post when I learned about the Assassination attempt on LEE Jae-myung in Busan - I decided not to alter what I wrote below)

Even if it will only start on February 10 with the lunar new year, happy Year of the Blue Dragon.

We can't tell which flames 2024 will throw at us, but let's wish we won't get too much sabre-rattling from the North (3G KIM Jong-un? 4G KIM Ju-ae a.k.a. Joseon's Morning Star General?), the South (Taiwan strait, East China Sea?). the West (a third front after Eastern Europe and the Middle East?). or even the East (so far, Fumio KISHIDA plays it much smarter and more efficiently than fellow Nippon Kaigi predecessor Shinzo ABE to restore the lobby's Imperial Japan revival dreams).

We know for sure that the new year will bring us critical elections in Korea (April 10) and the US (November 5), and that in both cases, the key issue remains 'will moderate at last manage to get rid of controversial figures that have been undermining democracy and their own parties for years?'

A return of Donald TRUMP would undoubtedly weaken US presence in the region and jeopardize South Korea's security. The lack of courage of moderates within GOP ranks leaves the job of removing this cancer to judges, and should TRUMP make it all the way to the RNC, he would face a struggling Joe BIDEN and get the support of a third candidate likely to siphon a lot of ballots off the incumbent (the inept Robert F. KENNEDY Jr only runs on his name and Republican funds).

Korea can't seem to remove its own destructive cells from both ends of the spectrum, but at least there are signs that moderates are starting to realize that their parties have no future with people like LEE Jun-seok on the right and LEE Jae-myung on the left*. 

Toxic anti-feminist LEE Jun-seok is threatening to found his own party ahead of the elections, and contributed to discourage IHN Yohan/ John LINTON and his short-lived innovation committee supposed to reform an irrelevant PPP.

Korea's own TRUMP, LEE Jae-myung, resists all demands to quit as DP head - like the 45th US president, he only cares about himself and eluding jail. His party courageously accepted to end his impunity but justice, crippled as much as the police by the controversial reforms of YOON Suk-yeol's predecessor, can't reach him, even as deaths linked to the scandals surrounding him keep piling up.

At least, moderates seem to have been gaining some momentum lately. LEE Nak-yon to the left and HAN Dong-hoon to the right, far from being the divisive figures painted as devils by radical media from the opposite sides, are taking the right steps for the future; LEE by taking a moral stand against the DP's controversial leader (at last some hope to restore the values of KIM Dae-jung and ROH Moo-hyuns within the party), HAN by forming a dream team of advisors ticking at least on paper all the relevant boxes to fix the nation's structural divides.

But even before considering any potential presidential face-off for 2017, the unproductive stalemate between an often self-destructive executive power and an assembly controlled by an almost always obstructive opposition must end this coming April. Of course, that may not happen...

Another thing we already know about 2024: Korea will smash its own infamous record low fertility rate, now expected to nosedive down to .62.

A toxic global and local political climate, a toxic climate, period, and toxic tensions at all levels certainly don't help young Koreans (who already struggle to purchase a home) prioritize babies. For the first time this year, more strollers were sold for pets than for kids...

Mainstream media start paying attention to the not so long term consequences for the nation at the economic, social, but also political level - even a stronger than ever K9 unit won't stop tanks at the DMZ.

On one hand, ever more pressure on young Koreans, on the other, already less competition for decent universities... If that could mean down the road less hagwon - budongsan rat race insanity...

Let's talk about mental health, precisely. And not just because the suicide of Parasite actor LEE Sun-kyun ended an already far too tragic year 2023. 'It's okay not to be okay', and to talk about it. So reach out, don't let yourself and others slip down any kind of rabbit hole. And don't judge yourself or them if you or they do. It's a beautiful sign of strength to make a call that can save a life (Korea Suicide Prevention Center: 1393 - Life Line Korea: 1588.9191); it's a sign of great character to keep reading opinions you disagree with. 

We all know peace and love are hard to find, but we all can start by stopping making war at ourselves and each other. And yes, even in the darkest times, we must never forget to laugh. Because humor is all about facing tragedy. And yes again, we must never lose our sense of wonder, because for better or  for worse, life is full of wonder.

Have, literally, a wonderful new year.

UPDATE 202402

Scratch part of that. Days after I wrote these lines, LEE Nak-yon disgraced himself by palling around with the very noxious LEE Jun-seok. A short-lived but damning bromance...

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Assassination attempt on LEE Jae-myung in Busan

LEE Jae-myung was stabbed in the neck this morning in Busan on the campaign trail. The 50-year-old culprit was arrested on the spot and LEE rushed to the hospital in critical condition. I wish Korea's opposition leader the soonest recovery.

As much as I dislike the character and the threat he poses to justice and democracy, this is the very negation of democracy and justice, and a very somber day for Korea.

This tragic event echoes the 2006 stabbing of another controversial figure, PARK Geun-hye, also in the neck. PARK went on to become president 6 years later. I wish LEE well, but not that well.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Can Korea sustain its cultural leadership?

Has Korea become a cultural leader and if so, what kind of leadership are we talking about, what drove this change, and can this momentum last?

In 'Can Korea sustain its cultural leadership?', an article published by the think tank 'Korea Europe & You' (20231111), I suggest a few threads.


Can Korea Sustain its Cultural Leadership?
Beyond the Korean waves, a vast ocean and growing expectations

At this moment in time, Korea can be considered as if not the, at least a cultural leader. But what kind of leadership are we talking about, and can this momentum last?

For now, Korea’s cultural leadership is recognized by the masses as well as by experts and elites:

  • Popular leadership? A legitimate claim when you produce such global phenomena as (yes, them again) PSY, Squid Game, or BTS.

  • Cutting edge leadership? Impossible to top the technical and visual perfection of K-pop groups developed like high tech products over years of intense training by ultra-pro entertainment companies; hard to rival with a creative ecosystem that churns out every year scores of One Source Multi Use or transmedia hits (webnovel-webtoon-seriesgames-OST…).

  • Avant-garde leadership? Elites consider the nation as a whole as the ultimate influencer and trendsetter. This is where you post your observers and researchers if you want to detect the next big thing; this is where you scout your curator if you want your art institution to shine; this is where you let your kid study for one semester even if you know they just come to live the Hallyu life – who knows, some of that magic could rub off on them...

If Korea’s cultural leadership translates into considerable economic impacts, and not just for Korea Inc, the nation as a whole is not perceived as an overpowering or threatening leader. Unlike the United States, China, or Japan in the late 80s, Korea has never been a contender for the World’s biggest economy. This tiny peninsula (de facto an island) surrounded by bullies and hosting only 0.6% of mankind is more a David than a Goliath. Korea didn’t force respect by the scale of its market; rather through repeated over-performances. Even Korea’s soft power heroes look pretty soft: a buffoon performing a silly horse dance, losers trapped in a survival game, cute youngsters heralding love and compassion… not really Rambo material.

Without dictating anything, Korea somehow manages to set the tone, the pace, the rhythm. This strange leader is more inspirational than visionary, more praised for its way of sorting things out than for its charisma or authority. Clearly, this is not the kind of leader you fear, rather the kind you enjoy being around, the kind you like to follow.

Quite a quantum leap from Korea the ultimate best follower, the ‘we try harder’ Korea, the benchmark fanatic always eager to close the gap with unattainable role models. Yes, Korea has long been a role model for developing countries, but being looked up to by cultural superpowers, that’s a completely different game.

Korea couldn’t have reached the top by just following others. It took a cultural change to become a cultural leader. In turn, this leadership is now changing the very way Koreans see themselves.

Good artists copy, great artists steal’, and Korea didn’t hesitate to source creative talents overseas, particularly from Europe. For instance, many K-pop hits were made with the help of Swedish music producers, and Hyundai Motor Group owes in part its cultural revolution to Peter Schreyer, the German designer recruited in 2006 (a model recently followed by Korea’s fashion industry with Belgian designers). Yet opening up the creative pool or attracting the best talents shouldn’t be seen as a sign of weakness, rather as smart decisions to lead a group to the next level.

Protecting the local creative ecosystem when it was too weak was also good leadership because it was designed to help it grow stronger, not just curl up defensively. A few decades after Hollywood threatened to overwhelm Korea’s movie industry, a subtitled Korean movie triumphed at the Oscars, and Busan International Film Festival has become a locomotive for all Asian cinemas. If France inspired Korea to take action (screen quotas in 1995, BIFF in 1996), now the former is more trying to learn from the latter, and the recently created Academie France Coree du Cinema puts both nations on the same footing.

Korea’s startup scene wasn’t weak to start with, but it became even more competitive after Google, Facebook, or big international VCs barged in, offering new alternatives and global perspectives: local players upped their game, and young talents became less reluctant to start their own business or to join a startup instead of aiming for the usual conglomerate. A lot of them fail, but the local ecosystem needed talents who accept failure and risks as part of the creative process and their own training. Even beyond tech sectors, the lack of perspectives in the job market also forced many to try and create their own niches, to seek different approaches. Now Korea’s young leaders in tech are not chaebol heirs anymore, but successful entrepreneurs – a genuine cultural revolution.

If external influences did contribute to Korea’s cultural change, that’s only in supporting roles, as accelerators or catalysts for a country that still depends a lot on others for its survival (food, energy, raw materials, exports, security…). The nation’s fabled resilience became universally acknowledged during the pandemic: when other nations were at a standstill, Korea kept producing series and movies or holding art exhibitions, catching all the spotlight and drawing all media attention (coincidentally, the New York Times chose Seoul to move its Hong Kong hub in 2020). More eyes on the nation, more stories exposing all sides, even the dark ones (after all, isn’t that what many ‘k-contents’ are about?)... for better or worse, Korea was in the news, Korea became the news.

Now it’s not just the core K-drama fans that are familiar with how Koreans live, eat, love, work, or struggle; everybody knows what’s happening here, and many have realized that beyond Hallyu and K-pop, beyond these repeated Korean waves, a vast and diverse cultural ocean waited to be discovered.

Of course, Korea has brilliant creators, top notch players, and a (sometimes too) proactive government, but as always, its most precious natural resource remains its people. Many have in mind the usual cliché of the ever resilient, hard-working Korean that helped the nation become the best follower of the pack, but the shift to leadership was made possible by the growing influence of different profiles: not just these elites of young risk takers with innovative mindsets, but also masses of merciless ubersumers.

Korean ubersumers want everything now and exactly as they want it. They may not have much money or power as individuals, but collectively their reviews can make or break everything they touch. They’re the ones who force webtoonists and webnovelists to fine tune their series in real time and improve their stories after each episode, they’re the ones who make Korean cosmetics so competitive (and they already have to be to resit such extreme winters and summers), they’re the ones who push customer and after sales services to their extreme limits, demanding absurd delivery delays or return rates.

Of course, companies have learned how to tame, cajole, or manipulate macro and even micro influencers, but netizens have also learned how to cut through corporate storytelling and to expose any weakness or wrongdoing. From product quality to food safety to abuses in the workplace, once something pops up somewhere, the culprits have no choice but to fix things or to go bust.

In a nation where one-term presidents become lame ducks as soon as they’re elected and where chaebols are losing some their overpowering grip, netizens have also become the only unchecked political power. This formidable force showed its most positive side during the unprecedented democratic movement that united the nation towards Park Geun-hye’s impeachment in 2017. But these crowd dynamics also have less positive effects: disinformation can spread like wildfire on both sides of the aisle, and ever-growing consumer demands can lead to non-sustainable standards (Korea’s excellence in last mile economics does have a social cost).

For better or worse, internet and mobility were from the beginning meant for such a reactive, swift, and (literally) interactive people. Here, User Generated Contents were harnessed much earlier than anywhere else in the World: the first social network service, Cyworld (1999), was launched long before MySpace (2003), and OhMyNews (2000) predated all other citizen journalism platforms. At the turn of the millennium, when all eyes were on Scandinavia or Japan, SK Telecom was the World’s most innovative operator but back then, only experts knew about what was going on in Korea, and language barriers prevented a global success, delaying at the same time the emergence of truly open and competitive models. Now Korea’s webtoon and webnovel platforms aim at global domination.

The key factors of success had been there for a long while, but the mirror effect from the rest of the World proved crucial for cultural changes to overcome certain inertia, for a people of great achievers to get used to being on top, to gain the confidence of leaders. Accolades for Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Parasite’ were less perceived as a surprise than as a long overdue recognition for Korean cinema. Cannes and Hollywood knew this movie was not a flash in the pan because they had already been impacted before by movies like Park Chan-wook’s ‘Old Boy’. And now even subtitles aren’t an obstacle for generations used to surfing videos full of captions and comments.

Can this momentum last? Momentum means mass in motion, and Korea’s challenge is getting at the same time tougher and easier: on one hand, this mass is growing and requires less effort to move, on the other, it’s getting harder to surprise audiences expecting more, to make a bigger splash than past giga-hits. Yet even if Korea can’t pull out another tsunami, a great part of the public is now aware of its ocean, its smaller waves get easily noticed, and even its wavelets enjoy a greater visibility and impact than before.

The pedagogy is done. A lot more dimensions of Korean culture have been exposed than the usual suspects (K-pop and Korean drama), and the classic pushing forces (Korean companies and authorities promoting k-content from home, ecstatic fans from overseas) have been joined by millions of people boasting a more direct contact to Korean culture after visiting the country and/or learning the language in record numbers. Foreign companies and institutions follow the demand and add their own pulling forces when they opt for Korean brand ambassadors, when they seek Korean contents for their cultural events.

The risk of K-fatigue remains, of course, particularly with that pervasive, heavy ‘K’ branding. But now that the World’s cultural taste buds have been trained to Korean contents, more people know about Korean music beyond K-pop, Korean series beyond K-drama, Korean food beyond K-food. More people appreciate good music, good series, good food that happen to be Korean or to have some Korean touch; and they don’t need all that branding anymore. Inviting top European chefs to Korea to discover, taste, and test Korean dishes and ingredients over a decade ago had probably much deeper and longer lasting effects than all these costly advertising campaigns for ‘K-food’.

One can also wonder if the recent boom in tourism can last, but even now that top destinations have reopened in the region following the pandemic, and even after such dramatic failures as the tragic Halloween 2022 Itaewon stampede or the embarrassing Jamboree 2023 meltdown, tourists keep coming in record numbers. And in spite of a tendency to disgrace each new popular spot with architecturally debatable landmarks, Korea has become an expert at turning its assets into sustainable magnets, proposing such unique experiences as hanok stay or temple stay, and boasting 16 sites and 22 intangible assets on the UNESCO World Heritage list today compared to zero until 1995.

Is there a risk of hubris, then, with Koreans basking in global recognition, and younger generations far less prone than their elders to an inferiority complex towards Foreigners? Well to start with, Koreans never had doubts about a culture they struggled to defend when it was under existential threat during the Japanese occupation. And their new confidence makes them more daring than arrogant: after overprotecting their traditional arts, they are now much more open to mix them with modern influences. Pansori became a rock opera at the Jeonju Sori Festival with Miyeon and Park Jechun, or a madcap pop performance with Leenalchi and Ambiguous Dance Company.

Korean culture is here to stay, but in order to maintain global relevance, embracing cultural diversity and crossfertilization will be key. Korea’s main cultural challenge will be to overcome persisting discrimination towards certain minorities, to remain a leader who opens doors for others as well, to succeed its evolution into a more multicultural society. This aging nation will lose 40% of its population by the end of the century, and can’t afford to waste the endless potential of future growth drivers: Korean diasporas, Foreign Koreanophiles, and most existentially multicultural nationals.

Seoul Village 2023
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