Miseong Woo – Reflections by Mia Leyland

The James Joo-Jin Kim Program in Korean Studies co-sponsored the Asian American Studies “Food for Thought” series on Friday, October 14th, 2016. Together, we hosted Professor Miseong Woo of Yonsei University to give a talk about Korean popular culture in the diaspora and especially the U.S.


Professor Miseong Woo: Korean Modernity and Popular Culture

Miseong Woo, Professor of English at Yonsei University and current Visiting Professor of Korean Studies at Cornell University, recently gave a presentation at the University of Pennsylvania titled “Korean Modernity and Popular Culture.” Contrary to what some may expect from the title of the presentation, the discussion did not revolve around an exploration of the current rise of Hallyu (the Korean Wave) in and beyond modern Korean society, but rather the role that the modernization of Korea has played in setting the stage for and creating the current scene of popular culture.

Woo began her presentation by pointing to the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP), an ultramodern building located in one of Korea’s most well-known shopping districts. The DDP, completed in 2014, was designed as a hub of fashion, culture, and modernity with the motto “Dream, Design, Play” – three aspects which Woo claims have been lacking in Korean society until recently. Events at the DDP include high-end European brand fashion shows, art collections (i.e. Andy Warhol), a special exhibition on the “Kansong Collections from the Joseon Dynasty,” and “Klive: K-Pop Hologram Hall.” What is interesting about the range of these events and exhibitions, argues Woo, is the blatant “lack of popular culture” in the 20th century. Indeed, the Joseon Dynasty exhibition covers a timeline spans the 19th century and the Klive exhibition reflects 21st century popular culture, but what represents the popular culture of the 20th century?

For Koreans, the 20th century reflects a time of trauma, resulting in what Woo calls “cultural amnesia” in which 20th century memories are repressed. Japanese colonial occupation, the Korean War, and U.S. military occupation taint the Korean 20th century – a time when Korean popular culture was unable to flourish. Instead, Koreans embraced American culture as a standard of westernization and fell into a catch-up mentality to succeed in the ruthless competition of global capitalism; in other words, Korea was focused on modernizing the nation. Dubbed the “Miracle on the Han River,” following the Korean War, Korea experienced compressed modernity – modernization over a short period of time – in which the nation rushed forward without incorporating a Korean cultural identity.

Compressed modernity drove the nation into a fast-paced race toward material success, which is reflected in today’s Korean popular culture. “Hallyu contents function as cultural and symbolic vehicles through which the viewers and listeners could project their own diasporic sense of displacement in the age of fast-paced digital technology and engage in their own desires to cope with [a] rapid, compressed, and uneven process of modernization on a global scale.” As someone who became interested in Korean Studies through the avenue of Korean popular culture, it is interesting to be confronted with such an analysis on the development of that culture. While I have come across a number of studies on the history of Hallyu, the current value of Hallyu (i.e. what it has done for Korea, where it stands on the international stage, etc.), and the future of Hallyu, Woo provides a refreshingly new perspective on the discussion by addressing why the popular culture has developed the way it has – Korea’s race against itself in obtaining a modern society fit to compete on a global level.

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