Hallyu: Shortcomings and Potential

As promised in my posts about increasing tourism to Korea, here is a post regarding the Hallyu, or Korean Wave. In a general sense, it’s about why the Hallyu seems to have slightly run out of steam, why it comes in second to the Japanese Wave, but also about its potential to grow and develop anew into the future.


The Hallyu, meaning Korean Wave, has been described by the newspaper the Korea Times, as “the 21st Century version of the Silk Road which once served as a conduit for trade and cultural exchanges between the East and the West (Kang, 6.5.2009).” The official Korea Tourism Guide website claims “Korea’s recent surge in the entertainment industry has sparked tremendous interest from abroad.”

The cultural exports that make up the hallyu are largely the Korean mini-series soap opera-style television programmes known in Korea as “dramas,” pop music, and to a lesser extent some films and Korean style comic books, known as manhwa, which are comparable to the well-known Japanese manga. The areas most affected by the hallyu, and which have received it best, are South East Asia and other East Asian countries, most notably Taiwan, Vietnam, Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia, China and Japan. As a result of the success of these pop cultural exports there has also been seen a trend for following Korean fashion styles, copying Korean cosmetics and makeup fashions, and a desire for a “Koreanized” lifestyle. This has involved an increase in market shares of Korean products not directly linked to the hallyu, although often advertised by hallyu stars (Kim, Hyun Mee, 2005). Kim Don-taek (2006), of the Academy of East Asian Studies at SungKyunKwan University, asserts that the South Korean government, through the Ministry of Culture and Tourism (MOCT), has formed a strategy firmly connecting the development of Korean Studies and the Korean language overseas with the hallyu, meaning that these too could be classed as exports of the hallyu.

Korean Cultural ExportsDespite all this, however, the story of the hallyu is not one of endless success. The Korea Times, which has frequently reported on the strength of the Korean Wave, in May 2008 reported that exports of Korean cultural products reached a peak in 2005 of $22.2 billion, and since then have been falling, dropping sharply to $17.7 billion in 2006. This is still a considerable sum, and shows that the hallyu still exists, but it would certainly appear that it is not conquering the world, as was once predicted in the Korean media. Therefore it is pertinent to analyse the reasons why the hallyu has stagnated and is in apparent decline, and then to assess what could be done to reinvigorate it and take it to new levels in the future. In doing so it would also be appropriate to compare the Korean Wave with the success Japan has had and continues to have with its own large-scale cultural exports, and to see where, if anywhere, those behind the hallyu could learn from the Japanese wave or catch up with it once more.

As You (2006) explains in his essay, the hallyu began around the “end of the 20th Century with the export of Korean TV dramas, movies, popular music and games.” And until 2005 this exporting of popular cultural products grew into the phenomenon now called the Korean Wave. But from roughly 2005 onwards there is clearly a decline in popularity of Korean dramas in particular, which were the cornerstone of the hallyu’s success in East and Southeast Asia. There are, naturally, various reasons for this. First and foremost, one must not discount the influence of the South Korean government. In its drive to promote and fuel the hallyu, the government may have instead laid the foundations for its decline.

Koreans are rightfully very proud of the economic success they have had since the 1960s, and the government has often encouraged this). One side effect of this, however, has been that Koreans feel an almost universal need to portray Korea in what they believe will be taken as a positive light to non-Koreans, especially westerners, a point made perfectly by Gord Sellar. In doing so, some Koreans are disinclined to display elements of traditional culture or unique elements to Korean culture that they feel may not be ‘modern’ or ‘western’ enough (Shin, 2006, 3). A residual desire not to appear ‘backwards’ is evident among Koreans, and this can be seen in the cultural products they export.

Kim Hyun Mee (2005), who researched the hallyu in Taiwan, found that the large numbers of Korean dramas shown there displayed contemporary Korean society as “a country of modern and urban elegance, and woman-centeredness.” This has been part of the reason why Korean dramas have been so successful in Taiwan, as they show a high level of economic development and success, which subconsciously relates to the aspirations of the Taiwanese people. On the other hand, Kim also reflects on how this has been received negatively by some Taiwanese viewers and the media, by saying “That what is shown on TV could not possible be ‘real’ but is a momentary and ‘artificial’ representation of Korean society is further evoked by the Taiwanese media, which repeatedly emphasizes the idea that the Korean actresses are ‘artificial beauties’ and their appearances are not ‘true natural born.’” Here she is of course referring to the high rates of cosmetic surgery among Korean actresses. Clearly, therefore, part of the reason for the limited popularity of Korean dramas is that their foreign audiences recognize the unreality of them, and this limits their potential to “pull the audiences in as active participants.”

Boys Over Flowers

This is perhaps reflective of Koreans’ desire to tightly control how they are perceived abroad. Just one example of this is the outcry at American talk show host Oprah Winfrey, after she referred to the high rate of plastic surgery among Korean women. Korean conservative newspaper the Chosun Ilbo reported; “World famous talk show host Oprah Winfrey has sparked a storm by making comments that seemed contemptuous of Korean women… Because of this, the Korean-American community is harshly criticizing the program, and fallout is spreading as some Korean expatriate groups demand a public apology.” Another major Korean newspaper, the Korea Herald, which claims to be “The Nation’s No. 1 English Newspaper,” published a series of thirty-five articles about the hallyu in different countries around the world. One of the later articles of this series is entitled “Spain discovers Korea and crys out for more [sic.] (22.4.2008).” (Also see Roboseyo‘s take on this here.) This article, however, focuses very little on the Korean wave in Spain, instead discussing for over half the article various political events in Korea’s history, and the small Korean studies centre that has begun in Barcelona. The real issue with this is that clearly there is no hallyu in Spain, instead there is a small Korean studies department, and the most successful Korean films are released, generally only in film festivals, in Spain. As this is written in one of Korea’s English language publications, it can be deduced that it is intended for non-Korean readers, and to encourage their interest in Korean culture. This, and other acts of self-promotion by the Korean media, has not been well received by non-Korean readers, which is evident firstly from Roboseyo’s  blog, but also other blogs if you look, or just ask people what they think.

Another limitation on the hallyu imposed by the Korean government is that the government has linked the development of Korean pop culture overseas with the development of Korean Studies (Kim, D. 2006). This, perhaps, shows a short-sightedness of the Korean government in combining their efforts to promote the hallyu, which is essentially pop culture, and the academic field of Korean studies and Korean as a foreign language. This view is further emphasised by the 16th Cultural Program for Foreign Students and Scholars in Korean Studies, held by the Academy of Korean Studies in South Korea in 2008. The entry requirements for this program were:

“1. Undergraduate students of second year or above and/or graduate students in Korean studies

2. Professional researchers and/or university lecturers in Korean Studies.”

Not only were applicants limited to academics and scholars currently in the field, but students also had to provide a letter of recommendation, all university transcripts and a copy of their score report for the Korean Language Proficiency Test conducted by the Korea Institute of Curriculum and Evaluation. Also see James Turnbull of The Grand Narrative’s take on this program, and on the Korean/Japanese waves here (I apologise for covering some of the same material – he did get there first and did it much better!). The problem with this is obvious: if the Korean government limits its promotion of Korean culture to the academic field, they will have very limited success outside the realm of academe.

Kim Hyun Mee (2005) also focuses on the fact that “Most research on the Korean pop culture wave in Korea has had a tendency to emphasize the universal superiority of Korean culture or the economic effect of the phenomenon based on economism,” as opposed to the actual “processes of distribution, circulation, and consumption of Korean pop culture” in different countries. This approach to researching the hallyu means that those assigned to develop the hallyu are not aware of the implications of unique cultural facets of the countries to which they are exporting, and so cannot capably respond to what their overseas customers want.

Having said all this, however, it is still clear that the hallyu has been a success in quantitative terms. Where it has faltered is in comparison to the perhaps greater success of the Japanese wave of cultural export. In providing a direct comparison of the two, I aim to show more about why the hallyu has had only limited success, and how it improve into the future, to match the successes of Japanese cultural exports.

Japan’s greatest success in terms of cultural exports has been in opening up the American mainstream popular culture to Japanese products, although Japanese dramas, films and music have also had success in other parts of Asia, in the same way that Korean products have. The reason Japan was able to be so successful in America, and therefore western popular culture in general, is clear. America supported the economic development of Japan following the Second World War, and saw Japan as a crucial ally against communist China when it formed. Through this alliance, Japan was able to build a strong industry based on producing advanced technology, and exported to America, in doing so earning a reputation for innovative design and for quality. At the same time manga and anime were being developed in their modern form in Japan (Clements & McCarthy, 2001). These cultural products benefited in America from the reputation Japanese electronics had, and an impression of futuristic technology and design being associated with “Japaneseness”. Eventually, Japanese anime and manga managed to create their own popular market in the USA and various other western countries.


Moreover, due to this earlier development, in popular culture terms, Japan became the west’s link to the east. Japanese pop culture was the medium through which ‘eastern’ culture was transferred to the west, and because of this Japanese pop culture in the west has retained this identity and this function (Iwabuchi, 2002; Kelts, 2008). To a lesser extent Hong Kong action films, or ‘kung fu movies’ could also be said to have performed a similar role. This connection has been, however, largely absent in Korean popular cultural products as western audiences view them. Also, Korea has not necessarily been seen as a ‘modern’ nation, or as important geopolitically or culturally by the west until much later than Japan. Arguably, Korea’s global significance was not noted by much of the west until the emergence of a Communist state in North Korea, and Korea’s cultural significance largely ignored until the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, and until South Korea became a full democracy in the same period. The net result of this was that it was very difficult for Korea to export pop culture when they were not viewed as a cultural, economic or political leader. Korea’s cultural expansion overseas has therefore begun much later than that of Japan.

Despite this, Korea has had some success in the USA with its pop music, and some films. This is largely credited to the sizeable Korean-American community in America. The Korean Music Festival has been held annually in California since 2003 with the stated aim to “create a memorable night of music and harmony among Korean-Americans.” The website for the festival declares that it brings “the most noted artists of Korea to celebrate the lives of Korean Americans of all generations.” It can clearly be seen, therefore, that the Korean American community provides Korean cultural exporters with a ready market for their products. Alternatively, the success of Japanese manga, anime or video games has not been limited to Japanese American audiences, but has grown to feature across the spectrum of American audiences in popular culture terms (Iwabuchi, 2002).

A further comparison between Japanese and Korean cultural exports can be made between the differing levels of content among them, particularly in the popular dramas. Japanese dramas, manga and films are fueled by creativity and variety. Japan has many successful actors, writers and producers, whereas Korea has comparatively few, and relies on repeating similar plots for most of their storytelling, be it drama or film (Kim, Sue-Young, Korea Times, 5.5.2008). Most Japanese dramas are noticeable for unique plots and diverse inspirations and influences. Kim Hyun Mee (2005) explains, “If Japanese dramas have connected the realities of the young Taiwanese to the complicated human relationships portrayed therein and functioned as an interactive text, Korean dramas, with their simple love stories, are gaining mass popularity but lacking in lasting ‘reverb.’” Not only do Japanese dramas convey a more meaningful viewing experience, but Japanese pop culture makes prominent use of various media, meaning that a story that begins as a popular manga may also become a drama and a full-length anime film, adding further resonance to the stories, and creating a form of synergy effect that allows each area to grow due to the work originally done in a different medium.

As mentioned above, Kim explains how Taiwanese viewers of foreign dramas see the Japanese productions as a cultural “text,” and as a result there are many public forums in newspapers and magazines for the discussion of issues portrayed in the “text.” Korean dramas, on the other hand, appeal not as a work of cultural analysis or description, but because of the ‘star power’ of their actors. “Research by the Korean Economic Research Center calculated 3 billion dollars as the profit generated from the ‘Yonsama (the male actor) Heat Wave’ (Cho, 2005).” Maliangkay (2006) adds, “Complacency in the form of predictable scenarios and too much emphasis on visual appeal may ironically be the biggest threat faced by the wave.” In effect, the simplistic nature of the Korean dramas gains them “mass popularity” but prevents viewers from being drawn into the fantasy and cultural aspects.


D-WarOne particularly interesting factor of this comparison is explained by Iwabuchi (2002, 85), when he explains that Japan removed elements of “cultural odor” from their products, in order to be accepted by other Asian audiences, rather than have their export be viewed at an attempt at cultural imperialism. (This post was written by Seamus Walsh) In doing so, Japan did not actively seek to increase its distribution in other countries. Instead, this non-assertive nature led to other countries being drawn to Japanese cultural products. This was augmented by the use of mukokuseki figures in Japanese manga and anime, producing characters of no discernable race or ethnicity, and thus they could be taken to be from any country, depending on the audience. As mentioned above, the Korean government has been very direct, perhaps to the point of vociferousness, in their promotion of Korean cultural products abroad. At least one source also argues that Korean manhwa characters look more distinctly East Asian than Japanese manga characters do (Hart, 2004). It seems as though this has worked both for and against the hallyu. Firstly, the aggressive promotion of the hallyu in other Asian countries led to an increased market share and initial popularity, and the distinctly Korean aspects of the products, combined with the exaggerated affluence portrayed in them, as described by various analysts, will have led to an association of wealth, success and modern urban lifestyles with Korea. This allowed certain products to be successful in Asia, but was perhaps seen as an attempt at cultural imperialism. Certainly, the governments of China, Japan and Taiwan have reacted to this by trying to stem the influx of Korean dramas (Kim, Hyun Mee, 2005). Furthermore, the lack of cultural neutrality has meant Korean cultural products have been less successful in western markets than Japanese products have been. Furthermore, certain markets have not responded well to the nationalistic way Korean cultural products have been marketed, both domestically and sometimes abroad, preferring instead the apparent passivity of the Japanese promotion.

One last point of contrast has been Japan’s effective use of the dominant American mainstream pop culture media to diffuse its products among western markets. Some examples would be the contribution of Disney to promote the films of anime director Hayao Miyazaki, the use of an American company to release the major early anime film successes of ‘Ghost in The Shell’ and ‘Akira,’ and the editing of the Pokemon franchise by the American division of Nintendo for the western market (Iwabuchi, 2002, 38). Therefore, the lack of a strong “cultural odor” and the use of American companies to asses what should be distributed among western markets, has had a large part to play in the success of Japanese products globally, leaving Korean cultural success limited to Asia, where the products are recognized for their stars and high production values, combined with more traditional Confucian themes that the other countries of East Asia can relate to.


It therefore remains to assess how Korea could eradicate these limits on their cultural expansion and in doing so reinvigorate the hallyu. Of course, the greatest issue with this subject is that so little empirical research has been done on it, and that the individual opinions of the ‘consumers’ are the most informative guide, but merely a guide nonetheless. With that said, this would appear to be a suitable basis from which to work to build a more successful wave of Korean culture around the globe. The first step in achieving this would be to separate the Korean cultural wave with Korean studies promotion in the thinking and practice of the government. The Japanese example has proved that if the cultural exports achieve sufficient popularity, and the nation’s importance is perceived to rise, the academic study of that nation and its language will also rise. It must be noted by the Korean government that limiting promotion of Korean culture to academics will not fuel the Korean wave, and so the two should be promoted and developed separately for a mutually beneficial gain in the long-term. The government should also not focus so much on aggressive expansion into foreign markets, to over-emphasize the “Han Brand.” Rather, they should dedicate as many resources as possible into the development of content and the internal promotion of unique themes, characters, and the backing of creative producers of cultural products. On top of this, the government should seek to reduce the apparent suppression of elements of Korean culture unique to Korea, that some Koreans perceive to be “backwards” when viewed by non-Korean audiences. A veneer of ultra-modernity and ultra-westernization does not need to be maintained at all times in cultural products. Indeed, the Japanese “cultural odor” did not become popular with western audiences because of its similarities with western themes and culture. The hallyu must also find the balance between promoting and displaying that which is uniquely Korean, and also in maintaining a level of neutrality and not self-promotion that can be accepted by a far wider audience. Finally, those behind the hallyu should be willing to acknowledge that it will achieve the greatest success when foreign audiences feel that they have ‘discovered’ Korean cultural products, rather than having them forced upon them.

Welcome To Dongmakgol

I do have a full bibliography for this post if anyone would like it, but I haven’t included it here firstly to save space on the page, but also because it would make it even easier to plagiarise this post.


Improving Korea As A Tourist Destination: Part 3

Part 1 here.

Part 2 here.

So, we’ve reached the final post. The fact that it’s Part 3 just goes to show how completely over-optimistic I was thinking the whole series would just be one post. But I live and learn.

In the first two posts, then, I outlined the sorts of places and attractions that tourists visit in neighbouring countries, and why they’re so popular. I also explained how I think this knowledge can be applied in Korea, and what Korea specifically has to offer herself, in an attempt to find a way to develop tourism in the country, as the government seems so keen to do these days. In this final part I hope to bring that all together and decide how it should be promoted to achieve success as a tourist destination.

The first thing I would do, however, in order to prepare for this desired tourism surge, is to begin well in advance paying those who work in the tourism industry a lot more. There are various reasons for doing this. Firstly, tourism is not a “high status” industry in Korea. It’s much more desirable to work for Samsung – even if you just fetch the coffee. I’m sure a lot of this is to do with how difficult it is to get a job there, and also how much you get payed once you do. Raise the wages in the tourism industry and you increase its appeal to prospective employees and also its inherent status. Moreover, tourism companies would then be able to choose their employees from a wider range of hopefuls, allowing them to pick more intelligent and more capable staff. Another upside is that they would surely be able to employ staff who are better at speaking foreign languages, and I don’t just mean English, but speakers of other languages, who generally do not work outside of the business world in Korea, due to this being the only sphere that will pay out for their particular skills. More languages spoken better, and more capable staff, who are more enthusiastic about what they do will almost certainly lead to a better experience for tourists in Korea.


Step number two is more of an attitude change, and it’s something that most expats are familiar with, and I know has been discussed by Gord Sellar and subsequently on The Grand Narrative, here and here respectively. Basically, many Koreans feel that they have to portray Korea in a positive light to non-Koreans. The issue I have with this is simple; no they don’t have to, people will always prefer the truth, without spin or prejudice. And also, how can you know what someone else will think of as positive? From my personal point of view, someone obviously trying to convince me that something is good without leaving any room for another opinion, will never make me accept what that person is saying. By that logic, and making the leap that other people might also think like that, people will actually react negatively when Koreans forcefully try to present Korea and Korean things in an unnecessarily positive light. As I’ve said in the first two posts, I believe that there’s more than enough genuine positives in and about Korea that they can speak for themselves.

What I’m really trying to say is, tourists should only be told that kimchi’s good for them if they ask. They never need to be told that any part of Korea is a Mecca or a hub. If any part of Korea, or Korea itself really does start to function as a genuine and noteworthy hub of something, non-Koreans will be able to see that for themselves and will pass it on to others. If they have it rammed down their throats – without even asking – they’re going to be very put off. I’m sure my readers will be able to think of other examples of this happening – what Roboseyo would call kimcheerleading. Those who encounter tourists, especially in a professional capacity, but preferably everyone, should just stick to the truth – be entertaining, be knowledgeable, be factual, but keep it relevant, if people believe in Korea – which they should – let her speak for herself. It will undoubtedly give people a much better impression. Also, when the discussion arises, emphasise (not too over-enthusiastically) Korea’s uniqueness, rather than feeling a need to compare every aspect of Korea with somewhere else as a means of justification. Nobody wants to see the Hawaii of Asia, they want to see what Korea has to offer, not how Korea wishes it was something else. Korea should not try and feed off the reflected legitimacy of other places when she’s perfectly capable of creating her own, with some time and the right attitude.


Mecca - Photo courtesy of SacredSites.com


Kwangju - Not Kimchi Mecca, please

Another attitude issue that may or may not be a major impacting factor on tourism is that, unfortunately, some Koreans don’t see foreigners – even tourists – as welcome in Korea. I know from personal experience that this isn’t the majority, but for someone spending maybe only a week in Korea, all it would take would be one person to potentially ruin the experience. If people pay money to go to your country, or if they live there, it is because they choose to. Because they like it, or are curious and want to discover more about it. There cannot possibly be anything wrong with that, and these people must be welcomed. I’m sure, with time, the remains of this “hermit kingdom mindset” will disappear, but the sooner the better, for all concerned.

2408834920088043206acDEwR_phA couple more of these general points about attitudes that should accompany a successful tourism industry. First of all, when Koreans travel, they often like to go where lots of other people are. They hike together, swarm along the beaches like locusts, camp together and so on, and they have great fun doing it – why not – but not everyone wants to travel/holiday in that way. A couple of foreigners with backpackers strolling into a remote countryside village may be having the time of their lives. I’m not really sure as to what extent Koreans understand that many people like to go somewhere quieter when they travel, and see things that are off the beaten track, so I don’t want to speculate too much – just enough to say that there’s no guarantee of success if you try and sell a Korean’s ideal break to a non-Korean. I guess the real lesson would be “know your market.”

Just briefly before I move on to actual marketing practice, The Customer Is Always Right. Tony Hellmann on his blog Jumping the Asymptote has a great post about consumer and service practice regarding this that I’d urge you to read if your interested in why I’m making this point. On top of that, tourists are trying to have fun – everyone should be willing to help make sure they do. It works out for everyone that way.

Now, marketing. Most obvious of all is to get into tourist brochures. Every country has their own travel agencies and tourist brochures that people check out. I’d imagine that maybe in some American, Canadian, New Zealander or Australian brochures you might sometimes be able to buy a holiday to Korea, or see Korea advertised (please correct me if I’m wrong), but in Europe, India, most of Russia, Africa, South America I’m sure, you can buy package holidays to Japan, China, Tailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong – just about anywhere in East Asia except Korea. I don’t think there’s ever been an advert for Korea in Europe. I can’t find any evidence for that, but I can’t find any evidence that there has, either, and I certainly don’t know anyone who’s seen one. You’ve got to speculate to accumulate. If Korea could manage to accomplish some of what I’v laid out in this series of posts, then they should be willing to spend big to get the name of Korea out there as a destination. The most basic principle of advertising is that if people know of it, some people are going to want it. I can imagine that part of the problem with this up until now has been that Korea wants to handle every aspect of its tourism itself, meaning they don’t want foreign companies bringing tourists into Korea, when Koreans believe they can do it with Korean companies. But the simple fact of the matter is that not everyone will want to fly with Korean Air, not everyone will want to book with a Korean tourism company, and not everyone will have heard enough about Korea to allow that to happen. There’s nothing wrong with selling Korea to foreign companies. The tourism companies that have the most business in Japan could surely help Korea’s tourism industry. Furthermore, linked with what I said above, you have to know your market. Non-Koreans should be the one’s to advertise Korea to non-Koreans, they’re far more likely to get it right.

I discussed this next point in the first two parts as well, but I see it as absolutely crucial. Korea needs to improve and expand its pop culture. There will be a post regarding the Korean Wave coming up soon that will discuss in more detail how this can be done, but as a general rule, Japanese pop culture – dramas, music, manga/manhwa, films etc – tends to be more original, non-generic and creative, in fact this is what drives it. Korean pop culture, on the other hand, is driven more by romance, melodrama, music, costumes and scenery, but most of all by star power. This means that much of what Korea produces is all very same-same. Japan, producing a wider variety of themes and ideas, was able to massively grow its pop culture exports because they were passively exported. That is to say, other countries saw them and liked them, and therefore bought them of their own accord – with various different cultures all able to see something that appealed within the Japanese pop culture whole. If Korea could improve the quality and variety of its pop culture exports, and instead of seeming to force them onto other countries, they could be seen as being passively exported, raising the profile and appeal of Korea and her pop culture. This is also the best way to transmit culture outside of the diaspora, as it must be acknowledged that without the large numbers of people of Korean ethnicity living abroad, Korean pop culture would have an absolutely negligible presence outside of East Asia.

And the final thing that the Korean government should do to increase tourism in Korea is to improve the education of young people, and improve the non-standard education that affects everyone else through media, politics and society. Brian in Jeollanam-do has a few posts about Korean school textbooks, one of which is here. The better Koreans can understand foreign visitors, the better the experience will be for those tourists. This should also lead to Koreans growing up better understanding the differences between non-Koreans, that they are not a singular group, or a few large groups encompassing the whole world outside of Korea, and also hopefully they may see more of the similarities between themselves and non-Koreans. Of course, this can’t be taken to mean all Koreans, but from experience I’m sure many who have lived in Korea will recognise the truth in some of what I’m saying. Furthermore, improved education about the world outside may cause Koreans to travel around it more, and not just to the few common destinations. A nation of tourists is better equipped to be a good host nation to other tourists.

And so there you have it, that is my take on the tourism industry in Korea, what problems it currently has, how they could possibly be solved, and how the industry could grow. I’m not an expert in tourism, neither am I an expert in marketing/advertising. I do think I know a reasonable amount about Korea, and about traveling, so this is really nothing more than my view about how Korea could better develop as a popular tourist destination, as it seems to me as though there is a keen desire to do just that among the Korean government. As always, it would be good to read your responses and comments to what I’ve written here, especially as this is such a big topic, and I know not everyone is going to agree with all I’ve said!

Improving Korea As A Tourist Destination: Part 2

Part 1 here.

Part 3 here.

In the last post I identified what I considered to be the main places people visit in Korea’s neighbours, China and Japan, and what drives people to visit those places. I also established that the power of pop culture abroad can be an important driving force for tourism at home, including foreign pop culture that references one’s own culture, or uses one’s own country as a setting, the Kill Bill films for example. By that logic, the influence of Korean pop culture abroad, and foreign pop culture referencing Korea, needs to grow. I also layed out a list of various events, places, topics etc that could feature in a sustained growth of Korean pop culture, and indeed, foreign pop culture drawing on Korea as a source material, as has so often been the case with China and Japan.

Finally, at the end of the post, I outlined some basic types of travel that people embark on, so we can move on from there to see what Korea specifically has to offer. That list again:

  • Hiking/exploring
  • Relaxing, pampered holidays
  • City stays, particularly in historical or futuristic cities: anywhere that’s unusual and interesting.
  • Cultural exploration
  • Action/sports holidays including golf, winter sports etc.

For most of these categories, it should be obvious that Korea can provide a uniquely Korean experience of them. Take hiking, Korea may not have the highest mountains you can ever hike, but they have a tremendous history with their mountains, and they have always viewed mountains differently to us. Korea provides hiking routes that take you along the coast, past Buddhist temples, Confucian schools, shamanistic sites and happenings, shrines to mountain spirits, hot springs, gorges, waterfalls, rivers, views; this list could go on. Now, for any non-jaded, inexperienced Korea traveler, that’s got to be an impressive combination.


Relaxing, pampered holidays is a category that could do with some work in Korea, and as far as I’m aware, the closest they get is in Jeju-do. It’s a fine place to visit, with some high quality hotels, scenery, beaches, and some culture if you want it. It has good food, including fresh “sushi.” Not a bad offering, and personally I think it would be a shame to overdevelop the island for the sake of improved “high class” tourism. We must also take into account that the Pacific Islands are not all that far away, and for many people I’m sure it wouldn’t matter how good the facilities were in Jeju-do, Bali’s always going to win. I know there are also some very nice, expensive hotels in Kyŏngju (Gyeongju), complete with plenty of historical and cultural sites to see, but again, it’s a place that it seems a shame to overdevelop with fancy hotels – you lose the soul of the place. It’s therefore a shame that Korea doesn’t have miles and miles of virtually unused tropical beaches, so this probably isn’t the best avenue to take to increase tourism significantly.

As for city stays, I think Korea is more than capable of providing an attractive tourist destination. It simply depends on marketing, and accurately identifying what tourists want to see. Seoul clearly meets the western tourists ideas of the East Asian old meets new. It’s got its futuristic buildings, vibrant nightlife, great food, high technology, excellent hotels, all alongside the traditional temples, palaces, shrines and monuments, and it’s surrounded by relatively low, easily-climbable mountains that give you a break from the bustle and a great view. I also think it has a very unusual atmosphere, with some “quirky” features that have the potential to really connect with tourists, such as the 포장마차, the little street stalls selling cheap snack food.

Cheonggyecheon, central Seoul

Cheonggyecheon, central Seoul


On top of that, there’s also Kyŏngju, as I mentioned before, which is a good city to stay in if it’s culture or history you’re after. Pusan (Busan) also offers a good alternative, and both Jeju-si and Sŏgwip’o (Seogwipo) can combine the best of various different types of holiday.

When people go on a “cultural trip,” what they’re really after is to see some of the authentic local culture that’s different from what they’ve seen before. On that note, I think that could be achieved anywhere in Korea, but some destinations are more obvious than others: Seoul, Kyŏngju, Jeju-do, Hahoe, temples, mountainous rural areas and others I’m sure.

Korea also offers a surprisingly good amount of sports for holiday makers. There are of course numerous golf courses, many at a high international standard, they’re also cheaper than Japan, and regularly classed among the best in Asia. Korea also doesn’t seem to realise how lucky it is to have a few decent winter sports resorts. Admittedly, if it’s altitude you’re after, you’d be best going elsewhere, but for the cost, facilities and relative unspoilt nature of the resorts Korea should be a valid alternative to other more established destinations. In my view, however, Korea is not even on the map in terms of ski resorts, very few people would think of going to Korea for skiing, and I’m sure most companies that people would use to book a winter sports holiday won’t service Korea either. This needs to change, and the potential is all there. It’s also a location that offers more in terms of cultural discovery for most western tourists than Europe or North America. On top of that there’s also horse riding, water sports, snorkeling, SCUBA diving and so on.


Also, there are obviously certain specific sites that are unique to Korea, or add to Korea’s value as a tourist destination.

For me, one of the best has to be the lava tubes in Jeju-do, that UNESCO describes as being of “unequaled quality.” I’d add to this Hallasan, the volcano with the lake-filled crater in the centre of the island, simply for its aesthetic beauty.


For completely different reasons the DMZ is also entirely unique. It’s also the only remaining front of the Cold War, and has to be seen to be believed. I know some people have argued that something so sombre, important and serious shouldn’t be treated like a tourist attraction, and I can see where they’re coming from. My view, however, is that people should take the opportunity to see what one of the most devastating conflicts of the last century has done to the two countries, to see partially into a closed country, and to witness firsthand more of the current geopolitical state. It may be upsetting, but we have to learn about the major conflicts of more recent times, witness where they took place, the people who were involved, because it gives us an important perspective. For that same reason, I’m also a fan of the War Memorial Museum. The Korean War is known as ‘The Forgotten War’, but I think it’s about time something was done to change that. This museum goes above and beyond in that respect, dealing not only with the Korean War of the ’50s, but with a history of combat throughout the ages, making it fascinating, informative and very poignant. It also has value as it emphasises the role played by all who fought, as I think most people (who aren’t Koreaphiles) are aware of America sending troops, but not so aware of how many fought from other countries. In that sense, it still really is the Forgotten War, unfortunately.

Teardrop display from the War Memorial Museum, made from the dogtags of soldiers who fought in the Korean War

Teardrop display from the War Memorial Museum, made from the dogtags of soldiers who fought in the Korean War

When Koreans talk about the beautiful scenery or mountains in their country, and when this is the focus of marketing Korea, I feel it would pay dividends if people could be more specific about which mountains they are referring to. Firstly, there’s no reason to expect that a foreigner won’t be able to muster up at least a vague attempt at pronouncing the proper name, or remembering it. People manage to say “Mount Fuji”, right? Why not Mount Halla? Seorak Mountains? Saying Korea is 70% mountainous isn’t going to attract anyone, it’s also far too vague to give someone a decent impression of the terrain. Not all of Korea’s mountains are particularly beautiful or have certain appealing features. There needs to be an identification of the ones that do have a special appeal – Namsan looks out over the whole of the city, such and such mountain has lots of temples, or a beautiful waterfall, or a giant buddha statue. This approach has worked to some extent in China, and even more so in Japan. No country is entirely amazing; those charged with marketing Korea need to find the parts that they really wish other people could see, and then encourage it, with reasons. The same goes for temples and palaces. There are spectacular examples of both in Korea, and some with incredible histories. These should be made known known. The aim should be to have someone living in Australia, or France, or anywhere else, who’s never had any interest in Korea, to be able to say, “hey, there’s that big temple in Korea, it looks really impressive.” People can picture certain buildings in Japan, China, even if they don’t know the name or anything about them. Korea needs to try and achieve the same level of basic awareness and appeal globally for some of its sites.

Another potentially massive selling point for Korea is the food. It really is unique (again, forgive me for using that word so much – but it is), and it’s glorious! Why is Indian food so popular outside of India? Because it’s different, it’s spicy, and because Indian people move in numbers outside of India. It gets slightly adapted for the local palette, and becomes well known and well liked. India is famous for its food, and most people have never eaten Indian food in India. The same can be said for Japanese food, it’s unique, and has spread, and people think of the two together, despite probably never having eaten Japanese food in Japan. Again, Chinese food is the same. Surely Korea could also benefit from its cuisine becoming better known, better marketed, and better adapted outside of Korea.

I’ve heard that Korean food is quite popular and well-known in parts of North America, which bodes well, but in other parts of the world it’s definitely under-represented. For example, in my native London, the vast majority of customers in all the Korean restaurants are Korean. Of the ones I’ve been to, the one that is most popular among non-Koreans is the most expensive and the least authentic. But the Chinese food you get in London is generally not that authentic. Neither is the Indian. They adapt to succeed. In fact, there is one reasonably authentic and quite good Korean restaurant near Centre Point in London (called Assa for those who’re interested) that permanently has a sign in its window advertising for staff. It’s in Korean. Nothing wrong with hiring Koreans I suppose, but surely they’d have to be able to speak English to serve in a restaurant in London? And would it be that bad if a non-Korean worked there? This may just be a phenomenon that’s limited to Koreans in Britain, but the small Korean communities in Britain tend to be very insular, and often try and replicate a mini-Korea exclusive to the resident Koreans wherever they live. I’m not bemoaning this, I don’t even think it’s wrong, but there’s also nothing wrong with opening up to others around, and both welcoming them among you, and trying to establish yourself among them. In that way, I’m sure more interest could be generated in everyday things such as Korean food, etiquette and so.


But, if you can get people interested in the cuisine in Korea, why not encourage them to visit traditional markets. I’ve heard that some Koreans think that tourists should be discouraged from visiting these markets, as they might be a bit dirty and “backwards.” Ridiculous. They’re great fun, and nothing at all to be ashamed of. I know people who have never been to China know of it’s quirky street markets selling all kinds of wonderments, that would surely be perfectly mundane in China. The same should apply to Korea in my opinion. Folk villages are also great for getting some of the traditional culture and way of life, and what Korea was like before it became thoroughly “modernised.” I’d also obviously advocate Kyŏngju for the same reasons. Kyŏngju should take a leaf out of Kyoto’s book and emphasise the traditional aspects – come on, it’s fun!

That said, according to this article, Korea’s most popular tourist attraction in terms of number of visitors per year is actually Everland, and four of the most popular nine tourist attractions in East Asia (China, Korea, Japan, the article decides to just call this area ‘Asia’) are theme parks. Time to invest in Everland and Lotte World, methinks.

The first point of contact for most tourists to Korea will inevitably be the capital, Seoul, and many won’t even make it outside of the big city. But maybe they don’t have to.

  • Cheonggyecheon
  • Any of the futuristic-looking parts
  • The mountains around it
  • Cheap, efficient, clean subway – rivals any other in the world, surely
  • Temples/palaces – the old and new thing again

As you will see from this post, I’m fascinated by Korean shamanism, and I hate the way it’s been suppressed by Koreans. I cannot abide by those Koreans who think it’s “backwards” and doesn’t have a place in modern Korea. Jesus supposedly lived over 2000 years ago, and they can find a place for him, so live and let live, it’s part of the national history, culture and society. I also think this is exactly the sort of thing tourists would love to see, and not in a false, showy sort of way. Practicing shamans should be encouraged, and shamanistic sites should be protected, not destroyed. I also believe Korean shamans could find a place in the pop culture aspect as well.

Another draw is Buddhism. It’s always been flavoured with a sense of the exotic in the west, with some famous temples, warrior monks, meditation and so on. Korea has many brilliant temples, a long and vibrant Buddhist tradition, and this should be maintained, and potential tourists should be informed of it. Temple stays are also eye-opening experiences.

Final one, apologies for the length of this post again, and this one is quite possibly not at all viable, but it’s not my field. Here goes… Reintroduce tigers and bears to the countryside. That would be immense. Tigers are the national animal, and there aren’t even any left!

Male Sumatran tiger in the wild STCP 2000

Again, I’ve gone on for so long, I think it’s a suitable place to leave this post. There will be a third post that will deal with how the whole thing should be effectively marketed – the final stretch! Bear with me please, but until that’s up your comments are more than welcome!

Improving Korea As A Tourist Destination: Part 1

korea 1

UPDATE: Find Part 2 HERE and Part 3 HERE.

There seems to me to have been a sudden mushrooming of discourse on the Korean “brand,” on Korea as a tourist destination and how to approve its standing among foreigners in both the news and on blogs. It’s likely that this was spurned on by the recent decision to change the “national slogans” of ‘Dynamic Korea’ and ‘Korea Sparkling,’ as well as the new promotional campaign by the Korea Broadcast Advertising Corporation (KOBACO) about how Koreans should behave (or not behave) in order to raise Korea’s national profile/image, also see here.

The blogosphere has plenty of comment and analysis of these new developments, so if you still haven’t read your fair share, follow the links above and don’t stop until you’ve had your fill! In this post I’ll try and stick away from all that, and take on instead the formidable task of how else to improve Korea’s national “brand” or image, as well as to make Korea a far more attractive tourist destination.

As this is quite an ambitious post, perhaps the most ambitious I’ve written so far, it will be spread over 3 posts, with one following shortly after the other.

The basis for my cunning plan(or not so much – do comment at the end!) aims to answer 3 main points:

  1. What sites in neighbouring Japan and China attract the most tourists, and why do they go there?
  2. How can that knowledge be applied to Korea? What does Korea have to offer in regard to these factors?
  3. Having decided exactly what it is that Korea offers for tourists, how should it then be marketed to compete with the tourism powerhouse neighbours of Japan and China?

So, onto the good stuff. Japan. When people think of Japan, what tourist destinations spring to mind, and why do they appeal? This is going to be a long post, so I’ll try and keep it as brief as possible! In no particular order, starting with:

Tokyo – Appeals because it’s so different to what people are used to; people have pop-culture induced ideas about its futuristic feel and cyberpunk atmosphere; it’s ultra-modern, which is cool; it has fantastic shopping and restaurants, certainly the leader in East Asia.

Shibuya Crossing

Mount Fuji – Beautiful scenery.

Kyoto – The traditional to Tokyo’s modern, also unlike anything experienced by tourists before; has traditional things that have garned interest abroad through pop culture, eg. geisha, samurai, zen and so on.

Bullet Trains – A fine example of technological supremacy; they’re fast, and again, the bullet trains of Japan hold a special place in people’s imaginations, being the first (right?) and often thought of as the best.

Harajuku/Shibuya – Centres for youth pop culture that’s both similar and fascinatingly different from that in the west.

Himeji Castle – Yet again, it’s different from “western” castles, it’s impressive, beautiful, cultural and historical.

Of course there are more than that, and it’s a very brief, general list, and my analysis is hardly deep, but I hope it serves my purposes. This is a Korea blog after all. But on to China:

Forbidden City – See Himeji Castle.

Tiananmen Square – An impressive space, made even more poignant in the eyes of tourists due to its recent historical significance and importance.

Tiananmen Square

Beijing – An absolute mass of people living in a totally different way to what tourists are used to, and a chance to see modern Communism at work – amongst other reasons.

Great Wall – Unique the world over, an impressive structure, and equally impressive and beautiful scenery.

Hong Kong/Shanghai – Pop culture has developed an impression of these places that makes them appealing, they look like they could have inspired some of the locations for Star Wars, and almost certainly did inspire some cyberpunk classics.

Ghost in the shellHong Kong

Ghost in the ShellShanghai

So, the main things I take from thinking about this are that pop culture has driven the tourism industries in these two countries, it has influenced perceptions of traditional culture in these places, and the role and depiction of traditional culture in pop culture (There will be a later post on the Hallyu and a comparison of it with the growth of Japanese pop culture coming up at some point as well, which should tie in somewhat). On top of that, the combination and contrast of ultra-modern and ultra-traditional that is hard to find in the “west” is a powerful contributing factor. Quite simply, and I’m sure many people would agree with me, most people travel to see things that are different from where they live. That’s why we don’t tend to care how close the nearest McDonalds and 7Eleven are to our hotel. It’s the things that are so obviously different that draw people to China and Japan, as well as the things that are totally unique. Without the spectacular Buddhist temples, palaces and rich histories, these countries would be considerably less well-travelled tourist destinations – obvious though it sounds. On top of this, pop culture has given us an impression about these places, and some features of their cultures, that whet the appetites of potential tourists to see it for real, and see more. What’s more, not all the pop culture products that reference Japan and China are even from those places. Some quick examples: Memoirs of a Geisha, James Clavell novels and film adaptations, The Last Samurai, Afro Samurai, Enter the Dragon, Kill Bill, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Empire of the Sun, all from outside of China and Japan, and the list could go on.


So, how can this knowledge of what drives tourism in Korea’s neighbours be applied to Korea, and what does Korea have to offer to tourists?

Firstly, and probably the most obvious, Korean pop culture, and non-Korean pop culture that features Korea, has to develop in order to drastically increase tourism to Korea. I know there will be some who are desperate to prove that there’s no suitable material from Korea, but I beg to differ. The Three Kingdoms period was rich in new design, saw the spread of Buddhism – that fabled Zen we have so many pre/mis-conceptions about in the west, had warriors skilled in combat and classics, the Hwarang, and had some great battles and potential for adventure and exploration stories. A lot of the same can be said of the Choson Dynasty, although instead of the spread of Buddhism you have its suppression, the classic love story Chunhyang, and a conservative value set just waiting to be questioned and explored. There are wars, invasions, Yi Sun-shin, and then we come to the Japanese occupation. Plenty of fodder there for all sorts of tales, I’m sure you’ll agree. Since then we’ve had the Korean War, the rise of Communism, Cold War-esque spying and terrorism, oppressive dictatorships, The Kwangju Uprising, the birth of democracy, and we still have a political tension reminiscent of the Cold War, and the (very faint) possibility of nuclear war providing endless possibilities for fiction set in the near future. I have no doubt this could easily match the cyberpunk speculations at the core of such fiction set in Japan or Hong Kong.


Another thing I base the theory that more and better pop culture = bigger tourism industry is the fact that Korean pop culture is most popular in other East and Southeast Asian countries, and these are the nationalities that contribute the most tourists in Korea. It’s been stated many times in discourse about the Korean Wave that tourists from these countries travel to Korea in such numbers precisely because the pop culture is so popular.

Furthermore, if Korean producers of pop culture – that is, writers, actors, filmmakers and so on – set the tone and provide the basis for a pop culture expansion centred around Korea, then foreign producers of pop culture have a starting point and can then take it in a new direction to appeal to audiences in other countries. These productions will inevitably focus on the positive, appealing aspects of Korean culture, as has happened with Japanese pop culture, as this is what makes for entertaining fiction.

In conjunction with this, the basic cost of traveling to and around Korea needs to become more tourist-friendly. If Korean Air is determined to place itself in the upper-middle region of the market, who is going to come forward and offer cheap, back-to-basics travel to Korea. Korea could do with its own large-scale low cost airline, and failing that needs to make itself more appealing to more foreign low cost airlines. Case in point, Eastern Europe has prospered greatly from a tourism boom in recent years, and this is largely due to being cheap to reach from Western Europe, and cheap once people get there as well, although retaining a sense of quality, and not “feeling cheap.”

Now, having dealt with hypothetical precursors to a tourism boom in South Korea, it seems practical to assess what sort of reasons people have in general for traveling, wherever it may be. Again, in no particular order:

  • Hiking/exploring
  • Relaxing, pampered holidays
  • City stays, particularly in historical or futuristic cities: anywhere that’s unusual and interesting.
  • Cultural exploration
  • Action/sports holidays including golf, winter sports etc.

Having reached the 1500 word mark, I think this would be a good time to call an end to part one. I had planned to deal with this whole topic in one post, but judging by the length of it so far I think that would be unwise. In the next part I’ll explore the sites and other things that are unique (yes, I know, but it’s said now) to Korea, and that would enable Korea to offer a Korean experience for tourists based on the criteria laid out above.

Part 2 HERE.