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Review: Euny Hong explains 'The Birth of Korean Cool'

"The Birth of Korean Cool" by Euny Hong (Picador, August 2014). Credit: Picador

THE BIRTH OF KOREAN COOL: How One Nation Is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture, by Euny Hong. Picador, 267 pp., $16 paper.

The star of the most-watched video on YouTube is not American or European or Chinese. It's the South Korean artist Psy, whose music video "Gangnam Style" has in just two years climbed to more than 2 billion views, double the next popular video. Yet in the early 1980s, Euny Hong's American classmate didn't even believe the country existed: "You're lying. There is no such place."

Hong's new book, "The Birth of Korean Cool," makes the case that not only is Korea real, but it has arrived. Its songs play in Thailand, its television shows illuminate screens across China and its films screen in French theaters. All this from a country that was one of the world's poorest in 1960. "The Korean wave of popular culture is called Hallyu," Hong writes. "You should learn the word, since you'll be seeing a lot of it."

The rise of Korea's entertainment industry was not left to chance; the South Korean government has played an active role from the beginning. In 1992, a Hong Kong station picked up a Korean television drama after Korean government officials convinced Korean companies to buy advertising time. The show became a hit. Public funds were used to build Korea's superfast broadband Internet network that, in turn, gave rise to a video game industry, and government-owned facilities developed hologram technology for concerts. "In what other country would a B-boy try to make the case that he deserves his government's support?" Hong writes about a break-dancing performer.

So much is explained by the speed of change. The arduous, multiyear process of developing teens into pop singers springs from a small talent pool where students are often too busy studying to form bands organically. "Korean record labels don't have this luxury of waiting for stars to come to them," Hong explains. Korea also has benefited from coming of age at the right time. The Internet and YouTube have opened up access to the world.

Ultimately, the book tries to cover too much. The chapter on Korean food, which includes an insightful interview with the chef Hooni Kim, doesn't quite fit. Then there are sections on plastic surgery and Korean distrust of Korean-Americans that read like tangents. Many of Hong's childhood memories, meant to highlight how far the nation has advanced, often feel like digressions.

For all of Korea's successes, it has never achieved the international recognition of its larger neighbors, China and Japan. But as Hong notes, "it took five thousand years for Korea to evolve into what it is now, a superachieving, frighteningly ambitious nation with a mighty ax to grind." And the rest of the 21st century is ahead of it.

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