There's nothing like an international pop phenomenon to get people interested in a new destination. As travelers will see, though, South Korea's soft power has more than just good beats you can dance to.
The global pop sensation of the year has got us all excited about South Korea. Welcome to the world of K-culture
Gangnam Style, a novelty song by the South Korean rapper Psy, is the global pop sensation of 2012. It is No1 on the UK singles chart and has been viewed more than 360 million times on YouTube. Britney Spears asked Psy to teach her his rodeo-riding dance live on Ellen DeGeneres’s TV show. Even a YouTube clip of five Korean girls dancing to Gangnam Style has been viewed more than 35 million times.
Now, just as The Killing led to a mania for “Nordic noir” TV cop shows, so Gangnam Style has led to a fad for K-pop, the pop music of South Korea. But why stop there? Why not dive into the whole of K-culture? Here is your instant, 10-point bluffer’s guide…
1 K-song: Gangnam Style, named after the swanky Gangnam area of Seoul, epitomises both the pervasive cultural influence of the West and the rising economic power of the East. The Korean lyrics may be incomprehensible, but anyone can enjoy the irrepressibly camp energy and charm of Psy himself, as he bops around Seoul chanting, “Hey, sexy lady!” What also comes across is an incredible sense of energy and confidence – the product of a culture that is clearly going places.
2 K-star: Psy – real name Park Jae-sang – grew up in Gangnam. The 34-year-old son of a factory owner, he was educated at Boston University and the prestigious Berklee College of Music. His first hip hop album, Psy – From the Psycho World (2001), led to a fine for “inappropriate content”; and his second album was barred to buyers under 19. He was drafted into the army from 2007 to 2009, interrupting his music career, but Gangnam Style has taken him back to the top.
3 K-pop: US forces have been stationed in South Korea for the past 60 years, inspiring a mix of Asian and Western sounds: sugary Japanese pop, pounding dance rhythms and rap all rolled into one. If you like Gangnam Style, try Fantastic Baby by the boyband Big Bang, whose video rivals Lady Gaga for fashionista eccentricity and excess. Who’d have thought that Koreans would dress like futuristic glam rockers and chant “Boomshakalaka,” but they do.
4 K-Belgium: A recent article in the Huffington Post argues that South Korea is Asia’s Belgium: a small, inoffensive nation squeezed between bigger, often antagonistic neighbours. But, while tensions between China and Japan rise, no one (apart from North Korea) hates South Korea. This makes Gangnam Style the Tintin of South Korea: its calling card to the world.
5 K-facts: South Korea has a population of 49 million, with an average life expectancy of 78.6. Its economy is ranked 15th in the world, growing by 3.6 per cent last year. The population is ethnically homogenous and the single biggest religion is Christianity, accounting for 26.3 per cent of the population.
6 K-films: South Korean film-makers are catching up with their Chinese and Japanese peers. Beginners should start with Park Chan-wook’s thriller Oldboy, winner of the Grand Prize at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival and rated among the best 100 films of all time by the Internet Movie Database website. This extraordinary tale of imprisonment and revenge is as violent, twisted and stylish as anything by Tarantino.
7 K-fashion: South Korean style is being promoted through “Seoul’s 10 Soul”: 10 designers displaying their work at showrooms in Paris and Milan. The cutting-edge Korean menswear label General Idea has opened a Manhattan boutique. Its designer is a cool, moustachioed, shades-wearing hipster. The only micro-problemette: his name is Choi Bum-suk.
8 K-cuisine: The traditional view of Korean food can be summed up by the Manchester United fans’ chant for their Korean star, Park Ji-sung, “Park, Park wherever you may be / You eat dogs in your home country.” But Korea’s robust, spicy cuisine, based around rice, grilled meats and kimchi (the national dish of fermented cabbage, radish and cucumber) is growing in popularity here. There are more than 50 Korean restaurants in London alone.
9 K-cars: Korea is the world’s fifth biggest car producer, but its products were long considered inferior to Japanese machines. That’s changing, however, with Hyundai leading the way. Even the Top Gear pundits admit that “their model line-up is now garnering some genuine credibility”. And in 2010, Hyundai was named as “preferred supplier” of cars to the British police.
10 K-phones: The Korean-made Galaxy SIII smart phone hit the headlines recently when a California court ordered its makers, Samsung, to pay Apple $1 billion for infringement of copyrights. Buoyed by all the free publicity, US sales of the Galaxy soared, briefly overtaking the iPhone. Industry analysts concluded that by telling the world that the Galaxy was really just like the iPhone, only cheaper, Apple had done Samsung a billion-dollar favour.