Capitalism and Contemporary Korean Ethnocentrism


The West has been swept away from a formidable cultural wave coming from oceans away. That force is none other than the Korean Wave. South Korea has produced a culture that has not only been enjoyed by its own citizens and those of surrounding countries, but also audiences all around the world thanks to new forms of social and multimedia, including video sharing sites such as YouTube. However, beneath the quirky music videos of Korean pop stars dancing to an upbeat tune, there lies a much darker facet of Korean Wave, or Hallyu. That facet is South Korean ethnocentrism and racism, which has manifested itself in new ways since the integration of the South Korean economy and culture into a globalizing world. It can be argued that this ethnocentrism, also referred to as “nouveau riche racism” by Gil-Soo Han, is largely a traditionalist reaction to global capitalism, that the consequences of such racism can be problematic especially for global and diasporic audiences, and that such ethnocentrism can only be done away with through a viable alternative to globalization, capitalism, and imperialism.

Korean pop has recently been harshly criticized for the racial insensitivity that permeates much of its culture. However, in order to really understand the racism that emanates from Korean Hallyu culture, it is necessary to understand the national and global context that has led to this phenomenon. South Korea’s nouveau riche racism is not something that manifested randomly out of thin air, nor is it an exact replica of white supremacy with an Asian face. Gil-Soo Han writes that Korean media has always portrayed other races, specifically black Americans, in a negative light, featuring blackface comedic skits complete with “Rasta wigs”. However, going further back, Han also notes that much of modern South Korean racial prejudice against black people was a mix of both traditionalist notions of Korean homogeneity and pure-blood nationalism, as well as negative experiences with American soldiers, particularly black soldiers. This feeds into the idea that South Korean nationalism in its modern incarnation is a traditionalist response to modern phenomena. Preexisting traditional racial discourse was used as an outlet for Koreans to express their frustrations with an American military occupation that oftentimes treated Korean residents less than favorably. Furthermore, Han also expands on how modern day South Korean racism manifested itself mainly due to feelings of racial inferiority, caused mainly by Japanese occupation and the prosperity Japan experienced during its imperialist conquest as well as after the war, as it integrated with the modern economy.

Han writes that “racial inferiority remains deep down in the minds of Koreans, which is inherited from generation to generation. Koreans’ economic status has significantly improved and they not only use their capitalist production systems to exploit foreigners, they feel they have the right to discriminate economically and beyond. This may be named nouveau riche racism”. Capitalism has only exacerbated racial insensitivity on the part of Koreans, as racial prejudices are simply used as a way for Koreans to vent their historical frustrations at a globalized world that treated them rather unfairly. Now that they are in positions of power as a cultural and economic superpower, the Korean racial consciousness feels the right to not only exploit people of other races but also put them down using racist stereotypes previously ingrained into them through bad experiences and traditional ethnic nationalism. In a dialectical fashion, South Korean capitalism and racism only seek to empower one another. Capitalism exploits workers from other countries and races, and provides Koreans with a justification to be xenophobic. The xenophobia that South Koreans express through culture and stereotypes is then used to justify exploitation of globally oppressed populations in order to further the South Korean capitalist economy, while also helping “empower” South Koreans by making them a focus of world culture and economics.

However, one could also argue that Korean ethnic nationalism could eventually vanish or tone down as globalization continues to occur and affect the culture. Korean pop, especially in its more recent incarnations, has developed a unique style that blends elements of other musical cultures, such as hip hop, with native Korean culture. An example of this would be the Girls Generation song “I Got a Boy” and the music video that accompanies it. The song uses both English phrases (like the title) and Korean lyrics, while also incorporating rap music, Korean pop music, and the use of Korean streets as well as hip-hop inspired streetwear as part of the music video. However, Girls Generation, while benefiting from globalization and the use of hip hop and rap culture, also is accused of being culturally appropriative, giving no meaningful attribution to those responsible for shaping hip hop and rap, namely African American artists. Korean pop artists, while using elements of foreign cultures, especially African American culture, in their music, have also been caught using blackface in some of their acts, specifically Mamamoo.

But then one might also ask, how does this tie in with Asian-American culture? Well, Hyejung Yu and Soobum Lee wrote about the impact of Korean Wave culture on the rest of the world, as well as the kind of transnational bonds that it might create, especially with diaspora communities. The two authors spend a great deal of time discussing how popular Hallyu has become, especially with the advent of websites such as YouTube where one can customize what kind of entertainment they can see, and where videos such as Gangnam Style become very viral. It could be argued that this kind of positive attention that Hallyu receives can only enable the Korean pop artists who appropriate and stereotype black culture, and while there are moments of outrage towards artists who are racially insensitive, the fan-base that Hallyu has created can only economically motivate the K-pop industry to continue growing with little to no accountability. Furthermore, Yu and Lee argue that transnational media created by phenomena such as the Korean wave connect immigrants and their communities, forming “new social spaces and new types of community and forms of human interaction, as well as the adaptations to these developments that are taking place within specific contexts”. The racist undertones that permeate Hallyu culture could actually, through the close bonds created between diaspora communities and their homelands, enable anti-blackness that is very prevalent in the Korean-American community, not to mention that the fan-base that is created among Korean-Americans only serves as economic incentive for artists to continue riding the Korean Wave.

Overall, it can be argued, based on the texts of Yu, Lee, and Han, as well as taking a closer look at K-pop artists and their conduct, that much of the ethnocentrism and racial chauvinism that is prevalent in South Korean contemporary culture has been enlarged and enabled by a capitalist-imperialist globalized economic system. While originally racism has been used in a morbid way as a traditional form of reaction against oppression at the hands of American and Japanese occupation, South Korea has now used their newfound status as a cultural and economic powerhouse to continue their racial insensitivities even in an era where South Korea is not necessarily under the same conditions that befell it during Japanese occupation and the early years of American imperialism. Capitalism is inevitably tied to the racism of South Koreans, thus beckoning the ghosts of Marx and Engels once again in trying to find a way to figure out how to deal with this problem. It seems like only when South Korea (and the world) finds a viable alternative to the current world economic order will the chauvinism of today die down to some meaningful extent.

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