Two chubby young Koreans register on the global recognition scale

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By Donald Kirk,

LONDON — There was a time when Korea was best known overseas for Samsung gadgetry and Hyundai cars. Now Korea is permeating the global consciousness in ways that would have seemed unlikely if not impossible two or three years ago.

The latest proof positive is a New Year’s eve feature in The Times — that is, the venerable London paper — headlined “All you really needed to know about 2012.” There, at the top of the page, are two faces familiar not only to Koreans but apparently to people everywhere else. “The chubby Koreans with global influence,” reads the caption. “Kim Jong-Un v. Psy.”


Comparisons are tempting. Both seem charismatic, both are young, and both are overweight — Kim Jong-Un more so than Psy. The feature credits the former with having “finally launched a rocket” that “nobody apart from North Korea was happy about.” More to the point, it adds, helpfully, “There are even rumours that he’s got his wife up the duff, so good going, you tubby little weirdo.” The next line is still nastier: “Shame about the thousands of starving North Koreans.”

The notes on Psy are more complimentary. He’s “the Gangnam Style guy” whose “catchy K-Pop masterwork became the most watched video on You Tube ever, with more than a billion views.” He’s “the reason you now see people doing the ‘riding-a-horse’ dance in nightclubs” and “at toddlers’ birthday parties.” For good measure, the article adds he’s “had meetings with Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. Secretary-General, and in November spoke at the Oxford Union.”

I wasn’t aware that a meeting with the ever genial, diplomatically bland Ban Ki-moon was all that big a deal, but the article tells us, “Basically, he has more pull than most world leaders.” So the WINNER, in capital letters, in a blue circle signifying, I guess, a blue ribbon, has to be Psy as he’s “Probably influential enough to nudge the 38th parallel a few miles north.”

Never mind the simplistic view of the confrontation across the Demilitarized Zone. The point is that Psy has given Korea a recognition value that bureaucrats in Seoul could only dream about with all their talk about “branding” the country’s image. If Psy is well known among British readers, he’s better known in the U.S. where he led thousands in singing and dancing and prancing on New Year’s eve with the same gusto with which I saw him performing on the plaza in central Seoul and then after the F1 grand prix near Mokpo.

But popular branding does carry the risk of distortions that will seem ludicrous back in Korea. Over the weekend, I came across a travel article in the Independent Magazine, a supplement of the Independent newspaper, listing one travel destination for every letter in the alphabet. There was “K” in big orange script for Korea. “That’s right,” says the article, “the home of K-pop and nifty consumer electronics is set to become the must-visit tourist destination of 2013.”

Again Psy seems to be vital to name recognition — all against the backdrop of North Korea’s fearsome missiles. The synergy could hardly be more explosive — “rap artist PSY’s distinctive dance moves in the viral hit ‘Gangnam Style’ are expected to send a wave of K-pop-obsessed posh packers rocketing toward the country as fast as a North Korean ballistic missile.” Gangnam, we’re told, is “the hip Seoul neighbourhood that inspired the track” even if a guide book says it’s “utterly devoid of tourist sites.”

Don’t let that bother you, the article advises. The “adventurous 2013 traveller” can still see such wonders as “the towering ‘Great Gates’ of Seoul” — these would be Dongdaemun and Namdaemun though the latter, last time I looked, is still under reconstruction from the fire that some nut set a few years ago in an outburst of social protest.

No one would debate the article’s suggesting visits to “the historic city of Gyeongju and the semi-tropical paradise of Jeju Island,” but you have to love the hyperbole of the final piece of advice. “Or if you are really brave, how about popping over the DMZ to the so-called ‘Hotel of Doom’ in Pyongyang.” That would be the never-completed Ryugyong Hotel that “will tower over the impoverished city’s skyline at 105 storeys high” and “finally be ready for guests in 2013.” Surely, the article asks, “that’s a tourist site worth waiting for?”

Right, I’m booking a room — the moment it’s possible to pop over the DMZ and tell the North Korean soldiers on the other side, I’m here and when’s the next bus to Pyongyang?