In 1985, a 12-year-old Euny Hong moved with her family from suburban Chicago to Seoul, South Korea. Not just any place in Seoul, South Korea, but a neighborhood known as Apgujeong — the wealthiest, most exclusive cluster of addresses in the Gangnam district. The Hongs, in short, went “Gangnam Style” 27 years before it was a thing. And when it comes to South Korean history — as with meme superstardom — three decades is a long time.
Hong’s new book, “The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation Is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture,” loosely follows South Korea’s growth from the mid-60s, when the country’s per capita G.D.P. was less than Ghana’s, to now. Today, South Korea is the 15th-largest economy in the world. From Psy’s “Gangnam Style” video to the chips that Samsung furnishes for Apple’s iPhones, the book explores the confluence of factors that make for Korea’s pop-cultural perfect storm.
Korea’s vitality lies in hallyu — a wave of cool so pervasive that President Obama name-checked it in a speech. Hong asserts that Korea’s rise is attributable to what the Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye calls “soft power”; the country wields influence not through military might but “by peddling a desirable image.” Korea’s government has earmarked a billion-dollar investment fund dedicated to fostering popular culture, and for Koreans raised abroad during the ’70s and early ’80s like Hong and myself, the notion that Seoul has become this fashionable is startling and deeply fascinating. After all, Korea was nicknamed the Hermit Kingdom by 19th-century Western explorers for its reluctance to play with others.
“Korean Cool” chronicles the author’s period of trying to fit in. She recalls toilets that don’t flush, corporal punishment and a Confucian catechism so entrenched that defying your parents results in agonizing shame. Just as Western kids feared the boogeyman, Korean children abroad lived under the constant threat of being “sent back to Korea” for delinquent behavior like smoking cigarettes or getting a C. The chapter on academic pressure rightfully dovetails into harrowing statistics of suicide, “the most common cause of death for Koreans under the age of 40.”
Hong views all of this through the slightly skewed perspective of a tween navigating a new curriculum and a disorienting national identity. Much of the awkward self-consciousness is compounded by noonchi — the Korean art of accurately gauging the infinitesimal cues of any situation in order to avoid social blunders. Missteps betray your standing as a tourist in the motherland, which results in a great deal of scorn and attendant humiliation.
Rich in personal anecdotes and original reporting, much of the book warrants enthusiastic marginalia from Korean expatriates or inquisitive foreigners. The chapter on han, the very Korean rancor that stems from 400 invasions and Japan’s rule from 1910 to 1945, is a gem; it opens with a quotation from Ian Fleming’s James Bond classic “Goldfinger”: Koreans, Fleming wrote, “are the cruelest, most ruthless people in the world.” Some of us refer to it as “kimchi temper,” and an open discussion of its provenance is a particular thrill. Hong finds that “many Koreans ascribe Korean success to han,” even though others claim that han can kill you: There’s even a medically recognized disease called hwa-byong, which means “anger illness.”
The first third of Hong’s book reads like an owner’s manual of how to be Korean. To me, these are the best chapters. The analysis of Korean culture, as incisive and humorous as it is, becomes increasingly distant as the book wears on. Hong’s narrative begins like a memoir and devolves into Gladwellian social science — a solid airport contender and a sure thing on the lecture circuit, but otherwise a business-magazine feature that drags. That said, “The Birth of Korean Cool” is an excellent case study of calculated entrepreneurial moxie, and I can’t entirely knock the author’s hustle in vying for broader appeal.
THE BIRTH OF KOREAN COOL
How One Nation Is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture
By Euny Hong
267 pp. Picador. Paper, $16.
Mary H. K. Choi is the head writer of the news program “TakePart Live.” Her Kindle single, “Oh, Never Mind,” comes out this fall.