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The Korean Wave and the Decline of American Order

In 1980, a friend returning from a trip to the Soviet Union told me how that country was doomed, as he had seen Russian infantry officers with blow-dried hair. Russian soldiers, defenders of the Revolution, had embraced Western values, he said. They wanted Western things. The system would collapse in a decade, he predicted.

That he got right what many experts would miss shows how popular culture can sometimes be a better predictor of political trends than white papers or diplomatic cables.

So it may be with the “Korean wave,” referring to the South Korean music, films, and television dramas (K-dramas) that today enjoy a global fan base. Popular culture is South Korea’s largest export, helping to make it the world’s 12th largest economy. Yet the Korean wave may be significant in another way. It increasingly anchors a popular Asian culture that rivals American mass culture in the global market. This has ramifications for American foreign policy that even a layperson can pick up.

For seventy years, American global power has rested on a tripod of strength: military, economic, and cultural. Yet its military pillar has weakened, as it is not even close to being able to fight two and a half major wars simultaneously—the old Cold War standard. Its economic pillar has also weakened, with China soon to displace the U.S. as the world’s largest economy, and already first when measured by purchasing power. Only the cultural pillar remains intact, with American culture still popular in the world.

Yet as identity politics takes over American culture, even its allies have begun to push back. Hungary’s Victor Orbán has banned gender studies in the nation’s colleges. Elsewhere, French President Macron has called identity politics a threat to France’s tradition of assimilation.

A potential collapse of America’s cultural pillar risks a dangerous sequence of events, beginning in East Asia. Like a Russian soldier’s blow-dried hair, K-dramas may be a layperson’s clue as to where the world might go.

What’s a K-Drama?

A “K-drama” is a South Korean television series divided into 16 to 24 one-hour parts. One could do worse than to study K-dramas to grasp that country’s sensibility.

For example, while “binge-watching” 60 K-dramas during the pandemic, I never once heard an anti-American line uttered other than in What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim?, where the heroine complains that American food is too greasy. K-dramas meticulously avoid criticizing the U.S., consistent with polls showing more than half of South Koreans view the U.S. favorably. Still, historical K-dramas do note that at the turn of the 20th century, the U.S. was more of a fair-weather friend—for example, giving Japan a “free hand” in Korea following the American-brokered treaty that ended the 1905 Russo-Japanese War.

K-dramas exhibit more distrust toward China, although rarely outright hatred. China’s historical meddling in Korean politics is the typical dramatic theme, although sometimes the meddling is courted, as in the 14th century, when General Yi Song-gye, founder of the Joseon dynasty, launched his famous retreat from the Liaodong Peninsula and allied with the Ming to triumph over the old Goryeo aristocracy, portrayed in My Country. Historian Bruce Cumings says of Joseon that it “was China’s little brother, a model tributary state, and in many ways its chief ally.”

The Japanese colonial experience during the first half of the 20th century was entirely different. Again, K-dramas drive the point home, as Japan is the truly hated enemy in these shows. Public opinion polls in South Korea confirm this anti-Japanese hostility, with Japan typically scoring lower than China in favorability.

More important, K-dramas reveal South Korea’s deep cultural ties to China. The strong Buddhist influence from Korea’s Goryeo period, for example, lives on in K-dramas in the form of shamans, spirits, and ghosts that take center stage. Even respectable Korean CEOs and civil servants in these shows muse on the afterlife and reincarnation. Rather than dismiss religious and mystical ideas, South Korean viewers seem to feel their minds pleasantly stretched by them. In fact, Buddhist culture constitutes a “second tradition” in South Korea. Even in North Korea, Buddhist philosophies influence more than 70 percent of the population.

As the second alternative to American pop culture in the global market, especially in non-Western countries where the fastest population growth is occurring, the Korean wave threatens the world order. It signals what may happen if the U.S. keeps pushing its identity politics agenda abroad.

Rather than blend in with the anti-religious ethos of American identity politics, South Korean culture more closely approximates China’s, where almost 40 percent of the population is either Buddhist or adheres to folk religions that incorporate Buddhist beliefs. Indeed, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is almost sympathetic to Buddhism.

Chinese Confucian ideas also penetrate South Korean culture, a legacy of Neo-Confucianism during the Joseon era. Respect for ancestors and elders, filial piety, and traditional gender roles persist. A common scene in a K-drama has a young Korean turning to the side whenever drinking a glass of soju, while the older person drinks with the glass’s bottom pointed straight ahead. In both K-dramas and real life South Korea, failing to use honorific language or address an older co-worker as sunbae (meaning “senior”) is considered extremely rude behavior and would be enough to get a person fired. While identity politics encourages young Americans to mock their politically incorrect parents, South Korean culture demands respect, even reverence, for one’s parents—again, aligning more closely with contemporary China, where some children still kowtow to their parents.

Sex and Gender in Asia

True, K-dramas celebrate first and second-wave American feminist ideals. They hail the first female Korean doctor in Dr. Jin, and the first female Korean painter in Saimdang. They showcase today’s South Korean women in the role of CEO. Such women often convey the second-wave feminist ideal of career before marriage, even before love. In Crash Landing On You, the female CEO and male musician contentedly spend two weeks a year together while working on their careers the rest of the time.

Yet K-dramas resist third-wave feminism and remain a hotbed of “toxic masculinity.” Male heroes are forever rescuing women in distress. Typically, the stronger the heroine, the more submissive the drama casts her, such that in Strong Woman Bong Soon, a heroine with superhuman strength is given the personality of a delicate child. Along the same lines, K-drama heroines happily dress, cream, and perfume themselves to fix the “male gaze.” Such themes draw from traditional Confucian ideals that see men and women as distinct types that complement one another through their differences.

These themes strongly resonate with public attitudes in both South Korea and China. In South Korea, men and women typically adhere to traditional gender roles, with women exempt from military service. Government guidelines encourage young women to focus on their appearance, find husbands, and have children, while encouraging young men to get high-paying jobs to attract women.  Ditching make-up is still “a fringe position” among South Korean women.  South Korean women are still expected to do most of the housework and childcare, while also look after a husband’s extended family, defer to the mother-in-law, and prepare endless snacks. Women are still expected to marry before having children. In South Korea, only 2 percent of children are born out of wedlock, compared to 40 percent in the U.S.

China shares in these traditional attitudes. The state even encourages them. The Chinese government teaches “masculinity” to boys in school. Chinese daughters and sons are still expected to perform the ultimate act of filial piety and produce an heir. Even women established in careers are still expected to ignore their own desires and honor those of their parents and prospective husbands. If a woman remains unmarried and childless, she has low status in China, no matter her professional accomplishments.

The K-drama medium attests to this persistent traditionalism. As a case in point, the Korean Communications Standards Commission (KCSC) issued an advisory warning for The King after some viewers complained about a scene in which a woman watching men row boats said the men should wear less and move around more. An American journalist wrote, “The chief concern of the Commission on these matters was social justice, rather than moral standards.” Yet when translated into English, the advisory’s wording actually suggested Confucian social conservatism as the basis for criticism. The advisory also expressed concern with another K-drama that showed a woman requesting a luxury handbag from a married man—again, a violation of traditional morality. In a third case, the KSCS reprimanded the drama It’s Okay Not to Be Okay for showing a woman pawing a man’s chest as he gets dressed. Yet most of the complaints here seem to have come from American viewers of the show.

Sexual and gender orientation issues track similarly. Depictions of gay relationships are banned from Chinese television. Although homosexuality was decriminalized in China in 1997, a Chinese court recently declared homosexuality a disease. The Chinese government also remains hostile toward transgender rights. In contrast, many K-dramas showcase gay romantic themes, suggesting greater affinity with American culture. Yet K-dramas purposely segregate gay themes from the more popular heteronormative shows. Indeed, the way some mainstream K-dramas rationalize people’s unease toward homosexuality might be classified as homophobic.

Again, Chinese Confucian influence plays a role here, prejudicing many South Koreans against gays, as the Confucian value of filial piety creates expectations that children will get married and continue the family line, and gay children are less likely to fulfill these expectations. Even South Korean Buddhists, who have nothing in their religious tradition that opposes homosexuality, share in these prejudices against gays. Half of South Koreans oppose homosexuality. 85 percent of South Koreans express discomfort with having gay work colleagues; 95 percent with having close friends who are gay.

This is not fertile ground for American identity politics. Although the recent K-drama Itaewon Class showcased transgender themes in a surprisingly sympathetic way, again, things are not quite what they seem. Itaewon Class was a Netflix Original, meaning it was financed and produced directly by Netflix—an American company.

K-dramas buck the identity politics trend in other ways. In contemporary American dramas, how a fictional character stands on race, sex, and gender issues increasingly determines whether he or she is “good” or “bad.” In contrast, in K-dramas it is the rich and powerful who are bad. Hollywood has not consistently showcased the class theme since The Grapes of Wrath. In another example, contemporary American dramas despise nationalism and downplay patriotism, while K-dramas celebrate Korean nationalism and patriotism. Indeed, nationalism has been a dominant theme in Korean cultural life for centuries. As Cumings observes, Koreans are “an ancient people prizing ethnic homogeneity and long subject to outside threat.”

Again, South Korea shares more with China here. Nationalism remains a potent force in China, with some of it originating in a past with which South Koreans can relate: resentment toward outsiders that once subjugated the country.

A “Woke” Foreign Policy?

The U.S. seems determined to push identity politics abroad. President Biden issued a memorandum declaring LGBTQ rights a foreign policy priority. The administration also plans to push a “feminist foreign policy.” Yet pushing identity politics on South Korea makes the following disastrous scenario entirely plausible:

China takes over Taiwan through military means, or through negotiation, such as by promising the world climate change reform in exchange for the takeover. The U.S. government calls the latter arrangement a victory, but the rest of the world knows better. Ceasing to believe in America’s deterrent, and with China already its largest trading partner, South Korea wavers in its alliance with the U.S.

The South Korean government already pursues a middle path between China and the U.S. It is one of the few democracies not to condemn China’s crackdown on Hong Kong protestors. Many South Korean progressives already prefer closer relations with China. While conservatives prefer the U.S., they abhor American identity politics. Indeed, three-quarters of South Korean men in their 20s and two-thirds in their 30s are either anti-feminist or support a patriarchal society. In the wake of a failed U.S. deterrent, China has much to offer these conservatives: a traditional culture more to their liking, protection against North Korea, and a long history of exercising a light-handed suzerainty over Korea. Contrast that historical example with the American identity politics agenda, which consists of a fundamental restructuring of human relationships, abolishing the nation-state, and governing South Korea through multi-national corporations and a world state.

If South Korea moves closer to China, a destructive sequence of events seems inevitable. Japan builds its own nuclear weapons defense. Vietnam cuts its own deal with China, as China is already its leading trading partner.

Europe follows. While China’s Belt and Road Initiative ties other countries to China economically, China’s defense of traditional culture becomes the crucial extra carrot when the American deterrent is no longer credible. E.U. leaders have already told Poland and Hungary to either embrace identity politics values on LGBT issues or “get out.” No longer trusting in the American deterrent, they will get out. They will move closer to China to make money and keep their traditional culture. Turkey will follow and leave NATO. As an active member of the Belt and Road Initiative, and with China already its biggest import partner, Turkey will complete its turn toward traditionalism, discovering a kindred spirit in Chinese culture, and rejecting both American identity politics and the worthlessness of the U.S. deterrent.

The Korean wave poses no threat to Hollywood. China represents 30 percent of the K-drama market and Japan another 30 percent. The U.S. represents only 5 percent. There may be a limit as to how far K-dramas pushing traditional values can appeal to a country imbued with identity politics.

Instead, as the second alternative to American pop culture in the global market, especially in non-Western countries where the fastest population growth is occurring, the Korean wave threatens the world order. It signals what may happen if the U.S. keeps pushing its identity politics agenda abroad. True, K-dramas are not prestigious foreign policy white papers. Their viewers are not foreign policy experts. But don’t forget about that Russian soldier’s blow-dried hair.