When Korean Pop Culture Came To The Holy Land

Young Israelis and Palestinians alike are getting caught by the wave of Korean pop music, television and attitudes. For some, it's just good fun -- for others, a much-needed escape.

More than just "Gangnam style"
More than just "Gangnam style"
Rachel Beit Arye*

ASHDOD - My daily walk along the beachside promenade in this city south of Tel Aviv where I now live is a chance to get up-to-date with what's going on in the music industry. Thanks to the ringtones of people walking by with their phones, or others sprawled along the Ashdod boardwalk, and also thanks to the dance events on the beach on Friday nights, I get to hear musical extracts from an unexpected language: Korean.

“Ashdod is probably the city with the most K-popsters in Israel,” says Osheret Azani, 25, a student from the town of Ariel.

K-popsters are fans -- nay, addicts of the Korean Popular music, K-pop. In Israel it is a still a relatively small base, but one that's growing very fast. Thousands of Israelis, especially girls, spend their time studying every move and sound of their favorite Korean bands.

The K-popsters buy CDs and posters on eBay, exchange bracelets, clothing accessories and especially traffic in the latest gossip about their favorite bands. “Our Facebook group, iKpop, already boasts 3,000 members, but there are many other groups”, says Victoria Dinkin, a high-school student from Kiryat-Gat, who broadcasts the only show in Israel entirely dedicated to K-pop, on the educational local radio station Kol Gat.

But beyond the music, Korean culture as a whole is seeping into Israeli life, little-by-little: television shows (K-dramas), food, fashion... and eventually also the language. In 2008, the Hebrew University opened a new course of Korean Studies, alongside the longstanding departments of China and Japan studies.

It's all part of a global cultural trend that has its own name: Hallyu. The phenomenon is so unique that this past May, a special conference was held concerning the subject at the Hebrew University, with researchers in the field invited from the world over.

Gil-Sung Park, a sociologist from the Korea University in Seoul,tells me during one of the breaks between discussions, that the term Hallyu, comes in fact from China. In 1999 a journalist in Beijing used the term “Han-Liu”, or “Korean Stream” in Chinese, to talk about the success of the Korean pop culture in China. The term was very warmly accepted in Korea, and since then, the stream hasn’t stopped growing.

“Personally, I was very surprised by the worldwide success of Hallyu, and I think Koreans would agree. It was very unexpected,” says Park.

In the west, K-pop and K-drama are popular especially thanks to the communities of Koreans around the world and Asian diaspora in general. The big burst in the mainstream arrived only last year with Psy’s song and video, Gangnam Style, a mega hit that transformed K-pop into a real worldwide craze.

Still, the “real” fans of the genre are not very excited about the most-viewed video of all time on YouTube. Hardcore K-popsters say Psy is successful because he is willing to make fun of himself. “Gangnam Style is not really K-pop, and I don’t like it that there are so many parodies by people who do not understand the meaning of it," says Victoria Dinkin, “but Psy, without a doubt, opened the path to other artists, and it was wonderful to see all the interest that was awakened. If he can succeed, other bands could too.”

From K-Pop conventions to Middle-East dreams

On a cozy morning of mid-May in the Port of Tel-Aviv, the announcement of the big prize creates real excitement in the hundred or so young girls (and few boys) who came to the 15th Israeli K-pop association convention. “In 2010, not more than 10 people came to the first convention. The next year, they were already more than 100,” says Linoy Neguev, one of the organizers of the event -- who, these days, goes by the name Lin Pil.

“The feeling you get from those bands, from the K-pop stars, is one of real people who work hard for their fans, who will do almost everything. They are not made by the industry”, explains the student, Kim Alperon. “Outsiders don’t understand us, they don’t get this love. Meeting other fans makes me open up; it is a very strong connection.”

Dr. Nissim Atmazgin from the East Asia department of the Hebrew University, who investigated the Hallyu phenomenon in Israel, explains that the interest in K-pop in South Korea is a “cultural capital” for the young, something that makes them special and different. “It creates a passage to the world, even with people from enemy states,” says one K-popster girl.

Alaa Abid, a student at the Hebrew University of Abu Tur and a fan of K-dramas refers to the Korean dream, which in a way has replaced the famous American Dream that Hollywood successfully produced for the world for so many years. “In Korean Dramas we can see how they preserved their culture while modernising very fast -- I connect with this a lot," says Abid. "The approach of the heroes to life is very positive even when they go through tough times. I don’t know if this is the reality in Korea or if it’s only TV, but it is something that gives you hope, and in Jerusalem it is sometimes hard to find hope.”

Abid, together with Dr. Atmazgin, is participating in a project in which she brings together Israeli and Palestinian Korea fans and interviews them. Researchers believe that there are around 5,000 fans in Israel and around 3,000 in the Palestinian Territories.

“I interviewed a teenager from Gaza who said that during bombings or military operations, K-pop and K-dramas are her beautiful dream-world, her hiding place," says Abid. "Even though she knows it’s not reality, what she sees helps her believe that a better situation is possible. The message of all the K-dramas is that dreams can come true.”

*This is an abridged item, not a direct translation

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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