Hallyu Entertainers and Korean Studies Scholars Explore the Future of South Korea’s Pop Culture

In the fifth installment of a series recognizing the 40th anniversary of Stanford’s Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, the Korea Program gathered scholars and notable speakers from the Korean film industry, including screenwriter Ji Eun Park and actor Byung Hun Lee. The half-day conference provided an opportunity to consider the future of the Korean wave of popular culture, or hallyu, and its global implications.
Byung Hun Lee Star of "Iris," "Mr. Sunshine," and "Squid Game"
Byung Hun Lee, Star of "Iris," "Mr. Sunshine," and "Squid Game" Rod Searcey

The phenomenon of hallyu, the Korean wave of popular culture, has flooded the world and has marked South Korea as a soft power leader. As hallyu flourishes globally in music, film, TV, fashion, and food, Korea scholars have seen rising interest from students and have leveraged this cultural wave to generate new pedagogical approaches in Korean studies and media studies curricula. The impact of hallyu and its future manifestations in film, TV dramas, and the field of Korean studies were the focus of a half-day conference hosted recently by APARC’s Korea Program.

Held on April 19, 2023, the conference gathered scholars and notable speakers from the Korean TV and film industry, including Ji Eun Park, writer of “My Love from the Star,” “Crash Landing on You,” and actor Byung Hun Lee, star of “Iris,” “Mr. Sunshine,” and “Squid Game,” among others. The half-day conference provided an opportunity to consider how the rising popularity of hallyu studies expands into research and boosts the internationalization of Korean studies. Korea scholars shared their views on how Hallyu has impacted their teaching and research and outlined some of the ways they adapted their pedagogical approaches to teaching South Korean topics.

The event was the fifth installment in a special series celebrating APARC’s 40th anniversary. Titled Asia in 2030, APARC@40, the series highlights core areas of the center’s expertise, examines Asia’s transformation over the past four decades, and considers the drivers and shapers of the region’s future.

In addition to headliners Ji Eun Park and Byung Hun Lee, the event featured Sangsoo Yoon, Consul General of The Republic of Korea in San Francisco; Young Jean Lee, Professor of Theater and Performance Studies at Stanford University; Chris Hanscom, Professor of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles; Ju Oak Kim, Associate Professor of Communication at Texas A&M International University; Bonnie Tilland, University Lecturer in the Institute for Area Studies at the University of Leiden in The Netherlands; and Dafna Zur, Associate Professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Stanford University.

I am very proud of the contributions of Korean actors, writers, and entertainers; these are cultural diplomats who support South Korea's soft power.
Sangsoo Yoon
Consul General of The Republic of Korea in San Francisco

The conference began with remarks from Sangsoo Yoon, who voiced his support for South Korea’s cultural influence and acknowledged hallyu’s roots, stating that “[South] Korea is a country with a rich history and rich storytelling.” He went on to congratulate hallyu practitioners, stating that “I am very proud of the contributions of Korean actors, writers, and entertainers, cultural diplomats who support South Korea's soft power…People-to-people exchange and cultural cooperation are the basis of furthering our collaboration in many areas and I am very pleased to see Korean films and movies offered to American audiences.”

Screenwriter Ji Eun Park then shared her experiences as a writer and provided anecdotes from her professional journey to shed light on what it is like to write a K-Drama. “At some point, I began to have a dream to become a writer, to make people laugh and cry,” she said. Park attributed the success of her breakthrough hit “Crash Landing on You” to universal emotional aspects explored through the lenses of the divided Korean experience. “I never expected for [Crash Landing on You] to find success outside of Korea…Fundamentally, [it] is a love story about lovers who can't be together, but it is focused on the sense of longing between the two. I think because of these universal aspects, it found success even though viewers may not have been familiar with Korean culture.”

In the panel “K-Dramas and Korean Studies: Lessons and New Directions,” Chris Hanscom identified some of the pedagogical changes that have come about as a result of hallyu’s global success. “I think it is incredibly important, as a pedagogical question, to ask, ‘How do we teach these things in the classroom?' For many students, [Introduction to Korean Cinema] is their first introduction to Korea.”

Hanscom observed that one key takeaway for students is the ability to recognize what they see on the screen as a work of art, a representation of reality rather than a reflection of reality. One method Hanscom uses to create this critical cultural awareness is to ask students, “What specifically makes this a Korean film?” In Hanscom’s class, students examine the nation-state and nationalism in a colonial context, and, for the students, this context “is playing out on the screen in a completely different way than what we typically study in area studies.”

Bonnie Tilland identified a similar popularity amongst students in the Netherlands who have become increasingly interested in Korean literature and media. According to Tilland, Korean studies courses at the University of Leiden have “historically been very focused on North Korea” but have shifted to focus more on South Korea.

In the final panel, actor Byung Hun Lee shared his perspectives on the varied influences of Korean culture and his experiences working in both the Korean and American film industries. Lee reflected on his own journey as an actor. He offered words of wisdom, telling the audience, “Don’t let go of what is pure. Listen to the voice inside you. I constantly tell myself not to lose the childlike wonder inside me…If you go chasing your dream, it will be waiting for you down the road.”

Watch the complete event recordings:

Panel 1 – Behind the Silver Screen: Writing a K-Drama >
Panel 2 – K-Dramas and Korean Studies: Lessons and New Directions >
Panel 3 – From "Iris" to "Squid Game": A Conversation with Byung Hun Lee >

The conference received wide media coverage. Read the story by The Stanford Daily and check out the coverage by international media outlets listed here.

The conference was made possible by generous support from the Korea Foundation and other friends of APARC.

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