By Laura Bub
Trying to find her presumed dead love, Jung Yoo-Jin (played by Korean actress Choi Ji-Woo) runs across the airport, desperately looking around, while Ryu Shi Won’s song “From the beginning until now” is dramatically underlining the scene. After a race against time until Lee Min-Hyung (portrayed by Bae Yong-Jun) boards the plane, she finally spots the man, who can do nothing but catch the exhausted women, as she stumbles into his arms. With the words: “I am sorry I didn’t recognize you!” she hugs him tightly, tears rolling down both their cheeks. And that is the moment when nearly all of the Mongolian viewers at home started to tear up in front of their TV.
This popular TV drama called “Winter Sonata”, is known, and loved by thousands of Mongolians. The 20-part KBS series, produced and filmed in South Korea, aired in 2002 and was met with immense admiration in several Asian countries. The touching story about first love and destiny, directed by Yoon Seok-ho, was a giant hit and started to spread the popularity of Korean TV shows around Asia. Ever since, Mongolians have been going crazy about “Winter Sonata” and following drama series. Major Mongolian TV channels show Korean series and movies daily, pining people down in front of their TVs during the usual show times.
Since then, Korean culture has been capturing Asia by storm. The likability of Korean entertainment, products and culture has been spreading across borders since the mid 1990s, way before Korean entertainer PSY drew the world’s attention to South Korea with his popular song “Gangnam Style” in 2012.
“Hallyu” is the term that journalists firstly used to describe the powerful effect of the steadily increasing popularity of the Korean entertainment world outside of Korea. Hallyu basically translates to “Korean wave”, referring to the Korean culture sweeping over Asia and the rest of the world like a giant wave. Hallyu does mainly describe the Korean entertainment industry, such as TV shows, movies and drama series. A different entertainment sector that became quite popular outside of its country of origin is Korean pop music, or K-pop, a music genre that despite its name combines different styles of music including not only pop but also rock, R&B and hiphop music. K-pop mainly catches attention through its variety of audiovisual elements. Big Korean agencies produce boy or girl groups, which are trained in singing, rapping and synchronized dancing, publishing catchy songs and colorful music videos, aiming to gain a huge fanbase, usually successfully. Being unique and a little extraordinary, K-pop is reaching constantly growing popularity all around the world.
The influence of Korean entertainment on the Mongolian population can be seen in the increased consumption of Korean goods. Makeup and cosmetic products used by the main actress of a popular Korean drama; clothes worn by Korean singers; any product — may it be smartphones, food or perfumes — as long as it is advertised by a Korean celebrity, it is safe to become a big hit. Korean cuisine has captured peoples’ taste with its spiciness and variety. The advanced Korean cosmetic industry enjoys popularity all around the globe, and of course, electronical products made by Korean brands like Samsung are leading the world market.
Mongolia fell for Hallyu, just as many other countries did. While I was walking down the streets of Ulaanbaatar for the first time as a foreigner, I expected to see mainly Mongolian places. I was surprised by what I actually found. Korean restaurants, Korean coffee shops, Korean grocery stores, Korean cosmetic shops, beauty and hair salons and karaoke bars everywhere, Korean music blaring at me from inside stores or cars, and Korean products occupying main parts of the aisles in Mongolian supermarkets. It is conspicuous that Korean places are outnumbering those of other countries by a large margin.
Especially the younger generation has been completely captured by the Korean wave. When talking to Mongolian adolescences, they get excited at the mention of Korean pop culture. Almost everyone has at least seen a Korean drama or has some friends that are into Korean entertainment. These days the fantasy drama “Goblin” from 2016 is famous among young people. Male lead Gong Yoo tries to stop his immortal life as a goblin by finding a human bride. A romantic story with a tip of magic that lured viewers in front of their screens every night. It is the inventive and addicting story plots that fascinates Mongolian viewers.
“Korean dramas show things, that don’t happen in real life,” mentions a 21-old student when asked about her favorite drama “Goblin”.
Not only the dramas but also K-pop gets a lot of attention among young Mongolians. For example, while sitting in a cafe I noticed the walls were covered in little messages, which visitors left there, and I spotted more than once names of Korean singers and bands, such as EXO, Big Bang or Got7. The Korean boyband BTS, who gained international attention after receiving a billboard music award in the USA, is probably the most popular. Young Mongolians like the fresh, colorful and extraordinary style of the bands.
“The girl groups are so cute and the members of the boy groups are very handsome,” states a group of girls in their early twenties, when I ask them what they like about K-Pop. They admit that they try to emulate the Korean celebrities’ fashion and when you look around the streets, you can actually see a lot of young people dressing similar to the Korean style.
But how did the Korean influence start to enter the Mongolian lifestyle?
Starting with dramas like “Winter Sonata”, the Mongolian interest in Korea has increased enormously over the last decades. Many young Mongolians want to learn more about the Korean culture and language so that they can understand what their favorite stars are saying, without being depended on Mongolian subtitles or dubbing. Therefore, dozens of Mongolian universities have created a Korean studies department with more and more young Mongolians starting to major in Korean studies. Even elementary and secondary school students can start learning the Korean language as Korea is one of the most developed countries in the world today.
Moreover, Mongolians started going to South Korea to find work since 1997. Such labor immigration has been attractive to many Mongolians due to the high unemployment rate in Mongolia at the time. When the Korean government started executing an employment permit system in 2003 as a reaction to high labor shortage, allowing employers to legally hire foreign workers, the numbers of Mongolians moving to Korea to work increased even more. Working in South Korea, saving money and sending it back home to their families has become an important source of income to this nation.
To work in Korea, the Korea Language Proficiency Test (KLPT) has to be successfully taken. Within the last years, many Mongolians have taken the KLPT or the TOPIK, the Test of Proficiency in Korean. The number of people taking the TOPIK has even exceeded those of taking the official English test, the TOEFL.
Besides labor immigration, studying abroad has become a popular option among Mongolian students. With over 5,000 Mongolian students in Korea in 2016, Korea has become the number one destination for studying abroad. The low study expenses and the rising love of the Korean pop culture, spread by Hallyu, makes Korea an attractive country to many young Mongolians. No matter who you ask, almost everyone knows a friend or family member who has been to Korea for one of the reasons mentioned above, or they have even been there themselves.
Since numerous Mongolians have been to Korea, they, of course, brought parts of Korean culture back with them when returning home, popularizing Korean products around Mongolia and opening restaurants and stores to share what they liked in Korea in their home country.
And this is how step by step, a smaller version of Korea has established itself in Ulaanbaatar, and young Mongolians, completely taken by the effect of Hallyu, are enthusiastically welcoming it with arms wide open.
However, is this limitless enthusiasm going too far? The giant impact of Hallyu on Mongolians’ everyday life has started to become a concern, especially to the older generation.
The success of Korean dramas is based on the high quality, skillful plot constructions and of course the actor’s flawless appearances. The image of Korean celebrities shows a strict standard of beauty, including perfect facial and body features, on-point make up and a great fashion style, creating an attractiveness that forms a literal worship of Korean celebrities by dedicated fans. Not only the consume of advertised Korean products but also the eager try of emulating their favorite Korean stars shows the obsession of many young people with Korean pop culture. As mentioned before, main parts of everyday life have been affected by the influence of Korean dramas. What people eat, what they wear, even their values and behavior have extremely adapted to what is shown on TV.
This is where citizens’ concerns come in. Korean culture seems to have completely taking over younger peoples’ minds. Not only are they moving away from Mongolia’s own traditional culture by imitating what they see on TV but also the values that most of the dramas impart, are far from what should be an appropriate way of thinking. While some dramas do support feminism through a strong female lead, there are also series which portray women as inferior, focused on beauty and depended on strong man to safe them. Finding a husband seems to be the main reason in life and school is definitely not more important than chasing after your crush.
One of the main problems are the unrealistic story plots of K-dramas, which make them so addicting and fun to watch, but also rise peoples’ expectations into unrealistic dimensions. Rich, handsome men falling in love with poor, spiteful women (who seem to have money for nothing but the latest smartphone) and evil stepmothers who cause terrible accidents, sending at least two to three people to the hospital each episode but luckily every disease can be healed with a simple surgery. It is stories like this that make K-dramas so popular among the younger generation, who are hoping for a dreamlike future, but it also leads them to an unrealistic ideas of life, making them loose focus and control of their real, not-so-drama-like life.
Another big concern is the increased popularity of plastic surgery, which has been a big trend in South Korea for several years, and this trend is spreading over the borders. More and more young people are going to Seoul or hospitals in their own country to get a surgical treatment, hoping to look even more like their favorite Korean celebrities or fit into the Korean beauty standard. This step is not only a dangerous intervention but also threatening a key element of the Mongolian culture: their looks.
Avoiding Hallyu is practically impossible, especially in Ulanbaatar. Starting from the countless Korean restaurants and coffee shops on the street and the stores selling tons of Korean products, to the TV channels that are mercilessly showing Korean TV shows continuously. Although concerns and complaints are getting louder, Korean entertainment is still too popular and an important income source for TV channels to shut the broadcasting of K-drama completely down.
Mongolians are worried that the increasing obsession with anything related to Korea is endangering their own culture. Younger people are spending way too much time in front of TV and computer screens, admiring foreign celebrities and a foreign culture, forgetting about or even pushing aside their own. Young Mongolians invest a huge amount of time and money into their obsession with Hallyu, neglecting school, studies or work.
“When I look around, I feel like it’s getting a little too much,” admits a Mongolian student. “Many of my friends are going crazy over K-pop groups or drama series. They try very hard to look like them. It’s kind of obsessive.”
Even being able to see the impact, Mongolians do not stop imitating the Korean culture, not sensing how it slowly starts to replace the Mongolian.
While Hallyu at first seems like a harmless and fun insight into the Korean culture, promoting intercultural relationships, it also comes with a dark side that can be seen as a threat to one’s personal culture, captivating the younger generation. What if by trying too hard to be Korean you start to lose your real national identity? Can the love for another culture make you forget to be proud of being Mongolian?
If Hallyu is just an entertaining trend or an actual cultural thread is still debatable, and even though the growing influence should be watched closely, there is nothing wrong with enjoying an episode of “Goblin” while having some Korean kimchi stew.