The Korean Wave in Thailand


Although there was very little Korean influence on Thai music before this decade, there is one interesting link dating back to the Korean War. The famous ramwong performer, Benjamin, saw six months of service with the Thai army in Korea and when he returned he composed songs such as “Kaoli Haeng Khwam Lang” (Korea in the past) and “Siang Krueang Jak Kaoli” (sound of Korean instruments). However, it was not until 2005 that Thailand succumbed to the Korean Wave, or hallyu (pronounced hanliu). Hallyu refers to the explosive popularity of Korean pop culture in recent years. K-Pop is now all the rage in Thailand's schools and Korean girl bands such as Wonder Girls or Girl's Generation (SNSD) and boy bands such as Super Junior and Big Bang are the epitome of cool for Thai youth (Han, 2009).


Several authors have noted that South Korea studied the Japanese approach and implemented it more comprehensively. Firstly the industry structure and digital technology was put in place, secondly cultural academia was encouraged by the government, and thirdly the government funded both the public and private media industries. Nissim (2005) shows that the Korean wave has had economic benefits for South Korea through increased tourism and television revenue and cultural benefits in terms of higher status throughout East Asia . Kitikorn Penrote of True Music, the Thai promoter of Super Junior states,


K-pop mania in Thailand is a by-product, after a decade of product development supported by the South Korean government, whose strategy is to strengthen every industry in terms of export potential. Counting entertainment as an important medium with which to promote the country, South Korea fully supports its music, film and TV industries. And just like Hollywood influences the world by promoting American lifestyles and American brands, Korean entertainment is a powerful medium to promote tourism and culture as well as other products.


The evocation of Hollywood (the Korean entertainment industry has been variously labeled “Hallyuwood” and “Kollywood”) demonstrates the ambition of the Korean strategy. Each cultural product is designed to have wider economic and cultural benefits. For example, Tada-Amnuaichai (2007) describes how the various Korean provinces compete to be able to use the climax scene in a Korean serial to promote tourism. Streets have been renamed and monuments erected to tie in with major serials. The soft power benefits in Thailand include increased tourism to South Korea, increased awareness of South Korean culture and a surge in young people learning Korean in preference to Japanese or Mandarin. Remarkably all of this has been achieved without control of distribution networks by Korean companies.


Surveys conducted in September 2009 at a Thai university , suggest that many Korean music groups now have a similar degree of name recognition to home-grown acts. Almost every respondent could name one or more Korean artists and a slight majority ranked K-Pop as their preferred music. Japanese groups tended to have more of a cult following but awareness of the influence of J-Pop was universal. Significantly, not one respondent could name a current Chinese act, although The China Dolls was incorrectly cited by some.


The phenomenon of Korean pop culture spreading throughout the world has also impacted more traditional Thai genres such as lukthung . For example Grammy's Isan lukthung star Phi Sadoet had a big hit in 2009 with ‘Sao Kaoli' (‘Korean girl') about a Thai girl so infatuated by Korean pop culture that she forgets her poor Isan boyfriend. This is a twist on the stock lukthung storyline of country girl seduced by the city. The film clip is a hilarious send-up of every element of the Korean Wave ( hallyu ), in which the dancers wear variations on the hanbok , replete with progressively shorter hemlines. The girl rejects her boyfriend in favour of a K-pop lookalike driving a sports car, begins to wear skimpy Korean style clothing and strides through the dusty Isan village listening to K-pop. She dreams that she is in a Korean serial, similar to 2003's Winter Love Song , but wakes to find she is still in hot, humid Thailand. She turns up her nose at her boyfriend's Isan style pickled vegetable ( phak dong ), preferring to eat gimji , and goes to bed with a cardboard cut-out of a K-pop star. In the end the Korean wannabe breaks her heart and, after throwing out all of her Korean Wave merchandise, she dresses (as apparently a good Thai girl should) in neck to toe Thai traditional dress and sits down to eat phak dong (‘pickled vegetables') with her Isan boyfriend. Although tongue-in-cheek, the message is clear – young Thais should reject Korean cultural imperialism. Musically the song is standard rock Isan but K-pop influence can be heard in the high-tech sounding metallic keyboard lines.


[link to vdo of Sao Kaoli]

 The Korean experience demonstrates that it is possible to achieve soft power benefits through the careful manipulation of cultural content. This has implications for both Japan and China in their (friendly?) competition for influence in Southeast Asia. South Korea has created enormous goodwill throughout Asia by sharing the profits of their products with companies from other nations. By concentrating on content production, South Korea has, by and large, (apart from in Thailand) managed to avoid accusations of cultural imperialism. However, with many writers now claiming that the Korean wave is spent , Asia is waiting for the next “big thing”. The rise of China could be the catalyst to push Asian pop onto the world stage.