Psy, aka Park Jae-sang, served double duty at Monday’s inauguration of the other Park as South Korea’s first woman president. He was both the event’s court jester and a guide to the path their nation must take if it’s to fulfill Park Geun-hye’s pledge to launch a “new chapter in the Miracle on the Han River.”
Psy readily acknowledges that his insanely popular “Gangnam Style” was inspired by American music, as is most pop music everywhere in the world. What separates his breakout hit from the thousands of Kpop tunes assembled and packaged each year by the sweatshop workers in Korea’s pop factories is blissful violations of conventions set by western progenitors. Whatever may be the primordial genesis of its four-by-four beat and crazily swingy rhythm, the song pays homage to nothing but the kimchi-flavored verve and vision of its immediate creator.
The same can’t be said of most other Kpop tunes fabricated by executives in thrall to hackneyed rap and pop forms and manners. Despite the intensive practice and craftsmanship that go into each Kpop single and music video, the genre rarely sees mainstream daylight outside east Asia. It embodies the limitations of industries built on imitation.
Since its emancipation from Japanese rule in 1945 S. Korea has been in thrall to US dictates and conventions in its economic, cultural and political life. Its post-liberation industries emerged as low-cost workshops for US and European manufacturers. It goes without saying that Korea looks to the US for cultural validation more than most nations. Its massive military was developed to serve as an adjunct to the US Eighth Army. Until recently, the S. Korean military automatically fell under US command in the event of hostilities with the North. Even today treaties with the US constrain S. Korea from developing nuclear weapons or long-range missiles capable of carrying payloads the size of small nuclear warheads.
Until at least the early 1990s S. Korean leaders were seen as puppets of a US determined to back dictatorships that can serve as a bulwark against an invasion by the North. Fairly or not, the US military command in Korea is even seen as having enabled the 1980 Gwangju Massacre of 2,000 civilians by allowing the ROK Army’s highly disciplined 20th division to leave its deployment near Seoul and roll south to slaughter civilian demonstrators. Many Koreans concluded that but for the US-enabled suppression of the Gwangju uprising, S. Korea would have become a true democracy at least a decade earlier.
One initiative S. Korea can claim as its own is the push to nurture a small number of business groups into world-class industrial conglomerates. That development, undertaken by the new President Park’s father Park Chung-hee, is generally credited with the rise of Samsung, Hyundai, LG, Kia, Hanjin (parent of Korean Air) and Posco, among other chaebol. It was an unprecedented concept that had been used in pre-war Japan but had yet to produce global brands at the time Park initiated his development plan.
These chaebol carved out niches by achieving large-scale production efficiencies developed through long-term investments and near monopoly-status within Korea’s own domestic markets. The government’s efforts at nurturing them sucked up disproportionate amounts of capital that otherwise might have nurtured Korea’s many small entrepreneurs or helped consumers finance higher living standards.
The recent slowdown in S. Korea’s growth has shown that the chaebol’s ability to drive prosperity is limited to certain key industrial sectors and certain types of industrial jobs. The resulting anti-big-business sentiment hurt the prospects of the ruling Saenuri Party in December’s election. Its leader Park squeaked out a narrow victory only by riding the sentimental attachment of older Koreans to her father’s success in lifting the nation out of abject poverty.
Yet Park knows that her father’s strategy can’t take S. Korea to the top tiers of advanced nations or provide broad-based prosperity and universal economic safety nets. That would require S. Korean society to become dynamic enough to supply more than its proportionate share of the world’s cutting edge social, political, technological and cultural innovations. Cram course, rigorous college boards and rigid educational hierarchies can produce unsurpassed industrial workers and even talented technocrats but can’t nurture the free-thinking entrepreneurs needed to create products and services that anticipate huge needs that haven’t yet been articulated.
Who knew the world was yearning for a song and dance like “Gangnam Style” until Psy posted it on YouTube?
The incredible popularity of Psy’s hit owes to its irresistible message, compellingly expressed — that freedom is more fun than fronting. It’s out in front of even most American pop artists who, like their Kpop counterparts, tend to remain frozen inside time-honored genres that ask nothing of listeners and offer little new in return.
The Gangnam Style message screams to be translated into the economic agenda of Park, the leader, who hopes to open a new chapter of the Miracle on the Han. Gangnam happens to be on a key stretch of the Han and embodies the best and worst aspects of the miracle’s first chapter. Psy himself is a product of that miracle, having grown up in the family of an entrepreneur who founded a successful company listed on the Korea Stock Exchange. Having been raised in affluence and having spent a couple years studying in the US, Psy knows all about the fronting and pretension that mar Korean society. He’s also familiar enough with American culture not to be in awe of it.
Only that kind of mindset could have produced a song like “Gangnam Style”. Or produce the next big innovation in communication, transportation, biotechnology, finance, government and a myriad other fields if Korea is to continue prospering.
Millions of Koreans continue to waste savings and energies following paths that end in the kind of rut in which S. Korea finds itself — a college-educated population in search of increasingly scarce status jobs in industries that will have to change quickly or get trampled by lower-cost Chinese companies.
So Park the leader will have to persuade her people to follow the example of Park the court jester if she is to succeed as S. Korea’s first woman president and continue her father’s legacy of transformative leadership.