Pop Goes Korea: Behind the Revolution in Movies, Music, and Internet Culture

Mark James Russell,
Pop Goes Korea: Behind the Revolution in Movies, Music, and Internet Culture.
Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 2008
ISBN: 978 1 933330 68 6
US$19.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Stone Bridge Press)

Pop Goes Korea opens pondering what factors have made South Korea uniquely successful in terms of popular culture in recent decades, and abruptly closes concluding that South Korea’s success is not unique but too universal; a by-product of globalisation (pp. viii; 215).  And quite frankly, the author is hardly wrong.  What is unfortunate, however, is that his research fails to prove this claim, and others made by him, leading to a situation whereby his analyses are better phrased as intuitions.  Taking his cue from the industry, the ‘Korean Wave’ is the pink elephant in the room (p. 215).  Ironically the term is barely mentioned in a book that is dealing almost exclusively with the phenomenon.  The author admits, in his concluding remarks, that for publicity purposes he has described his position as anti-Korean Wave, creating much polemic in journalistic, academic and industry circles in South Korea (pp. 210-11).  When journalists coined the term ‘Korean Wave’ in the late 1990s to describe the sudden explosion of Korean pop culture abroad, the phrase was merely a sound-bite.  It is from within this purely journalistic (not academic) context, that Russell has evaluated the term ‘Korean Wave’, and rightly believes that the phenomenon is worthy of closer analysis than that which it received in the press at the time.

The scope of Russell’s ambitious review of South Korean popular culture goes beyond what even the title predicts (film, music and internet) into the television industry, the graphic novel and animated film. Thus, the author’s intention “to encompass the breadth of Korean pop culture” in around 220 pages is fettered to “seven stories” he considers “symbolic of the changes the industry went through as a whole” in the late twentieth century (p. xiv).  From the outset, we sense the author’s desire to report back home on witnessing “history in the making”, the hyper-modernisation of the cultural landscape of South Korea: “through no design of my own”, he says, “I was living there at the time and saw it all” (p. v). The book, in fact, covers, in detail, the mid-1990s to the date of publication, 2008, which is almost exactly the same period of time that Russell spent living and working in South Korea, making this introduction to trends in the South Korean entertainment industries one that follows Russell’s own personal journey and is, in many ways, informed by his own tastes (p. v).

Studies devoted to the Korean Wave and the effects of modernisation, modernity, and globalisation on the media industries in South Korea are numerous in the English language alone for film (Gateward 2007; Shin and Stringer 2005), less so for television and music (Chua and Iwabuchi 2008), and beginning for animation and graphic novels (Kim 2006; Vollmar 2010).  Pop Goes Korea, however, is not intended to break new ground in academic circles, nor is it fair to compare it to such literature. This work is best understood as part of a growing body of popular non-fiction books on the history and culture of North and South Korea written by journalists who have covered the region for decades (Martin 2004; Oberdorfer 1997), and more recently, journalists, like the author and Darcy Paquet, who began as teachers working in the English as a Second language sector that boomed in South Korea.

Its line of enquiry follows the journalistic instinct to find a human-interest angle through which to expand upon a situation at large.  This is achieved by grouping together profiles of professionals by industry (or concern). Russell then uses this as a way to narrate the changes that took place in their respective fields.  Influenced, it would seem, by opportunity and personal interests, the work is weighted by its coverage of the film industry and pop music.  The book is structured into seven chapters: 1) the story of the media conglomerate, CJ Entertainment; 2) the blockbuster; 3) Pusan International Film Festival; 4) Lee Byung-hun, to represent the crossover of television soap opera stars to film; 5) SM Entertainment, pop music label and star studio; 6) the Yang brothers for the Internet Revolution (more specifically music piracy); 7) ‘sequential art’ (comic books and animation, variously).

Each chapter contains various foci, weaving together the personal accounts of three or more professionals per chapter to give the reader an entertaining inside scoop on the machinations of the industry under investigation.  Russell readily acknowledges “the occasional digression or related story in the sidebars”, that appear self-contained like magazine articles (p. xiv).  His anecdotal style is further reinforced by the inclusion of captions of random facts dispersed throughout the book, as well as, colour prints of actors and films mentioned in the work, and others that are not.  Pulling together many disparate facts, Russell’s real achievement is his dedication to providing the broadest overview for an uninformed reader.  Russell’s writing style is very accessible and jocular, presenting his case in plain English.  For this reason, the book appeals more to a general readership. However, the volume of statistical data suggests that only an enthusiast of South Korean popular culture would enjoy the book as a whole.

Disappointingly, the author does not provide a bibliography or references for any of the information or data provided.  In fact, it is difficult to corroborate who exactly was interviewed by Russell since this is not explicitly stated at any point, and direct quotes blur with his opinionated commentary in the body of the text.  Inaccuracies begin on the first page.  Chapter 1 opens with the claim that in 1995 the film industry was producing fewer films than ever, and that audience attendance and the number of screens nationwide had dropped to its lowest point (p. 3).  All three facts are disputed by publications from the Korean Film Council.[1] At other points, there has been less an error in statistical data than a mishandling of it.  There are frequent inconsistencies in the author’s currency conversions throughout, for instance (pp. 48-9).  In addition, superlatives should not be taken at face value, as they have been coloured by the author’s personal taste.  For example, the lists of “Top Ten Biggest Blockbusters” and “The Biggest Film Failures in Korean History” are ranked by a combination of the author’s preferences and box office takings (pp. 38-45, 58-63).  All in all, Pop Goes Korea is a cautionary tale for the researcher on the importance of referencing, consistency and objectivity.

Emily Ashman,
La Trobe University, Australia.


Beng Huat Chua and Koichi Iwabuchi eds., East Asian pop culture: analysing the Korean Wave. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2008.
Frances K. Gateward ed., Seoul searching: culture and identity in contemporary Korean cinema. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007.
Joon-Yang Kim, “Critique of the New Historical Landscape of South Korean Animation.” Animation 1(1), 2006, pp. 61-81.
KOFIC, “Korean Film Industry Guide 2005: A Review of Korean Film Industry in 2004.” Seoul: Korean Film Council, 2005.
KOFIC, “Korean Film Industry Guide 2005: Korean Film Industry for Last 10 Years.” Seoul: Korean Film Council, 2005.
Bradley K. Martin, Under the loving care of the fatherly leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2004.
Don Oberdorfer, The two Koreas: a contemporary history. Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley, 1997.
Chi-Yun Shin and Julian Stringer eds., New Korean Cinema. New York: New York University Press, 2005.
Rob Vollmar, “Three Korean Graphic Novelists Reimagine the Genre.” World Literature Today 84(1), 2010, pp. 55-59.


[1]  See KOFIC, “Korean Film Industry Guide 2005: A Review of Korean Film Industry in 2004”, p. 18; 21, and KOFIC, “Korean Film Industry Guide 2005: Korean Film Industry for Last 10 Years”, p. 61.

Created on: Sunday, 18 April 2010