Theses Doctoral

From Tradition to Brand: the Making of "Global" Korean Culture in Millennial South Korea

Medina, Jenny Wang

“From Tradition to Brand” examines the construction of a ‘global’ Korean culture in the late 20th and early 21st centuries through the imbrication of cultural production and information technologies. “Global Korea” seeks to transcend the geographic boundaries of the Republic of Korea while simultaneously re-inscribing the limits of ethnonational identity by confusing the temporal distinctions of tradition and ethnic belonging to the geopolitical construct of “Korea.”

Globalization was introduced in Korea as a nationalist project that continued on the developmental trajectory that had been pursued by the preceding authoritarian regimes, but the movements of South Korean citizens, diaspora Koreans, and non-ethnic-Korean immigrants in and out of the country has created a transnational community of shared social and cultural practices that now constitute the global image of Korean culture. National culture had been a major site of conflict between authoritarian regimes, opposition groups, and the specter of North Korea over the representation of a unified culture and ethnic heritage. However, civil society and economic successes in the 1990s brought about a crisis of identification, while migration flows began to threaten the exclusive correspondence between citizenship and ethnic identity.

Studies of contemporary Korea have recognized the nationalist appropriation of globalization, but I argue that the parallel development of national culture and information technology in South Korea has resulted in a deracinated signifier of “Koreanness” that can be performed through the consumption and practice of mediated “Korean” content. Through a study of cultural policies; international literary events; and literature, film, and popular culture texts, I trace the vicissitudes of intervention and opposition by state, institutional, and individual actors involved in the production and transmission of Korean culture.

I begin with the imbrication of national culture and information technology in Chapter 1, from the establishment of the Ministry of Culture and Information in the 1960s, to the application of the country’s well-developed research and technology sectors to the newly defined “cultural industries” in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In Chapter 2, I analyze the proceedings of international literary events held in Seoul from 2003-2011 that protested the instrumentalization of culture while decrying the persistence of a hierarchy of cultural distinction in “World Literature.” These chapters draw out the productive tension between the state’s conception of culture as content or commodity to be regulated, and the international artistic establishment’s view of culture as a “field of struggle.” In the following chapters I chart the intermedial discourse of identity and belonging to communities of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, national origin, and class through cultural texts from the early 2000s.

In Chapters 3, 4, and 5, I analyze newly canonized literature and films about migrant laborers to South Korea (Ch. 3); popular TV dramas about Korean cuisine and the culinary industry (Ch. 4), and “historical” narratives that challenge generic boundaries through time travel, hybrid sonic registers, and alternate histories (Ch. 5). South Korea becomes the signifier of an ideal “Korean” space in these texts. It is at once a de-territorialized multi-ethnic space of excessive consumption; an idealistically cosmopolitan, yet ethnically homogeneous space of economic and class mobility; and a socially progressive atemporal space of pre- and post-modern aesthetes.

“From Tradition to Brand” builds on critical discourses of multiculturalism, globalization, visual media, genre, narrative, and transnational cultural studies to conclude that South Korean global culture performs a temporal double-bind that erases its present-tense cultural identity in favor of a recuperative past in the utopian future.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Hughes, Theodore Q.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 16, 2015