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UCI Center for Critical Korean Studies Hosts ‘The Rise of K-Culture’ Webinar Series

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The Center for Critical Korean Studies (CCKS) at UCI held a three-part series on “The Rise of K-Culture,” with webinars taking place May 13, May 20 and May 27 at 7 p.m. over Zoom. Each webinar featured what CCKS described as “some of the most prominent figures of K-cinema, K-television and K-pop,” who fielded questions concerning the Korean entertainment industry and its rising place within the global market. The webinars had over 300 guests in attendance via both Zoom and a separate Facebook Live stream.

Moderated by CCKS Founding Director and UCI East Asian Studies professor Kyung Hyun Kim, the series’ first guest was television producer and director Na Young-seok. Na is behind popular reality and variety shows “Grandpas Over Flowers (2013-2018),” “Three Meals a Day (2014-2020)” and “New Journey to the West (2015-2020).” Kim said multiple times throughout the webinar that Park Jimin of BTS described Na as “probably the most famous Korean entertainer today, more famous than BTS.”

Na answered a variety of questions pre-selected by CCKS and asked by UCI student attendees, ranging in topics from the usage of subtitles in Korean reality television shows to his reaction to finding a global audience for Korean entertainment.

When asked about how content creators such as himself have adapted to different platforms such as YouTube, Na said that his television shows reach a more general audience while the videos he creates for his YouTube channel are more tailored towards his subscribers specifically. Beyond this, he spoke of the “core values” that connect entertainment across platforms and around the world.

“Rather than saying [that] one platform is good and the other is bad, the industry I’m in keeps on evolving,” Na said. “The main interests, the main instincts of humans never changed, although the general flow of society can change also. So things like people enjoying traveling, people enjoying good food, those are all equally valued across time and space. So instead of being too impacted by the general flow of society, I try to focus on the core values of humans, what humans are interested in across time and space.”

Na spoke more about his commitment to universal human values and described why the reality show “Grandpas Over Flowers” was his favorite show he produced.

“I like the actors in the show, and I also like the very human qualities of my program, as these quote, unquote, ‘grandpas’ are veteran actors of 40-50 years. And it was very moving for me to witness a lot of these veteran actors go to a new environment, and experience new things which are very much so foreign to them all … my program is something that transcends nationality or language, and that people can relate to because we all have grandpas, older elderly people in our lives,” Na said.

The last question of the webinar was whether Na had any exclusive experience to share from his feature on the reality show “Run BTS,” and what it was like to meet the members of the Korean idol group.

“It was my first time meeting them too, so I was very excited,” Na said. “To be honest, however, there is no extra content … everything you see in Run BTS is what we had filmed.”

The series’ second guests were Lee Joon-Dong, producer of Cannes award-winning film “Poetry (2010)” and “Burning (2018),” and Yeon Sang-ho, director of the breakout hit “Train to Busan (2016)” and its sequel “Peninsula (2020).” Featured in the CCKS webinar held May 20, the two guests answered questions concerning the rise of Korean media’s global popularity and the emergence of new forms of media, such as Line Webtoons.

When asked where he views his animated films in the context of Korea’s history of animation, Lee answered that he currently takes a more interdisciplinary approach to creative expression which combines types of media into a cohesive whole. Christine Kim, Yeon’s translator, said that “[he] is working on different genres, but he’s also suggesting that the audience think of all creative works as not just [separate]. He’s also looking for more innovative modes of creative expression by approaching everything by a more interdisciplinary side of things … to weave it all together and create a masterpiece.”

“Ultimately, you have to come to Korea … but it’s a small world, and everyone knows each other in such a small industry,” Lee said when asked for advice on how Americans can find ways to enter the Korean entertainment industry.

Yeon suggested that individuals “could work on networking, especially among Korean Americans who wish to enter the entertainment industry in Korea.”

“Another method is to experience a wide variety of things in life, not just limited to the entertainment industry … [as Yeon] used his human experiences from his late teens to 30s as a basis for his work in the past and going forward,” Yeon said.

The series’ final guest for the May 27 webinar was SM Entertainment USA Senior Vice President and Global Citizens Organization board member Dominique Rodriguez, known professionally as DOM. Questions asked of Rodriguez centered around the history of SM Entertainment as well as the rise of K-pop’s popularity internationally.

Rodriguez spoke about the importance of understanding SM Entertainment Founder Lee Soo-man, and his role in creating what he considers to be the first Korean idol group. 

“It’s the story I’m always trying to educate people on … it’s important for people to understand the past, so you can appreciate the present,” he said.

“What we consider to be the first idol group today, H.O.T., was actually in 1996, and at that time that group was already starting to break those borders beyond Korea, they were already beginning to get notoriety in other parts of Asia,” Rodriguez said. 

After speaking about Boa, the “queen of K-pop,” and her popularity in Japan, he said, “from there, around 2007, SM set its sights on the Western marketplace … 2011 was the first SM sold-out show in Madison Square Gardens in New York.”

“But to lean in more on what K-pop has become, it really has become a part of our popular culture. Specifically here, in the U.S. marketplace, as well as beyond,” Rodriguez said.

For information on future events held by the CCKS, the CCKS webpage can be found within the UCI School of Humanities site here.

Emma Cho is a Campus News Intern for the spring 2021 quarter. She can be reached at emmasc1@uci.edu.