Asia Business

A wave of Korean culture is crashing over the world–and it’s amazing

South Korean pop culture is booming: from K-pop bands like BTS, to award-winning movies like Parasite, to innovative K-beauty brands that use snail extract (yes, for real) – the world can’t get enough. But how did South Korea transform from a struggling third-world country just a half century ago into a modern-day cultural powerhouse? It wasn’t an accident. Plus, learn the English expression “spring into action.”

Listen

Learn

Read Along

  • Move over, Hyundai; have a seat, Samsung: South Korea’s biggest export these days is pop culture

    Hi there, thanks for joining us for Plain English lesson number 261. I’m Jeff; JR is the producer. You can find the full lesson at PlainEnglish.com/261.

    On today’s lesson, from Parasite to BTS and even baseball, South Korean culture is popular like never before. In the second half of the lesson, we talk about the English expression “spring into action.” There’s a video lesson and all our lesson resources, as always, at PlainEnglish.com/260.


    South Korea’s pop culture moment

    Allow me to introduce you to the world’s newest cultural powerhouse: South Korea.

    Half a century ago, South Korea was a third-world country recovering from a devastating war. Blackouts were common in its cities. There were few exports and no pop culture to speak of. It was poorer than its bizarre communist neighbor to the north. Today, South Korea is a developed country with 51 million people and its brands are dominating pop culture around the world. From the movie Parasite to the band BTS, South Korea’s cultural exports have burst onto the world stage in recent years.

    It wasn’t an accident. Some people trace the origins of this cultural boom to 1994 and the Hollywood movie “Jurassic Park”. A South Korean government report found that producing just one hit movie (like “Jurassic Park”) could be worth as much as selling 1.5 million cars. The report concluded that South Korea should be investing more in cultural exports, including blockbuster movies.

    The government sprang into action. It relaxed censorship laws and began pouring resources into “soft” exports like pop music, movies, cosmetics, food, and clothing. In South Korea, there is a culture of big, vertically-integrated conglomerate companies: Samsung, the electronics manufacturer, was founded as a grocery store in 1938 and has also made textiles, ships, and chemicals in its history. It is perhaps the biggest example of the “chaebol,” or the big conglomerate companies; others include Daewoo, Hyundai, and LG. These companies have many diversified affiliates under central control.

    One side effect of this business culture is the value of coordination among products and brands. That has worked well in the pop-culture renaissance.

    Once, big Korean conglomerates came together to produce cars and electronics. They still do, but now the country’s chaebol are applying a similar formula to pop culture. K-pop bands use and endorse popular Korean cosmetics; the two reinforce each other. If a Korean movie studio releases a film, a music label in the same conglomerate can produce an original soundrack; another branch of the company can produce a live-action show to go along with it. An in-house PR agency can promote it all.

    The result is a wave of Korean culture sweeping the world. The movie “Parasite” was the first non-English film to win the Oscar for Best Picture and three other Academy Awards. Directed by Bong Joon-Ho, the film was about members of a poor family that all scheme to work for the same rich family by pretending to be unrelated but qualified household servants. Let’s just say the scheme works at first, but it falls apart at the end. It made $266 million on a budget of just $11 million—not bad. The film had an entirely Korean cast and it was the first Korean film ever to be recognized at the Academy Awards. Since then, Netflix has bought the rights to 41 other Korean movies. It’s not just movies; K-Drama includes TV series as well, including the pan-Asian hit “Descendants of the Sun” and the series “Crash Landing on You.” Both are now on Netflix.

    K-pop is pop music. The band BTS is the first band since the Beatles to have three number-one Billboard 200 albums in a year. They made a splash with coordinated looks (no doubt enhanced by Korean cosmetics) on the red carpet at the 2020 Grammy’s, where they performed. Other Korean pop bands Blackpink and Twice are also popular globally.

    Cosmetics are a big part of South Korea’s cultural exports. The Korean beauty industry targeted detox treatments, cleanses, and other skin-care regiments—all packaged in cute and colorful packaging. The lotions, eye masks, and makeup can be found in high-end department stores like Selfridges and more mainstream chains like Sephora.

    K-beauty brands are going beyond the traditional products, too. Mizon, one of the big brands, produces a product that’s 92% snail extract. You put it on your face—I think—and it promises to lighten your complexion and rejuvenate your skin. Besolbo is betting that you’ll like salmon eggs on your face as much as on your sushi. They say their Salmon Egg Sleeping Pack helps with acne and rough skin.

    One of the great things about a strong pop culture is that it has a good multiplier effect. It’s a way of introducing a country to the world. The way South Korea sees it, the pop culture won’t be dominant forever. But it will have a “halo effect,” where it leaves a positive impression of South Korea in the minds of people everywhere, and that halo effect will carry over to other industries, whether they are in entertainment or not.

    South Korea may be benefitting from this halo effect sooner than they imagined. The sports-starved American baseball fans have just one option if they want to see their favorite sport being played live. The Korean Baseball League is now being broadcast in English on ESPN early in the morning in the United States.


    I don’t think I want to know whose idea it was to put snail extract into a face cream.

    Today I’m going to tell you about some new features that are coming to PlainEnglish.com. As you know, we’re re-releasing the web site on June 1. When you log into PlainEnglish.com on June 1, everything will look different. New and improved, as they say.

    I’m extremely excited to introduce some new features that will go along with every single lesson of Plain English. I was looking for ways that you can get more actively involved in what you’re hearing, in what you’re learning as part of Plain English. And we settled on four additional exercises to include with each episode. And here they are.

    Number one: you will have the opportunity to record your own voice reading a paragraph from the main lesson. When you’re done, you’ll be able to play your voice back so you can hear what you sound like reading a paragraph. And right there on the same page, you’ll be able to hear me reading the same paragraph. So what you’ll be able to do is compare the way I pronounce words and sentences to the way you pronounce them. This is going to be a great way for you really perfect your own pronunciation, by listening to yourself and then comparing your pronunciation to mine.

    Number two: You will play an audio clip from the lesson. And then there is a box for you to type exactly what you hear. You won’t see the transcript. You’ll just hear a sentence. Your job is to type every word exactly as you hear it. Then you’ll be able to check what you wrote against what I actually said. This is going to be perfect for everyone who listens and gets like 90 percent or even 95 percent of the content. This is going to test you. And this is going to show you how many of those tiny little words you’re actually catching and how many slip by you. There will be two clips like this in each lesson.

    Number three: fill in the blanks. Two things that are really tough to get right in a new language are verb tenses and prepositions. So what we’re going to do is take a paragraph from the lesson and I’m going to delete a bunch of words. It’s your job to fill in the blanks with either the correct preposition or the correct verb tense. Of course, you’ll be able to press submit and see how many you got right.

    And number four will be a lesson quiz, a five-question quiz to check your understanding of the main lesson and the expression.

    As I mentioned earlier, I was really looking for ways to make our lessons more active for you. It’s one thing to listen, but it’s another thing to get involved yourself. And each of these four exercises will help you get actively involved in the material. The exercises aren’t hard—the quiz questions especially aren’t very difficult—but they’re getting you in the mindset of thinking in English, of making decisions, of producing something yourself. And I think is going to be a big improvement your Plain English experience.

    I mentioned in Lesson 250 that it was a big day for us at Plain English, but I couldn’t tell you why. So here’s why: that was the first lesson where we did everything completely new on the new web site, including these new exercises. And so we will have these exercises for all lessons starting at Lesson 250.

    Spring into action

    Today’s expression is to spring into action. What does it mean to “spring into action”? Often, if you are in a state of rest or not otherwise working very hard, but you have to start working suddenly—if you have to start working very quickly because of some outside influence, then you spring into action.

    Here’s how you heard it earlier on today’s lesson. A South Korean government report said that just one blockbuster movie could be worth as much to the economy as selling a million cars. At the time, there wasn’t much of a South Korean pop culture. But the government sprang into action: it changed laws and began investing in softer industries like film and music. Why do we say they “sprang into action”? They hadn’t been doing much in this area before. But the report showed them how valuable exporting popular culture could be. Recognizing that, they began to take action energetically. They sprang into action.

    In normal times, the facilities departments at big companies have an unglamorous job: just make sure the buildings and facilities work for the employees. It’s a good job, a necessary job, but one without a whole lot of drama, on most days. However, since the coronavirus pandemic, the people who take care of our workplaces have had to spring into action. First, they needed to decide when and how to close down. Some had to quickly retrofit manufacturing processes to comply with new safety guidelines. Others had to put up barriers and floor guides to keep shoppers separated. Now, these departments are critical in crafting the return to work scenario for many companies. For most companies, this is a department that has always had a low profile. But they’ve had to spring into action lately because they are now in the middle of a storm of activity and high-stakes decision-making.

    I mentioned last week about the re-opening plans across the world. Some state governors here in the US announced their re-opening plans somewhat abruptly. Businesses didn’t know that they would be allowed to open so soon. As soon as the governors made their announcements, many small businesses sprang into action, preparing their stores to accommodate new visitors and comply with the new social distancing guidelines.

    It happens to me too. I’m having a bit of a lazy day, either work day or weekend. But then something happens and I have to spring into action. It could be an urgent e-mail from work, or JR tells me I forgot to do something for the web site, or I have a great idea and I want to make progress on it right away. Whatever the case is, if I’m having a low-key day but decide I need to change the pace, then I spring into action.

    If someone in your family or your neighborhood gets sick, you and some others might spring into action to help out. You might prepare and deliver meals, help with household chores, volunteer to watch kids. This doesn’t mean you were just sitting at home doing nothing, and then you started to help. It simply means, you were going about your daily life. But then something caused you to raise the intensity of your activity. You sprang into action to help out where needed.

    After the coronavirus genome was published, laboratories around the world sprang into action, trying to develop a vaccine. When snow starts falling, an army of snow shovelers and plow operators and utility repairmen spring into action to keep our roads cleared and electricity on. Most fire stations are relatively subdued—not a whole lot going on most hours of most days. But when a call comes in, everyone springs into action to respond quickly to the emergency, and we are glad that they do.

    JR’s song of the week

    I’m detecting a pattern in the selection of the song of the week. Today it’s “I’d Rather Go Blind” by Etta James. It is a sad song. The line that stands out to me is this one, “I would rather, I would rather go blind // Than to see you walk away from me.” It is a R&B, rhythm & blues, song from 1968. And it was featured in the third season of Ozark on Netflix, one of JR’s favorite shows these days. Last week, it was a song from Normal People, this week from Ozark.


    That is all for today. Thanks for joining us as always. Counting down the days until our new site goes live. It’s kind of like moving. You make a lot of progress packing, and you’re 95 percent of the way there, but that last five percent just seems to drag on. That’s the part I’m in right now. But it will be done, June 1. And we’ll be right back here on Monday with another Plain English lesson.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

2
Leave a Reply

avatar
1 Comment threads
1 Thread replies
0 Followers
 
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
2 Comment authors
JeffDelphine35 Recent comment authors
  Subscribe  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Delphine35
Member
Delphine35

Hello Jeff, How are you doing?
I was wondering to know is it possible you could make some effects on the transcript of the new words to be Bold font? because I couldn’t see the difference when I use the e-book(only black and white format) device while reading. Thank you.

Jeff
Admin

Delphine, does an e-book support the tooltips? So, let’s say you know which are highlighted … if you tap on it, does it show the definition?