South Korea Beyond the Han Miracle

A Review of Beyond the Han Miracle: Soccer, Soap Operas, Stem Cells, and Sanitation, by YOON CHOI.

Yoon Choi’s dissertation, Beyond the Han Miracle: Soccer, Soap Operas, Stem Cells, and Sanitation, focuses on bureaucratic engagements with discourses of national globalization by investigating sites of cultural production in South Korea. Choi’s is an innovative ethnography of the relationship between state ideologies of globalization and cultural institutions dedicated to the realization of global aspirations. The dissertation works to demonstrate “how variously positioned actors — Bureaucrats, scientists, fans, and culture workers — are attempting to turn Korea into a new center of cultural or soft power in order to make it relevant in a world where culture, information, technology, and media prevail” (p. 10). As a way to highlight the participatory dimensions of cultural globalization, the chapters are organized around a traditional Korean game, yut nori. The chapters are named after different forms of advancing in the game: do, gae, geol, yut, mo. And after the first chapter on methodology, each subsequent chapter focuses on a different site of inquiry — sport, media, international NGO initiatives, science — to present what Choi refers to as the “wonderful world of bureaucracies with global ambitions” (p. 47).

Chapter 1, “DO: Parachutes and Emergencies in the field,” introduces the concept of a “parachute” or a 낙하산, defined as a term “often pejoratively used to describe an individual who has figuratively fallen or been placed in unknown territory due to nepotism or favoritism” (p. 36), as a way to explain her own subject-position. It is an inventive way of revealing the networks that enable this study and of introducing the tensions between ideas of appropriate national and global forms of behavior that exist throughout each institution studied. This chapter introduces a variety of field sites, including Arirang TV, Korea Organization for Asian Culture Exchange (KOFACE), and the World Toilet Association, and discusses their ideological connections.

Chapter 2, “GAE: Spectacular Logics: The Better Korea Movement and the 2002 FIFA Korea-Japan World Cup,” offers a comparison between two organizations that emerged to shape ideas of global Korea prior to the 2002 FIFA Korea-Japan World Cup: the government-sponsored National Council for a Better Korea Movement and the official fan club of Korea’s team, the Red Devils. The Better Korea Movement (BKM) focused on transforming everyday behaviors of citizens in order to improve Korea’s image in the world. Sub-organizations included the Before Babel Brigade (BBB), the Bright Smile Movement, and perhaps most substantially, the Clean Toilet, Clean Korea campaign. The Better Korea Movement is juxtaposed with the official fan club of the Korea Football Team, the Red Devils, which aimed to establish a distinctly Korean form of soccer culture. The cultures shaped by the Red Devils became the dominant culture of the Korea team’s fans. The blurring of the boundaries between the behaviors supported by BKM and the Red Devils highlights the conjuncture of both state and private interests in the global event.

Chapter 3, “GEOL: Korea’s Cultural Renaissance: Hallyu and Arirang TV,” focuses on bureaucratic mobilizations towards harnessing and expanding the phenomenon of Hallyu, or the Korean Wave, through an investigation of the practices of the “Hallyu Cultural Policy Committee” (HCPC) — the state body instituted to manage and foster the Korean Wave” (p. 102)  — and Arirang TV, an English-language station focused on presenting Korean culture to a non-Korean speaking audience. Choi’s account of the inner workings of Arirang TV demonstrates the hegemonic status of the discourses of hallyu in this cultural institution. Descriptions of the office politics and the everyday processes of decision-making reveal an institution struggling to achieve the abstract goal of globalization without organizational or financial means.

Chapter 4, “YUT: The World Toilet Association: A Portal to the World,” offers a fascinating introduction to the World Toilet Association (WTA), an NGO dedicated to spreading “toilet culture.” Going beyond the idea of bringing Korea to the world, the WTA presented itself as an organization that aimed to create and spread a new culture of sanitation using the seated toilet as its symbol. This chapter highlights the vision of its president and founder, Sim Jae-duck, who drew on his connections as a politician and his passion for toilets to establish the government-funded organization. Working as an English editor at the organization, Choi details how employees make sense of their work at an organization that attempts to balance the seemingly contradictory aims of spreading a universal toilet culture while also drawing on explicitly national narratives of development. This chapter not only presents the significance of this organization in the context of cultural campaigns, but also offers a vivid account of the everyday messiness of NGO politics.

Chapter 5, “MO: Science Has No Nation: Deciphering the Disgrace,” focuses on the 2005 scandal surrounding stem cell scientist Hwang Woo Suk by analyzing responses to the event from a variety of positions. This final chapter reframes statements on the scandal as commentaries on the role of bureaucracies within an era of globalization. The rise and fall of this national hero and the quickly fading memories of these events demonstrate the the nation’s relentless drive for global recognition. The Hwang Woo Suk scandal highlights the enduring power of national narratives of development in shaping the bureaucracies of globalization.

Given the wide-ranging nature of this ethnographic work, this study could be seen in relation to studies of cultural institutions (William Mazzarella), state bureaucracies (Akhil Gupta), and even NGOs (Jesook Song). Choi highlights the role of discourse (in the Foucauldian sense) in both limiting and generating possibilities within institutional contexts. The juxtaposition of different and disparate sites offers a kind of rhizomic insight (after Gilles Deleuze) into the complex and contradictory desires embedded in institutions. Yet the role of national ideology seems to maintain a hegemonic position and therefore follows the work of Samuel S. Kim, Gi-wook Shin, and others who maintain that an ideology of developmental nationalism continues to guide much of Korea’s global desires.

The publication of this text will fill an important gap in the ethnographic literature on cultural institutions in an era of globalization. While the discourses of globalization, and especially hallyu, are certainly of interest to many scholars, this study offers important insights from the perspective of a participant within the very cultural institutions that produce hallyu. Choi demonstrates the complex negotiations that take place within these sites and the human relations that comprise the culture industries of globalization.

Rachael M. Joo
Middlebury College

Primary Fieldsites

South Korea, World Toilet Association (Seoul), Arirang TV (Seoul), Korea Organization for Asian Culture Exchange (KOFACE)

Dissertation Information

University of California, Irvine. 2009. 240 pp. Primary Advisor: Bill Maurer.

Leave a Reply