Hometown Cha Cha Cha: Hallyu’s ‘soft power’


Sonny Coloma

Hometown Cha Cha Cha, the Korean drama series on romance that bloomed between a big city-bred dentist and a local village chief, has been topping the audience-share charts leading toward its season-ending episodes this weekend. In the Philippines, it was the number one show on Netflix last week, edging out Squid Game that was the top-rated show worldwide since October to date.

Hometown Cha Cha Cha features the simple and happy life of a seaside community called Gongjin where residents frequently drop in on each other’s homes, share food, and help each other overcome day-to-day difficulties.

Nielsen Korea reports, too, that Hometown Cha Cha Cha is rated number one in Korea. Crowds of fans have flocked to the coastal city of Pohang in North Gyeongsang province, venue of Gongjin, the fictional village where the characters reside. It is 272 kilometers away, or nearly a four-hour drive from Seoul.

Last month, the sensational K-Pop band BTS (for Bangtang Boys) delivered “a United Nations speech that got attention like few others — a plug for vaccines, young people and the Earth’s well-being.” South Korean President Moon Jae-in designated them as special ambassadors for future generations and culture. Their appearance generated a global audience of more than one million, thereby serving as a powerful megaphone for promoting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, including ending poverty, preserving the planet and achieving gender equality.

In 2012, Psy’s video for Gangnam Style went viral, and became the first YouTube video to record more than a billion views. YouTube has since propelled the international popularity of K-pop bypassing traditional channels such as radio stations where disc jockeys have been averse to playing foreign-language tunes.

K-drama and K-pop are the mainstream promoters of Hallyu, which means Korean wave, or the propagation of Korean culture. There are now more than 100 million members of Hallyu fan clubs worldwide. The craze for Korean culture has breached even Muslim and Hindu frontiers.

Global awareness of different aspects of Korean culture including film and television (K-drama), music (K-pop), fashion, language and cuisine are the domains encompassed by Hallyu or the Korean wave. It also includes manhwa, the Korean counterpart to the Japanese manga, that is their unique brand of comics and print cartoons.

It was after the Asian financial crisis of 1997 that saw the debacle of many manufacturing and industrial behemoths in South Korea (known as chaebol) that a diversification toward cultural enterprises became evident.

Conflict between chaebol and emerging economic players is a recurring theme in K-drama, along with government corruption. Hence, the institutions of law and order are frequently focal points of drama plots: the national police, the prosecution service, the courts, as well as the rogue companies that destroy the environment, engage in anti-labor practices, and willfully corrupt senior government officials. This accounts for the rich tapestry and fabric of K-drama that command high audience rapport.

As observed by a group of Asian scholars: “The soft power of Korean wave is able to break racial prejudice and fulfill the missing representation of Asians in western media. People from East and Southeast Asia are able to see the remarkable success achieved by K-pop idols as their own.”

Soft power is a term that gained currency after Harvard University professor Joseph Nye used it to describe the nuances of power options for the United States in the post-Cold War era. Soft power is so-called because it eschews resort to the hard power of force and coercion. It thrives on subtler methods of co-optation, particularly in the realms of culture that then flow into political values and ultimately lead to foreign policy.

He said that with soft power, “the best propaganda is not propaganda,” further explaining that during the Information Age, “credibility is the scarcest resource.”

To harness the resources of soft power effectively, Professor Nye asserts, the focus must be on “attraction that leads to acquiescence.” He points out that, “Seduction is always more effective than coercion, and many values like democracy, human rights, and individual opportunities are deeply seductive.” Professor Angelo Codevilla of Boston University cautions that, “Different parts of populations are attracted or repelled by different things, ideas, images or prospects.”

Notably, K-drama has also focused on winning hearts and minds across the 38th parallel northward. Crash Landing on You, a drama series on how an heiress drifted into North Korean territory while paragliding, achieved the highest ratings on cable TV in 2019, deftly navigating the tension points between the two countries.

South Korea earned a top five ranking in the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Global Innovation Index 2021 for scaling up investments in innovation amid the massive human and economic toll of the coronavirus pandemic — and warming the hearts of people through Hometown Cha Cha Cha and similar programs.