A reporter for Time magazine was driving through the Gobi Desert in Mongolia a few years ago when he got stuck in the sand. He walked to a yurt he spotted far off in the distance and asked for help. The owner of the yurt said, "I'm watching 'Jewel in the Palace' right now, but I'll help you in half an hour." The Korean soap opera about a court chef during the Chosun era was a hit in many countries. It recorded a 90 percent viewer rating in Iran. When I visited Tunisia two years ago, people would walk up to me in the street, shake my hand and say "'Jewel in the Palace' from Korea is the best!"
In northeast India, near the border with Burma, lies the mountainous province of Nagaland. It is a remote area two hours by plane and another two hours by jeep from Calcutta. But in 2008, a Korean music festival was held there. Nine people who passed a qualifying round stood in front of 10,000 spectators and sang Korean songs. When Korean pop singer Ilac took the stage, female fans screamed and cheered. And in Chile, there are more than 50 fan clubs dedicated to TVXQ, Girls' Generation and other K-pop bands.
The so-called "Korean Wave" has spread to Central Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and even Eastern Europe. Yet it spread the slowest to Taiwan, which is much closer to home. Taiwanese were hooked on Japanese culture until early 2000, when Korean TV soaps were aired there for the first time. Until then, the only image Taiwanese people had of Korea was of a war-ravaged country. But all that began to change, and when "Jewel in the Palace" aired in 2003, the Korean Wave took off.
But now the Korean Wave is still going strong in Taiwan despite an outbreak of anti-Korean sentiment last year following the disqualification of a Taiwanese taekwondo athlete during the Guangzhou Asian Games. Five TV channels air nothing but Korean dramas. Among them, GTV, Videoland Drama Channel and Eastern Television rank among the top three in the country. They only air Taiwanese shows during the holidays, except at prime time, because of a law requiring 20 percent of their broadcast content be homegrown.
Taiwanese lawmakers submitted a bill just a few days ago to boost the ratio of Taiwanese dramas to at least 40 percent. Government officials favor the bill, which is widely expected to be passed. The move is aimed at stemming the explosive popularity of the Korean Wave. It is surprising because it shows just how powerful the lure of Korean pop culture has become. This should serve as a cue for Korea to become more humble, diversify the range of content, boost the quality of Korean cultural products and lower their prices.
By Chosun Ilbo columnist Oh Tae-jin