Squid Game, Blackpink, kimchi pancakes … How did South Korea become such a world power? | Zoe Williams

One minute everyone wants a bit of British and American culture; the next you’re on the phone desperately trying to get tickets for the latest K-pop sensation

Two weeks back, while the world was marvelling at the Great British Queue, I was in a queue of a different sort – Ticketmaster’s – trying to get tickets to the South Korean band Blackpink. There was a countdown, there was an app, I had Mr Z on the case trying a different date, and it was completely fruitless, thank God, because I had no idea when I started how expensive they were.

My kid, along with my niece, is a “blink”, which means a fan of Blackpink, a girl band that US and UK media always call the most successful “South Korean” act of all time, omitting to mention that – as the most followed music act on YouTube – they really don’t need the national qualifier. The second most followed act, incidentally, is BTS – AKA the Bangtan Boys, also South Korean.

Likewise, people often call Squid Game Netflix’s most successful South Korean show of all time, when it is actually Netflix’s most successful show, full stop: anglophone fragility, I guess. You plough on for all this time with the dominant language, assuming it will therefore dominate culture. You witness culture getting increasingly global, and still figure: not to worry – other people can simply learn English.

Then, one day, wham. The Anglosphere lost the worldwide popularity crown, and you didn’t even notice until one of your kids wants £400 to go to a concert, another one knows how to make kimchi pancakes (but how? And why do we even own tapioca flour?) and the third is trialling the new opinion that K-pop is for “neeks”. (I want to translate that, but nobody will tell me what it means. I’ll take a punt – “something bad”.)

I’ve been expressly barred from cod-sociological inquiry as to why this all should have happened: I’m not allowed, by order of the household adolescents, to wonder such things as: “Is this heavily indebted but intellectually liberated and entrepreneurial society speaking to the ‘yoot’ on a wavelength that nations in decline no longer can?”

Nor am I allowed to make cheerleader statements such as: “It’s great that you’re trying something so, erm, challenging on Duolingo – much more useful than, say, doing your French homework.” I just have to accept it without comment, and mark the first anniversary of Squid Game with a simplified bibimbap I found on BBC Good Food.

Who does that, though? Who marks a TV programme’s first birthday? Everyone now, apparently.

  • Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist


Zoe Williams

The GuardianTramp

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