Pakistanis and Korean content: Fascination with the other or the familiar?
Pakistanis have been swept up in the tide of the Korean Wave, slowly but surely becoming enamoured with the world of K-content. Each week, internationally acclaimed K-dramas like Vincenzo dominate Netflix’s Top 10 TV Shows in Pakistan list even almost two years after its release. The consumption of K-content is not just restricted to the Netflix audiences who are either comfortable with English subtitles or resort to English dubbing but also to the wider, local audience with the Urdu dubbing of K-dramas Crash Landing on You (2019), Guardian: The Great and Lonely God (2016), and Penthouse (2020) being aired on television channels like Urdu1 and LTN Family.
Pakistan’s growing fascination with Korean content has not been missed by certain K-pop groups either. Recently, boy group Blitzers toured the country, visiting historical sites in Lahore to film a music video.
According to data revealed by Spotify on World Music Day 2022, K-pop groups such as BTS, BLACKPINK, TOMORROW X TOGETHER, Stray Kids, and TWICE are all streamed avidly by Pakistani listeners. The growing popularity of K-pop groups, particularly BTS, can be assessed by their concert movie BTS: Yet to Come being released in Pakistani cinemas in February in over 10 cities, with fans lining up to gush over their idols.
BTS fans are not just restricted to being active on social media sites such as Twitter and Instagram but also engage in the organisation of volunteer activities, fostering a sense of community. Froza, one of the organisers of BTS Pak Army on social media, said, “Locally I have been connected with a group who collect funds donated to different foundations for different purposes. Every year, someone tweets ‘hey we should do this for this member’s birthday’ and the ball gets rolling and the word is spread.” The funds collected are specific to each member’s cause of interest, for example “for Namjoon’s birthday it was to plant trees. For Yoongi’s birthday, the funds were donated to cat shelters. Hoseok and Jimin’s birthdays are usually marked by donating to children’s facilities.”
This incorporation of Korean cultural imports is owed to the Korean Wave or Hallyu Wave, commonly understood as a vehemence toward Korean popular culture, encompassing food, music, fashion, television, and cinema. The word Hallyu was also added to the Oxford English dictionary in 2021 among other 25 Korean words owing to the global success of the aforementioned phenomena.
Hallyu has made Korean pop bands into worldwide sensations and Korean dramas household names globally, given their distribution and consumption via streaming services like Netflix.
Netflix’s recent advantage over other streaming services is partially indebted to its rising recognition of non-Western media products, particularly Korean television content. In The Soft Power of the Korean Wave, writer Hyejung Ju argues that this dissemination creates an unexpected interest among foreign viewers by exposing them to various aspects of Korean culture, history, and experiences, inculcating a fascination with what is both the “other” and in some respect the familiar for viewers belonging to the wider Asian region.
Froza termed it “appeal” rather than fascination, citing the similarities and differences between Pakistani and Korean cultures. She argued that both cultures are “conservative, allowing for many values and norms to be mutual.” Their television content in particular presents a collectivist culture and close-knit family dynamics which adds to the relatability factor.
Asma, an art history major at NCA and a long-time BTS fan, said there are uncanny similarities between Korean culture, language, and history and Pakistan, making the former’s consumption feel more like “home” than Western content. Thus, it allows some Pakistanis to live vicariously through those characters, even more so because of the cultural proximity. This phenomenon is not dissimilar to the popularity of Turkish dramas, the boom reaching its peak in 2019 with the release of the Urdu dubbing of Ertugul. With its focus on historical figures from the Muslim world, the series held widespread appeal for Pakistani viewers.
Another reason for the popularity of Korean content is that the clothes and language are “modest and appropriate”, argued fan club organiser Froza, for a Pakistani audience raised on ARY Digital and HUM TV dramas. There is minimal “skinship” (a term commonly used to describe physical affection in Korean culture) even between the male and female protagonists of slow-burn, romantic dramas — a direct counter to the hyper-sexualisation of American television which Pakistani viewers of K-content find alienating. As an older consumer of K-content, she suggests that it is not just young girls that K-dramas and K-pop appeal to but also the older generation for the aforementioned reasons, adding that they do not allow their children to view American content while preferring they consume Korean media as they find it to be more “children friendly.”
While consumers may be seeking to fill a vacuum left by Pakistani content with repetitive narratives of toxic masculinity and female victimhood, Haania who runs a fan account dedicated to the boy group GOT7 on Twitter, spoke about how Pakistanis received Korean content only a few years ago and how its initial reception stands in stark contrast to the current infatuation. Korean content was perceived as “weird and had racist undertones toward it” due to the “bishounen” beauty standard in which male idols and actors appear “effeminate” for their display of softer masculinity and their delicate appearances.
Pakistanis’ reactions to Hallyu still remains quite ambivalent as recently a billboard of BTS member Jungkook was taken down in Gujranwala at the behest of a politician for “supporting homosexuality” with no evidence to support their claim. Jungkook’s appearance was enough for the politician to incorrectly assume his sexuality.
As the Korean Wave has taken Pakistani audiences by storm, it is also pertinent to recognise that the industry is not just the projection it aims to put forward for a global audience. According to SheThePeople, the K-pop industry is notorious for the objectification of female idols, suffering from the Lolita Complex, debuting and training pubescent girls to be sexual yet innocent objects which forms a microcosm of the pervasive sexism and patriarchy in South Korea, a facet of Hallyu that international fans often do not interact with.
For example, newly-formed girl group NewJeans comprises of members ranging from ages 14 to 18 and released a single called ‘Cookie’ which sparked controversy for its suggestive lyrics, which were inappropriate to be sung by girls who are barely adults, bringing into question their agency’s sense of responsibility.
This argument, though, is not to deter the average consumer but to allow for more socially aware engagement with the content consumed. Without this, the problem is when South Korea is put on a pedestal as an idealistic hub of culture, bordering on fetishisation by some. South Korea is elevated to an idyllic, romantic and entirely one-dimensional state through K-content and comes to only exist as a personal playground and romantic fantasy to escape to. It becomes a glossy travel brochure advertising a “unique cultural experience”, not a multi-faceted complex society with its own sets of problems.