When Korean dramas first became popular outside of Korea in the early 2000s — “Winter Sonata” (2002) and MBC’s “Jewel in the Palace” (2003) are prime examples — audiences were primarily Asian.
At the time, the term hallyu, or Korean Wave, was used to describe Korean entertainment’s popularity abroad.
While Korean films like Oldboy (2003), Train to Busan (2016) and Parasite (2019) have found international acclaim since the early 2000s, it wasn’t until the arrival of Netflix hits like Squid Game over the past year that Korean dramas have caught the attention of a wider global audience.
While the series won over foreign fans with its storylines and production values, entertainment shows are stuck with a problem that will be familiar to longtime viewers of Korean television: blatant cultural insensitivity.
humor at what price?
Screenshot shows Lee Gi-kwang of K-pop boy band Highlight – then a member of boy band B2ST – dressed as a cartoon character named Michael in MBC’s “Hot Brothers” in 2010. (MBC)
The Korean entertainment industry does not have much experience in accommodating cultural diversity and has often offended international viewers with its portrayal of foreign cultures and stories.
Local comedians have often attempted to elicit laughs by mimicking the Korean accent and appearance of foreigners.
In one infamous episode, the MBC variety show Hot Brothers (2010-2011) came under fire for featuring Lee Gi-kwang – then a member of boy band Beast – in the guise of a character named Michael from a local animated series, Baby-Saurus Dooly.” The affected blackface’s racial connotations were hammered home when Lee ate watermelon on the show.
MBC got into hot water again when its 2012 World Changing Quiz Show featured two female comedians performing in blackface.
The video was removed and the staff apologized, explaining that the comedians were impersonating the Michael character and it was not their intention to disparage people of another race.
In 2021, SBS issued an official apology after presenting misleading information about Indonesia in its sports drama Racket Boys, which portrayed the country as incompetent to host a sporting event and discriminating against foreign athletes.
38-year-old actor Park Eun-seok also formally apologized for the racist portrayal of his character Alex Lee in the SBS hit drama The Penthouse 3: War in Life.
Park said the character was not intended to mock or respect black people, but said he was responsible for the offense caused by the character’s appearance.
Actor Park Eun-seok plays Alex Lee in the SBS hit drama The Penthouse 3: War in Life. (SBS)
Culture critic Hwang Jin-mi said that the issue of cultural sensitivity has become more important than ever as Korean content is now enjoyed by a much wider audience.
“In addition to the popularity of Korean content around the world, our country itself is also on the way to becoming a multicultural society. These issues need to be carefully addressed,” Hwang told The Korea Herald.
“It should be noted that many cases of cultural appropriation and discrimination involve African or Southeast Asian countries. Many Koreans seem to share the misperception that they don’t need to pay much attention to these countries with smaller economies,” the critic said, adding that serious action needs to be taken against this type of discrimination.
The problems persist
Poster images of Narco Saints (left) and Little Women (Netflix, tvN)
In September, the Suriname government said it was considering taking legal action against the producers of the recent Netflix series Narco-Saints, criticizing the series for perpetuating an outdated image of the country as a “narco-state”.
Yoon Jong-bin, who directed Narco-Saints, told local reporters in an interview that he didn’t feel the need to create a fictional country because the story was based on real events. The South Korean Netflix office has not commented on the matter.
Meanwhile, cable channel tvN’s mystery thriller “Little Women” was removed from Netflix’s service in Vietnam after Vietnam’s Ministry of Radio, Television and Electronic Information said the series contained misleading information about the country and the Vietnam War .
The series mentions Vietnam while the main character talks about a mysterious orchid known as the spirit of Vietnam. Little Women also presents a story about a Korean soldier who took part in a secret operation during the Vietnam War in 1967 and killed 100 Vietcong on his mission.
Studio Dragon, the production company behind Little Women, responded to the Vietnamese government’s protest by promising to consider social and cultural sensibilities and to take greater account of them in future productions.
Can promises be kept?
“We recognize the situation with cultural appropriation and diversity issues. As more Korean content is enjoyed by both local and global audiences, we’re trying to put more effort into preventing past mistakes from repeating themselves,” an official at a local production company told The Korea Herald on November 3.
These assurances may sound familiar to you. Earlier promises to do better have not been kept. But the official claimed there was a definite change in the air.
“In the past, a surveillance team reviewed the series. Today, the individual employees feel more responsible and take more care of the issues together with the monitoring team. The hope is to present a project that many people will enjoy without feeling offended,” she added.
Public broadcaster KBS said it was strictly adhering to a production policy to prevent discrimination against social minorities, including expats and multinational families.
“We try to avoid expressions that discriminate against other countries, ethnic groups or races. The inarticulate use of Korean and their actions by non-Koreans should not be presented as something to watch,” the KBS official said.
According to Netflix Korea, different content-related teams work together to prevent cultural appropriation and discrimination.
Jang Han-up, a professor of French literature at Ewha Womans University and head of the Ewha Multicultural Institute, said careful approaches must be followed in the production phase.
Noting that Korea has strong traits of a mono-ethnic country, Jang explained that content about other cultures is accepted without much scrutiny because viewers have little experience to make independent judgments.
“This gives great power to the media and creators need to be more careful,” Jang told The Korea Herald.
According to the professor, many multicultural families in Buan, North Jeolla province, do not raise their children bilingually. Korean fathers do not agree with couples’ children learning their mothers’ language if the mothers are not from Western countries, he said.
“Diversity is still not respected enough in Korea. This can cause myriad problems for Korea when it comes to becoming a truly multicultural society,” the professor said.
Jang explained that Korean content not only appeals to overseas viewers, but also to Korea’s youth from multicultural backgrounds. He believed that unscripted shows and dramas must make the utmost effort to offer adequate, unbiased presentations.
While some fear that the strict surveillance will limit the imagination of content creators, according to Won Yong-jin, a professor at Sogang University, social discrimination cannot be discussed in the same context of freedom of expression and creativity.
“Problems that present a clear and imminent danger can be prosecuted. Although the problematic statements in drama series and entertainment shows may not be legally challenged, they are not free from public criticism. I think the staff at Narco Saints felt like they were in charge,” Won said.
“Content creators are no longer viewed as just merchants who sell their content to others. They are considered key communicators in a society. It is irresponsible to hide behind an excuse called “ignorance”. You have to be awake to be “real artists,” added the professor.
By Lee Si-jin ([email protected])