S Korea’s soap operas win fans across Asia

By Anna Fifield
Published: December 13 2004 17:13 | Last updated: December 13 2004 17:13

With his floppy hair, sweet smile and displays of raw emotion, it seems Bae Yong-joon is every Korean woman’s ideal man. Increasingly, he is every Japanese, Taiwanese, Chinese and Vietnamese woman’s dream too.

The star of South Korea’s wildly popular soap opera Kyoul Yonga (Winter Sonata), Bae might be written off as a wimp in a western drama. But he has won millions of hearts in his home country and across Asia.


“He is so gentle and sweet. I like seeing such a pure man and such pure love,” says Park Sun-hee, a 46-year-old Seoul housewife. Part of the wider Hallyu (Korean wave) spreading through Asia, tear-jerking soaps such as Winter Sonata are giving Korea new-found kudos across the region and boosting tourism revenues, as well as providing something of an escape from reality.

To western eyes, these programmes seem slow and old-fashioned. But their traditional romantic themes have been a hit, particularly among ajummas, or housewives. “I like the classic love story,” says Park Yun-hee, a 50-year-old estate agent. “It reminds me of my youth and shows me what I couldn’t experience at the time.”

These soaps, which also include Autumn in My Heart and Love Story in Harvard, have a common theme: beating the odds to find true love and happiness. But unlike their western counterparts, there is no sex or even lust in these dramas. Winter Sonata is the story of Jun-sang (Bae) and Yu-jin (Choi Ji-woo), who fell in love at high school and arrange to meet on New Year’s eve, before Bae’s character departs for university in the US. But Jun-sang is hit by a car on the way to meet Yu-jin and she hears he has been killed. Years later though, they meet again it turns out he only had amnesia. So they embark on a second winter romance. Then he has a second car accident and becomes blind.

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The population of Seoul is now bombarded by bespectacled Bae’s wholesome smile on advertisements for Lotte department store, LG Telecom and apartment buildings. If he launched a wave in Korea, Bae is a tsunami in Japan, where he is affectionately known as “Yon-sama”. About 5,000 women, most middle-aged, flocked to Tokyo’s Narita airport last month to greet Bae. Ten sustained minor injuries in the rush to see him. The almost courtly love of Korean dramas translates well across Asia, especially among the ajummas.

“Many people want to turn the clock back 20 or 30 years because Korean and Japanese society has changed so much in that time,” says Ma Dong-hoon, professor of cultural studies at Korea University.

The right mix of fantasy and reality also helps. “People here don’t like heroes like Arnold Schwarzenegger. They like the idea of someone they can find in everyday life,” Prof Ma says. The popularity of these soppy soaps contrasts with the heartache involved in many Korean and other Asian relationships, says Michael Breen, author of The Koreans.

“Even though most coupling is now through love marriages, parents still have so much influence that if they are not happy with their child’s choice of partner they put so much pressure on them that they often break up,” Mr Breen says.

Hallyu is not just spreading culture out from Korea, it is also drawing people in. The number of tourists coming to Korea to attend concerts or visit locations where films and television dramas are filmed is expected to double this year to 400,000. There is already overwhelming demand to visit the ski resorts and hotels featured in Winter Sonata. But now even a cancer hospital is getting in on the act, planning to offer tours of room 348, where Bae’s character stayed while undergoing treatment for a brain tumour.

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With Korean airlines reporting strong demand because of “Yon-sama syndrome”, the Korea National Tourism Organisation thinks the total economic impact effect of Winter Sonata could hit Won1,000bn ($937m, €709m, £490m) this year.

As an economic phenomenon, Hallyu has been a boon to South Korea’s stagnating economy, but it is the social aspect that is now causing a commotion.

Especially noteworthy is the popularity of Korean drama in Japan, given the bad blood between the two countries since the end of Japanese colonial rule with the second world war.

“Fans of Winter Sonata are women in their 40s and 50s, the age group that has the most discriminating attitude towards Korea,” says Lee Hyang-chul, professor of Japanese studies at KwangWoon University in Seoul. “They saw negative aspects like the war and periods of dictatorship, so they were very ignorant about Korea. But now their attitudes are changing and they are looking at Korea differently.”

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