December 29, 2016 12:00 pm JST
Tea Leaves

South Koreans say it with a 'K' (konstantly)

The humble consonant is deployed to shore up a people's sense of self

DAVID VOLODZKO

My relationship with the letter "K" has been emotionally charged for as long as I can remember. My father, whose name is Konstantin, has always been known simply as "K." The book that most affected me as a boy, Franz Kafka's "The Trial," tells the story of Josef K. But it's in South Korea that I've encountered K in its most peculiar form.

Japanese have a penchant for abbreviation: Arnold Schwarzenegger is known as Shuwa-chan and McDonald's, or Makudonarudo, as "makudo." So, naturally, at some point during the 1990s, Japanese pop became known as J-pop. Then, when J-pop became popular in South Korea, and Koreans started making their own more polished, candy-coated version of the genre, they named it K-pop.

K-pop soon swept the world, hitting Japan and Thailand the hardest, but making it all the way to the shores of Buenos Aires. It was in a sense the first real debut of South Korean popular culture in the West, beyond the "Koreatowns" of Los Angeles or Toronto, and other than via the Korean War, martial arts in the form of taekwondo, the 1970s movie "Billy Jack" (the protagonist, played by Tom Laughlin, was a hapkido martial arts master) or the notoriously shoddy Hyundai Excel passenger vehicle. Finally, South Korea was known for something other than fighting or cheap cars.

The popularity of K-pop then led to an interest in South Korean TV dramas, particularly in parts of Asia, starting with the nighttime soap opera "Winter Sonata" in 2002, starring heartthrob actor Bae Yong-joon, who instantly became a sensation in Japan. Like K-pop, South Korean dramas were treacly, mawkishly sentimental and affixed with South Korea's favorite consonant, becoming K-drama.

Together, K-pop and K-drama gave shape to the growing wave of South Korean popular culture, or hallyu, which includes culinary delights such as kimchi and barbecued meats. With that boost, the trend of labeling all things Korean with the K-prefix took off, like someone who monograms everything they own. There are K-movies, K-sports, K-league, K-fashion and K-medicine, to name a few. On Sept. 30, Business Wire, a marketing news service, reported on the Busan One Asia Festival with the headline, "K-Pop, K-Food, K-Beauty, K-Culture, All in One Place."

K-BEER, ANYONE? "The Ministry of Justice is seeking to export what it calls 'K-law' to developing nations," reported The Korea Times in December 2013, also citing the terms K-beer, K-cartoons, K-science and K-finance.

The K-labeling obsession does deserve some ridicule, but it also merits some understanding of the fact that South Koreans do this for reasons that are quite sobering. It has to do with the nation's history of oppression under Chinese control, brutal wartime oppression under Japanese colonialism, and civil war with what is now North Korea (which does not use the "K" prefix, presumably because English-language brands are a rarity there).

South Koreans are therefore understandably more eager to assert ownership over their cultural products. This is done with a K-prefix, rather than by simply describing a product as "South Korean," both for the sake of brevity and because a prefix creates a new word that marks the product as indelibly linked to its Korean identity, as if to say: "You cannot take this from us." After all, K-pop isn't K-pop without the K.

Some of these labels, like K-pop or K-drama, make good sense. Others smack of insecurity and are used to claim ownership where it does not exist. But as bad as the missteps are, the path is generally becoming smoother. South Koreans are carving out a space for themselves, one letter at a time.

When the society no longer feels the need to mark everything with a nationalist stamp (hopefully before we have to read about K-physics or K-facts), we can take it as evidence of what South Koreans have been trying to prove all along -- via the K-prefix -- that they have come into their own.

Until then, we have the honor of witnessing a dispossessed people using language to shore up their sense of self. In the preface to what would one day become the Merriam-Webster dictionary, Noah Webster wrote that if a country's people cannot preserve their ideas, then they will lose their language. But sometimes you have to start with language first, and trace your steps back from there.

David Volodzko is a Seoul-based writer and editor.

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