Han river and Gangnam district in Seoul, Korea
When the sleek, sexy, preposterous world of PSY’s “Gangnam Style” surged to become the number one video on YouTube, it offered us a glimpse of the new South Korea: an engineering powerhouse that rivals the West, a competitive economy that drives innovation, and an increasingly successful exporter of cultural memes.
The technology powerhouse that is the Republic of Korea (ROK) has created the 15th largest economy in the world, according to the World Bank. And while Korean technology—which includes superb mobile phones and cool refrigerators developed by giants such as Samsung and LG—had already penetrated American homes and offices, it was PSY’s iconic horse trot that lassoed U.S. culture closer to the ROK.
Consider the ROK’s impressive record in tech. In 2012, South Korea became the first country in the world to hit 100% penetration in wireless broadband, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, with 100.6 subscriptions per 100 inhabitants. Its broadband is the second fastest in the world (after the Slovak Republic, an unexpected contender) and its mobile broadband speeds lead the world, as reported by Bloomberg. The U.S. is far behind. South Korean average home Internet speeds could be as much as 200 times as fast as those for the average household in the United States. Imagine how much time we lost as a nation learning to trot Gangnam style while the video was loading.
Meanwhile, South Korean schools are beginning to resemble Steve Jobs’ pedagogical fantasy. A pilot “smart” high school in Sejong has replaced textbooks with tablets, roll calling with automated check-ins, and lecturing with interactive screen sharing. The economics are impressive: After the costly setup, these schools cost no more to maintain per student than traditional ones.
This wired education is designed to prepare students for a radically different workplace, which South Korea has already transformed with the help of a new kind of employee. The ROK boasted the highest robot density in 2011, with 261 robots per 10,000 workers in non-automotive industries, compared with 72 robots per 10,000 workers in the U.S., according to the International Federation of Robotics. South Korea is training its students to manage these intelligent robots one day soon (and presumably not the other way around, though South Korea’s eerily sophisticated engineering gives us pause).
South Korea can attribute its rise to a strong vision for modernization, combined with low regulation and healthy competition. The general deregulation and privatization that fueled South Korea’s ascent included government efforts to promote information technology in the 1990s. Those programs were reinforced after the 1997 economic crisis, which moved the ROK to invest even more heavily in IT as a sector that was central to the country’s recovery. Demand for technology and telecoms services among tech-savvy citizens helped expand the market, and South Korea’s increasingly deregulated climate enabled multiple telecoms firms to compete, keeping prices down and speeds up. (Though the oligopolies created by a small number of market-dominant, so-called “Chaebol” conglomerates does counteract some of these forces.)
South Korea’s technical capabilities are benefitting the country in almost every field, industry and region. Seoul—bright and prosperous—is dazzling. And local industries are not only providing infrastructure and delivery. Others are getting into content, too, extending the ROK’s influence in Asia’s media landscape.
South Korea’s progress in tech has now positioned it to advance in related fields, including music. It was only a matter of time before South Korea began exporting its “cultural technology,” a term popularized by the mastermind of K-pop in Seoul, Lee Soo-man, who was recently profiled in an absorbing New Yorker exposé of the industry. Born in Seoul just as North and South were exchanging artillery in their battle for the peninsula, Lee listened to both Korean rock music and the American folk that emerged from U.S. Army bases, which became a kind of distribution channel for content to locals. He became a well-known singer and DJ, then pursued computer science in the U.S., where he was immersed in the American culture that inspired his vision for Korea’s music industry. Embracing multiple roles as artist, agent, executive, talent incubator, and technologist, Lee founded S.M. Entertainment, a diversified music company that would go on to invent South Korea’s entertainment industry as we now know it. Its first product: the K-pop assembly line.
The K-pop assembly line manufactures stars using methodical systems. South Korea’s major record labels are vertically integrated with divisions devoted to production, representation, and publishing. They invest in new talent by housing, feeding, and training recruits for years. But the shelf-life of a resulting K-pop star is shorter than would be typical in the West—about 5 years on average. The industry business model focuses on short-term productivity over long-term stardom.
K-pop is also a portfolio play: New groups appear constantly. Most wither after a few songs, and only a handful stick around. But the model generates significant revenue, which is almost certain to grow as K-pop increasingly enters nearby China and other lucrative markets. The BBC reports that K-pop alone contributes $2 billion a year to Korea’s economy.
This cultural system is innovative, both in content and process, but it’s also remarkably low-tech for a country defined by its technical prowess. Music companies have been known to scout talent in malls and small cities. Some agencies impose strict rules on incubated talent, such as one infamous ban on eating after 7 pm (apparently verboten for a promising K-pop star, along with having a boyfriend). The process of developing a K-pop idol is still inherently analog, still painstakingly slow—and, when it comes to breaking into Western markets, still unpredictable, as PSY’s unlikely YouTube bonanza reminds us. But it’s never been more compelling. South Korea has officially entered a new wave, and the U.S. is officially along for the ride.