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Sunday, June 4, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Lance Dickie / Seattle Times editorial columnist

The Korean wave

SEOUL — Spending time in South Korea is like hanging out with the cool kids of the coming Asian century.

Get beyond those archived images of the Korean Peninsula — grainy footage of haggard GIs, taut presidential jaws at the DMZ and the chubby visage of North Korea's Kim Jong Il. Time to notice the Samsung consumer electronics around the house, the Hyundai in the garage, South Korea's broadband infrastructure and a country with the financial independence and military confidence to resist being told what to do.

The country is full of a dynamic, aggressive energy we in Washington state increasingly experience through growing cultural exports, business links — look at Microsoft's recent investments — and family ties.

Curious how Americans will use broadband technology in, oh, 20 years? South Koreans already enjoy live TV and digital multimedia broadcasting on cellphones. iPods? Pfft.

Hallyu — the Korean wave — is rolling over Asia with pop music, TV dramas and movies that dazzle audiences from Tokyo and Beijing to Seattle.

Cars, ships, steel and electronics power a robust Korean economy through the occasional queasy moment since the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Boardroom scandals and intrigue are every bit a national pastime as soccer, baseball and speedskating.

None of it could have been predicted after the poverty of colonial occupation and the rubble of war. A nation with a bulletproof work ethic and a passion for education reinvented itself to thrive amid office towers and residential high-rises.

After the 1953 armistice that halted the war, South Koreans nursed a feeble democracy through coups and military dictatorships. They built their economy over decades, but they only rescued civilian political control barely a generation ago.

Along with prosperity has come a focus on environmental issues, evolving opportunities for women, and introspection about the nation's shameful treatment of "mixed blood" persons in a close, homogeneous society.

A country that drew its identity from industrial cities such as muscular Ulsan is now thinking about itself in new ways.

The deputy mayor of Busan helps run the second-largest city, a seaside metropolis with 3.6 million residents and the world's fifth-busiest container port. His voice fills with pride over ... the Busan film festival, described as the eighth-largest in the world.

Among the country's hottest exports are four televised dramas with global appeal. The final 20-episode series "Spring Waltz" began in March and stars Daniel Henney, a Korean-American born in Michigan. In February, the Korea Herald reported the show already had contracts with nine countries and deals pending with six more, including the U.S.

Hailing visitors on the "Spring Waltz" set in a Seoul neighborhood, the 26-year-old Henney had me at "Yo." He is on a two-year work visa that combines acting with the fashion modeling that launched his career in Hong Kong and New York.

Each of the dramas contains the usual soap-opera grist of incurable diseases, mistaken identities, exotic locales and amnesia. Missing are sex, vulgarity, profanity and politics.

Instead, the shows' creators credit a different kind of tension for their popularity in Asia. Pushing back on cultural norms of respect, hierarchy and heredity is bold enough for viewers in countries that have not reached that point.

Sit around a table with media — pointedly not journalism — students at Chonnam National University in Gwangju and the future of the news business is more pixels than ink on paper. Indeed, South Korea is home to www.OhmyNews.com, which did away with reporters in favor of citizen journalism from around the world. Oh my.

The Korean wave is big business and cozy rules have eroded. In January, the government eased regulations that required domestic films be shown at Korean movie theaters 146 days of the year. Hollywood — and Bollywood — had been squeezed out. The requirement was halved to 73 days, nicely timed in advance of free-trade negotiations with the U.S.

The Demilitarized Zone

Cinematic qualities overtake a trip to the DMZ and the most heavily fortified border on the planet. Panmunjom is about an hour north of Seoul. In 1953, the fighting did not end with a peace treaty, so technically, North and South are still at war.

Every scuff and scrape at the Military Armistice Commission has a history. Inside the austere meeting room, one can walk around the table and step into North Korea. A Republic of Korea soldier in a Praetorian pose — helmet, sunglasses, fists clenched, legs spraddled — stands with his back against the door leading into the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea, lest anyone bolt inside or out.

North Korean guards glare through the window, wearing the high, round Soviet-style military hats that give them the appearance of angry hotel doormen.

The military briefer is the first woman to be assigned to the Joint Security Area, U.S. Army Capt. Tamara Yolo, a West Point graduate from Wapato, Wash. Her job is to maintain a 24-hour hotline with the Korean People's Army. Her task is complicated by a history of bloody border incidents, ongoing political tensions and the ancient equipment available to the KPA: a 1960s field phone, an aged Russian fax machine and, if all else fails, a bullhorn.

If the tourist tram is down, walk the length of a low, cramped tunnel discovered in 1978. North Koreans dug out nearly a mile of solid rock to funnel troops south. Visit the theater for a thumping, multiscreen film of the military might that is ready "to fight tonight."

Go to Check Point 3, surrounded on three sides by North Korea. Watch the KPA guards watching your every move. Oh my God, what is that noise? Could it be ... an invading horde of students on a field trip. They almost knock over sightseers heading for their bus and a stop at the gift shop before the restaurant.

Stare deep into North Korea and contemplate the bulldozed land on the horizon. All of that cornmeal-colored earth is the home of the Kaesong Industrial Complex. South Korean companies have set up shop to meld their technology and capital with cheap, limitless North Korean labor. Planned in three phases, the entire complex will cover 16,000 acres by 2012 and feature hotels and a theme park.

To watch a line of trucks snake across the border is to see the future. Economic and diplomatic engagement is South Korea's way of dealing with its blustery, destitute neighbor.

The standoff at the DMZ feels dusty and irrelevant. The ROK soldiers — and increasingly fewer Americans — garrisoned in this remote area serve with evident pride. The political decisions that keep them there have the feel of a Cold War relic.

As more South Koreans, especially young people, cannot be roused to loathe the communist North by rote, the battleground for hearts and minds has shifted. The prospects of closer ties have political conservatives demanding improved human rights in North Korea before relations improve. The quip is that the right, which never paid attention before, is yammering at the left, which has gone deaf on the subject.

Politics and culture collide in the hottest ticket in Seoul, "Yoduk Story," an improbable musical by a controversial North Korean refugee about life in prison camps, one of which provides the title. Even with English subtitles, the 170-minute blend of "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Stalag 17" fell apart for me, but the production is a hit with Seoul's conservatives and Christian community.

The nation embraced Christianity with the same gusto it brought to economic, technological and political modernity. About half the country claims no religious ties, and Christians and Buddhists largely split the rest.

Sunday morning, the Yoido Full Gospel Church feels like the center of the universe. Thirty thousand worship at each of seven Sunday services; 12,000 inside the enormous, tiered sanctuary and 18,000 more at 20 locations connected by closed-circuit television. Dr. David Yonggi Cho oversees a sacred enterprise assisted by 750 associate pastors, 1,500 church elders and an army of highly organized parishioners.

From a rousing, hand-clapping opening hymn to what is the doxology in any language, through a homily and Communion and introduction of visitors in the foreigners' section, the orchestra, soloists and enormous choir keep the congregation in tow. No one loses sight of Dr. Cho on giant video screens.

Credit for the breathtaking growth of his Assemblies of God church goes in part to the early involvement of women, who had no outlets outside the home. The appeal of Christianity, which arrived with Catholic priests in the late 1700s and Protestant missionaries in the 1880s, is a message of equality in a culture with a history of slavery and social strictures. Missionaries also brought education for women.

Korean women are having fewer babies. The economic advantages of smaller families are evident to a growing urban middle class, as is the cost of educating children. South Korea has its first prime minister who is a woman, the leading opposition party is headed by a woman and 20 women are in the 299-seat National Assembly. A woman campaigned to be mayor of Seoul.

A sensitive subject

South Korea, which dazzles its neighbors and global competitors, is turning inward on a sensitive subject.

The tear-stained face of Hines Ward, the Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl MVP, was all over South Korean newspapers. The son of a Korean mother and black American serviceman was warmly welcomed home. Henney, the Korean-American "Spring Waltz" star, also is a media darling.

As "mixed blood" Koreans, neither would have been allowed to excel at sports or acting. Indeed, if they had been raised by a single mother without their fathers' names, they would have been virtually official non-entities — kept out of school and denied government services.

Both are now celebrated for their achievements elsewhere and their reflected glory on South Korea. As Ward was feted, a flurry of legislation was introduced that would revise some rules. Increasingly, the pressure is coming from South Korean men who have traveled to China, Vietnam or the Philippines to find wives. Their children might see change.

South Koreans are tough, industrious and literally do their homework. The Korean wave is not about to crest anytime soon.

Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is ldickie@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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