24 February 2022
An Entertainment Superpower
South Korea’s presidential election.
By Neil Tidmarsh
South Korea has well and truly established itself on the world stage as an entertainment superpower. Two years ago it thrilled us with the movie Parasites (best film Oscar 2020); last year it enthralled us with the tv drama series Squid Game (Netflix’s most successful offering yet); and this year it’s gripping us with the presidential election campaign currently underway.
President Moon Jae-in is stepping down next month after serving the single term allowed by his country’s constitution. It has to be admitted that his five years in office have been something of a time-out for this branch of entertainment; he has quietly and efficiently gone about his work, earning serious and sober respect for his handling of the economy, the coronavirus crisis, foreign policy, his problematic neighbour to the north, dogs-as-pets-rather-than-dinner, etc. This quiet efficiency has been in sharp contrast to the excesses, eccentricities and foibles of his predecessors; previous president Park Geun-hye, remember, was impeached while in office and sentenced to 25 years in prison for corruption amidst colourful stories about the influence and power of her mentor – an alleged shaman and daughter of a cult leader – who is also in prison (in fact, half of all the country’s living presidents are now in prison).
So has Moon Jae-in broken the presidential mould? No, not if the absorbing campaign to determine his successor is anything to go by. His undramatic five years are beginning to look like a mere interregnum.
Suspicions of shamanistic influence, cult beliefs and ritualistic practices continue to swirl around South Korean politics, for a start. They centre on the main opposition candidate, lawyer and former state prosecutor, Yoon Suk-yeol of the conservative People Power Party, who is rumoured to take advice from shamans. In a televised presidential debate, he was seen to have the Chinese character ‘wang’ painted on the palm of his hand. ‘Wang’ means ‘king’, and its use was taken as an attempt to harness the power of magic to further his ambitions. Last month a committee advising his campaign on tactics and strategy was dissolved after it was revealed that a shaman had been appointed to it. The party has denied allegations about their candidate and magic, and has highlighted coverage of him recently attending church, bible prominently in hand.
But, this being South Korea, the electioneering is also entertaining us with new technology worthy of science fiction. Independent candidate Kim Dong-yeon (former banker, minister of economy and finance and deputy prime minister) has two avatars – digital animated creations – to help him campaign in more than one place at a time. But he has talked down this exciting and novel development in artificial intelligence, almost as if embarrassed by it; “Korean politics has been a burden to the people for a long time, costing an astronomical amount of money” he has said, with his ’economy and finance’ hat firmly in place. “Adopting an AI spokesman is an attempt to cut down on the cost of campaigning.”
Yoon Suk-yeol also has a personal avatar. In fact his was developed before Kim Dong-yeon’s and is in an altogether different league. It’s a life-like, moving, talking image which can converse with real human beings and answer questions from voters. It’s the creation of DeepBrain AI, a South Korean company, and it looks and sounds like Yoon Suk-yeol because it’s constructed from many hours of recordings of him speaking and moving. It will be sent out across the country to canvas for him from screens mounted on motor vehicles. Reports claim that it differs from Yoon Suk-yeol himself only in that it can be rude and witty and doesn’t share its original’s much-satirised habits of excessive head-shaking and standing with his legs far apart.
How many genres is that? The supernatural… science fiction… and now, almost inevitably, soap opera. The ruling centre-left liberal Democratic Party’s candidate Lee Jae-myung and his wife Kim Hye-gyoung are a power couple with humble working-class roots; but she is now facing accusations that she misappropriated public funds while her husband was a provincial governor. She publicly apologised for those accusations earlier this month, acknowledging that she had confused ‘public and private’ matters, and promising to co-operate with investigations and to take responsibility for their findings.
Accusations about the PPP’s candidate Yoon Suk-yeol inappropriately accepting gifts from big business (the alleged gifts were fruit) pale in comparison, but nevertheless his own wife – Kim Keon-hee – isn’t to be outdone in other respects. She has been accused of falsifying her qualifications when applying for university teaching positions, about which she has apologised ‘for causing distress’. More recently, she fought an unsuccessful court battle in an attempt to prevent a tv channel from broadcasting conversations with a journalist in which she threatened to have her husband’s critics thrown into jail if he won the election, defended a politician recently imprisoned for sexual assault, criticised the MeToo movement and claimed that victims of sexual abuse are mercenary. She has since apologised for her ‘inappropriate remarks’.
Last week she apparently became the target of a satirical song released by the South Korean folk rocker An Chi-hwan (yes, the final genre is – the musical). His song Lady Who Looks Like Michael Jackson has been taken to refer to Kim Keon-hee. It puns on her name and refers to a ‘lady who changed her name and her face’ – it’s known that she has changed her name and has had cosmetic surgery. The cover art includes a portrait which some say is of the Thriller singer and others say is of the politician’s wife. Her husband has condemned the song as an insult to both his wife and Michael Jackson.
The elections take place on 9th March, less than three weeks away. What shall we do after that? This entertaining campaign will be over and done with; we’ve all seen Parasites; and Squid Game has come and gone. Well, don’t despair. There’s always K-pop. Odd that the UK hasn’t really discovered this global phenomenon yet, let alone embraced it. Because there’s this South Korean band called BTS, it topped the charts in the USA twice in 2020 with the songs Dynamite and Life Goes On, and it’s coming this way…