Hallyu initially attained popularity with romantic or historical Korean television dramas such as “Winter Sonata” or “Dae Jang Geum.” In those series, young people love each other despite ordeals and obstacles, or strive to accomplish noble goals of becoming the best in their fields of expertise. Such dramas portrayed South Korea as a romantic and historic place foreigners wanted to visit.
Recently, however, things have radically changed. These days, revenge K-dramas are now enjoying domestic and, thanks to Netflix, overseas popularity. Among others, “The Glory,” “Eve,” and “Revenge of Others” are good examples. In those dramas, the protagonist, who is obsessed with vengeance, devotes his or her life to get revenge on someone for misdeeds they inflicted in the past.
In South Korean revenge dramas, sometimes the retribution is aimed at school bullies who made the protagonist’s life miserable. In “The Glory,” for example, a former female victim of school bullying seeks revenge on her tormentors. She patiently waits for her bully’s child to enter elementary school and then begins her retribution as the child’s homeroom teacher. In “Revenge of Others,” a female high school athlete transfers to her twin brother’s school in order to investigate his recent suicide. Upon discovering that her brother is a victim of school bullying, she is determined to take revenge on those who drove him to his death.
At other times, the vengeance is directed at a powerful man who caused the death in the protagonist’s family, thus ruining their lives. In “Eve,” for example, the young female protagonist witnesses her father’s death, orchestrated by a chaebol man and his family, and vows revenge. She waits for 13 years before deliberately seducing and having an affair with the mastermind of her father’s death. She destroys him financially by causing him a 2 trillion won ($1.6 billion) divorce lawsuit.
One of the unacknowledged problems with such revenge dramas is that they unwittingly depict South Korea as a land of resentment and vendettas. Without intending to, they also make Korea out to be a society run rampant with school bullying. Such publicity might make South Korea a less attractive place to visit for foreigners.
What, then, could be the reason for the sudden popularity of these revenge dramas? Recently, many people have publicly expressed that they feel they are victims of social injustice. Using such people’s sense of grievance, our left-wing politicians have exploited the situation by pouring fuel on popular enmity toward the rich and the privileged.
It is also true that school bullying is a major problem in Korean society, a behavior that frequently goes unpunished by school authorities. School bullying is wrong not only because it is mean to bully the vulnerable, but also because it leaves indelible scars on the victim’s psyche. Regrettably, however, we have not been able to root out school bullying.
As a result, people do not trust the authorities or the judicial system, and therefore want to seek personal revenge. For those people, revenge dramas provide catharsis. It is no wonder, therefore, that revenge dramas are so popular among Korean viewers.
However, those revenge dramas may give us a wrong idea that we can seek personal revenge in the name of justice. In fact, we need to question the morality of personal vendettas or the wisdom of taking justice into one’s own hands because this goes against the idea that we live in a lawful society. We no longer live in the Jacobean era when cruel, atrocious revenge plays thrived and the audience applauded. Today, people in advanced countries are not full of grudges, resentment and vengeance. On the contrary, they are generous and magnanimous.
Another problem of revenge dramas is that they encourage us to be obsessed with the past. By exploiting people’s fantasies of revenge, they prompt us to dwell more and more on the miseries of the past. The problem is that if we are obsessed with the past, we can get lost in the past forever and turn our backs on having a bright future. If a country is obsessed with the past, therefore, it can only have a grim and bleak future. Plato predicted that any society that becomes obsessed with settling scores is on the road to tyranny.
Revenge begets revenge. That is to say, if you destroy another’s life as vengeance, his son or daughter will also seek vengeance on you. Therefore, the evil cycle of revenge will continue forever. In addition, if you are obsessed with revenge, you will ruin your life because only revenge will be your ultimate goal. Life is so precious that you do not want to waste it on vengeance.
Someone once said that Korean people’s marked characteristics are “jeong" and "han,” which may be loosely translated into “affection" and "grudges.” Affection is fine, but we should work to overcome grudges and rancor. We hope Korean revenge dramas will teach us the maxims of “forget and forgive,” and “the best revenge is not to be like your enemy.”
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.