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[AtoZ into Korean mind] Unspoken code of K-cool

Delving into the evolution of South Korea's cool values and the psychology behind the admiration for effortless style

June 3, 2024 - 10:40 By Song Seung-hyun

BTS fans celebrating the boyband's 10th anniversary in June 2023 (Newsis)

"K-everything: The rise and rise of Korean culture" (The Guardian)

"The art market: Korean cool" (Financial Times)

"Hallyu: 'Cool Korea' and the art of soft power" (Le Monde Diplomatique)

From music and films to food, art and fashion, the world is falling in love with everything South Korean, according to overseas media reports.

In their effort to understand this new object of global fascination, media outlets have been paying attention to what they call “Korean cool."

"Many of my non-Korean friends, especially those in the fashion and beauty industry, often ask me about the latest trends in Korean fashion, food, and celebrities," said Kim, a 28-year-old Korean living in China.

He explained that they inquire because they believe trendy things in Korea are cool, but he personally disagrees.

"I guess being trendy often translates into it being cool. But I think who does it matters more," he said.

He illustrated this with an example of a group of Korean international students he observed in Beijing's Sanlitun, a popular nightlife district, fully dressed in the latest Korean fashion.

"They were all wasted. They were screaming and fighting with each other. To be honest, it was embarrassing when I found out they were Koreans. Not cool at all," he said.

The Museum of Shilhak showcases Joseon era scholars' outdoor attire in "Men's Ornaments in Joseon Dynasty" exhibition (The Museum of Shilhak)

Diverse cool factors in Korea

So, what exactly defines "cool" in the Korean cultural context?

The answers vary even among Koreans.

"I think being cool is exhibiting a clear taste. I believe the recent popularity of videos featuring the 'orange tribe' (from the early 90s) can be due to this aspect," said Lee Guk-cheong, 32, living in Seoul.

The Korean term orange tribe refers to the carefree offspring of affluent families, who, in the conservative society of 1990s Korea, were often despised for their extravagant lifestyles and fashion sense.

Kim Yae-eun, 28, living in Seoul believes that true coolness is achieved by being down-to-earth even though they are in a place where people look up to them.

"For example, I never quite got the hype surrounding actor Han So-hee, but after finding out about her blog, I can't deny that she is cool," Kim said. "Being a star actor and also being down-to-earth seems remarkable."

Han's blog offers glimpses into the actor's daily life, including quarrels with her sister and the occasional misstep, like a regrettable choice in face piercing.

Lee Dong-hyun, 29, also believes that being cool lies in one's actions.

"I think people who are not overly selfish and are not 'kkondae' make them a cool person. Those who are willing to listen to others' opinions," Lee said. Kkondae is a term that has a negative connotation and refers to a condescending older person in Korean.

From inner to outer coolness

In Korean, "cool" can be translated as "meot," which refers to a sense of style both internally and externally.

According to the National Institute of Korean Language, meot has two primary meanings: "The state of being refined and beautiful in one's dress, behavior and character," and "an elegant level of style and grace."

During the Joseon era (1392-1910), among those who cared the most about being cool and were considered among the coolest were virtuous neo-Confucian scholars known as "seonbi," a kind of public intellectual.

According to "Dongjijungchubusa," a collection of poems by Joseon-era scholar Song Jun-gil, a seonbi would take great care to look polished, often keeping a box with a mirror and grooming tools close by.

However, a seonbi's dedication to looking cool wasn't just surface-level; their love for "pungryu," or a relaxed feeling of style, was equally important. Pungryu contains many meanings, including: being close to nature, having a sense of style or taste, having deep knowledge of the arts, being relaxed or at leisure, having a carefree sensibility and being able to enjoy oneself.

However, in today's fast-paced, capitalist society, where beauty standards and fashion trends swiftly rise and fall, appearing cool has gained heightened importance, some experts say.

"Meot originally revolved around the idea of a person’s inner values and qualities oozing out and becoming noticeable to others. However, many people mistakenly associate it solely with physical appearance," according to Korean essayist Lee Cheol-ho, chair of the board of the New Korean Literature Association.

Kwak Geum-joo, professor of psychology at Seoul National University, said that modern technologies like the internet and telecommunications intersect with the collectivist culture in South Korea, making people more concerned with how others see them and how they look.

"Koreans' interest in others is the foundation. Consequently, what is deemed a cool appearance spreads more rapidly through social media and diverse channels in Korea, compared to in other countries," Kwak explained.

Psychology professor Lee Dong-gwi of Yonsei University echoed this view.

“Since Korea is an IT powerhouse, it seems like there are a lot of specific beauty standards that spread quickly and become shared widely here, such as having a small face and slim body," Lee said. "Korea's highly competitive environment has also played a part. When there are limited positions available, these things develop value. So how one looks comes to be a very important part of a person's competitiveness."

According to a 2020 Gallup Korea survey targeting 1,500 men and women aged 19 and above, 89 percent of respondents believed that appearance has a very or somewhat important impact on life. This result is not very different from 1994's 87 percent.

Only 41 percent of the respondents in 2020 said they were confident about their looks.

Album cover of Lee Hyo-ri's recent digital single "Hoodie e Banbaji." (Antenna)

Effortlessly cool

The essence of Korean cool, rooted in one’s profound life values emanating from within, still holds sway in that people generally do not perceive someone as cool if it appears they are making a significant effort to cultivate this coolness.

Korean superstar singer Lee Hyo-ri, often admired for her cool image, has attributed how she maintained her cool persona over the past two decades to being "born with a sense of style."

This response garnered widespread praise, with online comments emphasizing that such coolness cannot be imitated and must be an innate quality.

This perspective is also evident in online posts comparing celebrities' childhood photos with their current ones, often criticizing transformations, while praising those who maintain a visually appealing look from a young age.

“This happens because Korean people have a low tolerance for deception,” Lee explained. “Celebrities who earn money based on their appearance may be perceived as lacking in transparency if it is discovered that they underwent surgery. Such a mindset is neither right nor healthy.”

Given the sensitivity within Korean society surrounding the perception of changing one's appearance through surgery to fit beauty standards here, celebrities are proactive in ensuring that their fans know they have not achieved their beauty through such procedures.

For example, recently, rising star actor Han So-hee, in a Kakaotalk fan chatroom, shared that she had gotten surgery for rhinitis, not a nose job.

“Guys, I really did not implant silicone in my nose,” she said.

Former figure skater Kim Yuna also addressed similar rumors by stating on Instagram, “I did not get double eyelid surgery.” The rumor started spreading after a local magazine featured a photo of her with what looked like double eyelids.

Kwak interprets the admiration for innate coolness as a phenomenon rooted in jealousy.

"Plastic surgery comes with a price tag. Some individuals, despite a strong desire to enhance their beauty, find themselves unable to afford such procedures," she said. "Consequently, a mindset emerges questioning the authenticity of beauty crafted through surgical means."

This mentality applies to how Koreans view others buying luxury goods as well.

"In other countries, people don't act this way. However, in Korean society, where envy and jealousy are prevalent, debates about whether a luxury brand product that someone wears is real or fake become common."

Nonetheless, small indications of a shift in what is considered cool in Korea are taking place.

Many young Koreans now look up to influencer Milanonna, who has over 11,000 followers on Instagram and 890,000 subscribers on YouTube. The 71-year-old content creator is known as a "cool grandma" who inspires young people with her fashion and lifestyle.

In her videos, she often places value on old items, emphasizing the importance of memories that each one holds.

“I am an old lady, so all my stuff is old too,” she mentioned in one of her YouTube videos, where she discusses the belongings in her bag, as each one carries memories.

“Owning items that hold memories, rather than possessions acquired for the purpose of showing off, seem to show Nonna's dignity,” commented one viewer in the video. This comment had received over 1,600 likes as of the end of January.

"A to Z into the Korean mind" traverses the complexities of the Korean psyche, examining an array of mental and emotional phenomena and their cultural nuances through keywords in alphabetical order. – Ed.