A diplomat in Seoul asked me: What do Korean superstars like singer Psy, U.S. Ladies Professional Golf Association sensation Park In-bee and Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Ryu Hyun-jin have in common? I scratched my head over this difficult question. The diplomat joked all of three are chubby. He later revealed the correct answer is that these three personalities are currently some of the most famous Koreans in the world.
Apart from being famous, the three South Korean superstars mentioned above have many other traits in common. For one, they were born during boom periods in Korea. Psy was born in 1977 when Korea’s economy was just taking off; Ryu was born in 1987, just one year before the Seoul Summer Olympics; and Park was born in 1988, merely months before the said Olympics.
Their parents devoted a significant portion of their earnings to their children’s education including their intensive English language training. Unlike their parents, Psy and Park have little trouble speaking in English, as seen in their interviews with major American TV shows.
Young people from Generations X and Y also differ from older ones from the baby boomer generation in their way of thinking perhaps because of differences in their education and social background. Psy, Ryu and Park grew up and were educated when Korea’s democracy and freedom were maturing. In contrast, their parents were educated in the 1970s and 1980s during periods of authoritarian rule.
Similarly, children from the younger generation have a more global outlook than their parents. These children were able to travel abroad freely once Korea scrapped its overseas travel ban in 1989. Those with rich parents, including Psy and Park, studied abroad. Under the nation’s political freedom and economic prosperity, and with opportunities for overseas study, children from this generation realized that Korea is not the only place they can realize their dream.
These young superstars did not have the inferiority complex older Koreans have, and thus, excelled in sports and cultural activities their parents were unable to pursue, like music, baseball and golf.
Even Psy admitted he was a problematic boy who was uninterested in school work. However, his parents allowed him to pursue music, which is what he has always wanted to do. As a college student in the U.S., he did not do well academically, but he learned about global culture and mastered spoken English.
This experience helped Psy learn how to appeal to a global audience. First, he composed songs using both Korean and English words. His hit songs “Big Brother Is Gangnam Style” and “Gentleman” highlight Gangnam, Seoul’s posh district, and its gentlemen. Second, Psy harnessed the power of social media including YouTube. Finally, he also learned about the power of humor and self deprecation — he made fun of himself in his two hit songs and has incorporated this humor in his music videos and stage performances. In the end, Psy became a global sensation. His first hit, “Oppan Gangnam Style,” was named one of the top quotations in The Yale Book of Quotations in 2012. Even UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said he wants to work with Psy on UN projects because of his global reach.
Park In-bee stole the global limelight after winning three straight major American golf titles including this year’s U.S. Women’s Open. At this rate, she has a strong chance of surpassing her idols Annika Sorenstam and Pak Se-ri. Many, perhaps even Tiger Woods, are in awe of her unprecedented putting skills. She has developed her own swing that is tailored to her physique and that few could imitate. She has honed her golf acumen by learning from coaching legends Butch Harmon and David Leadbetter.
People are in awe not only of her skills but also of her calmness on the course. She seldom loses composure even after a critical mistake. Many sports commentators credit her rise as the No. 1 player in the Women’s World Golf Rankings to her composure or mental strength. Her recent victories show that self-control is an important factor in winning highly competitive golf matches.
Left-handed Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Ryu has become well loved by both Korean and American baseball fans. He debuted in the U.S. Major League this year after making a name in the Korean league. Without enthusiastic fans in the Korean baseball league, he might not have been able to play in the U.S. league.
Despite their success, these superstars lack one important thing — significant involvement in charities. Like successful companies such as Samsung, Hyundai and Kia, or Korean TV dramas and Korean food, they need to help promote a positive image of the nation. The world watches everything they say and do, and thus, their reputations directly influence the image of Korea.