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Korean trends tagged with deadly warnings in Thailand.
K-Pop has even sparked a Korean language craze, compelling high school and college kids to study with professional tutors in their spare time.
“It’s serious,” said Nora Chaikum, 24, a recent graduate of Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “They can hardly speak a word of Korean to you. But they can recite entire albums.”
The K-Pop wave drew in Nora during a split with her boyfriend roughly four years ago. Amidst her heartache, she grew obsessed with Korean break-up songs and struggled to decipher the lyrics.
Her Korea fascination grew so strong that she briefly relocated to Seoul to become fluent. Nora has since returned to Bangkok and her Korean Fever has gone into remission.
“It wasn’t what I thought it would be,” she said. “Every girl in Seoul is trying to look exactly the same. There were high school girls getting nose jobs.”
For years, pundits across Asia have predicted a premature crash to the Korean Wave, said Doobo Shim, a media communications professor at Seoul’s Sungshin Women’s University.
That crash has yet to come, even in the face of a small nationalist backlash to Korean pop culture in Japan and a larger push back in China. Chinese groups have accused the Korean Wave of stealing Chinese actors’ jobs. Following a ticket giveaway misunderstanding by Korean pop ensemble Super Junior in Shanghai, Chinese hackers vowed revenge and launched viral attacks on the group’s Web site.
Korean sociologists are now actively monitoring a potential Korean backlash throughout Asia.
“Thai cultural nationalists definitely seem to be wary of the spread of Korean culture,” Doobo said. “The U.S. culture is already in, but Korean culture is just new and can become an easy target for nationalist criticism.”
But in Thailand, an ancient trading crossroads and cultural sponge, concerns over Korean Fever seem isolated to conservatives and health officials mystified by K-Pop fashion fads. Polls by The Korea-Thailand Communication Center suggest that Korea’s image has markedly improved in Thailand in the last five years.
The craze has mostly succeeded in baffling Thai parents.
“Conservatives maybe worry the Korean virus is too strong,” Nora said. “The problem is, teenagers believe there’s no real Thai style to imitate. I couldn’t even explain to you what Thai style would be.”
“Before the Korean wave,” she said, “we just dressed like kids from the states.”