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“Koreans are the first to be surprised by the success of their popular culture in the world”

Born in Colombia, an honorary citizen of Seoul since 2019, the writer Andrés Felipe Solano has become, among other things, an interpreter for Latin America of the idiosyncrasy and culture of South Korea, a country on the rise in the global imaginary either due to its constant presence in the news as by the overwhelming force of “hallyu”.

The term, coined in China in the 90s regarding the resumption of diplomatic relations between the two countries and the success of Korean soap operas on television in the People’s Republic, translates as “Korean wave”, and in it they surf towards the coasts in the world both K-pop bands and BTS, such as a series that achieved a record on Netflix as “The Squid Game”.

In the cinema, films like “Parasites” or “Decision to leave”, which are part of a cinematography with a long history and proven quality, are awarded at international festivals.

A filmmaker like Bong Joon Ho made history as a Best Director Oscar winner in 2020, competing with legends like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. The same as Yuh-jung Youn, winner of the Oscar for best supporting actress in 2021, the first from South Korea.

According to figures from the Korean authorities, fan clubs associated with K-pop and other expressions of the country’s popular culture number some 100 million people worldwide.

In the daily news, whether it’s Kim Jong-un’s latest missile test, South Korea’s strict covid strategy, or BTS Jin’s (Kim Seok-jin) military service, South Korea is a constant presence, and curiosity and fascination with their culture is a phenomenon on the rise.

“In a few days in Korea, a lot happens. It’s a roller coaster. And it is curious for such a small country, let’s say in geographical terms. The Korean population is about the size of Colombia’s, and there aren’t that many Korean speakers in the world. But there is something, a small engine that generates a lot of tension in this corner of the world and that is very interesting”, Andrés Felipe Solano tells him from South Korea.

BBC Mundo spoke with him within the framework of the HAY Festival Cartagena, which is held between January 20 and 22 in that Colombian city.


Missile and other weapons tests in North Korea are widely covered in international news. What reaction do they generate in South Korea, which is directly across the border?

My first year here I didn’t quite understand what was happening. It’s been a long time since each March South Korea and the United States have military exercises, and North Korea always responds to them.

I remember that at the beginning many people, families and friends, asked me what was going on. And I asked my wife if we would eventually have to seek shelter or something. Then she explained to me, very calmly, that things like this always happened in the spring, that it has been like that for years. And that the people of Korea who are not in politics, in the government or directly involved with the North Korean threats, live their lives calmly.

I have learned to live it that way too. Obviously I try to be aware of the news, and there are moments of certain tension, but these news also serve to sell fear outside and headlines.

Solano moved to Seoul in 2013, three years after being recognized by the literary magazine Granta as one of the best young storytellers in Spanish, and has described part of his experiences in the Asian country in two non-fiction books, “Los días of fever” (2020) and “Corea, notes from the tightrope” (2015), which are added to fictional novels such as “Save me, José Luis” or “Los hermanos Cuervo”.

The author left journalism a few years ago, although he occasionally returns to the chronicle, as he did regarding the tragedy that took place in the neighborhood where he lives, Itaewon. In October 2022, during the first post-pandemic Halloween celebration, more than 150 young people died in a stampede there.

Coincidentally the day before he had been there. I live about 15 minutes away, but that day I was invited to a party. And from the building where I was, I could see the alley. It was the day before the emergency, and you could already see a lot of people. The most worrying thing was that the police station was also watching what was happening. All time.

But the special force that they sent was very limited, and they sent it mainly to try to control crimes of a sexual nature and possibly drugs, which in this country are very rare, because drugs are highly penalized.

159 people were crushed to death in an October 2022 landslide in Seoul.  GETTY IMAGES

159 people were crushed to death in an October 2022 landslide in Seoul. GETTY IMAGES

His book “The days of the fever”, edited with the subtitle “South Korea, the country that challenged the virus”, starts with the first cases of covid-19 identified in the country, and recounts the rigorous control measures that were have applied ever since.

In the text, he recalls how the masks that he already had to wear when he traveled to teach in the city of Busan, the same as the Korean film about a zombie epidemic “Train to Busan” from 2016, became mandatory again, and he especially describes the peculiarities of a health surveillance system as meticulous as it is disturbing.

“Not even a detective agency would have such precise data, but then I remember that this is a country where there are still spies, North Korean defectors, emergency laws in case of violation of national security,” he says on the first pages of the book.

The Colombian author describes and reflects on the fierceness of winter, the food, landscapes and customs of the country where he settles. Something similar to what he had already done in “Corea, notes from the tightrope”, published in Chile in 2015, distinguished with the Colombian Narrative Library award and reissued in Korean and Spanish.

Why do you think “Korea, Tightrope Notes” has had this special resonance?

I think basically because there aren’t many books about Korea. Korean movies are more easily accessible, but there aren’t as many books written directly about the country, compared to what there are, for example, about Japan or China. That is first. The supply is very limited and people buy it because they want to know more about what they can find out about Korea.



Also, I found out later from the comments, not only South Americans, Hispanic Americans married to Koreans or Koreans read it; also people who live in other countries, in Asia, in Europe. Because I also tried to mix an intimate story about the life of someone who begins to make his way in a strange country or very far from his own.

One aspect of South Korean culture that has gone global is K-pop. How much of Korea do you think is actually reflected in that music industry?

The world of K-Pop is a growing industry and it has more and more money coming in from other sources, not just music.

K-pop is present everywhere and there is a lot of interest in entering this company. From a very young age, many are shown that it is the only way.

How do you think Korean society sees this process of globalization of its culture?

Well, on many occasions, Koreans are the first to be surprised by all the success of their popular culture in the world. When they began to broadcast “The Squid Game” in other countries and this phenomenon occurred, some episodes had already been broadcast here. And only when the Koreans saw the reactions did they begin to pay more attention to the series, and many were not even fully convinced.

In 1999, the Korean government decided to push through a law to promote Korean culture and make it an export product. Since then, an industry worth millions of dollars has been created. But, for Solano, that’s not the main factor.

It is something very random. It is always said that there is a very well-armed process of support for culture from the government and, although these programs have existed for a very long time, in all this that is known as the Korean wave, or “hallyu”, there is also a component very random.

But there are certain events in which Korean tastes do meet the tastes and evaluations of other countries, as I think happened with the film that won at Cannes this year, “Decision to leave”, by Park Chan Wook, which is a very, very Korean story.”

The new role of South Korea in the field of popular culture is even beginning to reverse certain dynamics of the audiovisual industry, Solano says.

South Korean bands like BTS have become a global phenomenon.  GETTY IMAGES

South Korean bands like BTS have become a global phenomenon. GETTY IMAGES

Instead of Western productions that create fictions set in Asian countries, phenomena such as “Narcosantos” begin to emerge, where Western countries are the setting for Korean stories.

It’s funny, a few years ago this Netflix series, “Narcos”, was very successful in Korea. And a few months ago the Koreans made a series, also for Netflix, about a Korean trafficker in Suriname. And it’s interesting because for a long time the West, and the West obviously includes South America, projected many orientalist fantasies.

Now it is the Koreans, who today are somewhat the owners of popular culture, who project their own fantasies about countries like Suriname, and about drug-related problems from a country that, as I said at the beginning of the interview, prides itself on of not having them in their territory.

As a Colombian writer in Korea, how does the environment influence your writing?

At first I felt that strangeness. Today too, but I have learned to move. Little by little I have learned to inhabit this liminal zone, which is neither from here nor from there, that of being a Latin American immigrant in Korea. Today I feel that this is the only place from where I can move to the other side. To Colombia, Korea, abroad.

In fact, Solano’s new novel, “Gloria” (2023) is set neither in Korea nor in Colombia, but in New York in the 70s. He will speak about it as a guest on January 27, 28 and 30 at the Hay Festival in Cartagena de Indias, as well as topics such as migration or family relationships, which form a substantial part of his literary and non-fiction work.

What is Gloria’s story?

Gloria is the story of a very young Colombian girl, 20 years old, who works in a photographic laboratory. And it’s a day in the life of her, in which she goes to a Sandro concert at Madison Square Garden.

Gloria shares some information with my mother, but it is a book that does not want to be a memory of my relationship with my mother. Nor did he want to novelize her life entirely. It is a book that, like “Notes from a Tightrope”, moves in various registers… It is a book that I had planned for a long time, but perhaps living here for 10 years has given me the courage to write. (YO)

Source: Eluniverso


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