‘Discover, experience and learn to understand the success of the Korean wave.’ On September 24 and 25, the Museum of Ethnology in Leiden will be devoted to K-pop, K-drama, K-sports, K-beauty, K-fashion and Korean food. ‘And we make sure you can participate,’ says Bettina Brunt, organizer of the Korean Wave festival. ‘There are lectures, master classes, language lessons, a tournament, traditional games, dance lessons and performances. We are bringing South Korea to the Netherlands.’
Korean Wave refers to the worldwide influence of Korean culture, from music to fashion and from movies to food. In the 1990s, the ‘K-wave’ started as a slightly undulating wave. In recent years it became a tidal wave. In 2020 was film parasite the big winner of the Oscars, the K-pop band BTS was the best-selling music group in the world for the past two years, Play octopus was the most watched Netflix series in 2021.
Born in South Korea in 1973 and raised in the Netherlands, Brunt learned more about his homeland through the Korean wave. At the age of 4, she came to the Netherlands with her Dutch adoptive family. She had a lovely childhood in Veldhoven. “However, we were a separate family. My parents had long lived and worked in Mexico and South Korea and were cosmopolitan. My brother and I stood out because of our looks: he Mexican, I Korean.’
Her parents often talked about South Korea, but Brunt was never too concerned with her ‘Korean side’. ‘I wouldn’t call myself half Dutch, half Korean. Rather a Dutchman who only realizes at a very late age how fundamentally Korean I am too.’ During the corona period, Brunt spent a lot of time on YouTube and was captivated by all kinds of Korean videos: “While watching K-pop clips and K-dramas, I also discovered and embraced my Korean side.”
The Korean Wave Festival, organized by the Faculty of Humanities at Leiden University, is therefore a personal project for her. She tried to bring everything that fascinates her on YouTube to the Museum of Ethnology. The festival is opened by the Dutch K-dance act ABM team: ‘This is what I mean by K-Wave: four young girls from different backgrounds who come together in their love for K-Pop.’ K-dance and Random Play Dance are hugely popular outside of South Korea, according to Brunt. Young people watch videos on YouTube or TikTok and practice the dance steps at home.
For those who want to learn to dance, the festival offers dance workshops and Random Play Dance. For those more interested in the music they dance to, there are talk shows featuring Dutch K-pop songwriter Ronnie Icon, among others. For Icon, the writing process for a K-pop song is different from Western pop music. In Western countries, airplay is important, which is why the performance is only adapted to the music later. In K-pop, it goes the other way around: performance is part of the creation of the music.
Performance and concept are the key to K-pop’s success, according to Bettina Brunt. This is reflected in the detailed choreography and clothing worn by the performers. The festival also has a fashion show. ‘Koreans are proud of their heritage and translate traditional clothing into the present. K-pop bands like BTS and Blackpink wear traditional Korean male box in a completely new way’. Mixing past and present Korean styles, as well as mixing film and music genres, is what fascinates Brunt about the Korean wave.
With the Korean Wave festival, Brunt also has another goal. ‘In Western media, Asians are still all too often portrayed in a stereotypical and negative way: as ‘nerds’ or ‘geeks’. I don’t recognize myself in that picture. I hope to make Asians visible as musicians, actors and dancers, as people like you and me.’ At the festival, the focus is on what Koreans do, such as making music, rather than who or what they are through the eyes of an outsider.
Visitors to the Museum of Ethnology Leiden are invited to think along, talk, dance and play sports. ‘You only start to feel it when you experience it,’ says Brunt. ‘Only then will you understand why Korean pop culture is so popular all over the world. But nothing is necessary. If interest or attention has been raised, that’s great.’