LONDON - Korea's cultural and artistic
heart beats in the British capital. And the
heartbeat is getting stronger.
London's Korean community now estimated at over
20,000 and with growing numbers of young South
Koreans studying at the capital's world-class
universities and colleges, evidence of a vibrant
cultural interchange is not hard to find.
Take music. Korean rapper Psy has just
cracked the British market with his global dance
hit Gangnam Style. It currently
stands at No 1 in the UK
Singles Chart, a first for a South Korean
performer in Britain. And it's not only K-Pop.
British appreciation of Korean art, culture,
fashion, film, food and history has never been
higher. Here's why.
In just over a decade,
the global impact of a strong South Korean economy
(currently ranked 13th in the world, growing at 3%
each year and with the potential to leapfrog
Japan), mass possession by Britons of Korean
electronic products and a full-on drive by
successive South Korean governments to promote
Korea's culture both in Britain and
internationally are all now bearing real fruit.
It's a remarkable example of how a nation can
successfully project 'soft power' in the modern
The Korean diaspora in Britain
remains small in comparison with those established
in the United States and Australia but it is now
growing. Until about 2000 Korea was a relatively
small blip on the British cultural radar screen as
compared with, say, the artistic offerings of
China and Japan. No longer.
the Korean Cultural Center UK (KCCUK) - funded by
the South Korean Ministry of Culture to boost
cultural and educational links between both
countries - many young Britons who encounter
Korean culture via social media profess themselves
hooked. The Center - based off London's Trafalgar
Square - predicts a record 40,000 visitors by end
2012, all attracted by a dizzying array of themed
programmes, cutting edge art exhibitions, K-Pop
music events, social media postings, lectures,
language classes, food, and the work of
contemporary South Korean fashion designers and
new wave film directors.
From June to
September this year the center ran a highly
popular 100-day arts festival - "All Eyes on
Korea" - jointly with London's South Bank Center.
Elsewhere, South Korean culture has recently been
showcased at London's Royal College of Art (RCA),
British Film Institute (BFI), Institute of
Contemporary Arts (ICA), Thames Festival and at
the National Museum of Scotland (Edinburgh).
The profile of Korean art has also risen
dramatically in Britain in recent years.
At a major symposium of Korean Art held on
September 29 at London's world famous British
Museum - sponsored by the Academy of Korean
Studies, British Museum and SOAS (School of
Oriental and African Studies, University of
London) - academics and museum professionals from
South Korea, the UK, Europe and the United States
all pointed to a steady rise in interest in
Korea's 5,000 year artistic heritage amongst
museum-goers in Britain.
exchange with Britain is a century-old story.
Exhibitions of Korean art were first seen in
Britain in 1910 at the Japan-Britain Exhibition
(White City) just as Korea began to endure the
nightmare of Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945).
Further exhibitions travelled to London's Victoria
and Albert Museum (V&A) in 1914, 1936, 1951,
1961 and 1975. The British Museum's landmark
'Treasures from Korea' exhibition in 1984 was
followed by a new Gompertz gallery at the
Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge (1990) and a
Samsung gallery of Korean Art at the Victoria and
Albert Museum (V&A) in 1992.
British Museum's Samsung-sponsored 'Art of Korea'
exhibition (1997), its flagship Korea Foundation
Gallery (opened 2000) - with its smart centerpiece
reconstruction of a Chosun Dynasty sarangbang
(upper class scholar's study) - all raised
awareness of Korean culture in London still
further. With a popular East Asian and Korean
ceramics gallery also opened at the V&A in
2010 - rated as the most popular attraction by
50-60% of visitors - and 'The Korean Eye'
exhibition attracting culture vultures to London's
uber-trendy Saatchi Gallery this year, South Korea
has entered the mainstream of the British arts
It is now an exciting time
for Korean culture in the UK. The Korean/British
cultural and artistic exchange has become "richer
and livelier" of late according to Beth McKillop,
Deputy Director at the V&A and keynote speaker
at the recent British Museum event. Her colleague
Jan Stuart, Keeper (Head) of the Department of
Asia at the British Museum also promises that
London museums and universities are now firing on
all cylinders to promote Korean culture: "We will
really keep Korea alive in London", she says.
In London the British/Korean cultural
embrace, from K-pop to high arts, grows ever
Ronan Thomas is a
British correspondent. He was based in Seoul in