Utopia Does Not Exist: Debt and Fantasy in Korean Dramas
Korean dramas are a fantasy space. They don’t show the world we live in but the world we wish we could access. The underdog conquers all obstacles; the painfully average person achieves greatness. Love is always true and good always wins. The poor gain opulent wealth without surrendering their soul to the corporate world. K-drama characters get the good fortune we wish would come to us. It’s part of what make K-dramas so satisfying and endearing.
But there is a limit to this fantasy space: people can only imagine so much. Like most mass media dramas are careful not to upset the status quo. Although they feature people suffering (and ultimately triumphing) under unfair socioeconomic conditions and social inequalities, the legitimacy of these coercive power structures are never questioned. Characters triumph only through navigating through the world as it is, not through protest or fighting back. Social issues are not even framed as social issues but relegated to personal problems.
In K-dramas there are no possible utopias, only cracks in the glass ceiling where the oppressed manage to find a better social position with the help of exploiters (such as grumpy chaebol heirs). Exploiters in turn get relief from the severe emotional repression & arranged marriages that characterize Korea’s upper class.
Nowhere is this clearer than the treatment of debt. Debt is a constant theme in K-dramas and a crisis in Korean society, particularly household (or consumer) debt. After the IMF Crisis in 1997 South Korea tried to boost domestic consumer spending and therefore ease the economy’s dependence on exports. To do so, they gave tax breaks to credit card users.
Since then, mix of incautious consumers, profit-hungry banks, and a hands-off government has left the Korean economy on the brink of disaster. Even before the global economic turndown, credit card delinquencies were at 30%. The total amount of household debt is 150-168% more than the nation’s total disposable income. Unscrupulous lending and loan sharks regularly give out toxic loans with interest rates that make them virtually impossible to pay off. Families are driven into debt because it is increasingly difficult to make ends meet: Korea has a hyper-competitive job market, rampant youth unemployment, and some of the world’s highest grocery & housing prices. When idols play indebted characters it becomes a sort of “play within a play” as the trainee system leaves hopefuls with mountains of debt.
In Dramaland, drowning in debt is normalized and accepted matter-of-factly. Characters are never downtrodden or upset for long over their predicaments. Cha Eun-Sang in Heirs is never bitter about how debt her (disabled & widowed) mother has incurred leaves them begging to sleep in a rich lady’s closet room. She is not angry that they had no other options. In Mary Stayed Up All Night Wi Mae-Ri just counts to ten after the attack of a loan shark and goes back to being perky. In When A Man Loves the violent assault by loan sharks of the heroine’s father serves only as a bungled “meet cute.”
Though K-dramas are willing to advance the plot through showing the plight of Korea’s middle and lower classes, they are careful to always resist becoming conduits for change. The fantasy is marrying up or getting a better job, not being able to live in a world where debt and struggle weren’t the norm.
They are a fantasy space with limited imagination. Dramas are interwoven with advertisements and product placements. They exist as part of a mechanism that drives consumer debt, rather than rethinking it. For all their intention of bringing the audience joy, they cannot by their very design imagine a world in which the audience has no reason to be miserable. This is not to say K-dramas are bad, only to understand them in a political context. A corporate product cannot help but act corporately.
A good parallel is the Korean film The Power of Kangwon Province which deals with the lives of several alienated, miserable city dwellers. One man takes goes to the countryside and gazes at an unspoiled mountain. While looking he can only imagine how many apartments could be built into the mountainside. Though he hates urban living, he cannot imagine what exists beyond it even when he is literally staring right at it.
Dramas stare right at the problem of debt, but cannot imagine a world without it.