Tuesday, 17 January 2017


When the director, Yun Seok Ho, produced Winter Sonata in 2002, he had no idea that he possessed a gold mine, which has been opening multiple doors to political, social, and economic changes throughout Asia. Yun Seok Ho has single-handedly accomplished in one TV drama series that politicians, social trendsetters, and entrepreneurs have tried so hard for many years only to achieve limited success.

The phenomenal hit of Winter Sonata has swept across Asia, making history along its path — melting the cultural barrier between South Korea and Japan; heightening the Korean image and promoting tourism to the peninsula; branding winter fashion overseas; and raking in astronomical profits for the South Korean entertainment industry. Extending across the continent, Winter Sonata catapulted its main actor and actress to world stage as international celebrities — Bae Yong Jun as the Asian heartthrob and Choi Ji Woo as the beautiful, talented idol.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Winter Sonata has done more politically for South Korea and Japan than the FIFA World Cup co-hosted by these two countries in 2002. In an earnest effort to overlook their bitter historical past, both governments promoted cultural exchanges before the World Cup event, but it wasn’t until the huge success of Winter Sonata in Japan that triggered a craze for all things South Korean. Recognizing the important political impact on South Korea attributed by the ever-increasing popular TV drama, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism awarded the prestigious Presidential Prize to its director, Yun Seok Ho, for his immense contribution in promoting exports of cultural products.

Riding the crest of a tsunami, Winter Sonata has reached a feverish pitch in Japan — it has captured the hearts of women, baffled the social analysts, and stunned the media. Although South Korean TV dramas have enjoyed popularity in many Asian countries for years, Japan is viewed as a latecomer in joining the “Korean wave.” NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster introduced Winter Sonata as the first South Korean TV drama shown on its satellite channel in 2003. Because of its explosive popularity, Winter Sonata was aired twice in the same year. Knowing a ‘golden egg’ when it saw one, NHK rushed to publish novels based on the screenplay and program guidebooks, as well as to produce DVDs, CDs and videos for both entertainment and for learning Korean. In addition, NHK hosted a classical concert featuring Winter Sonata’s melodic tunes performed by many Korean musicians. Meanwhile, travel agencies offer tour packages that highlight shooting locations of Winter Sonata and rare moments to meet the stars. The members of the Winter Sonata’s cast, including the singer, Ryu, have been repeatedly invited to Japan to make personal appearances for interviews and shooting commercials. The Winter Sonata fever reached its peak when Bae Yong Jun visited Japan last spring to promote “Scandal,” a massive crowd (mainly women) turned unexpectedly into a stampede, injuring a dozen fans at the airport.

The social impact of Winter Sonata has been felt in countries as close as China and as far away as the Philippines — in terms of fashion, social trend, and social behavior. These days, fans tend to imitate their favorite stars, instead of just cheering for them on the sidelines. Even in Singapore, a nation known for its warm and humid climate all year round, fans wanted to learn how to wrap the wool scarf conspicuously worn by Bae Yong Jun and Choi Ji Woo. The Polaris star has found its mark as a symbol of everlasting love in an array of lucrative markets ranging from jewelry to telephone accessories.

Contrary to most entertainment nowadays with a strong emphasis on passion and sex appeal, the TV drama Winter Sonata depicts wholesome love in its purest form without any nude or lustful contents to mitigate the essence of true love. Yet, Winter Sonata’s popularity continues to grow, baffling social analysts and entertainment commentators. With romantic fantasies, women show outpouring adulation for Bae Yong (the Japanese fans even gave him an honorific title, “Prince Yong”) due to the actor’s own personal charm and his convincing portrayal of an ideal mate of modern times in Winter Sonata. Instead of being clad in shining armor on a white horse, the present day Prince Charming is armed with good looks, intelligence, thoughtfulness and success, yet can still be faithful and devoted to one lover. Unlike the commercialized macho image of a handsome stud surrounded by several gorgeous women to conquer, this Prince Charming displays distinguished qualities — sensitive and compassionate to others, understanding of woman’s emotional needs, attentive and dedicated to his woman, and always protective of her, not only from physical but also from emotional and mental harm. It’s a tall order for any man, but not at all impossible.

In the past, South Korea was touted for exporting manufacturing goods, but now it is known for exporting entertainment products. The sensational popularity of Korean TV dramas and movies overseas could be the advent of the second economic boom for South Korea. The economic effects of Winter Sonata in South Korea have enormously benefited the entertainment and tourism industries. The result from Korea and Japan alone is staggering — 1 trillion won in Korea and more than 2 trillion won in Japan (total: 27 billion dollars). Japanese visitors accounted for 41.6% of 1.99 million visitors to South Korea last year, followed by the Taiwanese as the second largest group of foreign visitors, according to Korea National Tourism Organization (KNTO). As a result, flights from Haneda to Kimpo airports will be increased and Pusan will be adding extra ferry runs to some of the six Japanese ports. According to statistics for exports of South Korean TV dramas last year, Taiwan leads with 24.5%, followed by Japan with 19%, China with 18.6% and Hong Kong with 3.3%.

The Korean wave for TV dramas appears to have promises ahead as they recently started courting new audiences in other parts of the world. In Mexico, thousands of viewers organized fan clubs after seeing the hit TV dramas “Everything on Eve” and “Stars in My Heart.” Egypt has already provided good reviews for “Autumn Tale” and will air “Winter Sonata” this year. Perhaps, the popularity of Korean entertainment will spill over to other nations in Central America, Africa, and even to other continents in the world.

Although Winter Sonata fever may not last forever, one thing is certain — as Winter Sonata makes its way around the globe in a Korean wave, this TV drama series and its cast will be remembered in the hearts of fans forever.

(First published on UniOrb.com, January 31, 2005)

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