By William Pesek
TOKYO — It isn't every day that the finance minister of a major nation mentions a rap star when talking up his economy. But then South Korea isn't your average economy and Psy isn't your usual entertainer.
Bahk Jae-wan did that in an Oct. 9 interview. South Korea's top economic official cited the singer of the global smash hit "Gangnam Style" as an example of the kind of creativity and international competitiveness the country needs. It wasn't a laugh line. It was a plea for South Koreans to let their hair down and dream a bit.
It is something I had been wondering as "Gangnam Style" racks up hundreds of millions of hits on YouTube; earns Psy gigs on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and NBC's "Today Show"; works its way into North Korea's propaganda; and single-handedly strengthens South Korea's global brand. I'm a fan.
But face it, it isn't a particularly brilliant song. Nor would many say Psy (whose name is Park Jae-sang) is a world-class singer, dancer or stage presence. So how did a man who is relatively ancient by South Korea's pubescent pop standards do what no one had done before — go global?
The reason has more to do with economics than meets the eye and speaks volumes about where South Korea finds itself in 2012.
Before his song went global, it swept through South Korea's 50 million-strong population. Sure, the tune is catchy and his crazed horse-riding dance is a show-stopper. But its real appeal is the social satire that lies not very far below the surface. Gangnam is a ritzy part of Seoul that South Koreans see as an amalgam of Beverly Hills, Manhattan's Upper East Side and Tokyo's Shibuya district. It is South Korea's 1 percent enclave.
Many young hipsters crave living the Gangnam style someday, much as Americans watching "Gossip Girl" think: "I want that life." Psy's song and ubiquitous video parody the tony neighborhood and poke fun at the crass materialism that has consumed a country that just 15 years ago was beset by economic turmoil. Back then, amid Asia's 1997 crisis, households donated gold to shore up the national treasury. Now, the well-to-do flock to Gangnam to buy gold and other conspicuous signs of wealth. Or just to wear black and sip overpriced coffee.
By both celebrating this phenomenon and mocking it, Psy caught the bipolar nature of Korea's economy.
One face of today's South Korea is intrepid success. Remember that just four years ago, hedge funds were pegging Asia's fourth-biggest economy as the next Iceland. Far from going bust like that island nation, Korea sidestepped Wall Street's meltdown. Its 3.1 percent jobless rate is less than half the U.S.'s and a third of France's.
Yet South Koreans are having an identity crisis. They are proud of the Samsung sign towering over Times Square in New York and the Hyundai cars filling roads from Miami to Sydney. Korea has gotten as far as it can, though, with the export-led model that powered its postwar boom and restored living standards after 1997.
And then there are the costs, both real and intangible. South Korean workers put in some of the longest hours in the world. Kids experience truncated childhoods as cram schools and after-class tutoring keep them off the playground. Anxiety pervades college students jockeying for coveted jobs at the family-owned conglomerates that dominate the economy. Household debt, meanwhile, has surged as more and more South Koreans strive for the Gangnam lifestyle.
All this explains why Psy struck such a chord. Koreans are coming to the realization that gross domestic product gains don't necessarily result in commensurate gross domestic happiness. Hence Psy's subversive message about class and wealth being false gods. It also gets at why the finance minister would opine about a rap song.
"Our service sector is a weak point," Bahk said. "Unlike competitive exporters with well-diversified goods and markets, the service sector is too much closed. We see gradual progress in some areas, but the success stories such as singer Psy are still quite an exception. They should open up the domestic market and compete with foreign rivals to grow up."
In other words, innovate to make the economy more entrepreneurial and globally nimble. Here, the nation's cultural export industry, dubbed "Korean Wave," is an apt metaphor.
It is a cookie-cutter business — long legs, robotic dance moves and years of training and grooming to produce "K-pop" stars who tend to be as plastic as they are forgettable. Psy, by contrast, is the outlier who made it through hard work, humor and his own brand of talent. He is 34, portly and, by his own admission, not a looker. He writes his own songs and traveled a long and lonely journey that paid off in the end.
South Korea's economy should be a lot more like that. It has what it takes to go up against the best talent the world has to offer. It just needs to find its own groove. The government may want to summon Psy in for some pointers.
William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist.