Descendants of the sun (2016)... Return of the military?





With the recent success of the Korean drama "Descendants  of the sun" (2016), I've  heard some online saying it is creating a new genre. Well, if you look at the show closely, you'll see that the statement has too much hyperboli to it. Other than the subject matter, the show is your standard Korean drama with nothing really new to the story it is telling. In addition, the manner in which the show takes subjects and setting widely used in American TV shows and pasted them on to a standard  Korean drama skeleton is nothing new. Ever since the start of the Korean drama Renaissance  in the early 90s, this has been the operating mode of the Korean drama industry. Nothing about the show itself is very special other than its popularity. For a commercial show, that may be enough. What I find interesting is what changes in Korean society is reflected in the show. More accurately, the setting of the show.



"Descendants  of the sun" is a romance set in a modern military setting. In terms of the global TV market, this setting is nothing new albeit dominated by the American market. I remember the first time I heard about the show "JAG." I was puzzled about how one would keep a show going with a limited scope of a legal drama centered around the military. But that show went on for more than 9 years and also spun off the mega hit NCIS franchise. So, what do I know! One of the reasons why this type of military show is made a lot in America is because American culture is still very martial and celebrate examples of that ethos. So what about Korea? Is Korea the same?



Korea has a huge military force made up by mostly conscripted men in their 20s. It has been in a state of war for more than 60 years albeit a cold war. However watching Korean dramas, you would not notice this. The only reason a Korean drama viewer would know the fact that Korea had an army would originate from the ruckus that happens every  now and then when your favorite celebrity male has to go into the service for about 20 months. There is almost no mention of the military within Korean dramas. I know that Korean dramas are more fantasy than reality but still you would think such a significant factor in Korean life would have more representation in Korean dramas. It is almost like someone deliberately expunged the subject out of Korean culture. Am I being paranoid?


Korean culture! What kind of images arise when you think about it? Leaving aside the Korean male celebrity you are currently crushing on, it is difficult to say that Korean culture is very masculine. In fact, I give the credit of Korean culture's global popularity to its heavy specialization on the feminine. What does this directly have to do with the military?  Well nothing directly. However, the rise of the feminine and the disappearance of the military within Korean culture is part of the same phenomenon.


Korean culture is interesting because, while it is very male centric, it is not very martial compared to other Asian societies like Japan and China. This is because of the political  setup during the last dynasty which lasted 500 years. The ruling class were made up by scholars and thus the military was a rival that needed to be crushed. Considering the longevity of the dynasty, you can guess how successful the ruling class was at this. It was only during the Korean war that the military started to gain in stature. And then after the war and the failure of the civilian government to get its shit together, the military took over politics. The rule of the military lasted about 30 years.

 
President Park

During this 3 Decades, Korea rose up from the ashes of the war to become of thriving  economy and the policies of the military rulers had a lot to do with it. It is surprising what focus, pragmatism, willingness to learn, and a simple vision can achieve in an emerging economy. Basically, the military ran the economy like a corporation. While this was going on, the sects of Korean society with political aspirations were marginalized. And, in opposition to the conservative and anti - communist rhetoric of the military,  a lot of these political sects developed a left wing bent. While the military government enjoyed alot of success, it could not last forever. In the early 90s, there was a transition to a civilian government. Quite quickly, there was a 10 year rule of a left wing government.



On the cultural side, this change in politics had a considerable impact. It should not be a surprise that the change in regimes coincide with the explosion of the Korean cultural golden age. The new found confidence of the population and civilian government's intentions to differentiate itself from the former regime fueled the development in cultural output including  Korean dramas. This is where the connection to "Descendants  of the sun" is made. Till this point in time, military had a significant presence in Korean society and culture. It was normal to see soldiers on leave wondering the streets in their uniforms. When men gathered together and started to drink, they end up talking about their army days. So, this was represented Korean dramas as part of the culture. However, starting in the late 90s and coinciding with the rise of the left wing in politics, this started to change and, entering the 2000s, it was like someone just came in a cut out all evidence of the military in Korean culture. In its place, the feminine focused culture came in to fill the void. You know the " Reply / Answer me" series lied. metro-sexual men were not in until the mid 2000s. Even in daily life, it was difficult to see uniforms on the streets since the army was encouraging soldiers to change out of uniforms when out in society. It was seen as barbaric and shameful.

2nd Generation President Park 

So, why is "Descendants  of the sun" happening now? 8 years ago, the left wing regime failed to stay in power and a right wing "conservative"  regime took its place. Okay, if you look under the hood,  it was not that conservative but I'm speaking in relative terms. Korean politics is a mess! And 3 years ago, the daughter of a former military dictator became president. So, now we are in the 8th year of right wing regime and it was a difficult road. Modern Korean culture,  society, and politics are so saturated with left wing ideology that the regime has been having a hard go at it. However, while progress is slow, there have been changes. "Descendants  of the sun" is evidence of this. A decade ago, no one would dare make a Korean drama within the setting of the military. Whether you agree with this change or not, it is difficult to ignore that change is here. The question is whether it is here to stay.




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