Thailand's going bananas for Korea
When South Korean President Moon Jae-in visited Thailand recently, he highlighted two Thai names, Nichkhun of 2PM and Lisa of Blackpink as symbols of the excellent South Korean-Thai friendship. Nichkhun Horvejkul and Lalisa Manoban are young Thai idols who are making a living as K-Pop performers in Seoul. Both of them speak fluent Korean, they are trained to sing in Korean and are well-versed in K-Pop dancing.
Since 2005, K-Pop and South Korean dramas have dominated Thai TV screens and propelled Korean culture almost to the same level as Western and Japanese cultures. In fact, most Thai TV channels carry South Korean TV programmes and dramas. It is a must.
The airing of Dae Jang Geum on Channel 3 back in 2005, caused the so-called krasae gaolie, or "Korean wave", in this country. The period drama, which is based on the real-life story of Jang Geum -- the first woman to become the Korean king's personal physician -- and her ordinary upbringing, resonated strongly with Thai audiences. They could easily identify with the characters' behaviour and situations. They are like us and we are like them, so to speak.
One immediate consequence has been a softening of attitudes towards Koreans, who were previously perceived as "rough" and "unemotional". Korean products are also gaining recognition from Thai consumers. Before the Korean Wave, for instance, Korean automobiles did not sell well in the Thai market, even though they were popular elsewhere.
Now, the Korean Wave, known globally as Hallyu, has gone beyond automobiles and the entertainment world. Today, everything related to Korea in Thailand can translate into business and generate money.
K-Pop has greatly impacted Thai consumer preferences, including in food, fashion, cosmetic surgery and others.
Before Dae Jang Geum, kimchi was the most famous Korean food among Thais. Only a handful of Thais knew how to eat Korean barbeques and bibimbap. Today, there are hundreds of Korean restaurants and fashion outlets in every nook and cranny in central Bangkok and major cities. Korean deep-fried chicken has become the new comfort food among young Thais, and tteokbokki -- the spicy Korean rice cake dish -- is also fast becoming one of the most recognised Korean dishes in Thailand.
In addition, dozens of films have been shot on location in South Korea. A film by Banjong Pisantanakul entitled Hello Stranger, a joint Thai-South Korean production, was a box-office hit in 2010. Today, South Korea's CJ Entertainment has established a presence in Thailand to produce local and regional films for global distribution.
One of fastest-growing Korean-style businesses is nail salons. Hundreds of them have popped up in major shopping centres and BTS stations to serve passers-by. In addition, "medical tourism" for enthusiastic fans who want to look like their favourite female idols are, though pricey, becoming more popular.
Today, some 40,000 Thais are studying the Korean language -- easily surpassing the number of Thai students learning Japanese, which used to be one of the most popular foreign languages among students after English. Over two higher higher education institutions in the country teach Korean.
Relations between South Korea and Thailand can be traced back to the Korean War in 1950-53. Thailand was the first Asian country to send troops - over 10,000 in total - to join the United Nations-backed international force headed by Gen Douglas MacArthur to help defend South Korea from the invading North Korean forces. A total of 136 Thai soldiers were killed in action, and more than 300 wounded.
At the War Memorial of the Korean War in Itaewon, visitors can pay their respects at a monument in front of the museum and review the Thai troops' heroic actions inside. A miniature Thai flag is displayed along with those of other nations which fought in the war at the Peace Village at Panmunjom.
In fact, Thailand's participation in the war became a favourite bed-time story after World War II. It tells the story of young and courageous soldiers who fought as part of a multinational force to protect a free country from a communist invasion. After the war, the folk song Arirang also became very popular, due to its soothing sound and sad melody.
Before the Korean Wave swept Thailand, only a few hundred thousand South Korean tourists used to visit Thailand each year. Last year, 2.3 million tourists from Thailand and South Korea visited each other's major cities.
In his first official visit, Mr Moon pledged to work with Thailand to develop the e-commerce and information technology sector. The Thai government has embraced the 4.0 industrial plan, which requires capacity building assistance from developed economies. South Korea, with its 5G technology, is a suitable partner for Thailand.
Seoul's technology and cooperation are welcomed by local policymakers and businessmen. Unsurprising, since they grew up playing with the popular Korean video game Ragnarok two decades ago.
Kavi Chongkittavorn is veteran journalist on regional affairs.
A veteran journalist on regional affairs
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs