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Korea Blog: The Secret Koreanness of Sticky Monster Lab

Despite my long-standing interest in things Korean, I’ve gone in for very few of the “Korean wave” of cultural products that have reportedly swept the globe — or at least much of Asia and a bit of the West— over the past 15 years. Most of them never seemed targeted toward me in the first place: not K-pop, not K-dramas, and certainly not K-beauty products, though the mighty Korean cosmetics industry’s push to normalize of male makeup gains ground every day. The first Korean product I ever consciously consumed, apart from jars of kimchi and citron tea from Korean grocery stores, I got for free: Kakaotalk, the country’s free messaging and Voice over Internet Protocol app of choice.

Or maybe Silicon Valley would call Kakaotalk’s business model “freemium”: free to use for messages and calls, but with an ever-expanding set of extras to buy. The gateway drug is the “stickers,” whimsical icons featuring the Kakao Friends, a cast of anthropomorphic characters including a dog, another dog with a black suit and an orange afro, a cat in a bob wig, a radish in a rabbit suit, a duck with removable feet, and a genetically modified peach. Most casual Kakao Friends buyers no doubt make the transition to addiction at one of the Kakao Friends stores all around the country. Usually multi-story affairs occupying huge amounts of prime real estate, these sites of pilgrimage sell everything from Kakao Friends cellphone accessories to Kakao Friends dolls to Kakao Friends confections to Kakao Friends luggage. Many even have a Ryan Cafe inside, so named for one of the newer Kakao Friends, a lion without a mane.

Not to be outdone, Kakaotalk’s main competitor Line, operated by a Japanese subsidiary of Korean search-engine company Naver, has also created the Line Friends. This seemingly larger group includes a variety of comparatively normal animals, especially bears, as well as a few human beings and what looks like a ghost. Line has also set up character merchandise shops in not just Korea but Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bangkok, and New York. On the endless quest for synergy, it has also produced subsets of new characters with Japanese-designed global icon Hello Kitty and international K-pop boy band BTS. In recent years the “friends” business in Korea has taken on aspects of a gold rush: fewer and fewer categories of product, no matter how mundane, lack at least one brand that had tried to come up with friends of its own, and design students increasingly come up with not just concept products but concept friends to promote them.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.