HALLYU – How Korean Pop Culture Conquered the World

Last year, the leaders of North Korea were once again threatening to engulf the world in nuclear fire, and video clips available on YouTube, featuring Barack Obama and the American army aflame, became an important propaganda tool. South Korea, on the other hand, expresses its global ambitions in an altogether different manner. If we assume that a country is a brand, then its history and culture are a heritage that can be promoted and sold. South Korea understands this perfectly well – and also uses new media to achieve its goal.
Korea is an example of a transformation from an impoverished state in the 1950s to the 15th biggest economy in the world, focusing on export (7th position in the world) and technological innovation. That’s why the popular image of Korea is one of great education, broadband Internet and global brands: Samsung, striving for leadership in the smartphone market, Hyundai or LG. Unemployment remains below 3%; Korea has avoided the economic mistakes of Japan and, as opposed to China’s, its human rights record does not frighten people away. The long-term perspective is also optimistic. The country is part of Next 11 – a group of countries that are the future key players in the world’s economy.

1990s. At the turn of the 1980s and 1990s, when the country was still under military rule, culture was on the decline; Koreans would not listen to their music¬, they were ashamed of their films. Changes came with democratisation – the loosening of censorship and the liberalisation of media meant that commercial TV stations started broadcasting in 1991, followed by cable TV four years later. In 1994, president Kim Young Sam’s advisors presented him with a report showing that, as a product, Jurassic Park (along with its gadgets, licences, etc.) made profits equivalent to the export of 1.5 million Hyundai cars, the pride of Korea. This incited a national discussion about the potential impact of media and pop culture on the country’s economy and image, using America as a point of reference. The discussion was followed by legal changes, whose first results in Asia, dominated by Japanese and American entertainment at the time, only became visible after a few years.
The expansion of Korean productions began in 1997-98, when a TV series (k-drama) What is Love All About? and H.O.T. boy band won an unexpected popularity in China and Taiwan. This is when Chinese journalists coined the term hallyu – “Korean wave” – which is still in use today.
1999 saw the release of thriller Shiri, deemed the most important film in the history of new Korean cinema; produced with support from Samsung, a spy drama featuring impressive action sequences unprecedented in Korean cinematography. Over 6 mln viewers proved that well-made home-grown cinema can make more money than Titanic; the film also had excellent sales in Japan. At the same time, new president Kim De Dzung proclaimed himself “The President of Culture” and introduced a law enabling the government to support the private sector. These regulations were further perfected to provide the best possible models for financing the production, promotion and distribution of media and culture, described as the “strategic branch of national industry in the 21st century”. It was the cooperation of politicians, represented by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, and media corporations (the chaebol) that created the receipt for success.
Paradoxically, the development of hallyu was further aided by the Asian crisis – Korean TV series were 25% cheaper than Japanese productions, and 10 times cheaper than the ones made in Hong Kong, changing Korea from an importer of culture to its exporter already in 2002. The real craze started in April 2003, when the cable TV NHK screened their drama series Winter Sonata in Japan, and then repeated it – at prime time. The story of a complicated love affair attracted over 20% of the TV audience, making actor Bae Yong-joon the heartthrob of Japanese female viewers. The series also had theatre and anime adaptations, and the following years saw an ever stronger presence of TV dramas on the screens of the diverse Asian continent. These simple, optimistic tales (mostly love stories, comedies and historical series) were zealously followed by viewers from the vast Chinese market, pop-culturally rich Japan, the emerging economies of Vietnam and Indonesia, fundamentalist Iran and Saudi Arabia and even Nepal. Another great hit, Jewel in the Palace, set in the 15th and 16th century and presenting traditional Korean culture, has already been sold to 87 countries, including Afghanistan and Zimbabwe. According to researchers, TV dramas owe their unparalleled success to their universal Confucian values: love, friendship and family ties. The success was the biggest surprise to Koreans themselves, who initially could not believe that someone might like their productions.

Winter Sonata


K-POP. As time went by, the main strength of hallyu shifted from TV dramas to pop music – K-pop. The market, dominated by 3 corporations – S.M. Entertainment, YG and JYP -produces hundreds of bands, most of which disappear pretty quickly. Artists go through detailed castings (agencies even recruit 9-year-olds) and months-long murderous training to create perfect choreography and catchy dynamic songs, strongly inspired by American pop, hip hop, R&B and electro. Colourful decorations and a characteristically “sweet” convention attract mainly a teenage female audience. And it’s very effective – the biggest fan club in the world is the 8-thousand-strong group of DBSK lovers. Girls Generation, S.E.S., Rain or Boa are other cult artists in Asia.
As the wave of K-pop spills beyond the continent, musicians are increasingly recording in English, with the help of well-known producers. In 2007, Wonder Girls toured with Jonas Brothers, Snoop Dog made a guest appearance on a record by Girls’ Generation, and European concerts, despite still being very few, sold out.
It is ironic that the most spectacular success of not only K-pop, but the entire hallyu, was the explosion in popularity of Gangnam Style by PSY rapper in 2012. PSY had never been a star in his own country and the song was intended to be a joke, but it was thanks to him that hallyu entered the mainstream discourse. GS is the most popular video in the history of YouTube, along with hundreds of mash-ups and remakes, with its dance routine being performed by artists, politicians and average people from Brazil to Poland.
Even earlier, K-pop videos were viewed dozens of millions of times on YouTube; and this is how Korean music is distributed. The unlimited access to it resulted in exotic intercultural relations: Chile, for example, has already 200 K-pop fan clubs, which is unique considering the rather weak links between Asia and South America.

K-pop festival in Chile
CINEMA. Not only K-pop videos appear on YouTube. The Korean Film Archive channel has made available dozens of cinematic masterpieces dating from between 1940 and 1990; cinema is also an important source of hallyu’s power. The success of Shiri gave an impulse to build a strong industry based on the Hollywood model, focusing on attractive genres of film, which beat one national record after another – and 10 of them sold over 10 mln tickets. After a slower period, when overinvested and poorly written blockbusters made big losses, and even stopped selling in Asia, 2012 and 2013 saw a great recovery. Box office turnout was similar to the golden 1960s – an average Korean went to the cinema four times, making the country one of the biggest lovers of the Tenth Muse. The biggest hit in the history of Korean cinema Roaring Currents, a film representation of the most glorious military victory in the history of the country, attracted 17.5 million viewers – one third of the nation.
The example of Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, a blockbuster made with Korean money and an international cast in the Czech studio Barrandov, shows that this cinema can be watched everywhere – the film was a success not only domestically, but also in the biggest film markets of the world: USA and China. The fact that the set of Hollywood super-production Avengers 2 was moved to Seoul for a while is the best proof that the film industry is aware of the incredible potential of this 50-million strong country.
While commercial films are still trying to find a way to conquer non-Asian markets, art-house cinema (practically ignored by Koreans, for a change) succeeded in doing that. Thanks to such accomplished artists as Hong Sang-soo, Lee Yoon-ki or Lee Chang-dong, it is now present at key festivals. In 2004, Old Boy by Park Chan-wok won the Grand Prix in Cannes and in 2012 Pieta by Kim Ki-Duk became the first Korean film to win a leading festival, this time in Venice. And not only are Koreans guests at such international events – but the most important Asian festival has been taking place in Busan since 1996.

Kim Ki-duk

Hallyu also includes video games (Koreans are the biggest fans of MMORPG games in the world), books, comic books (manhwas), animations (Pororo the Little Penguin and Pucca, widely used in marketing), as well as cosmetics, plastic surgery and fashion, which is expected to be the next big global trend after K-pop. The Korean pop culture craze has affected elements of traditional culture – the number of people interested in learning the language has increased world-wide, along with the number of enthusiasts of the excellent Korean cuisine. The annual export value of just kimchi, fermented cabbage, already exceeds $100 mln. The tourist industry has also profited from the interest in Korea, with agencies offering tours following in the footsteps of the popular drama characters. In 2012, the number of guests, mainly from Japan and China, exceeded 10 mln people; in 1990, this number was three times lower.
It is difficult to judge precisely the value of Korea’s cultural exports. It is worth hundreds of millions of dollars, which compared to $548.2 billion of total export in 2012 is not a large sum. It is not all about money however, but about the precious image and support for key branches of export. The data clearly indicates that in the countries with a strong presence of hallyu, the sale of Korean cars and electronics has been rapidly growing. For example, between 2005 and 2010, the value of export to Iran increased by 234%, Iraq – 7716%, Uzbekistan – 160%, and Peru – 230%.

POLITICS. Business exchange is not the only area to benefit: hallyu also plays a diplomatic role. When the legend of Burmese opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi, came to the opening of the Winter Paralympics in Pyeongchang, she also found time to meet actor Ahne Jae-wook, whose story she had followed in a drama shown in her country. During his visit on the Korean Peninsula, President Barack Obama expressed his respect for hallyu.
Popular culture helped improve relations with Taiwan and, more importantly, historically difficult contacts with Japan. In many countries, hallyu has become a window to the world, playing a similar role to that of American pop culture behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War – which happened for example in communist Vietnam and Burma, and most importantly, North Korea. A set of TV dramas was a gift for Kim Dzong Il when the presidents of both Koreas met in 2007. Citizens of the North do not have legal access to them and those trading in DVDs face being sent to labour camps and even death. This, however, doesn’t change much. According to refugees from the North, practically everyone in the country has had contact with hallyu. The black market flourishes, also fuelled by high-ranking officials, who can legally cross the Chinese border. For young people, it’s a glimmer of freedom and inspiration, visible in their colourful clothes, hairstyles and attempts to copy the accent. Pop culture is dangerous to the regime – it ruins the image of the rotten capitalist South that they have built over the years: a nest of evil and misery. Hallyu, even if only to a small extent, helps build bridges between the divided nation and lays ground for possible unification.
Also China, strictly controlling the amount of foreign entertainment, repeatedly voiced their concern about the flood of Korean products, and tried to regulate its flow. Finally, decision-makers accepted it, opting for cooperation with Korea in the field of film production.

GLOBAL INVASION. Now, after over a decade of Asian domination, hallyu faces new challenges. The entertainment industry has to evolve constantly, so it does not become stale, like in Japan, where – after the initial wave of enthusiasm – the feeling of oversaturation, criticism and even hostility set in. The government strategy is now focused more on creating content for the new generation of mobile devices (Korea’s leading product), 3D technology, animation and video games. Korea also wants to mark its presence in Europe and North America, for example through culture centres; currently, there are 24 of them (including one in Warsaw), and new ones are sprouting up. Their activities are centred around sharing knowledge about areas such as Korean culture, language and cuisine. Still, a skilful use of new media is the main channel for promotion. Mark Russel, the author of Pop Goes Korea told me: “The growth of Korean culture around the world is heavily linked to globalisation and the development of the Internet. New ideas spread faster than ever, bypassing the old gatekeepers who used to control radio, TV, movies, etc.”
In many countries, especially outside of Asia, hallyu does not function through the mainstream; it is present thanks to its fans, active mainly on the Internet. Koreans try to make sure that they are in constant communication with each other. A global blogger action has recently been launched, there are e-magazines published in English dedicated to K-pop, discussion forums, and even mobile applications for fans of individual bands. Numerous websites (e.g. Viki, Dramafever) let their users follow current episodes of dramas, with fans being able to add their own subtitles. Internet traffic is also reflected in the real world. Hallyu believers organise meetings and flash-mobs, lobbying embassies and consulates to organise K-pop concerts. In Poland, K-pop stars appear rarely, their visits usually organised by the Korean Culture Centre. Even though these events are not covered by mainstream media, they are attended by hundreds of enthusiastic young people.
Will hallyu conquer the world? For now, the data is clear – over 90% is exported to Asia. The chances that K-pop songs will make it to American or European charts, and that Korean series will fill TV listings, are slim. But is that what it’s about? “Now young people kind find whatever they like, and there are significant percentages who don’t just want American mass media. Korea provides a nice alternative, at once similar but also different”, explains Mark Russel. Even by filling a niche and reaching fan groups, hallyu is an effective vehicle for Korean spirit and influences world culture. K-dramas now have their own category on the American website Hulu, this being the only category representing a specific country. K-pop is an inspiration for Grimes, one of the most interesting artists in new electronic music. The New York Times, rounding up 2012 in concerts, highlighted the shows of 2NE1 and BIGBANK in Newark, announcing the arrival of K-pop in America.
The extent to which hallyu constitutes a thoroughly planned and consequently developed cooperation between government agencies and the chaebol, is impressive. The industry brings big profits and provides work for thousands of people, but at the same time helps build the image of a state supporting the economy. Pop culture helped not only build an attractive image of the country linking tradition and modernity, but also heal deep wounds. After years of an isolating military regime, difficult relations with countries from the region, and the humiliating intervention of the IMF in 1998, hallyu opened Korea up to the world.

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