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All Hail the Korean Wave

Published in Nov-Dec 2021

Shahrezad Samiuddin on the much-welcomed influx of South Korean pop culture.

Just as South Korean survival drama Squid Game debuted as the biggest-ever series on Netflix in September 2021, along came Hellbound, another K-Drama in November 2021 to topple it from the top spot. Couple this with K-Pop’s dazzling success in the US music industry and the Korean wave has finally rolled in, tsunami-style and flooding the global stage – making the splash it has been gearing up for since the turn of the 21st century.

`Widely known in its home country, as Hallyu, the Korean wave is a lot more than gloriously successful boy and girl bands, like BTS and Blackpink. In addition to music and TV shows, the wave includes other cultural exports such as food, movies, e-sports and beauty products. Since the early 2000s, Korea’s pop culture exports have been a major contributor to the country’s economy. In 2019, despite an overall plunge in exports, Korea’s cultural exports grew by 22.4%.

K-Pop remains the major contributor to this multibillion-dollar industry. Not only did BTS’s hit single Dynamite lead Korea’s vision of world domination in 2020, it is also estimated to have contributed $1.4 billion to the Korean economy, in addition to creating nearly 8,000 jobs. The global success of K-Pop has also been driving growth in other sectors as well, and includes tourism, with one in 13 tourists to Korea believed to have travelled there for BTS. In 2019, the boy band’s three-day concert in Seoul attracted 187,000 foreign tourists, bringing in a whopping $790 million. When they are not attending concerts, overseas Korean wave fans flock in attracted by the prospect of visiting movies and music video locations.

Hallyu is a prime example of what can happen when the government gets behind home-grown pop culture. Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism has been investing heavily in popular culture in a bid to grow its cultural exports. In 2021, the budget allotted to the sector grew by 42.7% to hit $585 million with a significant part going into creating online content, including online concerts and for streaming platforms. However, the government started laying the ground for the Korean wave in 1994 when a report noted that Hollywood blockbuster Jurassic Park generated more revenue than the foreign sales of what was considered the pride of Korea: Hyundai cars. Soon after, Korea’s film and pop industry readjusted its compass, looking to Hollywood for inspiration. Today, Korean films inspire Hollywood and Bollywood remakes, and in 2020 Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite became the first non-English language film to win the Best Picture award in the history of the Academy Awards in addition to three other Oscars. The film made $257 million worldwide.

Government support is part of Korea’s strategy to build international influence through its culture. A prime example of this cultural diplomacy was in 2018, when 160 K-Pop singers, including girl-group Red Velvet, flew to the North Korean capital Pyongyang to perform before the country’s leader Kim Jong-un. While it was widely believed that the performances broke the ice between the rivals, the mercurial leader backtracked this year, calling K-Pop a ‘vicious cancer’ that was corrupting young North Koreans.

Despite its detractors, success has been coming hard and fast to the Korean wave. The current K-Drama streaming conquest is taking place almost exactly a year after Big Hit, the company behind BTS, created waves on the country’s stock exchange after it went public in October 2020. The public offering became Korea’s largest in three years and the listing was a thousand times oversubscribed. Everyone wants a piece of the Korean wave.

Shahrezad Samiuddin works in communications and is an agony aunt.