“Hallyu”, otherwise known as ‘the Korean Wave’, is a phenomenon that has expanded from its hearth of East Asia to all corners of the globe.
BTS (“Bangtan Sonyeondan”), translated to ‘Bulletproof Boys’ in English, has paved the way for the growing K-Pop industry, turning into a worldwide phenomenon and topping global music charts; Bong Jun-Ho’s acclaimed film ‘Parasite’ has been awarded Cannes Film Festival’s ‘Palme d’Or’ and multiple Academy Awards; K-Beauty has become unstoppable in the industry, creating affordable and quality products that appeal to any demographic. This past decade has undoubtedly seen the exponential growth of Korean culture and its rising appeal to a wider, global audience.
‘Hallyu’ first emerged in the early 2000s when K-drama ‘Winter Sonata’ became a massive hit in Japan. Following the show’s success in Japan, Korean culture began to gain traction, particularly in the music industry, as Korean artists began producing K-pop albums in Japanese lyrics catering to the Japanese taste. This era, known as the ‘Second Hallyu’, gave rise to Korean artists and “idol groups” such as BoA, TVXQ, SHINEE, and Girls’ Generation. These artists were produced through a unique system wherein an entertainment company started by training their artists on performance skills. They then formed groups from the trainee pool to create music and choreography.
As this style of music became popular in Japan, the “idol groups” and actors became the so-called “Hallyu stars” and expanded their markets to other Asian countries. After the success in the Japanese market, the industry began aiming for western markets. Then came Psy’s massive hit single “Gangnam Style” in 2012, which suddenly became a global hit with billions of views on Youtube and a #2 single on the Billboard chart. Since Psy’s success, many K-pop “idol groups” have become a symbol of Korean pop culture and have paved the way for the genre. Today, many groups have now evolved to produce their music and curate their artistic style, such as BTS.
Along with the success of the music industry, Korean shows, webtoons, and beauty trends have gained immense popularity. Netflix has invested more than $700 million in Korean content and continues to expand its investment as K-Dramas including ‘Kingdom’, ‘Crash Landing On You’, and ‘Start-up’ have been watched by millions worldwide. When asked about what drew her to K-dramas, an anonymous Senior said “K-dramas have unique qualities that set them apart from Western shows, such as its storyline and use of background music specifically made for the show.”
As Korean culture became more prominent in the global community, this increased the cultural diversity of mainstream culture. In contrast to westernized trends and content that formerly dominated popular culture, the rise in Korean culture brings a distinct type of content combining both Western and Eastern cultures. However, there are still drawbacks to the growing popularity of Korean culture as the main vehicles that spread Korean culture – such as K-dramas – publicize a glorified image of Korea. Many popular shows tend to turn a blind eye to societal problems such as the wealth gap, which ultimately portrays only positive aspects of Korean culture. The recent drivers of Korean culture are ones that have challenged such problems, for example, the film ‘Parasite’ which has portrayed issues of wealth disparity and social mobility through its unique production method focusing on intricate details.
While Korean culture has come a long way from being a culture only consumed by its people, there remain challenges to it becoming more embraced globally, such as the remaining stigma towards Korean culture. Many still perceive K-Pop to be a product of a factory system, where companies produce shallow albums and manufacture formulaic, generic music. While this was the case in K-Pop’s initial stages, the music industry has evolved since then as groups have begun to produce music in unique styles. Furthermore, many people fail to recognize that these idol groups are not the sole components of Korean music. The “idol” portion of K-pop is only a small aspect of Korean culture and artists such as IU, Epik High, Crush, and Zion T. lead strong indie and hip-hop scenes that are redefining Korean music.
Despite its challenges and criticism, Korean culture is a force to be reckoned with, appealing to a wider audience through its constant evolution through these years. Whether through music, K-dramas, or the beauty industry, Hallyu’s versatility to contemporary trends will guide them to further acceptance by the global community.
Anthony, Venessa. “The Stigma Behind K-Pop.” Ceylon Today, Ceylon Today, 5 Sept. 2020, ceylontoday.lk/news/the-stigma-behind-k-pop.
Hong, Euny. “How South Korea Became the Capital of Pop Culture.” Allure, 13 Apr. 2020, http://www.allure.com/story/the-pop-culture-rise-of-south-korea.
Romano, Aja. “How K-Pop Became a Global Phenomenon.” Vox, Vox, 16 Feb. 2018, http://www.vox.com/culture/2018/2/16/16915672/what-is-kpop-history-explained.