[Column] The New Possibilities of Korean Wave Tourism

Korean society has been showing interest in forming communities with foreigners residing in Korea for several years. The stories of foreign brides married to Korean farmers have been widespread in the media, and many Korean individuals born through international marriages...


Author: Seok-Kyeong Hong, professor in Seoul National University

Date : Jan. 2023

It's been over a decade since South Korea's (thereafter Korea)cultural influence, known as hallyu, transcended its East Asian origins. The turning point occurred in 2012 when Psy's "Gangnam Style" became the most famous music video on YouTube worldwide. Subsequently, BTS's remarkable ascent has played a pivotal role in propelling K-pop into a global pop culture phenomenon. The Korean TV and film industry has also evolved into a thriving cultural powerhouse, boasting internationally acclaimed creators and sectors, exemplified by the success of films like "Parasite" and the TV series "Squid Game."

EPL football player Son Heung-min worked as a model for Korea Tourism

The continued success

These recent records are so exceptionally outstanding that the current success and popularity are no longer newsworthy. In 2022 alone, K-pop sold more than 80 million albums worldwide. Even in the age of digital music and amid the ongoing pandemic's challenges, it achieved album sales equivalent to the number of ethnic groups in the world. Stray Kids, who achieved far greater success in the same amount of time as BTS did in their first five years after their debut in 2013, have yet to transcend the K-pop fandom. Their achievements remain somewhat overshadowed by Blackpink, who embarked on a world tour last year, and whose catchy choruses have become familiar to many. However, it's important to note that only 10 percent of the total revenue from K-pop is generated domestically. The global K-pop community is gaining significant influence. In the previous year, Korean movies and dramas were not only distributed on Netflix but also through multiple global subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) platforms. In countries like Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia, Korean dramas constitute more than half of the top 10 daily SVOD ratings. Korean pop culture, encompassing language, food, fashion, and beauty, has experienced substantial growth not only in South and West Asia but also in North America and Europe. This expansion has been propelled by K-pop, movies, and dramas, making it a tangible and palpable phenomenon.

A World that Pauses and Resumes

The global success of the Korean Wave (Hallyu) has often been expressed in terms of economic numbers in the domestic context. Even the author, in an attempt to describe this phenomenon, could only cite album sales figures, which are readily available, as the primary yardstick. The agents of popular culture have been the cultural industries, and they operate with profit generation in mind. As a result, the success of Hallyu has typically been approached from an economic perspective, with the primary question being how sustainable this industry's growth can be. However, Hallyu represents a globally unique case where the culture of a former colony, Korea, has created an alternative global popular culture. Korean popular culture incorporates elements of the nation's historical experiences, including colonization, poverty, war, division, the side effects of rapid industrialization, income inequality, and the traces of everyday violence. It expresses these elements within the context of contemporary Korean life, and this has universal appeal that can resonate with both advanced and developing nations. The cultural and social significance of this historical success has often been overlooked, and Hallyu has been approached predominantly through economic language. At times, it has even been targeted for its potential political effects.

The pandemic has provided a new context that challenges this economic-centric thinking. Overseas performances and fan meetings by K-pop stars were canceled outright, but their absence was overcome through new digital communication tools like online concerts. While the pandemic led to reduced mobility and isolation for many, people actually devoted more time to content consumption. Korean popular culture, ahead in the digital cultural industry, actively utilized these new dynamics. When everyone was grappling with the economic uncertainties and mental exhaustion brought by the pandemic, along with a bleak outlook for the future, the bright energy of K-pop and the warm solidarity within the K-pop community could spread positive vibes to young people worldwide. BTS's music video for "Permission to Dance," released in the latter half of 2021, perfectly exemplifies this role within K-pop. The video portrays a diverse range of characters in terms of race, age, occupation, and gender dancing together in a universally relatable everyday space, celebrating the end of the pandemic. It conveys the message that regaining a vibrant everyday life doesn't require anyone's permission. Moreover, BTS, in a time when most advanced nations were grappling with the pains of isolation, showcased Korea and Seoul as advanced and safe nations with exemplary pandemic management, emphasizing the strong sense of citizenship.

The elevation of Korea's status during the pandemic occurred both in reality and within popular culture simultaneously. Korean dramas and films, distributed extensively through K-pop and global Over the Top (OTT) platforms, added an undeniable charm to the positive image of a safe and developed nation that the news created. Dramas like "Itaewon Class" successfully portrayed the atmosphere of a developed country with democratic achievements, Korea's youth challenging problematic adults while growing, and a free-spirited Seoul where diverse minority identities unite to pursue their dreams. This contributed to their steady success. Among the overshadowed successes due to the overwhelming popularity of "Squid Game," it's one of the most meaningful cases. The new dynamics generated during the pandemic led to the popularity of Korean language departments at universities worldwide, a surge in people wanting to learn Korean, and a fervor for traveling to Korea, a trend that had paused during the pandemic. Currently, Korean media and YouTube are filled with travel content about Korea, and Korean culture is thriving worldwide. The impact of digitally centered Hallyu content generated during the pandemic on the offline world is something that the year 2023 is expected to demonstrate.

Imagination of the Korean Peninsula

What Does Korea Represent to the World? For a while, there was a trend on YouTube where people from various countries asked pedestrians to point out Korea's location on a map. With global history and geography education sometimes taking a back seat, media plays a pivotal role in shaping the image of a country for the world. Even though one may have heard about the tensions with North Korea in their own country's evening news, many people might not accurately pinpoint the Korean Peninsula's location. The average knowledge that the world has about Korea is a patchwork of impressive news footage created by events such as labor disputes and citizen protests post-Korean War, moments like the Korea-Japan World Cup, candlelight protests, and news images that emerge during North Korean provocations. Additionally, Korean products like cars, mobile phones, and various consumer goods commonly seen in supermarkets and on the streets help fill in the gaps. These two experiences have contributed to forming a somewhat contradictory image of Korea as both a dynamic and developed nation while also being associated with potential risks. However, it is through popular culture, specifically the phenomenon of Hallyu (the Korean Wave), that Korea's global presence has gained depth and substance.

Who are the people visit Korea and what do they bring with them? While we don't know exactly what percentage of the population is attracted to Korea by the Korean Wave, but the appeal is undeniably strong. Fans of Hallyu, who have accumulated a wealth of information about Korea within fandom communities, are filled with a desire to experience the democratic nation that has been built upon struggles. As a result, they are eager to visit places like Gyeongbokgung Palace, Namsan, Lotte World, COEX, Gwangjang Market, Itaewon, Nami Island (a popular spot from Korean dramas and K-pop music videos), travel destinations frequented by idol stars, and not to mention locations like Busan and Jeju Island, which are popular among Koreans. Furthermore, no visit to Korea is complete for many without experiencing the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), which holds significant importance in Korean travel.

For young people around the world ho are passionate consumers of Hallyu, learning the Korean language and studying Korean culture is an attractive dream. Thus, when they come to Korea as exchange students, they often tend to stay longer than originally planned. Furthermore, many of them aspire to find employment opportunities in Korea. Whether these long-term foreign youth residents will directly compete with Korean youth in the job market after graduating from high school or university is not entirely clear. Instead, they may contribute to creating new businesses bridging their home countries and Korea or participate in the overseas expansion of Korean companies. They might also work at the local branches of foreign companies in Korea, deepening their connection with the country in the process.

The number of international students in Korea, including exchange students, increased from 22,500 in 2005 to 160,000 in 2019. Even during the pandemic, there was only a slight decrease, and with the rapid growth of Korean studies undergraduate programs abroad, the influx of foreign students into Korea is expected to continue. They are likely to become increasingly significant sources of income for Korean universities, particularly as the local population declines. Among the foreigners coming to Korea, there are also foreign workers. These workers, in various job categories such as regular employees, non-regular employees, and seasonal laborers, play essential roles in Korean agriculture, small and medium-sized businesses, and construction industries.

More foreigners, what opportunities?

In light of the increasing prospects of Korean tourists, the Korea Tourism Organization is expected to dream of immediately boosting tourism in Korea, and universities in crisis are looking forward to an increase in international students. The number of foreigners residing in Korea was 2.5 million in 2019, before the pandemic, with about 800,000 short-term visitors. The weight of 4.2% of foreigners who have the potential to continue increasing in a Korea with a population that has begun to decrease, is not insignificant. When the foreigner ratio reaches 5%, it is objectively referred to as a multicultural society, and Korean society is standing right at the doorstep of that.

Korean society has been showing interest in forming communities with foreigners residing in Korea for several years. The stories of foreign brides married to Korean farmers have been widespread in the media, and many Korean individuals born through international marriages are joining the military or entering society. As international mobility increases, which means more incoming foreigners, multicultural marriages are expected to rise. Additionally, due to the overall decline in marriage and birth rates, the proportion of multicultural births is likely to increase. In 2020, 6 out of every 100 babies born in Korea were from multicultural families. In other words, Korean society is rapidly transforming into a multicultural one, and the changing global perception of Korea brought about by the Hallyu wave, along with the increased interaction with foreigners, offers a new scenario for Korea in the face of a declining population crisis.

Preparation for a Multicultural Society

What drives people to leave their home country, where they were born and raised, and seek to live abroad? Korea is currently experiencing a declining population, and there is a growing trend of people who want to find opportunities and reside in this attractive country. Just as Korean tourists and international students have experienced certain aspects when going abroad, we are now beginning to experience these in reverse. Korea finds itself at a point where it might need to create a new vision for its national community in order to increase its population, much like countries that have actively pursued immigration policies in the past. Countries that have already experienced becoming multicultural societies have put in efforts to educate their citizens who come through marriage and naturalization, ensuring they possess the necessary qualities to live comfortably within their national communities. For Korea, this process is an opportunity to establish norms and values for the future national community it is building, potentially reevaluating and constructing the true values of a republic as a national entity, moving away from the ideology of a homogeneous nation-state. The Hallyu wave is giving Korea a chance to experience the ongoing, near-future scenario of an open, multicultural society.

The issue of racial discrimination within Korean society and the lack of multicultural sensitivity, which has always been a heated topic within the Hallyu fandom, transcends beyond the representation of fair skin or cultural appropriation in music videos. Korea now faces the significant challenge of embracing and coexisting with new cultural diversity as the country welcomes new members. As Korea joins the ranks of advanced nations, it must responsibly address the issue of accepting refugees as a responsible member of the international community. This is also the time to actively build a Korean civil society that ensures there is no room for persecution or discrimination against new members who have lived in this land for an extended period. Planning for the long term and considering external influences as an opportunity to gain cultural diversity is essential.

The media is filled with foreigners visiting Korea to enjoy Korean cuisine and experience the culture. On platforms like YouTube, numerous food YouTubers are gaining popularity through mukbangs and Korean cuisine. The "2023-2024 Visit Korea Campaign" by the Korea Tourism Organization aims to have tourists visiting Korea promote the country as an attractive destination, sharing their experiences, and encouraging others to visit as well. However, we must also consider the possibility that some foreigners may not want to leave and might even consider becoming Korean citizens. Building a multicultural society is a present and ongoing imperative for the nation, and the success of Hallyu offers Korean society, which is grappling with a declining population, an opportunity to actively and positively shape the future of a multicultural society. (End)

Hong Seok-kyeong is Professor in Seoul National University at Communication Department