[Interview] Asks about the 'Korean Wave' to Sam Richards

Embracing diversity and inclusion, as seen in recent K-dramas, can strengthen Hallyu's global appeal and foster greater multicultural acceptance within Korean society.


Interviewer : ย BAE Gihyung Producer (Korea Broadcasting System)
Interviewee : SAM Richards (professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania)

โ€ƒHe studies a range of sociological issues, including race, class and gender, and is known for encouraging his students to recognise their own privileges and biases and to see the world from other people's perspectives. ย In particular, he predicted the global phenomenon of BTS and is widely recognised for his insightful analysis of the Korean Wave phenomenon.

โ€ƒKOFICE Newsletter organised a conversation with Professor Sam Richards to gain his multifaceted wisdom on Hallyu culture. The interviwer is PD BAE Gihyung of KBS, who has been producing and distributing Hallyu content around the world for more than 30 years. PD BAE is a specialist in international cultural exchange and holds a doctorate in cultural content studies. This is a conversation between an American sociologist who studies global culture and a Korean broadcaster who works in the field of Hallyu content production.

"First of all, it's a great honour to have the opportunity to speak with you, Professor, and I appreciate the deep interest and insight you've shown in the Korean Wave over the years, so can we get straight to the questions?"

Professor Sam Richards:
Yes, that's great, first of all, can I ask you how you came to talk to me?

I've been working for KBS, Korea's public broadcaster, for a long time, producing and marketing Hallyu content around the world. I've come to realise that Hallyu can be more than just entertainment, but a medium for cultural exchange and communication. The sociological impact of Hallyu that you've highlighted is something I've always been concerned about when producing Hallyu materials, and I wanted to get some insights from you who are deeply interested in this aspect, and KOFICE has provided me with a great opportunity.

[Sam] It's a great honour for me to have this conversation with a veteran Hallyu PD, and I'm especially pleased that it's being published in the KOFICE newsletter, which has been a great help to me in my research into the Hallyu cultural phenomenon.

[BAE] I understand that you have been studying Korea since the 1990s. Among the many countries with a long or glorious history, what made you particularly interested and aware of Korea?

[Sam] What first attracted me to South Korea was its rapid economic development. It was unprecedented for a country that started from the ruins of war and was one of the poorest countries in the world to join the ranks of the developed world in such a short period of time, and the strength and potential that South Korea has shown in this process of compressed growth really impressed me as a sociologist. As a non-Western cultural phenomenon, the Korean Wave is unique and remarkable in terms of global cultural flows.

I like to think of the Korean Wave as a 'tsunami' - its popularity and global spread is like the destructive and overwhelming power of a wave. A tsunami is a huge wave caused by an undersea earthquake, and while its power is immense, its signs are not easily detectable on land.
Similarly, the Korean Wave's growth and potential went unnoticed by many at first, but then it swept across the globe and made its presence felt. When a tsunami reaches the shore, it swallows everything in its path with devastating force. It's similar to how the Korean Wave became a huge success by reaching pop culture markets around the world. Just as a tsunami makes the world take notice, the success of the Korean Wave has made the world take notice of Korean culture.

[BAE] I think it's an interesting analogy, and I'm very interested in the cultural landscapes of the world that have been transformed by the Korean Wave tsunami, as you put it. When a tsunami hits, it creates a new landscape in the area. K-pop, K-dramas, K-movies, etc. are now familiar genres to people all over the world, and many people want to seek out and learn about Korean culture. And after the tsunami, a new ecosystem was created. The success of the Korean Wave has created a 'discourse of possibility', showing hope and possibility that other countries, especially emerging countries, can also promote their culture. It is expected that more diverse cultures will flourish in the future on the soil of cultural exchange created by the Korean Wave.

In a related question, you have explained the reasons for the popularity of the Korean Wave in various places and given your outlook for the future. Especially since you have been invited to be a Distinguished Professor at Konkuk University and to speak at various universities and forums, what message would you like to convey to Koreans about the Korean Wave?

[SAM] It's important to remember that Korea is already on the world's radar through Hallyu. Koreans don't need to give up their Korean identity and change to fit in with the rest of the world in order to gain the world's attention and love. Rather, the world already loves and cares about Korean culture, so it's important that we proudly maintain and develop our Korean identity and unique culture. This is important not only for Koreans, but also for people all over the world. By keeping Korean culture and identity alive, we can contribute to the promotion of cultural diversity.

When people from all over the world come into contact with Korean culture and enjoy it, they will find it fascinating and different from their own culture. Therefore, Koreans must have the wisdom to not just jump on the bandwagon of globalisation, but to preserve what is "Korean" and enhance the value of Korean culture. This will be a desirable way to empathise and communicate with the world through Hallyu.

"Contribute to diversity with Korean identity"

[BAE] That's a great idea. You attended the 9th International Hallyu Conference in Seoul in 2022, and in your keynote speech you praised KOFICE's activities and resources. We'd like to ask you what you noticed about KOFICE.

[Sam] I always refer to KOFICE's resources and books when researching the Hallyu phenomenon, especially the Global Hallyu Trends report, which provides an in-depth analysis of the characteristics of Hallyu fans around the world and their consumption of Hallyu content, which is invaluable for Hallyu researchers. The report doesn't just identify the popularity and scale of the Hallyu phenomenon, but also provides data broken down by country and genre.

For example, K-dramas are relatively popular in Southeast Asia and K-pop is relatively popular in Europe, which is very helpful for Hallyu content creators and planners to better understand their target markets and tailor their strategies. I'm planning to meet CJ Vice President LEE Mi-keong(Miky Lee), and I'll tell her to read the KOFICE report for her Hallyu content business.

KOFICE's reports also examine Hallyu fans' perceptions of Korean culture, purchase behaviour of Korean products and intentions to visit Korea, providing a three-dimensional view of Hallyu's impact on the economy, tourism and more. It is a valuable resource that can be used not only for academic research, but also for policy formulation and corporate marketing strategies.

[BAE] As a broadcasting PD and a Hallyu researcher, I too have benefited from KOFICE's publications. In fact, I believe that KOFICE plays a key role in expanding the scope and improving the quality of Hallyu research, especially through its activities such as holding seminars, building professional networks, and publishing books on Hallyu.

[Sam] I couldn't agree more. KOFICE plays a pivotal role in organising and supporting Hallyu research by conducting in-depth data-driven research and promoting international exchange and collaboration. KOFICE's activities are expected to contribute significantly to the development of the Korean Wave, both academically and practically.

[BAE] Speaking of which, according to the KOFICE-organised โ€˜Overseas Korean Wave Survey 2014โ€™, 7 out of 10 people who have experienced the Korean Wave said they were โ€˜positiveโ€™ about K-content. Why do you think Korea, which has a different context and history from the United States, the main stage of contemporary pop culture, has attracted the attention of global pop culture in such a short period of time?

[SAM] There are several key factors that have allowed South Korea to emerge as a global pop culture hub in such a short time, one of which is undoubtedly the high quality and appeal of its cultural content.

Korean music, drama and films have captured the eyes and ears of audiences around the world with their original storytelling, eye-catching visuals and robust production systems. It's not just the spectacle, it's the power of the content to humanise and resonate with audiences. What may not be so obvious to Korean audiences is the appeal. It's like a fish in water, the water may not be attractive to them because it's their everyday environment, but to an outsider it's fascinating.

What makes Korean pop culture even more special is that it is deeply rooted in Korean traditional culture, which shows the depth of Korean pop culture as cultural content that is embedded in the lives, history and values of Koreans. Korea's unique creativity that embraces tradition and modernity has captured the hearts of people around the world, and we hope that Korean culture will continue to use these strengths to communicate with and be loved by the world.

"The overwhelming role of KOFICE"

[BAE] I think the sustainability of K culture is an important issue, what efforts should be made to maintain the momentum of the Korean wave?

[SAM] The sustainable development of K-culture requires efforts from all walks of life, including creators, researchers and policy makers. If they work together to broaden the base of K-culture and improve its quality, it will be possible to go beyond its current popularity and establish K-culture as a global cultural trend.

First and foremost, K-culture content must capture Korean sentiments and values, but it must also be universal enough to resonate with the rest of the world. We need to know who the global audience is and what they want. To do this, we recommend looking at the data from KOFICE. We need to look at the data in a three-dimensional way to guide the future direction of K-culture and ensure its sustainability.

[BAE] International cultural exchange based on K-culture is also a key issue in ensuring the sustainability of the Korean wave. As you have advocated, we need to create a win-win model of cultural exchange through two-way communication and cooperation, rather than simply spreading Korean culture unilaterally. Professor, are there any noticeable differences in the way different demographic groups, such as young people and older generations, encounter and talk about Hallyu in different countries? And what do you see as the future challenges for Hallyu culture in the context of increasing cultural exchange and globalisation?

[SAM] You asked an interesting question about generational and national differences in perceptions of Hallyu and how the discourse might change in the future. I would like to share my own perspective. Firstly, if we look at the differences in response to Hallyu by demographic groups, it is clear that younger generations are more active in consuming and enjoying Hallyu content than older generations. Young people are sensitive and open to new cultural trends, so they are quick to respond to K-pop, K-dramas, etc.

On the other hand, the older generation is relatively less interested in Hallyu content itself. However, the indirect impact of Hallyu is not negligible, as it increases their awareness and liking of Korea, which leads to the purchase of Korean products. In terms of regions, Latin America is said to be more in tune with the narrative structure and romantic elements of K-dramas. In North America and Europe, where the cultural industry is relatively developed, Hallyu tends to spread in the form of self-generated fandom among young people, mainly K-pop.

In short, the popularity of the Korean wave and the way it is enjoyed varies by region and generation. Looking ahead, the challenges of globalisation, especially labour migration, remind us of the importance of 'Transnational Universality' that transcend race, nationality and culture. For example, the appearance of African actors in the drama 'Itaewon Class' suggests that K-drama is evolving to embrace ethnic and cultural diversity. The natural inclusion of foreign actors is a symbolic example of how K-dramas are no longer just about Koreans, but are now relatable to people from all over the world. This is also an encouraging change in terms of increasing the multicultural acceptance of Korean society. The values of diversity and inclusion are also the direction that Hallyu content should take in the future.

[BAE] Thank you for your insightful responses. After listening to your words, I feel that we need a more three-dimensional and comprehensive view of the Hallyu discourse. I felt the need to expand my understanding of Hallyu beyond just pop culture to include an interest in Korean society as a whole, looking at how various elements that make up Korean society, such as politics, economics, technology and values, are reflected and reproduced in Hallyu content, and what the implications are for people around the world.

I believe that Hallyu discourse will continue to serve as a bridge between Korea and the rest of the world on political, economic and social levels beyond popular culture. Thank you very much for your time and for sharing your thoughts with us today. Listening to your talk, I felt that it is necessary to expand the scope of Hallyu discourse by actively interacting with the world's interpretation and evaluation of K-culture and the self-reflective voices of Koreans. In this way, I hope that Hallyu will become more than just a cultural trend, but a medium of mutual understanding and solidarity. Acknowledgements.

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