[Essay] The Globalization of the Korean Wave: Understanding and Misunderstanding

The unprecedented success of Hallyu naturally raises curiosity about its causes. As a result of the growing popularity of Korean pop culture, there have been a number of misconceptions about the hallyu phenomenon that are rooted in pre-existing ideological biases. In the following sections..


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

In the midst of the pandemic era, South Korea's popular culture is not simply standing still; it is on a trajectory that defies expectations. The unprecedented triumph of BTS, the rise of Bong Joon-ho as a prominent figure in Korean cinema, and the widespread acceptance of Korean dramas and television programs on platforms such as Netflix all underscore that the Hallyu wave has transcended its status as a purely East Asian phenomenon.

The extraordinary success of hallyu, which has surpassed initial expectations, has generated both curiosity and misconceptions about its origins. By categorizing these perceptions into four key points, we can illuminate the nuanced dynamics at play. First, Hallyu is not limited to a broadcasting phenomenon; it is expanding into a global reception phenomenon. Second, its success is not primarily due to the efforts of the South Korean government. Third, Hallyu is a transcultural phenomenon in the era of globalization and the digital age, shaped by the convergence of diverse influences from East Asian popular cultures.

BTS at their Wembley concert (2019) / Photo by Hong Seok-kyung, professor in Seoul National University

The Unprecedented Success of Hallyu

A nation of 50 million people on a tiny peninsula at the far eastern end of the Eurasian continent is gradually losing its reputation as a rapidly developing nation. Instead, it has transformed itself into a nation that is actively exporting its culture to the world. The increasing number of students around the world who are choosing to major in Korean rather than simply studying it as a liberal arts subject, and the remarkable sales of K-pop albums, which are reshaping the conventional music industry norms set by the United States in the digital music era, speak volumes. While groups such as BTS, BLACKPINK and TWICE have achieved immense success, it's worth noting that most of the well-known K-pop groups in Korea have larger international fan bases. Furthermore, making it to the Billboard 100 and 200 charts, which was an exceptional occurrence just a few years ago, has now become routine.

Since launching in Korea in 2016, Netflix has strategically increased its investment in Korean Netflix Originals to drive subscriber growth in the Asian region. This strategy has significantly expanded the audience for Korean content, reaching far beyond Asia to engage a global audience. According to my research on the top 10 daily shows in various countries in 2020, Korean movies ranked fifth globally, while Korean dramas secured second place, trailing only American dramas and significantly outperforming British dramas. This success extends beyond a few shining examples; a wide range of current and past Korean movies and TV dramas are enjoying global popularity at the same time. Global over-the-top media service providers such as Netflix, Disney+, and Amazon Prime are poised to emulate this success and capture the global market. While concerns remain about the potential negative impact of their investments on the domestic cultural industry, be it K-pop, Korean movies, or dramas, as long as these forms of entertainment maintain their cultural, social, and political relevance, the future of Hallyu content appears promising.

The unprecedented success of Hallyu naturally raises curiosity about its causes. As a result of the growing popularity of Korean pop culture, there have been a number of misconceptions about the hallyu phenomenon that are rooted in pre-existing ideological biases. In the following sections, I will briefly outline these understandings and misunderstandings.

Phenomenon of reception, not propagation

First, hallyu, which refers to the international popularity of South Korean popular culture, is fundamentally a phenomenon of reception rather than active propagation. In the late 1990s, news of South Korean cultural triumphs unexpectedly reached the Korean people, who, despite their self-critical views of their television dramas, found it astonishing that foreigners preferred Korean dramas to arguably better-made Japanese counterparts. Different countries had different preferences for Korean dramas and celebrities, and the reasons for admiration varied widely. A common thread that emerged from this diversity, however, was the influence of the Korean emotional quality known as "jeong" and attributes associated with East Asian cultural identity, such as consideration for others and Confucian values. These factors strongly suggest that Hallyu is fundamentally a reception phenomenon, even within East Asia, where it first gained popularity. There is little room for interpreting Hallyu as a carefully planned cultural diffusion.

While this understanding may be obvious to Koreans, many foreign diplomats, journalists, critics, intellectuals, and government officials stationed in South Korea - acting as cultural mediators - firmly believe that "Hallyu was created with the support of the South Korean government. This belief stems from the South Korean government's historical emphasis on its role in foreign relations and the expanded scope of public support activities in diplomacy. For example, by supporting independent Korean film festivals overseas, the government inadvertently transformed these festivals into events that resembled local cultural affairs.

The adoption of a domestic soft power strategy, born out of the need to move away from a U.S. foreign policy based on hard power after the Gulf War, seems to have overemphasized the role of the state, making it conspicuous in the context of this hyper-global cultural trend. The discussion of soft power within the United States could have evolved into an acceptable policy even with less emphasis on the visibility of the state, given the nature of the United States. It is crucial to assess whether South Korea's adoption of this concept as a core idea of public diplomacy, with an emphasis on the government's role in civil diplomacy activities, could have counterproductive effects. South Korea is at a juncture that calls for a different approach. In other words, South Korea's public diplomacy policy should recognize that Hallyu is not only the result of government support for the cultural industry with the aim of exporting culture, but also the result of South Korea's autonomous cultural development and the cultural competence of its people.

Despite South Korea's economic progress and its classification as an advanced country, global elites, including those from advanced nations, often fail to recognize South Korea's cultural competence or consider it a culturally advanced nation capable of exerting global cultural influence. This is evident in their evaluation of South Korea. Unlike France's large budget allocations for cultural promotion or Japan's government support for "Cool Japan" for national branding, government support in South Korea is not attributed to results. However, this belief is rooted in lingering imperialist thinking. In this context, Hallyu has global significance, demonstrating that a country without the original wealth accumulated through colonial exploitation can possess cultural competence and become a cultural agent that enchants other nations with its cultural content developed through democratic reforms. For citizens of developing countries, South Korea symbolizes a future they can aspire to.

Excessive Government Efforts

Second, the government's excessive public diplomacy efforts to link Hallyu to South Korea's image may have counterproductive effects. In reality, the essence of the "K" in Hallyu is constantly evolving. Through joint ventures and outsourcing, South Korean production companies have built trust with American broadcasters and platforms as a result of the globalization of the cultural sector, thanks to investments from services such as Netflix. A significant shift is also taking place in K-pop. When the experimental group EXP EDITION, made up of Americans, emerged in 2016, K-pop enthusiasts criticized them on the basis of race, language, and geography, arguing that they were not authentically K-pop.

However, South Korean entertainment companies are now forming K-pop idol groups composed entirely of foreigners through audition programs, rendering such criticism obsolete. In addition, even without direct involvement in the K-pop industry, the influence of K-pop is increasingly felt around the world. Locally produced, audition-based idol groups often bear a cultural resemblance to K-pop, making it difficult to distinguish their music videos from K-pop, except for language differences. Faced with this phenomenon, questions such as "What does the 'K' in K-pop mean?" have emerged in academic discourse, and K-pop is evolving in a direction that transcends its exclusive association with South Korea in the global context.

Hallyu: A Transcultural Phenomenon in the Global Digital Age

Third, Hallyu and the K-pop phenomenon are often explained by linking them to female fandoms and the MZ generation (Millennials and Generation Z), often categorizing them as a cultural minority phenomenon. While it is true that quantitative research confirms the significant presence of women and youth as consumers of Hallyu and K-pop, these narrow explanations can lead to misconceptions that stereotype Hallyu audiences. More explicitly, there is an exaggerated stereotype that portrays K-pop as a culture that appeals primarily to fervent teenage female fans, middle-aged housewives with high television consumption, or multicultural youth and sexual minorities marginalized in the Western mainstream. Analyzing the origins of these stereotypes and the discourses that influence their formation would require more space than is available here, so instead I'll provide a summary of recent research on understanding Hallyu audiences.

Hallyu and K-pop fandoms, regardless of how they initially emerged and evolved within the specific context of each receiving country, stand as quintessential examples of a transcultural phenomenon in the global digital age. In essence, Hallyu represents a global cultural phenomenon emerging at the intersection of digital participatory culture, globalization, and the Internet, introducing issues of race, the more inclusive gender sensitivities of the MZ generation, and intersectionality. These audiences' enthusiasm for Hallyu is not only rooted in its politically correct representations, but also in the materials it presents, which allow for new ways of imagining generations, races, genders, and more in a formally superior way. Furthermore, because of South Korea's success story and historical significance as described above, young people worldwide are invoking K-pop's solidarity at the forefront of political movements, such as the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, protests in Hong Kong and Chile, and conflicts in Israel and Palestine.

Hallyu Developed at the Crossroads of East Asian Popular Culture

Fourth, the cultural underpinnings of Hallyu did not emerge as an elaborate strategy by South Korea to overcome its weakened state; rather, it developed at the intersection of diverse influences within East Asian popular culture. Delving into the not-so-distant past, which reveals a long history of Korean actors such as Jin Lin in early twentieth-century Chinese cinema, is essential to understanding the formation of the core content that constitutes Hallyu. It is essential to recognize the impact of Hong Kong cinema and popular music in the 1980s and 1990s, followed by Japanese manga, anime, trendy dramas, J-pop, and especially Japanese idol entertainment culture.

The prototype of today's K-pop, similar to the Seo Taiji phenomenon of the early 1990s, was born out of the presence of U.S. troops after the Korean War and the escalating direct influence of the United States in the 1980s. However, as Hallyu grows, online nationalism between South Korea, China, and Japan is intensifying, distorting the formation and cultural characteristics of Hallyu. For example, the Korean television drama Joseon Exorcist (SBS, 2021) was abruptly canceled after only two episodes due to vehement criticism from the South Korean online community, which claimed that its portrayal of a Chinese theme amounted to historical distortion. South Korean and Chinese viewers are currently in a state of mutual tension online. In addition, the conflict between South Korean and Japanese netizens has deepened in the context of South Korea-Japan relations. There's a noticeable tendency for selective distortion in documentaries about the formation of K-pop, emphasizing the influence of American popular culture while neglecting any mention of its connection to Japanese popular culture, all aimed at circumventing the saturation of online nationalism.

However, as emphasized in the second point, the "K" in Hallyu transcends South Koreans and the Republic of Korea. Moreover, no Hallyu consumer in the world is unaware that K-pop did not originate in South Korea alone. This expansion of Hallyu means that Hallyu producers and the South Korean government must recalibrate their attitudes and recognize that Hallyu now has a special significance in world history beyond its original regional cultural context. This is a moment that requires a more sophisticated and refined approach and skills, whether on an industrial or diplomatic level. South Korea should engage in introspection and refine its cultural production and diplomacy to ensure that South Korean popular culture is not seen as a threat, but as a potential asset in the new cultural hierarchy and re-territorialization of the 21st century. (END)

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