The Korean wave refers to the significantly increased popularity of South Korean culture around the world; it is also referred to as hallyu, in the Korean language.
The term was coined in China in mid-1999 by Beijing journalists surprised by the fast-growing popularity of Korean entertainment and culture in China (Kim, 2007, p. 15). Broadly speaking, it can be said that the popularity of Korean pop music and television soap operas in China and Taiwan sparked the Korean wave abroad.
The outbreak of hallyu can be traced back to 1997, when the Korean TV drama, What Is Love All About, broadcast on state-run Chinese television, CCTV, set the stage for hallyu in China, following an MBC-TV drama, Jealous, which was imported as the first popular cultural product from South Korea in 1993 (Kim, 2007, p. 15).
Since then, the boom of Korean popular culture in the neighboring Asian countries has remarkably increased and significantly penetrated them over the past several years, and in the years 2000 through 2002, according to one source, “the Korean wave moved forward to diverse parts of Asia, including Southeast and Central Asia, and therefore this wave reached an active penetration stage” (Hyejung, 2007, p. 6).
Interestingly, though every country in Asia had a common reaction toward the Korean wave at first, each had a slightly different outlook. This is because “each country has a different ethos, and based on this, its audience decodes and responds to cultural products in different ways” (Kim, 2007, p. 24). For example, in Taiwan, Daejangguem had the best reception of any Korean drama, whereas in Japan, Korea Herald was most popular (Kim, 2007, p. 24).
The trend soon spread out from the mainland to Taiwan, Hong Kong, affecting ethnic Chinese in other Asian countries and eventually Japan, leading all these Asian peoples to be fascinated by not only Korean music and drama, but also its films, food and fashion. Accordingly, Korean cultural products have become a catalyst for curiosity about Korean culture and Korea itself.
Korean dramas in particular have served as an important bridge for the different countries to encounter Korean culture. The appeal of Korean pop culture to Asians is especially meaningful for the Korean government “since the country’s national image has not always been positive in neighboring countries” (Doobo, 2006, p. 6).
Many Asian countries have been distant from their closest neighbors in terms of cultural understanding and exchanges, and instead “have had a tendency to link more closely to the former colonial empires or advanced Western countries than with neighbors sharing borders” (Ryoo, 2007, p. 144). The impact of the Korean wave has not only permeated popular culture but is also a measure of positive lifestyle for many Asian people (Ryoo, 2008, p. 144). Many Asians did not know much about South Korea or knew only a few simple, often stereotypical things about South Korea. Images associated with South Korea were negative and related to events such as the Korean War, cycles of poverty and political instability (Lee, 2007, p. 29).
These negative images have diminished dramatically due to trendy entertainers, new technology, and the image of contemporary South Korean lives through dramas and movies. Rhoo wrote, “Regional cultural affinities also help explain this phenomenon in the sense that the success of the Korean wave is closely related to the ability of South Korean culture and media to translate Western or American culture to fit Asian taste” (2007, p. 45). “Western popular cultural artifacts will not likely succeed because of a certain non-negotiable cultural heterogeneity,” Rhoo predicted ( 2007, p. 45). South Korean popular culture is much more readily relatable and accepted to Asian audiences.
The cultural affinity between South Korea and neighboring countries in the region may thus function as an effective bridge or buffer between the West and Asia (Ryoo, 2007, p. 145). South Korean television shows and movies portray themes that Asian audiences can relate to more easily than those of Western entertainment because Korean “dramas typically deal with family issues, love and filial piety in an age of changing technology, and often reinforces traditional values of Confucianism” (Ryoo, 2007, p. 140).
Observers generally agree that the most likely explanations for the popularity of South Korean shows, singers, and movies throughout Asia include South Korea’s high income levels, the close cultural proximity and affinity they share with neighboring Asian countries (Ryoo, 2007, p. 140). As a result of these and other economic developments, “South Korea is now the twelfth largest economy in the world, and its entertainment companies are able to finance shows and movies with production values much higher than in most of Asia” (Ryoo, 2007, p. 140). As seen above, the Korean wave has had a marked impact in various ways regarding transaction with other countries.
Local sentiment towards Korea has not been respectable in the past, but the Korean wave has fundamentally changed the national image of Korea in a positive way. The Korean wave ultimately improved Korea’s image in foreign countries, which in turn created a ripple effect that has extended much. farther than just the Korean economy or peninsula.
With the world living in the shadow of the pandemic for the last few months, the role of culture and media goes beyond entertainment and will become greater still, heavily affecting the kind of businesses and tech startups that come. Putting things into perspective, the world is bracing for an economic impact as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on. The Asian Development Bank stated a staggering estimate between USD 5.8 trillion and USD 8.8 trillion in losses—equivalent to 6.4% to 9.7% of global gross domestic product (GDP).
At the same time with lockdowns leaving many at home, the global consumption of media has risen sharply across the board with video streaming services going up by 51%, and gaming enjoying a 31% boost. The sharp rise in media consumption extends beyond entertainment, in mid-March Pinterest saw more searches and saves globally than any other weekend in its history for topics such as home improvement, activities with children, and new projects and skills that people were keen to pick up.
Hallyu has successfully achieved milestones across different media types. Bong Joon-ho’s groundbreaking film Parasite received universal acclaim and awards internationally, K-pop boy band BTS accounts for USD 4.65 billion of South Korea’s GDP and rivals The Beatles on the charts, while South Korean game developer Bluehole’s PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds reach critical success, with PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds Mobile becoming the highest-grossing video game in March. For the first time the content industry saw its combined export surpass USD 10 billion in 2019, and in 2020, the Korean government is setting aside USD 1.42 billion in funds to support more local content creation.
In 2012, Simon Fraser University Professor Dal Yong Jin wrote an insightful article about the introduction of Hallyu 1.0 and how its momentum led to Hallyu 2.0 as a global phenomenon. As a cultural export, Hallyu’s success is seen front and center, a success that has been sown through technology, a sector that the South Korean government has committed up to USD 3.9 billion in 2020. A momentum catalyzed through the right timing, and use of social media platforms. Right now as the projections and theories around industry 4.0 and Hallyu 3.0 are challenged by the pandemic, the growth seen in both tech and Hallyu have always been deeply intertwined and in tandem.
All in all, there is no doubt that Hallyu has catapulted Korea on to the global stage. With so much international attention on Korea and its pop culture scene and its creative economy, it is imperative for the Korean government to leverage on all its entertainment and cultural products to further drive the brand equity of Korea as a country. Brand Korea needs to be able to strike a balance between not over-commercializing Hallyu, but to market and build its identity in a genuine way.
The growth of the Korean Wave over the past 2 decades has been a fascinating one, and it is still unfolding. Moving forward, it will be interesting to see how Korea continues to innovate and tap on the massive potential and popularity of the Korean Wave to sustain its appeal to global audiences. This could further enhance the nation brand equity of Korea, and contribute to the continued success of the Korean society, economy and culture.