Posted on: Wednesday, November 17, 2021 – 6:10 AM | Last update: Wednesday, November 17, 2021 – 6:11 am
Recently, more than 20 Korean words have been added to the Oxford English Dictionary, including Hallyu, which literally means “Korean Wave”, which sheds light on the rising tide of Korean culture around the world.
How and when did this Korean wave start? How did South Korea benefit from it internally, and did it succeed in gaining it a soft power on the international scene?
To begin with, I have to admit that until relatively recently, I didn’t know much about Korean culture, including popular music or Korean dramas – K-pop and K-drama. Like many others, the name of South Korea may have been associated with the production of cars and mobile phones, and the political crises that flare up from time to time with its northern neighbor.
But in recent years, it seems that the Korean cultural wave is no longer confined to Southeast Asia, but has transcended it and flowed towards the rest of the world, and made BTS one of the most popular singing groups in the world, and a drama series “Squid Game” is the most watched series on Netflix, which broadcasts movies and series via subscription.
Perhaps in the same way that South Korea borrowed from the United States or Japan to boost its manufacturing capabilities, the country’s directors and producers have studied Hollywood and other centers of the film industry for years, drawing on its methods, adding many Korean touches. With the rise in popularity of sites like YouTube, and after movie and series streaming services like Netflix helped break down geographic barriers, the country has gone from being a consumer of culture to a major source of it.
Rise of the Korean wave
The term “Heilu”, or “Korean Wave” was first used by Chinese journalists in the late 1990s to refer to the rapid rise in popularity of South Korean culture in Asian countries such as Japan and China. This coincided with the huge success of South Korean dramas in those countries.
From the mid-2000s to the end of the 2000s, the spread of the Korean wave was mainly led by male and female singers, such as Big Bang, Girls’ Generation and Kara. During that period, the Korean Wave managed to expand its fan base globally, to include Latin America and the Middle East, especially among the teenage group.
Since 2010, the Korean Wave has expanded its base to include, besides music and drama, traditions, food, literature and language, aided by platforms such as YouTube and social media.
In 2012, South Korean singer Psy’s “Gangnam Style” held the number two spot on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart for seven weeks in a row, and the song’s video became the first YouTube video to gain 1 billion views, paving the way for the spread of the song. The obsession with K-pop songs around the world.
The desire to learn the lyrics of K-pop songs has given rise to the popularity of the Korean language in countries such as the United States, Canada, Thailand and Malaysia.
A report by the Modern Language Association in the United States showed an increase in the number of Korean language learners at American universities by 14 percent between 2013-2016, at a time when there was a decline in the demand for language learning in general.
In 2020, BTS started a new chapter in K-pop history when their song “Dynamite” hit the Billboard Hot 100 for two consecutive weeks in August. This was preceded by the announcement of the “IFBI” organization, which represents the global music industry, in March of the same year, that the group was the first in the world in terms of song sales. This was the first time that a non-Western team had won this title, and most of their songs were in a language other than English.
In the same year, Parasite was nominated for six Academy Awards, winning four of them, including Best Picture (the first non-English language film to win this award) and Best Director, which was seen as an opportunity to introduce the world to South Korean cinema. The film sheds light on the deep divide between the rich and the poor, and its winning of those awards drew the attention of audiences around the world.
Recently, “Squid Game” became a resounding success, with more than 111 million households watching it one month after its launch last September. The series, which sheds light on economic injustice, has made a great resonance with many around the world, especially with many suffering as a result of the consequences of the Corona epidemic.
Another South Korean phenomenon that has found its way into the world is Mukbang (Mokbong) – a word added to the Oxford Dictionary, meaning a video broadcast on the Internet (usually live), in which a person eats large amounts of food and talks to his followers and interacts with them or answers to their questions. Videos of this type have become a huge audience of people who say they feel great pleasure watching some of the things that people do on a daily basis, such as combing their hair, whispering, applying clothes or eating.
The rise of the cultural wave was no accident. South Korea has long used it as a source of soft power – a term coined in the late 1980s by Joseph Nye, an American political scientist and former Clinton administration official, that means a country’s ability to persuade others to do something. You want without the use of force or intimidation.
In an article on his website, Danish writer and marketing and branding strategist Martin Roll says that South Korea is “one of the few countries, if not the only one in the world, that among its stated goals is to become a major exporter of world popular culture.
There are, according to Rolle, five main factors that contributed to the development of the Korean wave:
The government’s decision in the early 1990s to lift the ban on overseas travel of Korean citizens encouraged a number of Koreans to explore European countries and the United States, where many of them received their education and started their careers in reputable companies in those countries. They returned to their countries with new interpretations of art, music and cinema, and innovative ways of expression.
The severe financial crisis that hit the country between 1997-1998, like most of the countries in East and South Asia at the time, prompted the country to shift towards diversifying the economy. Former President Kim Dae-jung focused on information technology and popular culture as the main drivers of South Korea’s future.
Repeal censorship laws that prevented filmmakers and other artists from addressing issues deemed controversial. This move, which took place in 1996, provided many opportunities for the younger generation to express bolder ideas through cinema and music.
Increased interest from major companies, such as Samsung and LG, with its brand, as more emphasis is placed on quality, design and marketing on a global level.
Increasing focus on infrastructure, as Korean governments have begun to spend huge amounts of money on Internet infrastructure, and invest in promising projects.
It all happened around the same period, creating an environment conducive to creativity in the field of music and drama. Films discussing controversial topics were produced more than before, and these films achieved great popularity in the region. Family drama, which has a common cultural background with other Asian countries, has also become very popular in those countries.
History may have helped the Korean wave grow in some way, Roll says. The majority of Asian countries were formerly colonized by Japan, so there is still a feeling of hostility, or at least rejection, of Japanese cultural products by those countries, particularly China. As for South Korea, it was a colony like the rest of those countries, so there was no resistance to its cultural product.
Prominent governmental role
According to the Korea Herald, the budget allocated to the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism for 2022 is a whopping 6.05 billion US dollars. The newspaper said that the ministry plans to increase its support for the production of cultural content and the Korean wave and to promote Korea worldwide.
The South Korean government bears from 20 to 30 percent of the budget of a billion-dollar investment fund dedicated to the development and export of popular culture, while the rest comes from investment banks and private companies.
The government is also playing an active role in managing the “wave” outside Korea, by organizing various cultural festivals highlighting what the country has to offer in this regard, as well as conducting public relations campaigns to promote the country’s unique cultural features. The Culture and Information Sector of the Ministry of Culture has set up about 40 cultural centers in countries in Africa, the Asia-Pacific region, Europe, the Americas, the Middle East and Africa, to promote the Korean cultural wave.
Economic and moral benefits
South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency, citing a report issued by the Korea Foundation for International Cultural Exchange last year, said that the country’s cultural exports amounted to $12.3 billion in 2019, an increase of 22.4 percent over 2018.
Recently, Asian media reported that the South Korean pop group “BTS” alone contributed $4.9 billion to his country’s economy – what the media called the “BTS effect”.
The growing popularity of Korean music and drama has given rise to a new generation of South Korean celebrities who are becoming increasingly popular in Southeast Asian countries such as Japan, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Vietnam, and are attracting huge fans wherever they go.
The Korean wave also contributed to an increase in foreign tourism to the country by a large percentage. According to an opinion poll conducted in 2019, Hallyu contributed 55.3% of incoming tourism to the country. With the increase in the popularity of films and series, tourists from many countries flocked to South Korea to get a closer look at the country’s culture, and to visit the locations where these works were filmed.
Work has begun on a huge Korean culture complex that can host 170 concerts by local and foreign artists annually, and is expected to attract 20 million visitors annually and create 240,000 new jobs. Its construction is due to be completed by 2024, and the country hopes this will lead to an increase in the number of tourists.
The huge popularity of the cultural wave has given the country a great opportunity to introduce the world to its traditions, unique entertainment products, unique locations and stars who are already very famous on the Asian continent. Movies and soap operas focus on Korean values, society, and the scenic locations in which these works are depicted.
“This in turn gave South Korea a good opportunity to create new images of the country around the world,” says Roll, after the images she conjures up until recently centered around the Korean War, disputes with its northern neighbor and the collapse of huge commercial and industrial enterprises affected by the financial crisis. In the late ’90s – all not so positive.
Hallyu arrives in the Arab world
In 2019, 60,000 spectators flocked to Riyadh to watch the concert held by the BTS band as part of the Riyadh entertainment season, as Turki Al-Sheikh, Chairman of the Board of the General Authority for Entertainment in the Kingdom announced in late October, the signing of a contract Concert with a Korean group, without announcing the name of that group.
This was preceded by a concert by the group and other major Korean bands in Abu Dhabi, UAE, in 2016, as part of the K-Con Festival, an annual K-pop festival that began in the United States, and then spread to other countries such as Japan, the UAE, France and Mexico.
Last May, he announced a collaboration between Saudi singer Badr Al-Shuaibi and South Korean singer Alexa, through a project sponsored by the music streaming platform Spotify.
In addition to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, there are other Arab countries in which Spotify users listen to Korean pop songs, such as Egypt, Algeria and Morocco. The newspaper, “Arab News”, quoting Spotify data, stated that the Saudi market is the largest, while the Egyptian market is the fastest growing, as the listening rate increased by 33% in the period from 2019-2020.
The Arab section of the “Korea Net” website, which provides information on Korea in the cultural, political and other fields, talks about what it describes as “the positive impact of Korean pop music on Arab society,” citing the charitable work done by the group’s fans in Egypt, and their desire to spread “the basic message.” For BTS: Self-esteem, our love for our characters, and trying to discover and develop their best parts.
Martin Roll believes that the Korean cultural wave will face some challenges in order to continue its success in the future. “One of the main reasons for its amazing increase in popularity…is because it is new and innovative,” says Rolle, adding that cultural products must continue to be innovated, and the frequent appearances of singers and actors – chosen by many major local and international companies to advertise their products – must be avoided.
Only days and years will show whether this wave will continue its upward trend and break down geographical barriers, and whether the country will benefit more from the enormous potential it offers in continuing its economic and cultural success.