Just How Did South Korea Get To Be A Cultural Powerhouse?

How does this sound for a leisurely day of cultural immersion? Ablutions completed, apply a moisturising face mask infused with snail secretion against an audio backdrop of girl group Blackpink. For lunch, a bowl of bibimbap and a Bong Joon-ho film. In the evening, binge-watch zombie series All of Us Are Dead over spicy yangnyeom chicken and a bottle of strawberry soju. All this without setting foot inside their country of origin.

Not even the fact that the all-conquering boyband BTS have been called up for military service can dampen the global appetite for all things South Korean. K-pop now regularly tops the US and UK charts. Three years after Squid Game became Netflix’s most-watched show ever, four years after Bong’s Parasite became the first non-English language film to win the best picture Oscar, with K-pop girl group Twice at No 1 on the US album chart, the Korean content juggernaut shows no sign of slowing down.

In fact, western studios are now talking of a Korean “gold rush”. Netflix recently announced $2.5bn in investment in South Korean projects over the next four years, led by a second season of Squid Game. Disney and Apple TV+ are also commissioning more South Korean shows. “Everybody wants a piece of Korean content,” one Disney executive recently told the Hollywood Reporter. “It’s been popular across Asia for 20 years [but] the fact that it can now travel globally – that’s something new.”

Even the BBC is getting in on the act. In February, CBBC and BBC iPlayer launched Gangnam Project – a coming-of-age “dramedy” looking at “what it takes to become a K-pop superstar”. The BBC’s head of commissioning and acquisitions for 7-12-year-olds, Sarah Muller, noted: “South Korea is the modern centre of the creative world.”

BTS performing at the American Music awards in Los Angeles in 2017. Photograph: Lester Cohen/WireImage

The country has come a long way in just a few decades. The 1988 Seoul Olympics marked its emergence from nearly 30 years of military rule, but even at the turn of the century, South Korea was primarily known abroad for its cars, consumer electronics and the ruthless dictatorship with which it shared a border. Now, the surging currents of Hallyu (the Korean wave) have cemented its credentials as a cultural superpower.

“The Korean wave is a newfound source of pride and confidence for South Koreans,” says Inkyu Kang, a professor of digital journalism at Penn State University. The phenomenon, he added, has developed in step with the country’s “remarkable” economic growth in the decades since the stalemate that ended the 1950-53 Korean war.

Some have framed South Korea’s cultural advance as a government-led mission. The Korean state has been instrumental in turning cultural identity into an exportable commodity since the presidency of Kim Dae-jung in the late 90s and early 00s – a thread that has run through successive administrations on the right and left of Korean politics.

But others see it as more of a fruitful public-private effort. “The global success of the Korean wave is naturally the result of private sector efforts, but the government indirectly supports its spread by creating a foundation for the private sector to unleash its creativity,” says a spokesperson for the Hallyu content cooperation division at South Korea’s ministry of culture, sports and tourism. “Consumers have come to focus on the competitiveness of the content itself rather than its nationality.”

The ministry acts as an umbrella organisation for bodies that shape promotional and creative policies, backed by trillions of won in government funding: the Korea Creative Content Agency, the Korea Foundation for International Cultural Exchange and the Korea Film Council. And a new generation of creators has been nurtured through freeing up private enterprise with loans, tax breaks and investment in institutions, including the Korean Academy of Film Arts and Korea National University of Arts, along with the influential Busan International film festival.

Squid Game, Netflix’s most-watched show. Photograph: Youngkyu Park/AP

The ever-expanding parameters of the K-genre now encompass not only the hardy perennials of pop music, TV and film, but also relative newcomers such as beauty, fashion, cuisine and literature.

Hordes of international tourists flock to Seoul’s Myeongdong neighbourhood to bulk-buy cosmetics from the Face Shop, Skin Food and other outlets whose products are now part of a global K-beauty market that will be worth $18.32bn in 2030, according to a recent report by Straits Research. “Thanks to the Korean history of employing natural, distinctive and harsh-free substances passed down over many years, Korean beauty products have considerably milder compositions,” the report said.

Korean cuisine is on a similarly dizzying trajectory. Its take on corn dogs – sausage snacks with a crispy coating and a satisfyingly gooey centre – have been among the most sought-after street foods in the US in recent years. UK supermarkets routinely stock jars of kimchi – South Korea’s spicy pickled staple with an international reputation for boosting gut health – while chefs add zing to their dishes with blobs of gochujang – fermented chilli paste – and drinkers are discovering why soju – a distilled liquor made from fermented grains – has long been the country’s favourite tipple.

This global output has reaped dividends for what is now Asia’s fifth-largest economy. Exports of South Korean cultural content reached a high of $12.4bn in 2021 – dwarfing earnings from home electronic appliances and electric vehicles. According to a study by the Hyundai Research Institute in 2019, BTS were thought to be worth about $3.67bn to the South Korean economy each year in exports, consumption and inbound tourism – the band’s single Dynamite going to No 1 in the US in 2020 is thought to have created almost 8,000 jobs.

Many content providers are small, independent startups that cover publishing, music, video games, broadcasting, films and animation, but they coexist and collaborate with the chaebol, huge family-run conglomerates (Lotte and Orix are two notable players) with traditionally close ties to senior politicians. Small and medium-sized firms also benefit from government largesse. Last year they received 790bn Korean won ($593m) to increase exports of Korean cultural content, according to the Yonhap news agency.

The South Korean film-maker Bong Joon-ho at the Oscars in 2020, where his film Parasite won four awards, including best picture. Photograph: Valérie Macon/AFP/Getty Images

But viewing Hallyu as a national project hatched in government offices and boardrooms ignores the organic nature of Brand Korea. “It would be a mistake to view the Korean wave as a product of top-down, government-planned enterprise,” says John Lie, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of K-pop: Economic Innovation, Cultural Amnesia and Popular Music in Contemporary South Korea. “Once dramas and pop music caught on, the government was happy to support them through measures such as tax breaks and using the foreign ministry and South Korean embassies to promote pop culture, and then claim credit for it.”

While successive governments have been happy to associate themselves with Hallyu, South Korean artists thrive most when the state takes a back seat, says Kang, who mentions that the guiding principle of Kim Dae-jung’s mission in the 90s and 00s to turn culture into an industry was “support but do not interfere”. “It may sound cynical, but the best thing that the South Korean government has done is to leave creators alone,” he says.

Relations between the government and some of the country’s cultural flag bearers have not always been easy. “Funding has not always been distributed fairly and transparently,” says Kang, citing the revelation that between 2008 and 2017, the conservative administration blacklisted singers, actors, writers and film-makers over their perceived leftwing politics, depriving them of support and even pressing producers not to hire them. Targets included the Oscar-winner Bong, and Song Kang-ho, the lead actor in Parasite, as well as Hwang Dong-hyuk, the creator of Squid Game, and director Park Chan-wook, best known for the films Oldboy and The Handmaiden.

Hallyu has also, at times, revealed a darker side that raises questions about South Korean attitudes towards mental health, sexual assault and exploitation, especially of women. It has been rocked by a series of scandals and high-profile apparent suicides including, most recently, Lee Sun-kyun, best known for his role in Parasite. Revelations that K-pop stars had secretly filmed themselves having sex with women without their consent brought South Korea’s molka spycam epidemic into the K-pop realm, and was seized upon as evidence of rampant misogyny at the heart of the country’s entertainment industry.

Bibimbap. Photograph: Nina Firsova/Alamy

Ironically perhaps, K-pop is now an international operation. “K-pop employs an extensive global division of labour, from Swedish composers and Italian costume designers to American choreographers,” says Lie. The industry has long taken recognisable international genres – such as R&B and hip-hop – and infused them with “Korean characteristics”, from the uniformly androgynous vibes given off by boyband members to the avoidance of “controversial” themes of sex and violence.

K-pop’s most successful acts have long performed versions of the same song in different languages depending on the target market – an approach that last year helped Jungkook, of BTS, soar to the top of the US Billboard Hot 100 and the UK singles chart with his debut solo single, Seven. Multilingual performers have been joined by a slew of K-pop bands who aren’t Korean at all. Giant Korean boyband NCT now includes sub-branches NCT Wish, comprising six Japanese members, and WayV, whose members are Chinese and Thai. Vcha, meanwhile, are an American girl group based in Los Angeles.

Blackpink on stage at Coachella festival, California, in 2023. Photograph: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Coachella

The Korean wave shows no signs of breaking yet. There is even growing international interest in learning the language. Demand for classes last year prompted the government to expand the number of schools belonging to the King Sejong Institute, a government-sponsored Korean language education body, from 244 to 270, as enrolment in Korean language courses overseas – from the Duolingo hobbyists to modern languages undergraduates – has risen.

“I anticipate that the next ‘big thing’ will be literature,” says Kang. “Korea’s remarkable storytelling prowess has been shown through film, TV series and webtoons, yet despite its increasing visibility, Korean literature has yet to receive its due recognition.

Critical praise for Min Jin Lee’s 2017 debut novel, Pachinko, based on her family history, led to a screen version on Apple TV+. “The profound experiences and resilience of the Korean people, who have endured harsh challenges such as colonialism, division, war, destitution and dictatorship – all in the same century – are encapsulated in the depth and richness of their literature,” says Kang. “Koreans have lots of gripping stories to share with the world.”

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