Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

The ‘Korean Wave’ has made a global splash

How Korean media found an international audience and what it means for the country
Photo of Seoul, SK skyline. Yohan Cho via Unsplash.

If you’ve been paying attention to pop culture recently, you’ve likely noticed a surge in popularity in Korean music, television and films. From K-pop groups topping global charts to “Squid Game” being the most streamed show on Netflix within one month of being released, the audience for Korean media has grown far beyond its country of origin. Throughout the 21st century, the “Korean wave” has made South Korea a pop culture powerhouse.

The origins of “Hallyu”

The rapid growth of Korean media is closely intertwined with the country’s changing political landscape in the late 20th century. With the end of military censorship, the ensuing boom in the Korean entertainment industry helped its economy recover from post-war hardships. The 1997 Asian economic crisis led the Korean government to invest in the Internet and cultural exports, first finding a market in nearby Asian countries. In fact, the word “hallyu” (which translates to “Korean wave”) originates from China, one of the first countries where Korean media found an audience.

The rise of South Korea’s most prominent broadcast and music agencies occurred alongside increasingly widespread use of the Internet, bringing Korean media from East Asia to around the world. Additionally, the Korean government encouraged globalization by lifting restrictions on international trade and promoting cultural development. Foreign interest in Korean products was on a steady climb — until one song catapulted Korea onto the global pop culture stage.

How “Gangnam Style” launched Korean media worldwide

When most people think of K-pop or even Korea itself, they think of Psy’s “Gangnam Style.” The song was released in 2012, and with a simple yet catchy chorus and dance that transcended language barriers, it became a viral hit. It hit number two — the highest place a Korean artist had achieved at the time — on the Billboard Hot 100 and was the first music video to reach one billion views on YouTube.

“Gangnam Style” opened the door for other K-pop acts to gain global fame throughout the 2010s. Despite the cultural differences between Asian idol culture and Western stardom, K-pop groups such as BTS and Blackpink have found loyal fanbases worldwide. K-pop as a genre has also globalized, with Korean artists collaborating with non-Korean musicians and more English lyrics in K-pop songs. BTS’s “Dynamite,” the group’s first song entirely in English, received international recognition including a Grammy nomination.

Alongside the rise of K-pop internationally, Korean TV shows and films also gained worldwide viewership. While K-dramas were part of the first “hallyu” in other Asian countries during the early 2000s, they took off globally in the mid-2010s after Netflix partnered with major Korean television companies. Netflix also started producing its own Korean content in response to the demand for K-dramas on their platform. The most well-known Korean show is Netflix’s 2021 original “Squid Game.” With its central premise of playing childhood games in a dystopian life-or-death competition, it quickly became Netflix’s most watched series.

In contrast to the Korean music industry centering around idol groups, a wide variety of genres in Korean shows and movies have found international success. A hallmark of Korean film is Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite,” a thriller about two socially unequal families that became the first non-English film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Korea’s unique interpretations of certain genres also appeals to global audiences. For instance, zombie media such as “Kingdom,” “Train to Busan” and “Sweet Home” offer their own spin on a common trope that have hooked viewers. Other popular genres of Korean TV and film include romance, historical period pieces and variety shows.

The impact of Korea’s pop culture boom

The popularity of Korean media has bolstered not just the country’s economy, but its global image as a whole. For some, Korean pop culture has inspired them to learn more about the country. A steadily increasing number of American students are studying Korean, and South Korea is one of the most sought-out locations to study abroad.

Not only is Korean entertainment enjoyed globally, but it has brought tourists to South Korea. The number of tourists in South Korea has spiked from five million in 2000 to 17.5 million in 2019. Recognizing foreigners’ interest in pop culture, the Korean tourism industry promotes “K-culture” hotspots such as K-pop concerts and trendy shopping districts. In 2017, BTS were given the role of Honorary Tourism Ambassador of Seoul, the largest city in South Korea. However, you don’t have to travel to Korea to see its cultural power in action. Whether you’re at home watching a K-drama or planning a summer trip to South Korea, you’ve felt the influence of the Korean wave.

Leyna Summers can be reached at [email protected].

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