We all have surely heard the phrase, ‘The Korean Wave’ which refers to the increase in global popularity of South Korean culture. Korean movies, songs, and TV series have all had big breakthroughs in recent years, and the popularity of these Korean productions has turned into a global phenomenon. While likes of boy band BTS and girl group BLACKPINK have become an obsession, especially among youngsters, series like “Boys Over Flower” and the recent, record-breaking “Squid Game” have also conquered the hearts of viewers. But how were Korean music, TV series, and movies primed for this viral moment?
K-Pop, short for Korean Popular music, has taken over the world, transcending national borders. This world domination of South Korean culture, known as Hallyu or the Korean wave has become a major driver of global culture, seen in everything from Korean dramas and media content on Netflix and other OTT platforms, to the burgeoning demand for Korean skincare, along with an ever-growing fascination with Korean cuisine. So, is the world really obsessed with Korean culture or is it just recency bias at play?
The K-beauty, or Korean beauty market is estimated to be worth $21.8 billion, thanks to the global K-beauty movement. In 2020, courtesy of social media and growing interest in Korean cuisine, the overseas export of Korean condiments increased to $300 million, showing a growth of 25.8%. High-end fashion brands such as Dior, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and Chanel paid homage to South Korea by holding fashion shows in the country. The androgynous fits and styles of Korean idols have led younger fans, especially those of Gen Z, to adopt clothing that blurs gender lines and is more unisex in nature.
The world’s biggest high fashion brands are tapping into South Korean pop culture to both stay relevant and expand their consumer base. South Koreans are now the largest global spenders on luxury goods.
Jimin from BTS is now the brand ambassador of Tiffany and Co. and Dior, and Squid Game stars Lee Jung-jae and HoYeon Jung became ambassadors for Gucci and Louis Vuitton respectively. Jennie from BLACKPINK serves as a brand ambassador for both Chanel and Calvin Klein while being titled the “Human Chanel.” BTS member J-Hope is the face of Louis Vuitton’s Fall Winter 2023 campaign. South Korean literature has also been gaining international recognition, including through Han Kang, who won the Man Booker Prize in 2016 for her novel “The Vegetarian,” and Kim Young-ha, who was awarded the Deutscher Krimi Preis (German Crime Fiction Prize) in 2020 — the most prestigious German literary prize for crime fiction — for “Diary of a Murderer”
Films like Parasite and Train to Busan have won many awards, capturing the attention of cinephiles. The issues addressed in the series, including poverty, hustle culture, and the growing gap between the rich and poor are universal, says Michael Fuhr. Here too, successful films and shows offer a new take on long-standing social problems — with Squid Game and Parasite serving as the most prominent examples. Beyond the fictional universes, these stories also provide insight into South Korean society, showing how many people in the country live in poverty, in cramped conditions, often without electricity and water or in basements, like the poor family who pushes their way into the life of a rich family in Parasite. At the same time, it is common in South Korea to look down on those who have less. “It’s a society very much shaped by capitalist values,” says Michael Fuhr. There is “a strong work mentality and in parts a neo-Confucianist hierarchy of values.” The protagonists in Squid Game are desperate for money. As proof that the fictional universe echoes real-life issues, protesters demonstrating against the South Korean government’s labor market policy last October dressed up wearing costumes and masks from the show.
These days, the journey of getting into Korean dramas for the uninitiated often involves five stages:
- First, denial (“I don’t think I’d be into that.”)
- Second, reluctant acceptance (“The Netflix algorithm keeps recommending this to me and there isn’t anything else to watch.”)
- Third, disbelief (“Wait, it’s really good”)
- Fourth, obsession (“Why am I up until 2 A.M. watching this?”)
- Lastly, evangelism (“You must watch this show”)
K-pop’s evolution essentially represents one of the most remarkable five-year plans of all time. By last year, Korean had become the second-fastest-growing language on the planet, according to Duolingo—thanks in large part to K-pop being the fastest-growing music market on the planet. In America, K-pop was once a niche interest. Now it is a dominant, multibillion-dollar global industry. And the music world will never be the same. The industry has been around for nearly three decades, beginning in the early 1990s with the formation of the big three entertainment companies: YG, JYP, and SM. Think of the companies as one-stop shops—record label, talent agency, and artist management, all in one.
K-pop’s rise in the U.S. was slower, and involved more economic policy than you might have guessed. After years of financial precarity, South Korea passed a law in 1999 that dedicated a percentage of the nation’s budget to entertainment ($148.5 million), betting on the belief that exporting culture could bring money into the country. Spoiler: It worked. The average BTS ARMY fan, for example, has spent $1,422 on the boy band, according to a recent analysis by market research firm iPrice. If a fan likes multiple groups? That’s just good capitalism.
K-pop fans feel involved in the lives and careers of their idols. They participate rather than simply consume.
They invest and buy stock in their favorite acts; they purchase ads in Times Square for their favorite singer. They engage in sumseuming, Korean slang for “streaming 24/7 as one breathes,” to boost chart positions. It is an ideological divergence from American pop fandom: “What the West calls Meet and Greet, the East calls Fan Service,” Lee explains. “Meet and Greet is a privilege. Fan service means We’re here for you.” With that language, the artist is fortunate to meet the fan, not the other way around. But the biggest factor that secured K-pop’s global success is the internet. Once international fans began bingeing the group’s mesmerizing videos with English subtitles— K-pop, well, popped.
Western record labels are obsessed with building streaming numbers while K-pop is more concerned with encouraging fan participation. One genius innovation: placing collectible photo cards inside expertly packaged CDs to inspire fans to buy multiple copies. (Just ask girl group Twice, who’ve sold over 10 million physical albums.) Paid fan-club tiers on a direct-to-fan platform like Weverse can net a group serious money, too; BTS’s 2020 pay-per-view virtual concert, Bang Bang Con The Live, reportedly brought in $20 million.
YouTube made K-pop’s dominance possibleTamar Herman, Author of BTS: Blood, Sweat and Tears
Last year, when the hashtag #whitelivesmatter trended on Twitter following the murder of George Floyd, K-pop stans overwhelmed the hashtag with fancams, effectively silencing the white supremacists. (When BTS caught wind of their ARMY’s activism, the group and their label Big Hit Entertainment donated one million dollars to Black Lives Matter; their fans matched that number in two days.) And brilliantly, when then-President Donald Trump organized an in-person rally in Tulsa in June 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, K-pop fans registered for thousands of tickets they never intended to use, bloating RSVPs and preventing some of his supporters from attending.
The Korean idol industry studied the successes of Disney and Motown and developed its own system for building exemplary performers: a live-in boot camp, where teen talents move into dorms and train endlessly for years on end before debuting. That is, if they debut. They face constant scrutiny from fans, limited phone privileges, and dating restrictions. Depression is common. It’s especially hard for women, who have endured weekly weight check-ins. “It sounds harsh, but pop artists are a commodity. They are produced; they are expected to generate certain results,” says Seoul journalist Haeryun Kang, lest anyone forget the cutthroat industry was modeled after Western star-making factories where indecent behavior is often hidden beneath the sheen. “But, having said that, [K-pop idols] are individuals with desires and artistic interests of their own. We need to look at both.”
Positive representation opens up the question, Can K-pop one day just be called ‘Pop’? BTS has worked with Halsey, and reportedly with Justin Bieber. Blackpink has worked with Lady Gaga and Dua Lipa. Clearly, K-pop is pop, but the music continues to be othered—categorized outside Western (i.e., white) pop as something exotic, not unlike using the genre tag “world music” for anything non–European or North American. “[‘K-pop’ speaks] to a U.S.-centric, hegemonic hierarchy where things outside of Western music must be classified by region.