From conquering Japan, South Asia and Southeast Asia starting in the 1990s, the Korean Wave or Hallyu encroached into other territories across the globe. “Hallyu,” which translates to the “flow of Korea” became so big it is considered as a major export of South Korea. Exporting tourism and popular culture used to be the domain of powerful nations such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan. But from being little known outside the Korean Peninsula, the Korean Wave is now one of the country’s major industries.
The worldwide acceptance of Hallyu prompted the South Korean government to give it support, by providing funding and subsidies for creative industry start-ups. The development and spread of the Korean Wave owes much to advancement of technology, with many of its products, such as Korean dramas and movies, music, cosmetics and fashion gaining worldwide attention through social media platforms and video and photo sharing sites.
The starting point
South Korea’s cultural industry started in 1953 after the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement. From there, South Korea experienced the Miracle on the Han River, referring to its swift economic growth after the end of the Korean War. The film industry flourished and American film studies started to establish distribution offices in South Korea. First to come in was Twentieth Century Fox (1986). It was followed by Warner Bros. in 1989 and Columbia the following year. In 1993, Walt Disney also had a distribution office in the country.
Advisers to the South Korean president took note that the earnings of Jurassic Park surpassed the sales of the nation’s pride, Hyundai cars. The government decided to establish the cultural industry bureau under the Ministry of Culture to help develop the country’s media culture, with many companies venturing into media and film.
In 1998, South Korea feared the onset of Japanese manga, anime, J-pop and movies. The Ministry of Culture provided a big budget increase to create more cultural industry departments in their institutes of higher learning.
The following year, the first big-budget locally produced film, Shiri became a huge commercial success, earning more than $11 million, overtaking the gross earnings of Titanic.
In 1999, Korean dramas were shown in China and more people listened to Korean music. The group H.O.T. of S.M. Entertainment was the first boy band to perform in a sold-out concert in China’s capital, Beijing in 2000. In the same year, the Indian state of Manipur started consuming Korean entertainment because Bollywood movies were banned in the state. Agence France-Presse reported that Korean phrases were heard in the street markets and in schools in Manipur. South Korean music, films and dramas started spreading in many locations around Northeast India.
While Taiwan’s F4 and the TV drama Meteor Garden were making a killing in Taiwan and other Asian countries, South Korean solo artist BoA sold a million copies of her album, ‘Listen to My Heart’ in Japan.
In 2002, South Korean drama, ‘Winter Sonata’ became a phenomenal hit. It was the first Korean drama that entered the Japanese market, which catapulted its male lead, Bae Yong-joon to superstar status in Japan. Former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi even said that the South Korean actor was more popular than him.
Winter Sonata started the second Hallyu or Korean Wave, followed by the release of other classics such as Dae Jang Geum (Jewel in the Palace), Full House and Jumong. Others soon followed, including the performances of early K-pop groups, such as TVXQ, SS501 and Super Junior.
2010 and beyond
Although dramas, films and music, especially the idol groups, are always mentioned in various media, Korean Wave also featured various products from South Korea, including its traditional food, trendy clothing and jewelry and its wide array of makeup and skin care products. Korean Wave also heightened the interest in South Korean history and culture as well as the Korean language.
Some of the current Korean Wave hits
The latest in Korean pop culture touches the lives of many people, from young children watching cartoon characters Pororo and Dooly the Little Dinosaur and even singing their songs, to young and old alike dancing to Momoland’s ‘Bboom Bboom’ and people giving others the cute ‘oppa hearts’ (finger hearts).
Teenagers and young at heart are swooning over boy bands EXO, BTS, SHINee, Infinite, BTOB and Wanna One among others. With a solid following are South Korean rock bands such as F.T. Island, CNBlue, Nell as well as solo artists such as Jung Joon-young. Of course there are some other solo artists that are favorites in many parts of Asia and the West such as BoA, Psy, IU, GDragon, Taeyang, Ailee and Jay Park.
In terms of dramas, some of the most popular right now to international audiences are Strong Woman Do Bong Soon, Defendant, Goblin, The Moon Drawn by Clouds or Love in the Moonlight, Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo and Descendants of the Sun. One South Korean drama, The Good Doctor, a story about an autistic savant with acute spatial skills and genius level memory who was a resident in the pediatric surgery unit of a hospital. It had a U.S. remake in 2017. A Japanese remake started its run on July 12, 2018.
What draws people to South Korean products?
Korean pop culture is being consumed in many parts of Asia and in different parts of the world. Many ask why this is so, considering that South Korean language and culture is not very well known. In Asia alone, it would be difficult to find people who have not been exposed to the Korean Wave. You can see youths, working adults and housewives closely following the activities of their idols and biases. You’ll wonder how these South Korean exports are enjoying massive mass appeal, considering that many of their supporters do not even understand the Korean language. It is also a puzzle when you look beyond Asia and see fans from the West enjoying their music and faithfully watching South Korean dramas and films online, despite having to wait for fan-generated subtitles in order to understand them.
It is easier to explain on the Asian side. According to Sung Tae Ho, a KBS (Korean Broadcasting System) senior manager and assistant professor Dr. Liew Kai Khiun of Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information of Nanyang Technological University, the phenomenon is due to the similarities in the cultures of Asia, despite the difference in languages. Dr. Liew Kai Khiun added that is it because people in Asia share the Eastern mentality, such as the respect for parents. In many parts of Asia, the society is hierarchical. The assistant professor added that when it comes to drama, South Korean entertainment is consciously marketing to female audiences, a sector that is becoming very affluent.
Reasons for the wider appeal
A majority of the dramas from South Korea focus on Cinderella and rags-to-riches stories that are easy to identify with. There are also several that deal with the struggles women face in their households, political offices and workplaces. It is usual to have handsome and gallant men (most of them rich) that help them overcome life’s obstacles. They are very different from the real life husbands, boyfriends and partners. Women are drawn to Korean dramas to escape their mundane lives.
It might be a form of escapism but these dramas also urge these women to splurge. Clever product placements of branded cosmetics, perfumes, bags, shoes, jewelry and clothing worn by the male and female stars in many popular dramas have caused the increase in the sales of these products.
Even if you say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, you cannot help but admire the almost flawless skins of male and female idols and stars, notwithstanding that many of them are very handsome and beautiful. Of course you have to keep in mind that some of them look impressive due to cosmetic surgery, which is very popular in South Korea due to their incessant quest to make themselves look good. Their beauty regimen must be something, as you can see them having dewy and smooth skin. Fans often ask their idols what products they use, which again helps boost the sales of beauty and skin care products.
If you want to know about Korean history and culture, their past and present social norms and their take on everyday life and the wisdom of the older generation, South Korea produces several period dramas called ‘sageuk,’ some of them loosely based on historical and political personalities. So now, international viewers are aware that there are several levels of respect in Korean society, that shoes should be removed when entering a home, and that younger people must wait for the elders to start eating. A big pack of toilet tissues is a good housewarming gift and cans of Spam are precious items.
Maybe Korean dramas are now popular in the West because the viewers are tired of the gore, violence and sex that are common in Western-made dramas and films. In comparison, most Korean dramas are very tame and clean. A large number are rated for general audiences.
K-drama fans may not understand the entire dialogue but their exposure to dramas and films have taught them a few words in Korean, such as eoma (mother), appa (father), haraboji (grandfather), halmoni (grandmother), imo (aunt), ajeosshi (uncle), ttal (daughter) and adeul (son). A baby is called agi, a boy/male is namja and a girl/female is yeoja. One of the most popular term right now is ‘oppa’ which can mean as a woman’s older brother, but is now more used to refer to real or pseudo boyfriends.
International fans are now aware that there are several ways to say ‘sorry’ and that joeseonghamnida or mianhamnida are used for formal speech. Standard is joesonghaeyo or mianhaeyo and in informal speech, you can say mianhae or just mian.
Korean dramas and music are fresh and quite different to what Westerners are used to. Drama characters, plots and settings are not predictable. Watching those gives viewers insight to the natural beauty of South Korea, from its highly urbanized cities, wonderful mountains, foliage, shorelines, forests and farmlands. They see wonderful locations they may want to visit someday.
Korean music rocks with their fun lyrics and engaging beats. Aside from regular performances, fans are attracted to the eye candies. Moreover, most dramas have their set of soundtracks that showcases the versatility and talent of Korean composers and singers.
What about clothes? Most modern dramas from South Korea dress their stars in the trendiest clothes that come direct from various designers. The clothes are paired with the latest designs in shoes, bags and accessories.
The Korean Wave also shows the world the variety of Korean dishes aside from kimchi. Now many people are preparing lettuce wraps with fresh garlic and freshly grilled meat. They crave for omurice, bibimbap, bulgogi, japchae, ddukbokki, seolleongtang, samgyeopsal and samgyeopsal. Also worth mentioning are the fruits they eat as dessert or snack.
The Korean Wave presents something fresh and vibrant
From all of the reasons above, you can see the difference in Korean culture compared to the West. The Korean Wave presents something fresh, young, vibrant and mutually appealing. They have a different perspective that international audiences quickly grasp and accept. Korean performers are able to swiftly make an emotional connection with their audiences. They appear genuine, humble and respectful, some traits that are missing in most celebrities from the Western world. Even if many of them find it difficult to converse in English, they are ready to embrace their fans from different cultural backgrounds.
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