A photo of Gangnam in the 1970s shows a farmer working in the fields with glitzy skyscrapers rising in the background—a striking illustration of Korea’s rapid gentrification and meteoric rise as a cultural juggernaut, with Hallyu or the Korean Wave gaining prominence in the late 1990s, rippling across Asia before reaching all the corners of the world and challenging the currents of global pop culture today.
Just look at how addicted we have become to K-dramas, whose stars dominate the billboards all over the city. It has become such a phenomenon that the Victoria & Albert Museum in London has dedicated an exhibition to explore its origins and wide reach through cinema, TV dramas, music and fandoms and how these have made an impact on the beauty and fashion industries.
Gangnam is particularly significant since the 2012 music video Gangnam Style by PSY is how most people first got swept up by Hallyu, placing South Korea on the international map. The catchy tune—making fun of one of Seoul’s most affluent districts and its achingly stylish habitués—went viral overnight on YouTube, breaking records as the first video to reach over a billion views and is now hitting 4.5 billion.
“The world’s biggest, fastest, cultural paradigm shift in modern history,” says writer Euny Hong, transpired in the space of just two generations. A long history of Neo-Confucian ideology inherited from 500 years of Joseon Dynasty Rule (1392-1910) was suddenly challenged with a new reality brought about by 20th-century events: Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945), the division of the country to north and south leading to the Korean War (1950-53), and a coup d’état in 1961 that inaugurated two decades of dictatorship.
Practically a Third World country in ruin, even poorer than its northern counterpart, the country proved resilient, working hard to fast-track an export-oriented, heavy industry-based economy that saw the rise of chaebol or family-based conglomerates like Samsung, LG and Hyundai. Military rule did not hinder it, transitioning into a market-oriented democracy in 1987 after popular demand for reform. By 1988, it won the bid to host the Olympics, establishing the country on the international stage.
What would trigger Hallyu, however, was the success of Spielberg’s Jurassic Park at the box office in 1994. Outperforming the profit from the sales of 1.5 million Hyundai cars, it made the government realize the huge economic potential of cultural industries.
At the same time, the country embraced the Digital Revolution by investing in information and communication technology (ICT), helping it weather the financial crisis in 1997 by prioritizing an internet-, knowledge- and skill-based economy alongside a focus to quadruple exports in cultural industries.
The lifting of restrictions on cultural imports from Japan in 1998 would make it work even harder to compete, establishing 300 cultural industry departments in schools nationwide. They would study Hollywood movies and western music carefully but make it better with their own innovations and imagination.
By 1999, the first local big-budget film, Shiri, was a commercial success, surpassing the Hollywood film Titanic.
Korean TV dramas and K-pop bands were making headway all over Asia all through the early 2000s and beyond. Local censorship did not deter them; it even encouraged them to dig deeper, crafting characters and plots that were more complex and compelling. The stars of K-dramas and K-pop would also help promote Korean beauty products and fashion, as well as Korean food and tourism.
By 2020, Parasite became the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. BTS is one of the biggest bands in the world, being invited to the White House and performing at the United Nations. Netflix has spent $700 million creating Korean content, including over 80 shows, with many titles making it to the top 10, including Squid Game, which was the most watched show of all time last year. The Oxford English Dictionary has added 26 new words of Korean origin, including Hallyu, of course.
K-pop has such influence that North Korea calls it “a vicious cancer,” while China has suspended dozens of K-pop fan accounts for “unhealthy behavior.” Last year, the hashtag #KpopTwitter got 7.8 billion tweets—a number equivalent to the world’s population—prompting Twitter to set up a dedicated Global K-pop and K-content Partnerships Team. K-pop fans are even powerful socio-political entities, orchestrating a protest on TikTok against Donald Trump in 2020 by reserving many tickets for his rally but not showing up, leaving most seats empty.
As the country learned to adapt fast to evolving situations with a strong will to survive and thrive, Hallyu was destined to succeed. The convergence of cultural policies, creative industries, and digital technologies turned it into a tech-savvy cultural powerhouse. By breaking from conventions, mixing influences and making their own rules, it would lead in an era of social media and digital culture.
It’s a form of soft power that developed with the country’s unique history and how it responded to it—a dream come true after all the hardships, as Kim Gu, leader of the Korean independence movement, expressed in his book: “I want our nation to be the most beautiful in the world. By this, I do not mean the most powerful nation. Because I have felt the pain of being invaded by another nation. I do not want my nation to invade others. It is sufficient that our wealth makes our lives abundant. It is sufficient that our strength is able to prevent foreign invasions. The only thing that I desire in infinite quantity is the power of a noble culture. This is because the power of culture both makes us happy and gives happiness to others.”
* * *
Hallyu! The Korean Wave exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum is ongoing until June 25, 2023. Visit www.vam.ac.uk.