Elisa Santafe of AFP wrote: “South Korean dramas arose after the country began deregulating its economy in the wake of the 1996 Asian financial crisis, leading entrepreneurs to reinvent the nation's entertainment industry with the help of state aid. They usually deal with family intrigue, class differences and love triangles and tend to have less violence and sex than their Latin American or US counterparts.” [Source: Elisa Santafe, AFP, October 6, 2007]

South Korea dramas have been very popular for years in Japan, China. Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. It can be argued that the big breakthrough for South Korean television dramas was when they became popular in Japan in the early and mid 2000s. It all started in 2003, when the South Korean soap opera “Winter Sonata” premiered on Japanese TV and became a runaway hit. The drama was so popular that it spawned fanzines, websites and tours to places in South Korea where scenes from the drama were shot. It drew huge rating and an unprecedented number of calls, e-mails and letters. DVDs and almost any kind of merchandise associated with the show sold well.

Multi-series dramas are a fixture of Asian television. Popular topics in Korean soap operas in the old days included women who hadn't given birth to a son and tension between wives and their mother-in-laws. Some Korean mini-series have more than a 100 episodes and are notorious for their strange storylines, sudden plot twists and improbable situations. One popular mini-series in the mid-1990s was about killer spiders unleashed on Korea by a bizarre and villainous religious cult from Japan.

Edward Davies and Lee Jun-goo of Reuters wrote: The formula for dramas such as "Winter Sonata" is a bittersweet love story between clean-cut, good-looking actors against a backdrop of pretty countryside with melancholy music providing the soundtrack. Traditional Asian values such as respect for parents run through the plots and there is generally barely a whiff of sex despite the sometimes turbulent love triangles that emerge in the plots. "I like it because it's a pure love story," said Chieko Suhiro, a Japanese tourist visiting sights associated with “Winter Sonata”. [Source: Edward Davies and Lee Jun-goo, Reuters, October 11, 2004]

Many core Korean-drama fans are middle-aged women. Men often have had no interest in them. Korean-drama aficionados dubbing is frowned upon. They prefer the actual voices of the Korean stars, with subtitles. When they are first shown in South Korea they normally begin airing before later episodes are filmed — allowing for script changes that can boost ratings.

Hallyu (Korean Wave)

The Korean wave refers to the Korean entertainment and popular culture phenomena mainly in the form of K-Pop music, TV dramas, and movies that has taken Asia and the world by storm. Known as “Hallyu” in Chinese, the term was first used in 2000 to describe Chinese fans’ enthusiasm for K-pop boy band H.O.T. during their concert in Beijing. The Korean Wave began in the 1990s with the first K-Pop band and acclaimed films in the 1990s. Korean television dramas found a receptive audience in Japan, China and Southeast Asia in the early 2000s. The wave gained momentum when K-Pop music began to really take hold in Asia in the late 2000s and spread its tentacles around the world. Korean popular music, television and film all have carved out large audience for themselves in the international market.

Hallyu literally means "Flow of Korea". It evolved from a regional development into a global phenomenon, carried by the Internet and social media and the proliferation of K-pop music videos on YouTube and Korean dramas picked up by television networks all over the world. Since the early 2000s, South Korea has been as a major exporter of popular culture and recipient of pop culture tourism, with the Korean Wave now accounting for a significant portion of the Korean economy. The South Korean government has supported K-Pop’s creative industries through subsidies and funding for start-ups, with the aim of making South Korea a leading exporters of culture. [Source: Wikipedia]

Aja Romano wrote in Vox: “South Korean pop culture has grown in prominence to become a major driver of global culture, seen in everything from Korean dramas on Netflix to Korean skincare regimens dominating the cosmetics industry to delicious Korean tacos on your favorite local menu. And at the heart of Hallyu is the ever-growing popularity of K-pop — short, of course, for Korean pop music. K-pop has become a truly global phenomenon thanks to its distinctive blend of addictive melodies, slick choreography and production values, and an endless parade of attractive South Korean performers who spend years in grueling studio systems learning to sing and dance in synchronized perfection. [Source: Aja Romano, Vox, February 26, 2018]

Koichi Kato and Ken Moriyasu of Nikkei wrote: “When it comes to entertainment, South Korea seems to know what audiences want. Many of its dramas feature intriguing, glamorous stories based on familiar themes, such as love triangles, romance between people of different backgrounds or family relationships. Musicians and pop stars put on dazzling performances that combine passionate singing, complex and flamboyant dance moves, and even amusing chitchat in foreign languages...The success of South Korean entertainment has opened doors for some of the country's other industries. Many South Korean fashion and cosmetics retailers have been ramping up their earnings in Asia through sales promotions using South Korean actors and musicians who have become household names in the region, either through TV appearances or stage performances. These companies are now trying to refine and enhance this strategy by incorporating images of South Korean stars into all stages of their operations, from development to sales.” [Source: Koichi Kato and Ken Moriyasu, Nikkei, January 8, 2015]

Korean Dramas and Hallyu Take Over Asia

By the early 2010s, K-Pop and Hallyu culture in the form of TV dramas, fashion and cosmetics had become dominate in Asia, taking a large market share away from American and Hollywood pop culture and fashion. Reporting from Manila, Teresa Cerojano of Associated Press wrote: ” Kins Wu knows what she's looking for as she sifts through hair color samples at a Manila branch of a Korean salon. "I want the same brown, but slightly blonde color, as Sandara's hair," the 22-year-old Filipino hotel worker tells her sister, referring to Korean girl band singer Sandara Park. [Source: Teresa Cerojano, Associated Press, September 21, 2011]

The South Korean government operates a "Korean Wave" index to gauge the fever for its cultural exports. Taiwan took the top spot in 2010, nudging out Japan. China, Thailand and Vietnam are also on the list, and the state-funded Korea Foundation for International Culture Exchange says Malaysia will be added this year and the Philippines, as early as 2012.

“Almost all the leading drama channels in Taiwan show at least two South Korean soap operas a day at peak evening hours, and music video programs carry the latest on the K-pop scene. For TV stations, it's cheaper to buy the Korean hits than develop their own programs — that have no guarantee of success. "Korean entertainers have a superior body language for comic effects, while they also avoid crude language, unlike Taiwanese programs," said Vivi Ko, a 30-year-old government worker who is studying Korean.

“In the Philippines, the themes in South Korean TV dramas of love for family, enduring romance and destiny are familiar ones. Networks make it easier to identify with the programs by dubbing them in Tagalog and giving the characters Filipino names. When Kwon Sang-woo visited Manila some years ago, fans called him "Cholo" — his Tagalog name in the popular drama "Stairway to Heaven." But there's also an element of the exotic — the settings in South Korea, whether brightly lit bridges along the Han River or cherry blossoms fluttering to the ground — that seems to appeal to many Filipinos' wanderlust. The writers for Sparkling, a glossy magazine devoted to K-pop, flew to Seoul earlier this year to map out an itinerary of "Hallyu hotspots" for Filipino tourists.

“The craze has spilled over into other areas. Thai teens trying to achieve the Korean look snap up cosmetics from South Korea. Also popular are contact lenses that make one's eyes look bigger, like the cute characters in Japanese and Korean comics. Yoo Kyung-yeon, a Korean hairstylist working in Manila, said that clients recently started requesting a hairstyle similar to actress Ha Ji-won's after her drama "Secret Garden" aired in the Philippines. Men want a haircut like that of actor Lee Min-ho, who rose to fame in the hit series "Boys Over Flowers." "The youth today are looking for spunk, the new look," said Schedar Jocson, a University of the Philippines lecturer who has written a paper on K-pop's influence in his country. "They are looking for their own niche or their own identity," he said, and both the TV shows and pop music give them something more expressive and experimental than homegrown alternatives.

Why Korean Dramas Are Successful in China

Amy Qin wrote in the New York Times: “For years, entertainment industry observers in China have sought to explain Korean television’s foothold in China. They say it comes down to packaging. “The Koreans continue to do well because of the details,” said Fan Xiaojing, a Chinese journalist and long-term analyst of the Korean entertainment industry. “China just can’t capture the romance.” [Source: Amy Qin, New York Times, July 20, 2015]

“Unlike in China, where experts say up to 70 percent of a production’s budget can be spent on actors’ salaries, both Korean and Chinese producers say that Korean shows tend to spend more on production sets and screenwriters, avoiding fake props, brands and backdrops in favor of the real things. And since in Korea shows are broadcast soon after they are filmed, scriptwriters and directors can get feedback quickly, allowing them to make tweaks according to audience demands.

“Actors in Korea are also groomed from a young age and taught how to walk and dress, said Ms. Guan, who previously worked at an artists’ management agency in Seoul. They are taken in for plastic surgery, and as part of their training are instructed on how to “let just one teardrop fall.” The Chinese are catching on, producers on both sides say, as they also learn what content resonates most with Chinese audiences. According to producers, the show must be fast-paced, and if it is a drama, it should be a love story. “Chinese people think the good dramas are ones with nonrealistic themes,” said Ma Xue, a cultural critic and producer. “All involve a Cinderella who falls in love with a prince.” As for love, the expression of it is usually restrained. In “Star,” when the alien character, Do Min-Joon, and the star actress, Cheon Song-yi, even so much as kiss, Do Min-Joon falls violently ill.

Bi Yantao, a professor in communication studies at Hainan Tropical Ocean University, wrote in the China Daily: “Some people attribute the popularity of South Korean TV series to their love-oriented stories, overflowing aestheticism, and romantic, sympathetic and suspenseful scenarios that seem to fit in with young women's fantasies. The pleasing personalities of the male and female protagonists, their vivaciousness, as well as the zigzagging plots and marvellous music, which meet young viewers' psychological demands, are also believed to be strong points of South Korean TV dramas. [Source: Bi Yantao China Daily, April 12 2016. Bi is professor in communication studies at Hainan Tropical Ocean University, China]

But all these seem superficial factors if we believe some scholars who say the success of South Korean dramas essentially stems from the success of the country's cultural policy and its cultural business model, which consider the success of the performing arts sector only as a subordinate factor. "South Korean TV dramas benefit from the positive image of the country and its eagerness to integrate itself with the outside world". In my view, South Korean TV dramas have been successful because they benefit from the positive image of the country and its eagerness to integrate itself with the outside world. After all, a country's film and TV productions should be analysed in the context of its broader national image.

Japanese Dramas Versus Korean Dramas

On the difference between Japanese and Korean dramas, at least those that reach overseas audiences, Michelle Cruz, a Filipina fan, wrote in jpninfo.com: “Many people argue about which is better, The J-Drama or K-Drama? Well, I can’t please everybody and I am not in the right position to give judgment since I love both....I don’t intend to start “opinionated wars”. [Source: Michelle Cruz, jpninfo.com, June 30, 2015]

Genres: “Korean dramas have more romance in them. Although they offer a lot of genres, it appears that almost all of their dramas, there will be a hint of romance. K-dramas are good in heavy drama genres. If romance and drama are what you’re looking for, then K-drama is for you. In contrast Japanese dramas are often based on mangas. They tend to be a light-hearted and comedic. J-dramas, unlike K-dramas, don’t usually cover romance unless the genre is romance. The most common genre is crime/mystery/detective as J-drama is known for this matter. On the other hand, J-drama and K-drama both rely on reality. When you watch some of their drama, you’ll start thinking that it’s not a very realistic idea but it’s definitely not an impossible one.

Actors: Korean actors are said that they are much more excellent actors than Japanese because they train for years. Well, can’t really argue on that but there are also a lot of exceptions. Plus, Korean actors must always look good on camera. Japanese actors, in contrast, some are not trained for years so excuse their acting. Even so, their acting is really not that bad and most of the J-actors are undeniably very good. The actors and their performance look more interesting because the actors don’t mind making ugly faces to look funny. Japanese and Korean actors both look really handsome, bear with it. They are both excellent actors in their own ways.

Storylines: As said earlier, K-dramas are more in the romance field. Most of their genres are accompanied by romance. For example, in a medical drama, the two main characters will fall in love while they are in the hospital. K-dramas focus on the romantic aspect of the storyline and they tend to drag it out. K-dramas’ morals can be realized and reflected by the end of the story because K-dramas are full of unforeseen developments that can be viewed by next episode. Yet, the twists of K-dramas are undeniably cool and flawless.

As for J-dramas, it is out of the comfort zone of the K-dramas. If the story centers at the mystery then throughout the story it will be about the mystery. The Japanese focus on the main thought of the story. They can keep the drama going on without introducing another genre. Also, as I’ve read in most feedbacks, J-dramas are really unpredictable and have good twists and turns. It also has a moral story that will really hit you right in the heart. Every episode will leave a remarkable lesson about life, family, youth, and friendship. In terms of the storyline, there are really some major similarities since other K-dramas are an adaptation of J-dramas (like Liar Game).

Durations: K-dramas are really longer than J-dramas. It is because K-dramas want to slow down the conflict that sometimes lead to a long and boring episodes which are too cliche (no offense, just stating the obvious). Their usual lengths are 20+ episodes. The least drama duration that I’ve watched was 16 episodes, which in J-drama it is considered long. Each episode is in a 48 minutes to 1-hour-time length. It will really keep you up ’til morning if you insist on watching it on one shot.

J-dramas, like any people say, is a short series. Well, that’s because J-dramas are straight to the point. Each episode is 30 minutes to one-hour duration. Seasons of J-dramas consist of 8 episodes at least. It is the shortest J-drama season that I’ve watched. But mostly it is 10 to 12 episodes in every season, making you desire for more.

Why Korean Dramas Are More Popular in Asia Than Japan Dramas

Korean dramas are more popular in Asia than Japanese dramas. On why this is so, Melissa Kok wrote in The Straits Times, “Boys Over Flowers is a popular Japanese manga series that started in 1992 which got overshadowed in East Asia, first by the Taiwanese TV adaptation of it in 2001 (Meteor Garden), and in 2009 by the Korean TV series also called Boys Over Flowers. Sandwiched between these two versions was the Japanese TV series which never achieved the same level of interest in Singapore. [Source: Melissa Kok, Asia News Network (The Straits Times), April 26 2012]

Industry veterans say there is another reason why the Korean Wave eclipsed the Japanese mania in the early to mid-2000s: the high cost of bringing Japanese content into Singapore. When Man Shu Sum was the executive director of the Taiwan office of Television Corporation of Singapore (now MediaCorp), he brought in Korean dramas for local television in the late 1990s because they were a cheaper alternative to titles from Japan.According to him, Korean drama serials back then cost around US$800 an episode compared to up to US$15,000 an episode for a Japanese drama. "We decided to acquire Korean drama, which looked very primitive in production value but the faces were refreshing and the story lines were quite engaging," he says.

“It worked. Singaporeans became hooked on K-drama. Popular shows would easily attract a viewership of more than 200,000, notes Man, who is now managing director of Raintree Pictures. Some of the memorable Korean dramas that emerged from that time include the love story Winter Sonata (2002), which starred Korean television heart-throb Bae, and the weepie TV series Autumn In My Heart (2001). Currently, at least 24 Korean dramas are airing weekly in Singapore on several cable TV channels such as VV Drama, KBS World, ONE, E City and tvN.

“Liew says of the appeal of Korean dramas to Singaporeans: "With the melodramatic family-friendly scripts in both historical and contemporary soap operas, K-dramas seem to be more universally appealing to local audiences. J-dramas, on the other hand, are more realistic of the portrayal of small family households, and in recent years, seemed to place less emphasis on historical dramas that regional audiences enjoy watching."

“Marketing communications staff Leow Si Wan, 30, says: "Japanese dramas are too subtle in the way emotions are expressed and the plot development can be slow. K-drama is more dramatic and allows you to immerse yourself in a make-believe world. "Also, for the series Boys Over Flowers, the Korean version of the four guys is also definitely better looking than the cast in the Japanese version."

“Assistant professor Liew Kai Khiun of Nanyang Technological University, whose research areas include television dramas and popular music in Southeast Asia, partly attributes the Hallyu revolution to the Korean government's push to promote all things Korean abroad.He says: "Unlike their Japanese counterparts, the Korean government and the media industry invest significantly in promoting the K-wave in the world as part of the efforts in strengthening the republic's soft power." In Singapore, the Korean government has previously organized and co-funded Korean pop concerts, and has supported the Korean Film Festival, which has been held here annually for the last five years. In 2006, a website was even set up by the Korea Tourism Organization which combined cast details of popular Korean dramas with information about filming locations to attract visitors.

Japanese Korean Drama Fans

Edward Davies and Lee Jun-goo of Reuters wrote: Yoko Otani is not very interested in visiting South Korea's imposing Joseon Dynasty palaces. Nor is shopping for fake handbags in Seoul's sprawling markets particularly high on the 45-year-old Japanese receptionist's agenda on her four-day trip to South Korea. Otani and her friend, Takako Ishida, have come to visit locations linked to the hit South Korean TV drama "Winter Sonata," on a trip organized by a Japanese travel company. "He's not like Japanese men," chuckled Otani, referring to the bespectacled Bae Yong-joon, co-star of "Winter Sonata," who has become a heart-throb for many across Asia. Otani was enjoying a meal of Korean barbecued beef at a restaurant in a posh part of Seoul that is sometimes frequented by Bae, who is known in Japan as "Yong-sama," a deferential tag often reserved for royalty. [Source: Edward Davies and Lee Jun-goo, Reuters, October 11, 2004]

“The success of the dramas has led to a surge in visitors to South Korea, particularly from Japan. About 300,000 people were expected to join soap tours to South Korea this year, up 70,000 from last year, said Lee Ga-young at the Korea National Tourism Organization said. About a third of the visitors are expected to be from Japan. Na Myung-sook, manager of Mr Park's House, has no complaints. She gets up to 100 Japanese on weekend nights hoping to catch a glimpse of their idol, Bae, whose favorite meals were beef bone soup and a raw Korean beef dish, Na said.

Keen to jump on the bandwagon, a "Korean Entertainment Hall of Fame" was recently opened in the basement of the national tourism office in Seoul, complete with a collection of cardboard figures and hand-prints of some Korean pop stars and actors.Hirata Yukie, a professor of sociology at Seoul's Yonsei University, says the popularity of Korean soap operas in Japan is partly the result of a shared geography and cultural affinity. The implications for the neighbors' relations, sour for decades because of Japan's harsh rule over the peninsula for much of the first half of the 20th century, can only be positive, she says. "It will be an opportunity for each to know their cultures better."

K-Pop and K-Drama Money Machine Spread to Beauty and Fashion

Hideo Shinada of Nikkei Entertainment wrote: “The Korean wave has a ripple effect beyond the content industry. TV shows and movies feature a wide array of South Korean home appliances, cars and cosmetics, creating demand for those products among overseas audiences. A growing number of consumers have likewise developed an interest in South Korean food and fashion through entertainment, and many of them shop at South Korean chains. [Source: Hideo Shinada, Nikkei Entertainment, January 8, 2015]

Ryan General of Nextshark wrote: “A huge part of the world has collectively embraced two of South Korea’s main exports: K-pop and K-drama. Their influence has so far transcended into fashion and even beauty standards in many countries, creating a huge market for Korean beauty products and fashion brands. International companies, including top luxury brands, have started pouring investments into Korean products after realizing the enormous market potential brought about by the “Hallyu” phenomenon, according to Asia One. [Source: Ryan General, Nextshark, September 4, 2016]

“TV drama celebrities and K-pop artist endorsements have played huge roles in Korean companies’ international success in the cosmetics and fashion industry. L Capital, a subsidiary investment bank of LVMH (Louis Vuitton, Fendi and other brands), for instance, invested US$50 million into Korean brand CLIO, according to Reuters. The brand, which was founded by Han Hyun-ok in 1997, had its products initially manufactured in Europe before moving its production to its own manufacturer. When Korean actress Kong Hyo-jin wore CLIO eyebrow liner in the movie “The Producers,” the company earned a record sales of 100 billion won, or about US$90,485,000, in 2015, registering more than double of what it sold from the previous year. The movie was an international success, especially in China where it was a huge hit.

“Similarly, Goldman Sachs Group and Bain Capital Private Equity have made some significant Korean investments by acquiring a stake in Carver Korea, a popular cosmetics firm in South Korea, Reuters reported. Carver Korea owns several cosmetic brands, including Vivito, Dr. MJ, Shara and A.H.C., selling over 1,000 products sold through various channels. Since 2013, company earnings have surged from 27.3 billion won (US$24 million) to 156.5 billion won (US$140 million) in 2015.

“South Korean company Have & Be Co. Ltd, the parent company of cosmetics-maker Dr. Jart which produces the hugely popular BB cream, is also set to get a huge investment, this time from renowned cosmetics brand Estee Lauder, according to The Telegraph. Founded by young entrepreneur Lee Jin-wook, the company will get international exposure through Estee Lauder’s global network. Lee currently owns 66.7 percent of the company, which is worth around 17.8 billion won (US$15.9 million).”

South Korean Government Support of K-Entertainment

John Seabrook wrote in The New Yorker: “The Korean government has promoted hallyu, using it as a form of “soft power,” by making South Korea the Hollywood of Asia. Hallyu has erased South Korea’s regional reputation as a brutish emerging industrial nation where everything smelled of garlic and kimchee, and replaced it with images of prosperous, cosmopolitan life. Thanks to mini-series such as “Winter Sonata,” a 2002 romantic drama that was a huge hit throughout Asia, middle-aged Japanese women now swoon over Korean men, while complaining about the “grass-eating” — that is, lacking in virility — males of Japan. Korean ancestry used to be a stigma in Japan; now it’s trendy. At home, K-drama’s success has brought tourists from all over Asia to visit the sites depicted on the screen.” [Source: John Seabrook, The New Yorker, October 8, 2012]

Hideo Shinada of Nikkei Entertainment wrote: The South Korean “government has lent a hand” to South Korea's entertainment industry, “with a policy of promoting entertainment and other cultural exports. Since the 1998 currency crisis, each president has pitched in. Kim Dae-jung called himself a "cultural president," Roh Moo-hyun vowed to make South Korea one of the top five nations in the entertainment industry, and Lee Myung-bak set up a national branding committee. [Source: Hideo Shinada, Nikkei Entertainment, January 8, 2015]

“In 1999, South Korea increased its entertainment-related budget sixfold in a year. In setting up the Korea Creative Content Agency, or Kocca, the nation created a joint public-private effort to pitch South Korean entertainment to the rest of Asia. The result? A boom in the popularity of South Korean TV dramas and the emergence of the "Korean wave." In 2012, 279.8 billion won (US$253 million at the current rate) of the national budget was allocated to the cultural-content industry and 118.8 billion won to the media industry, reportedly about eight times Japan's allocations. The nation's exports have been growing along with this effort, from US$2.3 billion in 2008 to US$4.6 billion in 2012.

Kat Chow of NPR reported: “In the late '90s, when Asia went through a huge financial crisis, South Korea's leaders decided to use music to improve its image and build its cultural influence. So the country's government poured millions of dollars into forming a Ministry of Culture with a specific department devoted to K-pop. "It turns out that the Korean government treats its K-pop industry the way that the American government treats its automobile and banking industry, meaning that these are industries that have to be protected," Euny Hong, the author of The Birth Of Korean Cool, said. This included doing things like building massive, multi-million dollar concert auditoriums, refining hologram technology, and even helping regulate noeraebangs — karaoke bars — to protect the interests of K-pop stars. "They wanted Korea of the 21st century to be like America of the 20th century where America was just considered so universally cool that anything made in America would automatically be bought." [Source: Kat Chow, All Things Considered, NPR, April 16, 2015]

Government Assistance and Promotion of Korean Dramas

The Asahi Shimbun reported: “Various forms of assistance for the digital content industry are offered, greatly contributing to the remarkable achievements of pop culture from South Korea. Good examples of successful cases is the global popularity of K-pop singing group BTS and the “Parasite” film, which was recently chosen as the best picture in the Academy Awards. There appear to be no limitations to the spread of South Korean pop culture. Masaki Tsuchida, a film producer living in South Korea, noted that those achievements can be attributed to Seoul’s “nationwide efforts to nurture drama, movie and other industries while regarding them as important export businesses.” [Source: Asahi Shimbun, July 5, 2020]

“When he took office in 1998 in the wake of the Asian currency crisis, then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung declared himself the “president of culture.” As Hollywood movies dominated the box-office lists throughout the world at the time, Seoul started financing content industries — including films and TV dramas — and developed legal systems to promote exports as part of its economic recovery strategy. Before that, TV plays from South Korea had already been widely accepted among broadcasters in Taiwan and Southeast Asia since the first half of the 1990s, because they were “much cheaper than their Japanese counterparts and comprised many installments.”

“Cashing in on the trend, the South Korean government strengthened promotion, leading to a further expanded market of dramas outside the nation. This also resulted in higher broadcasting rights fees and production budgets. Guaranteed salaries for new actors and scriptwriters rose as a result, attracting fresh new talent to the entertainment industry. In 2009, the South Korean government set up the Korea Creative Content Agency (KOCCA) to select online animated works and other creations popular among young consumers to be made into dramas and other adaptations.

“The KOCCA currently has locations in eight regions overseas, including fast-growing Indonesia, the United Arab Emirates, where South Korean products have exploded in popularity, and the United States. Through the establishments, it is attempting to sell titles suitable for markets through business discussions with the makers of video games, animations and dramas in the countries. Hwang Seon-hye, director of the KOCCA Japan Center, said “various kinds of content from South Korea” are now available. According to an estimate by the KOCCA, exports of dramas, films, video games and other such services totaled 1.056 trillion yen (US$9.6 billion) in 2018, double the figure for 2012.

Korean Dramas Create Blockbuster Products in the Chinese Market

Koichi Kato and Ken Moriyasu wrote in Nikkei: South Korean entertainment reigns supreme in China. The figures say it all. The most popular TV Korean drama of 2014, "My Love From the Star," was watched a total of 2.8 billion times on Chinese streaming site iQIYI.com. The silver-sparkled Jimmy Choo high heels worn by lead actress Jun Ji-hyun, also known as Gianna Jun, in the second to fourth episodes disappeared from stores, not only in China and South Korea, but also in places like Dubai and London, where Chinese travelers sought them out. In April 2014, when Jimmy Choo opened its first store in Shenyang, northeast China, all 50 pairs of the US$800 pumps sold out in almost no time. [Source: Koichi Kato and Ken Moriyasu, Nikkei, January 8, 2015]

“Although just a few hundred pairs of the shoes were originally produced, Jimmy Choo executives, seeing their worldwide appeal, decided to produce several thousand more. Each handmade shoe takes four months to complete. It was a similar story for the Mondo backpack by Samsonite that lead actor Kim Soo-hyun carried over his shoulder as the show's handsome alien. Samsonite did not pay for a product placement. Kim reportedly decided to use the bag because he liked it. The backpack went on sale two days after the episode aired in January and sold out within a week.

“Because Samsonite hadn't received any notice that Kim would be using the Mondo, they didn't have enough of the backpacks to keep up with demand, resulting in missed sales opportunities. "After seeing the tremendous demand for the product, we stepped up our production to speed up restocking," said Leo Suh, Samsonite's president for Asia-Pacific and the Middle East. "By having our marketing and merchandising teams work closely with our suppliers, we managed to reduce our lead time for the product from 60 days to 45 days," he told the Nikkei Asian Review.

“When the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency, or KOTRA, held a seminar for Korean restaurant chains in Dalian last fall, four of the nine companies that attended offered fried chicken. In "My Love From the Star," main character Song-yi, played by Jun, celebrated the first snowfall of the year with a meal of fried chicken and beer. In Dalian, posters of a smiling Jun can be seen promoting Kentucky Fried Chicken, Paris Baguette bakeries, bags of potato chips and a local department store. She will soon be the face of Gucci.

K-Pop Success Boosts the Entire South Korean Economy

Song Jung-a, wrote in the Financial Times: “Hallyu is breathing life into South Korea’s slowing economy amid the declining competitiveness of its smokestack industries. In contrast to waning demand for steel, microchips and cargo ships — which have driven the country’s rapid industrialisation over half a century — exports of cultural products hit a record US$5.3bn in 2014, with an annual average growth rate of 13.4 per cent for five years since 2010. “I see great potential in the country’s creative industries as a new growth driver,” says Woong Park, president of Eastspring Investments, a British asset manager. “The economy can no longer succeed with its old formula, because the Chinese are now better at it, investing aggressively to build scale in traditional manufacturing industries.” [Source: Song Jung-a, Financial Times, April 12, 2016]

“Korean companies, on the back of the country’s growing soft power, are now increasingly focusing on areas that have been boosted by Hallyu. AmorePacific, the country’s biggest cosmetics company, in 2015 enjoyed a 44 per cent year-on-year jump in overseas sales as the country’s cool image gives a marketable cachet to consumer goods abroad. CJ E & M, the media unit of the family-run CJ conglomerate, is seeing its overseas sales grow more than 20 per cent a year while Netmarble Games, South Korea’s top mobile game company, is planning a Won2tn initial public offering as exports of Korean games reached nearly US$3bn in 2014, accounting for more than half of the country’s cultural exports.

“Iconix, a small animation producer, became the country’s biggest revenue generator on YouTube as its Pororo penguin and Tayo bus characters won the hearts of children worldwide. South Korean culture had long been overshadowed by its bigger neighbours, China and Japan, but has punched far above its weight in recent years, as the country, which grew from the ashes of the Korean war to become the world’s sixth-largest exporter within a generation, offers something unique but still universal for global audiences to relate to.

“The country, heavily influenced by the U.S. culture in the past, has successfully combined some magic formula from Hollywood with Asian sensibilities and tastes,” says Yoon Ho-jin, a director at Korea Creative Contents Agency. “Those who love Korean dramas and pop music have developed a liking for Korean products and come to visit Korea.” Hallyu has also boosted South Korea’s popularity as a tourist destination, with 13m foreigners visiting the country last year — up from 8.5m in 2010.

“The main beneficiaries of Hallyu such as AmorePacific and CJ E & M have become the darlings of investors. AmorePacific is now the country’s eighth-largest stock with its market cap reaching nearly US$20bn while CJ E & M was added to the MSCI Korea index last November instead of struggling industrial giants Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering and Hyundai Merchant Marine. “We’ve learned what works in Asia and beyond by trial and error over the past two decades,” says Mike Suh, senior vice-president at CJ E & M. “I believe Hallyu will last for the next 10 years at least, which means infinite opportunities for content exports.”

“However, there are growing concerns over how long South Korea can maintain its cultural edge in the region as China tries to tap into the country’s magic touch. Its rival has made deep inroads into South Korea’s “creative economy”, investing US$2.5bn in Korean games, movies and entertainment over the past five years, according to the country’s Small and Medium Business Administration. Chinese companies have taken over some Korean producers such as Chorokbaem Media with some famous Korean TV producers moving to China while more Korean entertainment companies partner with cash-rich Chinese firms to produce content together. “Fortunately, the battle in this business is more about creativity and effective planning than lowering production costs like in manufacturing,” says Mr Suh. “But I am not sure how long we can have the upper hand here. China is catching up fast in this industry too.”

Dark Side of Korean Entertainment Business

Reporting from Seoul, John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “She was a young actress with designs on mega-stardom. But to realize her dreams, Jang Ja-yeon was resigned to take her place in the seamy realm of the South Korean sexual casting couch. In the end, the disgrace proved too much. In the seven-page note she wrote before her March 2009 suicide, the 27-year-old TV sitcom regular described how her manager forced her to have sex with industry VIPs such as directors, media executives and CEOs, many of whom she cited by name. Jang’s death stunned this nation transfixed by celebrity and all its trappings. Since 1990, a half-dozen TV and film actresses have committed suicide over the stress that comes with success in South Korea. The aftermath of Jang’s suicide triggered a federal government investigation into “slave contracts,” in which young talent, mostly women, become locked into exclusive contracts by their agents requiring them to work long hours for low pay, receive unwanted plastic surgery and, in Jang’s case, turn to prostitution. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, January 1, 2011]

“Nearly two years after her suicide, critics say, little has changed in the cutthroat “Korean Wave” of TV, film and music that each year draws thousands of young hopefuls ready to endure whatever it takes — including sexual abuse and exploitation — to make it big. While the film and music businesses in such nations as India and the U.S. can also be shady, scholars worry over the perverse treatment of women in South Korea’s entertainment industry. An April 2010 survey conducted by a human rights group here found that 60 percent of South Korean actresses polled said they had been pressured to have sex to further their careers. In interviews with 111 actresses and 240 aspiring actresses, one in five said they were “forced or requested” by their agents to provide sexual favors, nearly half said they were forced to drink with influential figures, and a third said they experienced unwanted physical contact or sexual harassment.

“Though two of Jang’s former managers were each sentenced to 12 months in jail last October for extortion, nearly two dozen executives named in the actress’ suicide note — now known as the “Jang Ja-yeon paper” — were never charged. Other cases have surfaced. A government review panel in Seoul recently ruled that many entertainment contracts illegally infringe on performer privacy and limit an individual’s ability to change agencies.

“Critics say the entertainment industry scandal runs to the very roots of Korean culture, in which powerful authority figures, beginning with the military regimes overthrown a generation ago, feel unchecked in their dominance. Nowadays in South Korea, money really does matter,” said Lee Myoung-jin, a sociology professor at Korea University in Seoul. “To cash in on stardom and wealth, young people do whatever their agents say. There are people out there taking advantage of the situation. It’s a tragedy.”

“Jang’s life story plays out like a TV soap opera, the venue of her first success. Orphaned as a child when her parents died in a car crash, she set her sights on the movie industry. After making her debut in a 2006 television commercial, Jang’s first big break came when she landed the role of a vindictive schoolgirl in the popular TV soap “Boys Over Flowers.” But off-screen, her life was anything but rosy. In her suicide note, the actress described being at the mercy of studio bosses who forced her to have sex with clients and once to serve drinks on a high-roller golf trip to Thailand. “I was called to a bar and pressured to accept a request for a sexual relationship,” she wrote in her suicide note.

“When police later raided her manager’s office, they discovered a shower and bed in a “secret room” they believe was used for Jang’s forced dalliances. After the actress asked to terminate her contract, she was allegedly threatened and beaten, according to her last note. On March 7, 2009, Jang called her sister to lament of her “overwhelming stress.” Hours later, the sister returned to the family home to find Jang’s body hanging from a stairway banister. In a newspaper op-ed published days after Jang’s death, a former national broadcasting official cited the immense pressure on celebrities to keep in the public eye. He said those “who do not make frequent appearances are treated as losers. To avoid this, they often have to go too far.”

“The governmental Fair Trade Commission met in July to investigate the “slave contract” phenomena after three members of the now-disbanded male pop-idol group called TVXQ filed a lawsuit to end a 13-year exclusive contract with their manager. The panel ruled that the management’s contract was illegal and suggested an ongoing problem in the industry. A former English tutor for the popular South Korean pop band Wonder Girls also claimed last year that members were mistreated during a North American tour — kept in isolation and denied medical treatment. The band has denied the claims.

“But Jang’s suicide hit hardest. Even 22 months after Jang’s death, bloggers still rue the death of a fragile celebrity many believed was destined to become one of South Korea’s biggest movie stars. When she took her life, Jang was awaiting the release of her first two films, which were later both well received. In the first two days after her death, nearly 1 million fans visited her website.

New Woman Image in Korean Dramas

The Asahi Shimbun reported: “Behind the South Korean drama boom is the empathy of working women. All such works are centered on ambitious heroines who are strong enough to protect the men they love while living in their own style. Another characteristic of those series is that devious aspects of female characters as well as their good personalities are faithfully depicted. The heroines get the better of masculine men who do not want young females to participate in business operations. They also actively communicate with other women in local communities to obtain important information though doing so appears to be an exhausting task. [Source: Asahi Shimbun, July 5, 2020]

“The male protagonists respect the heroines’ autonomy and try to protect them so that their free-wheeling lifestyles will not be hampered. Yone Yamashita, a professor of South Korean culture and women’s studies at Bunkyo University, offered an explanation. “One trend of recent South Korean drama series is that the ways of women living in a down-to-earth manner are presented via the stories,” said Yamashita. “Their creators make the titles with that in mind.” This is in contrast to the way of melodramatic “Winter Sonata,” which captured the hearts of those middle-aged or older in the past.

“In the latest boom, many of people posting their drama reviews on social networking sites are those in their 20s to 40s. Of these, working women who feel “exhilarated at the sight of decisive heroines,” in particular, positively view South Korean works. Those titles were marketed as an award was introduced in 1999 in South Korea to honor creations that contribute to gender equality. Working mothers, single-parent's families, gender inequality in households and other social issues, along with love affairs, are portrayed in many such stories. “The dramas show a society a step ahead of the reality, and characters appear in them who break down walls that women frequently face,” said Yamashita. “Viewers can easily relate to problems that overlap their own, so the programs are supported by a wide range of viewers even in Japan.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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