The Korean wave (“Hallyu” in Chinese) — a reference to Korean popular entertainment mainly in the form of K-Pop music, TV dramas, and movies — was first used in 2000 to describe Chinese fans’ enthusiasm for K-pop boy band H.O.T. Hallyu began before that with acclaimed films and pop groups, mostly confined to Korea, in the 1990s and grew in the 2000s when Korean television dramas found a receptive audience in Japan, China and Southeast Asia. It then gained momentum when K-Pop music began to really take hold in Asia in the late 2000s and spread its tentacles around the world in the 2010s, when it Korean popular music, television and film all have carved out large audience for themselves in the international market and sold a lot products associated with them.

The success of the Korean Wave is at least partly attributed to the development of social networking services and online video sharing platforms such as YouTube, which have allowed the Korean entertainment industry to reach a sizable overseas audience. Use of these media in facilitating promotion, distribution and consumption of various forms of Korean entertainment (and K-pop in particular) has contributed to their surge in worldwide popularity since the mid-2000s. [Source: Wikipedia]

Hallyu 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.

Beginning of K-Pop: Seo Taiji and Boys in 1992

Aja Romano wrote in Vox: “As Moonrok editor Hannah Waitt points out in her excellent series on the history of K-pop, K-pop is unusual as a genre because it has a definitive start date, thanks to a band called Seo Taiji and Boys. Seo Taiji had previously been a member of the South Korean heavy metal band Sinawe, which was itself a brief but hugely influential part of the development of Korean rock music in the late ‘80s. After the band broke up, he turned to hip-hop and recruited two stellar South Korean dancers, Yang Hyun-suk and Lee Juno, to join him as backups in a group dubbed Seo Taiji and Boys. On April 11, 1992, they performed their single “Nan Arayo (I Know)” on a talent show. [Source: Aja Romano, Vox, February 26, 2018]

“Not only did the Boys not win the talent show, but the judges gave the band the lowest score of the evening. But immediately after the song debuted, “I Know” went on to top South Korea’s singles charts for a record-smashing 17 weeks, which would stand for more than 15 years as the longest No. 1 streak in the country’s history. “I Know” represented the first time modern American-style pop music had been fused with South Korean culture. Seo Taiji and Boys were innovators who challenged norms around musical styles, song topics, fashion, and censorship. They sang about teen angst and the social pressure to succeed within a grueling education system, and insisted on creating their own music and writing their own songs outside of the manufactured network environment.

“By the time Seo Taiji and Boys officially disbanded in 1996, they had changed South Korea’s musical and performance landscape, paving the way for other artists to be even more experimental and break even more boundaries — and for music studios to quickly step in and take over, forming an entire new studio system from the remnants of the broadcast-centered system.

K-Pop Entertainment and Idols Emerges

Aja Romano wrote in Vox: “Between 1995 and 1998, three powerhouse music studios appeared: SM Entertainment (often referred to as SM Town) in 1995; JYP Entertainment in 1997; and YG Entertainment in 1998, created by one of the members of Seo Taiji and Boys, Yang Hyun-suk. Together, these studios began deliberately cultivating what would become known as idol groups. The first idol group in South Korea appeared on the scene in 1996, when SM founder Lee Soo-man created a group called H.O.T. by assembling five singers and dancers who represented what he believed teens wanted to see from a modern pop group. [Source: Aja Romano, Vox, February 26, 2018]

“H.O.T. shared traits with today’s idol groups: a combination of singing, dancing, and rapping, and disparate personalities united through music. In 1999, the band was chosen to perform in a major benefit concert with Michael Jackson, in part because of their potential to become international pop stars — an indication that even in the ’90s, the industry was attuned to K-pop’s potential for global success. That potential can be seen in the studios’ eager promotion of multilingual artists like BoA, who made her public debut at the age of 13 in 2000 and in the ensuing years has become one of South Korea’s best-known exports thanks to a brand built on raw talent and multicultural positivity.

“All the while, K-pop as a whole was building its own brand, one based on flash, style, and a whole lot of quality. Don’t ask what makes a K-pop song. Ask what makes a K-pop performer. There are three things that make K-pop such a visible and unique contributor to the realm of pop music: exceptionally high-quality performance (especially dancing), an extremely polished aesthetic, and an “in-house” method of studio production that churns out musical hits the way assembly lines churn out cars.

“No song more perfectly embodies these characteristics than Girls’ Generation’s 2009 hit “Gee,” a breakout success that came at a moment when K-pop was starting to turn heads internationally due to a number of recent milestone hits — notably Big Bang’s “Haru, Haru,” Wonder Girls’ “Nobody,” and Brown Eyed Girls’ “Abracadabra.” “Gee” was a viral internet earworm, breaking out of typical K-pop fan spaces and putting Girls’ Generation within striking distance of US fame.

“The combination of cheeky, colorful concept, clever choreography, cute girls, and catchy songwriting makes “Gee” the quintessential K-pop song: It’s fun, infectious, and memorable — and it was all but algorithmically produced by a studio machine responsible for delivering perfect singing, perfect dancing, perfect videos, and perfect entertainment. The then-nine members of Girls’ Generation were factory-assembled into the picture-perfect, male-gaze-ready dolls you see in the song’s music video via extreme studio oversight and years of hard work from each woman — a combined 52 years of training in total, beginning in their childhoods.

S.M. Entertainment: The Company That Created K-Pop

Andrew Salmon wrote in Forbes: ““S.M. kicked off the K-pop phenomenon in the 1990s. With its boot-camp-style training for the performers and production-line approach to the music, it perfected the model for churning out acts that storm Top 40 charts and pack concert halls across Asia and beyond. An S.M. report lays out the industrial scale of the enterprise. For spots in its groups, it receives 300,000 applicants in nine countries every year. Its training facility in Gangnam is 2,550 square meters. It collaborates with 400 songwriters worldwide and samples some 12,000 songs a year. From 2010 through last year its artists played to a total audience of 2.5 million. Its YouTube page gets 1,000 views a second. One key to its success: It was the first Korean label to market "bands as brands," says Bernie Cho, an ex-MTV executive and now president of Seoul entertainment agency DFSB Kollective. [Source: Andrew Salmon, Forbes, July 31, 2013]

“The S.M. model is immensely profitable.” In 2012, net income almost doubled, to US$38 million, on an 82 percent jump in revenue, to US$225 million. The company, which went public in 2000, now boasts a market capitalization of US$660 million — much bigger than its closest rival, YG Entertainment, the label of global superstar Psy. All this puts S.M. on FORBES ASIA's version of the music charts this year — for the second year in a row it makes our list of the best 200 listed companies in the Asia-Pacific region with an annual revenue of under US$1 billion.”

2012-2013 was “bumpy for S.M. — though not bumpy enough to offset a stellar five-year track record that puts it on our list again. The stock is down 23 percent in 12 months, and this year's first-quarter profits dropped 30 percent from the year-earlier quarter. Kim Shi-Woo, who covers S.M. for Korea Investment " Securities, blames the weaker yen and a lack of major S.M. events in Japan — K-pop's biggest overseas market — during the period. He says more concerts and other events are planned for the rest of the year. Indeed, analysts expect net income for 2013 to rise 22 percent over last year, to US$40.2 million, according to an average of estimates collected by Bloomberg Finance. Revenue is seen increasing 11 percent, to US$166 million. Samsung Securities sees S.M. rolling out a strong lineup of new acts, while new television and telecom services will provide new sales channels.

Lee Soo-Man: the Man behind S.M. Entertainment

Andrew Salmon wrote in Forbes: “The man behind S.M. Entertainment is 61-year-old Lee Soo-Man. He was a moderately successful folk and rock singer, and later a deejay, but his real talent proved to be business. While studying computer engineering at California State University, Northridge in the early 1980s, he had a front-row seat for the music revolution launched by a new cable-TV channel, MTV, which was forcing bands to be visual as well as musical. In 1995 he started his record label and talent agency, using his initials for the name. From the start he saw S.M. as an outfit that would build acts rather than simply sign them. He stepped down from the board in 2010 but remains the largest shareholder, owning a 21.3 percent stake that's worth US$160 million. Citing their busy schedules, Lee and the top executives declined to be interviewed for this story. [Source: Andrew Salmon, Forbes, July 31, 2013]

“The first K-pop group to roll out of the S.M. factory was the boy band H.O.T. in 1996. It popularized an upbeat, catchy style of dance music that had been coming into vogue, overtaking the folk, rock and protest songs of yore. More superstars followed: the first K-pop girl group S.E.S., BoA, TVXQ, Super Junior and Girls' Generation. The process that produces these bands is formidable. "My day would start at 7 a.m.," recalls Brian Joo, 32, a Korean-American who was one-half of S.M.'s rhythm " blues duo Fly to the Sky, now in hiatus. "We did dance with two different choreographers, vocal training, how to speak to the camera, how to approach people." Any faults meant extra work: Joo, who was "a little chubby," had to stay late for extra dance sessions.

Joo, who this year started his own label and considers Lee Soo-Man a father figure, says: "No other label will train you to that extent. S.M. knew exactly how to find an artist's inner talent. That's what S.M. did for me." In recent years “Lee himself may be refocusing. Industry observers say the mogul, who is believed to own a California vineyard, is now as fascinated by wine as by music.

Korean Pop Culture Breaks Out of South Korea

The "Korean wave" began in the late 1990s, when South Korean TV dramas became big hits in China and Taiwan. The 1997-1998 Asian Financial Crisis led to heavy losses in the manufacturing sector, prompting a handful of businesses to turn to the entertainment sector. According to The New York Times, South Korea began to lift restrictions on cultural imports from Japan in 1998. With an aim of tackling an impending "onslaught" of Japanese movies, anime, manga, and J-pop, the South Korean Ministry of Culture made a request for a substantial budget increase, which allowed the creation of 300 cultural industry departments in colleges and universities nationwide. Around the same time an effort was made to export South Korean entertainment. [Source: Wikipedia]

Dani Madrid-Morales of City University of Hong Kong wrote:““Investment to increase their quality became especially prominent when new commercial TV stations opened in Korea in the 1990s. The battle for audience brought a “drama war” characterized by an increased number of productions, theme diversification, fresher scripts, and improved overall entertainment quality. The phenomenon soon spread and, in 1997, the broadcast in China Central Television (CCTV) of Sarangi Mwogillae/What is love about (Aiqing shi shenme in Chinese) sparked one of the first massive K-drama fandom waves overseas (Leung, 2008). [Source: Dani Madrid-Morales, ‘Transatlantic connection’: K-pop and K-drama fandom in Spain and Latin America.” City University of Hong Kong, 2014]

“From then on, many Korean dramas have had high ratings in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and especially Vietnam, where K-drama accounted for over 56 percent of all foreign programing in 1998 (KCTPI 2005). This upward trend is mirrored in the statistics of exports and imports of Korean television, which show that exports increased from 6 million US dollars in 1996 to 187 million dollars in 2010. In the same period imports were reduced from 63.9 to 10.4 million US dollars (Yang, 2012). Shim (2008) notes how some analysts have suggested that the Korean Wave initially took off not because of the developmental strategy of governments or broadcasters, but that, Korean television dramas improved due to internal competition and favourable conditions in international markets. In Taiwan, for example, as the popularity of Japanese TV dramas began to weaken in the late 1990s, Korean dramas were imported at significantly cheaper price to fill the gap

Korean Pop Culture Begins to Takes Over Asia in the Late 1990s and Early 2000s

Hallyu emerged when the Korean drama “What Is Love About?” was shown for the first time on Chinese Central Television (CCTV) in 1997 or 1998. It was one the first times a Korean drama was shown on a non-Korean television network. The drama was spectacular success. It recorded the second-highest ratings ever in the history of Chinese television (Heo, 2002). Hallyu then spread in neighboring countries. Other South Korean dramas in the late 1990s and early 2000s were very successful and boosted the entertainment industry in South Korea. The export of television program from South Korea increased to 27.4 times from 5.5 million in 1995 to 150.9 million in 2007. [Source: Emergence of the “Korean Wave” and Its Influence on Bangladesh by Shally Shahina Akter, Master’s Thesis, March 2019]

Soon after Korean dramas were introduced in China, Korean music was broadcast on the Beijing-based radio show named as “Seoul Music Studio”. This music also became popular. In November 1999, the Chinese state-controlled newspapers, the Beijing Youth Daily, published an article describing the "zeal of Chinese audiences for Korean TV dramas and pop songs". In February 2000, the S.M. Entertainment's boy-band H.O.T. became the first modern K-pop artist to give an overseas performance, with a sold-out concert in Beijing. As the amount of Korean cultural imports rapidly increased, the Beijing government responded by limiting the number of Korean TV dramas shown to Chinese audiences. In June 2001, Shinhwa's fourth album Hey, Come On! Was a big was a big success in Asia, particularly in China and Taiwan.

During the late 1990s and the early 2000s the Korean wave caught on in the East Asian countries like Vietnam, Taiwan and China, aided by and aiding cable TV and satellite networks that broadcast South Korean drama, music and movies. Two influential dramas in the early 2000s — “Winter Sonata” and “Jewel in the Palace — were immensely popular not only in East Asia regions but also in South Asia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa’

In February 1999, the first local big-budget film, Shiri, was released and became a major commercial success. It grossed over US$11 million, surpassing the Hollywood blockbuster “Titanic. “My Sassy Girl” (2001) was a major international breakthrough for Korean films. It became a box office hit across East Asia, and its DVD release also drew a large cult following across Southeast Asia and parts of South Asia. It also spawned a number of international remakes, including a Hollywood remake and several Asian film remakes, as well as television adaptations and a sequel. There was talk that Steven Spielberg would do a Hollywood version of the film.

By the mid 2010s a survey by Japanese ad agency Hakuhodo shows the popularity of South Korean entertainment was very high in major Asian cities such as Hong Kong, Taipei, Singapore, Manila and Jakarta. In Shanghai, South Korean music and TV shows were more popular than rival offerings from the West. [Source: Koichi Kato and Ken Moriyasu, Nikkei, January 8, 2015]

Korean Dramas Become Big in Japan and Asia in the Early 2000s

South Korean television dramas became very popular in the early and mid 2000s (and still are popular today). It all started in 2003, following the end of the decades-long embargo on media between Japan and South Korea, 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.

Euny Hong wrote in Quartz: The plot of “Winter Sonata” centers around an architect recovering from amnesia and re-discovering his childhood sweetheart. Its male star, the unassuming, bespectacled Bae Yong-joon, was subsequently credited with the US$2.3 billion rise in trade between Japan and South Korea between 2003 and 2004, including tourist revenue arising from tours to the fictitious character’s hometown. In August 2004, then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said during elections for the upper house of Parliament, “I will make great efforts so that I will be as popular as Yon-sama.” (Bae’s honorific nickname in Japan). [Source: Euny Hong, Quartz, November 16, 2012]

Other popular South Korean dramas in Japan included “All In” and “Beautiful Days. The stories in these and Winter Sonata revolved around a virtuous but misunderstood young women and and the men in their lives. The dramas were also big hits in Taiwan, Thailand and other countries in Asia.

The Korean period costume drama Kyutei Jokan Changumu no Chikai — about a woman doctor named Chan Gum who rose to a position of considerable influence in the 17th century Korean royal court — was also very popular. It starred South Korea actress Lee Young Ae in the title role and was surprisingly popular with Japanese men. The show was very popular in South Korea where it earned rating in excess of 57 percent and triggered a boom in the cooking of court cuisine.

Meanwhile, in 2002, BoA's album “Listen to My Heart” became the first album by a Korean musician to sell a million copies in Japan. Following this success, other K-pop artists began setting their sights on the Japanese music industry as well. .BoA is South Korean who started performing when she was a young teenager and has been called the Britney Spears of Asia. BoA, who made the cover of the French Le Monde in July 2002 as an icon of cultural exchange between Korea and Japan, was invited to the two countries’ summit conference in June 2003 in Tokyo.

Large numbers of Japanese watch South Korean dramas on satellite station that specialize in them. The sales of niche magazines that are oriented towards South Korean drama watchers sell well. The popularity of the satellite station is so high that Japanese television stations are losing viewers to them in significant numbers. It took a while though for the dramas to go mainstream. In April 2010, a South Korean drama was aired for the first time in prime time on a major Japanese network. The drama — a spy series called IRIS with Lee Byung Hun — was aired by TBS on Wednesday night at 9:00pm.

See Separate Article KOREAN DRAMAS IN JAPAN factsanddetails.com

Korean Dramas Fuel Demand for K-Pop in Japan in the Mid 2000s

in 2005, Mikiko Miyakawa wrote in the Daily Yomiuri: “The craze for South Korean popular culture that has been sweeping Japan continues to gather strength and the growing craze is no longer confined to the field of TV dramas. Now attention is turning to the pop music of South Korea, creating hordes of enthusiastic "K-pop" lovers. About 2,000 fans of South Korean singer Pi packed the Kosei Nenkin Kaikan hall in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, last week for a concert marking the official launch of Pi's Japanese fan club, "Cloud Japan." Pi, whose name literally means "rain" in Korean, made his debut in Japan in February with the album It's Raining. The release reached No. 11 on Oricon's daily chart and has sold about 50,000 copies, according to King Records. "It's Raining," the upbeat title track of the album, proved to be the highlight of the show given by Pi. [Source: Mikiko Miyakawa, Daily Yomiuri, April 7, 2005]

“Fan club members attended the concert for free, although the free tickets had to be distributed by a drawing due to the large demand. Some lucky members of the audience were also given the chance to enjoy games with their beloved star. Near the end of the event, which lasted more than two hours, Pi read out a message for his fans in halting Japanese, saying he would try his best to make his fans proud of him.

“Having trained under well-known South Korean producer and singer J.Y. Park, Pi has garnered a reputation as the No. 1 R&B singer in his country. When he made his debut in 2002, he won almost all the major rookie awards that year. Last year, he won the KBS Music Award out of a field of 25 nominees. But the 186-centimeter star initially became popular as an actor in Japan, through a TV drama titled Sang Doo! Let's Go to School!, according to Yusuke Kitabayashi, a freelance writer specializing in K-pop.

“Many people in this country initially became interested in K-pop through South Korean TV dramas and films, Kitabayashi said. For many, this phenomenon started with Ryu, whose songs were used for the wildly popular South Korean soap opera Winter Sonata. South Korean dramas are having a huge influence on the popularity of South Korean singers in this country, and some actors have turned out to be as popular as singers as they are as actors in Japan, according to Kitabayashi. Park Yong Ha, who was in Winter Sonata, and Ryu Si Won proved to be quite successful in Japan though not so much attention has been paid to them as singers back in South Korea, Kitabayashi said.

By 2017 South Korea's K-pop music had overtaken Japanese music as the music industry's most popular genre in Japan. [Source: BBC, May 2017]

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 Make More Money From Korean Wave Than Koreans

Kang Hyun-kyung wrote in the Korea Times: “Korea's cultural content providers rely on a single income source as they make money by exporting only cultural products, such as dramas and animation. But their Japanese counterparts earn more profits through multiple income sources. The National Assembly Research Service said Japanese content providers made the most of "cultural derivatives" of the Korean wave such as characters, games, videos and music, explaining how the Japanese became more business-savvy. [Source: Kang Hyun-kyung, Korea Times, February 2, 2010]

“KBS earned 30 billion won in revenue by selling soap opera "Winter Sonata" (2002) to Japan. Yet, on the island nation, importers and distributers made 1.2 trillion won with the hit drama. In the current issue paper, the parliamentary think tank said Japan's strong marketing infrastructure for cultural products explains how they came to benefit more from the Korean wave known as "hallyu.'' "For example, after Pocket Monsters became a hit game, Japanese content providers produced a variety of cultural derivatives such as comics, posters and toys," the paper said.

The think tank said those derivatives were thoroughly planned from the very beginning of the production of the game. However, Korea's relatively poor marketing infrastructure makes it difficult for made-in-Korea content products to go global. According to the Global Entertainment and Media Outlook (2008 to 2012), Korea ranked 9th in the overall ranking of global content business, accounting for 2.45 percent of the global market. The United States is unrivaled, taking up 36.7 percent of the world market, followed by Japan with 7.93 percent and Britain with 7.43 percent. Industry experts said the nation's standing in global content business is one of the core standards determining the national competitiveness.

Korea Overtake Japan in the Pop Culture Wars

Euny Hong wrote in Quartz: “Once, Japanese movies, videogames, and pop music were all the rage. But now, the epicenter of Asian pop culture has moved 700 miles (1000km) westward, from Japan to Korea. And no, it didn’t start with Gangnam Style. Check out this Google Trends chart, which shows the number of Google user searches for the term “K-pop” versus searches for “J-pop”, from 2004 to the present. K-pop searches began to skyrocket fully two years before Gangnam Style’s July 2012 debut: As for music revenue, South Korea’s upswing goes against the negative trends in Japan and the world as a whole: [Source: Euny Hong, Quartz, November 16, 2012]

“Furthermore, from 2010 to 2011, South Korea’s videogame exports increased 37,7 percent, according to Korea.net, and foreign rights for Korean films increased 14 percent, according to the Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism. Not too shabby, considering that South Korea’s per capita GDP as of 2011 (US$22,424) is less than half that of Japan (US$45,870).

“Japan’s pop-culture dominance is hurting, and not just in music. Sanrio, the Japanese company that invented Hello Kitty, had a sales slump from 1999 to 2010 and is trying to bring in new characters to reduce its reliance on Hello Kitty. The Japanese film industry suffered greatly from the decline of Anime. As for the once dominant videogaming industry–well, it’s not a good sign when one of Japan’s top game designers (Keiji Inafune, creator of Mega Man) announces, “Our game industry is finished.”

One reason for South Korea’s success and Japan’s decline is “Japanese are nutty for Korean pop culture, and have pretty much voluntarily ceded the tastemaker role to South Korea. An important reason behind K-pop’s success, even in Japan’s home turf, is that Korean music labels embrace YouTube as a way of popularizing their songs. By contrast, in the words of a Japan Today article, “Unlike their Korean pop equivalents, most Japanese labels are allergic to promoting their artists’ work abroad.” South Korea, meanwhile, has seized upon music marketing over the Internet (aided by the world’s fastest broadband.)”

Why it Was So Easy for Korea to Overtake Japan in the Pop Culture Wars

Euny Hong wrote in Quartz: “Why is Japan’s cultural influence waning? Reason 1: These days, Japan makes stuff mostly for Japan. Japanese pop culture, like the Japanese archipelago itself, is too isolated from the rest of the world to have remained a sustainable global influence. This is evidenced by the neologism “Japan Galapagos Syndrome,” which compares Japan to the South American island that has its own species and ecology. In 2010, Japanese electronics company Sharp launched a tablet in Japan that was initially sold nowhere else in the world, appropriately called the Galapagos tablet. Similarly, many of Japan’s videogames are for the Japanese market only. [Source: Euny Hong, Quartz, November 16, 2012]

“Some say the problem is Japan’s reluctance to learn English and its negative population growth. Others point out that Japan, whose population is 127.8 million, is a huge enough consumer market as it is, and Japanese retailers don’t feel the need to take the huge risk of launching an overseas marketing campaign. (South Korea’s population is less than half that, at 49.8 million). Ironic, given that it was Korea, not Japan, that was once dubbed “the Hermit Kingdom” by frustrated Western conquistadors in days of yore.

“Reason 2: Korean culture is puritanical–and for global spread, that’s a good thing. Despite what you see in Korean movies, sexual repression in everyday South Korea is enforced to an annoying degree. A female Korean-American friend of mind recalls not being allowed to attend slumber parties as a child, because, “You don’t sleep at another person’s house until you are married.” When I’m with my parents, who live in Seoul, I am still expected to walk out of the room if we’re watching a movie with a sex scene, even though I’ve been an adult for quite a long time. They still won’t let me take taxis at night because they’re worried I’ll be kidnapped.

“Weirdly, a lot of Western parents can relate to, and even envy, such concerns. If a somewhat conventional culture like the U.S. is going to accept a foreign pop trend, it has to have palatable morals, and overprotectiveness is an appealing one. Japan is a different story. It, too, is sexually repressed, but it’s not puritanical. Take the J-pop band AKB48 (so named because the band has 48 members). They frequently wear school uniforms while performing, and their songs have lyrics like “My school uniform is getting in the way.” A song like that would be banned in Korea. In Korea, by contrast, schoolgirl uniforms are only worn… for school. And they have much longer skirts than do their Japanese counterparts. Japanese girl idols are expected to publish photobooks, consisting of pin-up style pictures. The Guardian wrote that such books “will invariably feature a selection of bikini shots shot on beaches in Hawaii…Sales of photobooks are so brisk that they have their own charts.”

“Meanwhile, Korean culture protects childhood innocence at any price. Which means that even if the K-pop idols are of age, they can’t appear in a spread that would be inappropriate for their child fans. Patrick St. Michel noted in our sister publication the Atlantic that K-pop bands “aren’t glimmering examples of feminism, but at least they look and act like grown women.” An example of a somewhat grown-up K-pop girl band is the nine-member Girls’ Generation, recently featured in The New Yorker. And for what it’s worth, the K-pop boy acts (Rain, Super Junior, Big Bang) were popular exports before the girl bands ever were. I hope this means that the popularity of K-pop has to do with general appeal and not just some submissive fantasy of Asian women.

“Reason 3: Because Americans are seen as the heroes of the Korean War, South Korea has been closely influenced by US pop culture. Japan, less so. Despite some grumbling, South Korea still sees the U.S. as its protectors during the Korean War (1950-1953). The U.S. continues to maintain an enormous military presence in South Korea–some 30,000 –and this has had a powerful effect on South Korean music tastes. Several generations of South Koreans grew up hearing American pop on American Forces Network television and radio, and US soldiers’ tastes created the demand for American music to be sold in shops and played in night clubs. Perhaps this is why the K-pop sound is much more US-influenced than J-pop is, particularly with the K-pop’s predilection for R and B, hip-hop, and rap. The K-pop sound, therefore, has a familiar ring to a worldwide audience raised on American pop.

China Become Enraptured with K-Pop Culture in the Mid 2000s

Reporting from Beijing, Norimitsu Onishi wrote in the New York Times: “At Korea City, on the top floor of the Xidan Shopping Center, a warren of tiny shops sell hip-hop clothes, movies, music, cosmetics and other offerings in the South Korean style. To young Chinese shoppers, it seemed not to matter that some of the products, like New York Yankees caps or Japan's Astro Boy dolls, clearly have little to do with South Korea. Or that most items originated, in fact, in Chinese factories. "We know that the products at Korea City are made in China," said Wang Ying, 28, who works for the local branch of an American company. "But to many young people, 'Korea' stands for fashionable or stylish. So they copy the Korean style." [Source: Norimitsu Onishi, New York Times, January 2, 2006]

“From clothes to hairstyle, music to television dramas, South Korea has been defining the tastes of many Chinese and other Asians for the past half decade. As part of the Korean Wave,a television drama about a royal cook, "The Jewel in the Palace," is garnering record ratings throughout Asia, and Rain, a 23-year-old singer from Seoul, drew more than 40,000 fans to a sold-out concert at a sports stadium here.

“For a country that has been influenced by other cultures, especially China but also Japan and America, South Korea finds itself at a turning point in its new role as exporter. South Korean movies and dramas about urban professionals in Seoul, though not overtly political, present images of modern lives centering on individual happiness and sophisticated consumerism. They also show enduring Confucian-rooted values in their emphasis on family relations, offering to Chinese both a reminder of what was lost during the Cultural Revolution and an example of an Asian country that has modernized and retained its traditions. "Three Guys and Three Girls" and "Three Friends" are South Korea's homegrown version of the American TV show "Friends." As for "Sex and the City," its South Korean twin, "The Marrying Type," a sitcom about three single professional women in their 30's looking for love in Seoul, was so popular in China that episodes were illegally downloaded or sold on pirated DVD's.

“"We feel that we can see a modern lifestyle in those shows," said Qu Yuan, 23, a student at Tsinghua University here. "American dramas also show the same kind of lifestyle. We know that South Korea and America have similar political systems and economies. But it's easier to accept that lifestyle from South Koreans because they are culturally closer to us. We feel we can live like them in a few years." "They seem to have similar lifestyles," Ms. Qu said. "They have friends and go to bars. They have good mobile phones and good cars and lead comfortable lives." Her classmate, Huo Kan, 23, said, "American dramas are too modern....Something like 'Sex and the City' is too alien to us." Jin Yaxi, 25, a graduate student at Beijing University, said, "We like American culture, but we can't accept it directly." "And there is no obstacle to our accepting South Korean culture, unlike Japanese culture," said Ms. Jin, who has studied both Korean and Japanese. "Because of the history between China and Japan, if a young person here likes Japanese culture, the parents will get angry."

“Politics also seems to underlie the Chinese preference for South Korean-filtered American hip-hop culture. Messages about rebelliousness, teenage angst and freedom appear more palatable to Chinese in their Koreanized versions. Kwon Ki Joon, 22, a South Korean who attends Beijing University and graduated from a Chinese high school here, said his male Chinese friends were fans of South Korea hip-hop bands, like H.O.T., and its song "We Are the Future." A sample of the song's lyrics translate roughly as: "We are still under the shadows of adults/Still not Free/To go through the day with all sorts of interferences is tiring." To Mr. Kwon, there is no mystery about the band's appeal. "It's about wanting a more open world, about rebelliousness," he said. "Korean hip-hop is basically trying to adapt American hip-hop."

“Here, at a computer center on a recent evening, young Chinese could be seen playing South Korean online games. Cyworld, the largest online community service in South Korea, is announcing its arrival in China by plastering ads on city buses. Thanks to the Korean Wave and South Korea's new image, being Korean helps business. "I'm sure there is a connection, though we don't have exact figures," Jim Sohn, the chief executive of LG Electronics China, said in an interview inside the company's brand new US$400 million headquarters here. Another company that has benefited from the Korean Wave's "positive effect" is Hyundai, said Um Kwang Heum, president of its Chinese division. Though a latecomer to China, Hyundai signed a joint venture agreement with Beijing Automotive Industry Holdings in 2002 and has already become No. 2 in sales among automakers in China.

Korean Wave in Southeast Asia

Shim Doobo wrote in the Kyoto Review: After Korean Wave began with the showing of Korean drama “What is Love About?” in China in 1998, “Korean television dramas have rapidly taken up airtime on television channels in countries such as Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia which saw media liberalization beginning in the 1990s. In addition, the Asian economic crisis in the late 1990s brought about a situation where Asian buyers preferred the cheaper Korean programming; Korean television dramas were a quarter of the price of Japanese ones, and a tenth of the price of Hong Kong television dramas as of 2000 (Lee, 2003). [Source: Shim Doobo, Kyoto Review, Sungshin Women’s University, 2009]

“Films and songs from Korea also accompanied the popularity of Korean television dramas across Asia. For example, the boy band H.O.T. found itself topping the pop charts in China and Taiwan in 1998... The songs and dance moves of Korean girl bands such as Wonder Girls and Girls’ Generation” became “so popular in Cambodia and Thailand” that a lot of fans and local singers there” were “imitating them. From the late 1990s, Korean films have also received critical acclaim and drawn large audiences across Asia.

“Against this backdrop, Korean stars have made a big impact on the consumer culture, including food, fashion, make-up trends, and even plastic surgery. It is not uncommon to find Asian youth decorating their backpacks, notebooks, and rooms with photographs of Korean stars. So popular are Korean actresses Lee Young-ae, Song Hae Gyo, Kim Hee Sun and Jeon Ji-hyun that it has been reported that their wanna-bes in Taiwan and China request for their facial features when going for cosmetic surgery (Joins.com, 2001; Straits Times, 2002a and 2002b). With the report that several Korean actress have had their faces ‘enhanced’, women from China, Vietnam and Singapore are flocking to Korea to have their faces cosmeticized by the Korean surgeons. It is now called the Korean Wave in plastic surgery (Kim Chul-joong, 2009).”

“Given their infatuation with Korean culture, the overseas fans are eager to learn the Korean language and travel to Korea. For example, the number of the Test of Proficiency in Korean (TOPIK) takers around the world have increased to 189,320 in 2009 from 2,692 in 1997 largely because of the interest generated by Korean television dramas (Yi, 2009). Travel agencies around Southeast Asia sell television drama-themed group tours to Korea. Thanks to the Korean Wave, the Korea National Tourism Organization (KNTO) has been planning to develop travel programs in order to have more inbound tourists.

“The growing popularity of Korean pop culture has more implications than simply earning foreign currency, especially considering that the country has had some diplomatic friction with its neighbours in the past decades. The Vietnamese still vividly remember that Korean soldiers fought against their Liberation Army during the Vietnam War. The Taiwanese have felt betrayed by Korea ever since Seoul suddenly severed its diplomatic relations with Taipei in order to establish new ties with Beijing in 1992. In this vein, Korean pop stars have contributed to improving Korea’s foreign relations. In one instance, Korean actor Jang Dong-gun and actress Kim Nam-ju enjoyed such popularity in Vietnam that the Vietnamese even labelled them their ‘national’ stars. The then Korean President, Kim Dae Jung, even invited the pair to the dinner he hosted for Vietnamese President Tran Duc Luong when the latter visited Korea on 23 August 2001 (Australian, 2002).

Korean Pop Culture Big in Remote Indian State of Manipur

When separatist rebels in the remote Indian state of Manipur banned Hindi movies in 2000 who would have ever thought it would trigger a cultural invasion from South Korea. AFP reported: “But when Bollywood was forced out, the Koreans moved in. In the markets of the state capital Imphal, shops are packed with DVDs of South Korean films and television soap operas, as well as CDs of Korean pop stars, with a particular focus on preening boy bands. Hairdressing salons are covered with head shots of Korean celebrities and offer a wide range of spiky, “Korean-style” cuts which are hugely popular with young Manipuris of both sexes. Teenagers also trawl through Gambhir Market, a three-story warren of tiny boutiques, for skinny jeans and other clothing trends inspired by Korean television shows. [Source: AFP, May 9, 2011]

“Even the language has made inroads, with Korean phrases like annyeong-haseyo (hello), kamsahamnida (thank you) and sarang-haeyo (I love you) peppering conversations in schoolyards and market-places. “When we're back at boarding school, my friends and I practice our few phrases of Korean and often talk about what it would be like growing up in Korea,” said female student Akshaya Longjam, 14. “It just seems so much fun and everybody is good-looking; the girls are pretty and the boys are so cute,” said Longjam, a dedicated fan of the Korean boy band Big Bang and its star singer G-Dragon.

“At first glance, Manipur would seem the unlikeliest of takers for the so-called “Korean Wave” of pop culture that swept over China, Japan and much of Southeast Asia at the beginning of the last decade. Tiny, landlocked and with a population of less than three million, Manipur borders Myanmar and is one of India's “Seven Sisters” – seven northeastern states connected to the rest of India by a sliver of land that arches over Bangladesh. In the 1970s, 80s and 90s, entertainment for Manipuris was largely supplied by India's dominant cultural force, Bollywood.

“But then in 2000, a number of the multiple armed secessionist groups that have been active in Manipur since the 1960s ordered a ban on Hindi movies and Hindi satellite TV channels, in a professed bid to “protect” Manipuri culture. Backed by threats to bomb recalcitrant cinemas and cable operators, the ban was extremely effective and remains in force today. Desperate to fill the vacuum, cable operators experimented with whatever came to hand, including Arirang TV, a 24-hour, English-language network based in Seoul that began beaming in a diet of dramas and cultural features.

“Korea's KBS World followed with its own stable of subtitled soap operas and, within a few months, Manipur was hooked. “Watching Korean soaps and films takes me away from the realities of daily life in Manipur,” said 19-year-old college student Soma Lhishram. “We have a problem with water, electricity, roads... you name it. But everything looks so perfect in Korea. It's like a fantasy world.” The attraction is partly a cultural one. The Mongol roots of ethnic Manipuris mean their physical features are far closer to those of Koreans than other Indians.

“The family-oriented soap operas resonate strongly in what is a socially conservative state, while teen romance dramas have a mass following among the young. Lhishram, a part-time actress, is a particular fan of the high school drama “Boys Over Flowers” and one of its heartthrob stars, Lee Min-Hoo. “It's a big dream of mine to travel to Korea and to work on a film there,”she said during a break in shooting for a Manipuri language music video in the grounds of a local college.

“Endless repeat viewings of all shows are also available thanks to thousands of English-subtitled DVDs – many of them pirated – which are smuggled in from Myanmar and retail in Imphal markets for less than a dollar. Otojit Kshetrimayum, a research scholar in sociology at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, has written an academic paper on the phenomenal popularity of all things Korean in Manipur. “The key factor is cultural proximity, both in appearance and values,”Kshetrimayum said. “The themes and characters that the Korean movies and dramas depict strike a chord with both the younger and older generations in Manipur.”

K-Pop Culture Becomes a Worldwide Phenomena

Initially it was thought that, yeah, K-Pop may be big in Asia but it will never become big in the West. Andrew Salmon wrote in Forbes: “While the pretty boys and girls of K-pop enjoy enormous popularity around Asia, that has not been replicated in lucrative Western markets. "K-pop can be a niche, but I don't think it will break through in the West. They try too hard, they are too rigid," says Daniel Tudor, author of Korea: The Impossible Country. "I feel that K-pop is too controlled; the big companies see music too much as a product." [Source: Andrew Salmon, Forbes, July 31, 2013]

The first breakthrough was Psy’s hit “Gangnam Style in 2012. Euny Hong wrote in Quartz: “If you dismiss Gangnam Style’s popularity as just a freak meme, you do so at your own peril. As World Bank President Jim Yong Kim pointed out in a recent interview, Korean rapper Psy is a late-appearing symptom of South Korea’s ambition to be the world’s pop culture factory. South Korean soap operas, music, and junk food already dominate the Asian cultural scene, and its westward expansion is a foregone conclusion. Case in point: the hit TV show Glee will be performing Gangnam Style on an episode to air in November.” [Source: Euny Hong, Quartz, November 16, 2012]

By 2020, BTS and Blackpinks were topping the Billboard charts in the U.S. Hideo Shinada of Nikkei Entertainment wrote: South Korea's entertainment industry has achieved great success overseas, in part out of necessity: The country's small domestic market means producers and entertainers are forced to focus on foreign markets from the start. Japan is the top export destination, accounting for 30 percent, followed by China (27 percent), Southeast Asia (19 percent) and North America (11 percent). In music, "Gangnam Style" by Psy reached the top of the pop charts worldwide, while the groups Girls' Generation and Bigbang have grown popular enough to launch world tours. The music used in the Microsoft Surface commercial is by girl group 2NE1. South Korean entertainment has made a global name for itself through a business model that combines online and live performances. [Source: Hideo Shinada, Nikkei Entertainment, January 8, 2015]

“The collapse of the domestic CD market” around 2000 “prompted industry players to look beyond the country's borders, according to YG Entertainment CEO Yang Ming-suk. Downloading services that boast lower per-tune fees than Apple's iTunes have become popular in South Korea. "I feared all talent agencies and record companies would go bankrupt," Yang said. This sense of crisis was one of the driving forces behind the push to develop overseas markets.

“The preparation has been solid. Industry players actively used the video site YouTube and social media to increase the popularity and moved to large-scale concerts so that they can monetize quickly. Language education is one focus, particularly teaching entertainers to speak Japanese so they can do well in their performances and marketing activities in Japan. The 12-man group Exo, managed by SM Entertainment, also has Chinese-speaking members, which has helped make the group even more popular in China.

K-Pop Conquers Europe

Euny Hong wrote in Quartz: “For some reason, 15,000 people gathered at Rome’s Piazza del Popolo on Nov. 10 for a flash mob Gangnam Style dance. And at the MTV Italy awards in May, K-pop boy band Big Bang won the “Best Fan” award, whatever that is. Pucca, the oddly-drawn South Korean cartoon, achieved popularity in Europe years before Walt Disney bought the production rights and brought her to the US. [Source: Euny Hong, Quartz, November 16, 2012]

“Europeans, and particularly the French, love Korean pop culture with a frenzy. Part of this may be because the K-pop sound has–in addition to the aforementioned American influences–elements of big band Europop, and is redolant of old French Eurovision acts like France Gall. K-pop bands are so popular in France that in April 2011, tickets for a multi-band K-pop concert sold out in 15 minutes, and days later, thousands of French people protested in front of the Louvre to demand a repeat performance. The story made the front page of both Le Monde and Le Figaro.

“That said, Koreaphilia in France began not with music, but with film. The French have always been easily open to multiculturalism when it came to cinema, and they embraced the raw emotion of Korean “revenge” movies like Palme d’Or winner Oldboy—whose plot probably seemed familiar to the French, as it was based loosely on Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. These days, I know a number of Parisian filmgoers who have a standing policy of seeing every new Korean movie that comes out, just as they used to see every Woody Allen before he started making crap.”

K-Pop Conquers the U.S.

South Korea’s entertainment industry reached a new level in 2020 when film “Parasite” won four Oscars — including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay and Best Foreign film — and pop acts BTS and Blackpink became global phenomenas and topped the U.S. pop music charts. There was even growing demand for Korean TV shows.

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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