EARLY HISTORY OF K-POP: ITS CREATION IN KOREA AND SUCCESS IN ASIA

RISE OF K-POP AND HALLYU

K-pop is short for Korean Pop. The term has come to mean a particular kind of Korean popular music not all Korean Pop. The K-pop formula includes techno beats, a mix of Korean and English lyrics, often rapped, and women and men groups that wink and pose and dance in perfect sync and are often featured in futuristic, candy-colored videos downloaded by millions on You Tube.

K-pop is part of the Korean wave (“Hallyu” in Chinese): a reference to Korean popular entertainment mainly in the form of K-Pop music, TV dramas, and movies The term “Hallyu” 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.

Dani Madrid-Morales wrote: “The process began in the early 1990s when the Korean record market shifted from producing diverse music genres aimed at various demographics, to primarily focusing their efforts on younger audiences (Howard, 2006). Chang Nam Kim (2012) explains the global success mostly in terms of changes in the structure of the industry. By the end of the decade, when the South Korean music market rapidly shrunk due to the overall economic situation, record labels concentrated even more on commercially proven genres and paid less attention to adult audiences as sales went down. From 2000 to 2003, the number of record retailers decreased by more than 90 percent. At the same time, the industry progressively shifted towards new forms and patterns of consumption, from mobile phones to the internet. This is also noted by Ingyu Oh and Gil-Sung Park (2012), as well as John Lie (2012), who adds a third factor: the professionalization and proliferation of talent agencies such as SM Entertainment, which contributed to the rise of idol groups [Source: Dani Madrid-Morales, ‘Transatlantic connection’: K-pop and K-drama fandom in Spain and Latin America,” City University of Hong Kong, 2014]

“Today, record companies are no longer mere distributors, but instead engage in active planning aimed at maximizing the profit. They organize large auditions, cast group members, teach them singing and dancing, pick their public personas and go through great lengths to advertise them (Ho, 2012). Bands appear frequently on television where they show their talents, along with each band members’ personal and distinct image. In an all-male idol band, for example, each member can specialize in a different style, look or personality: cute, bad boy, rapper… Image is considered to be one of the most important qualities of a band member, while their creativity, music or talent are of secondary importance (Willoughby, 2006). Much of this process mimics what Japanese popular music industry went through a decade or so earlier (see, for example, Allison, 2008; Galbraith and Karlin, 2012). In fact, K-pop partly inherited the East Asian market previously dominated by Japanese productions by perfecting some of the ‘old tricks’ of J-pop: the training system, the flashy visuals, the lavish music videos, the complex dance choreographies… (Ng, 2002).

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. For years, the Internet and particularly YouTube were fans’ preferred platform to share and distribute content. In doing so, they were frequently violating copyrights. Now, the Korean music industry has managed to partially appropriate the space and turned YouTube into “a self-reflexive staple in the campaign process of marketing new and old K-pop artists and productions” (Ono and Kwon, 2013, p. 200). This is best exemplified by the global success of PSY, which became the single most watched video on the platform. Earlier, in 2011, an analysis of the international viewership of K-pop on YouTube recorded more than 2 billion views. [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 rap trio 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.

Korean Pop Before K-Pop

Aja Romano wrote in Vox: ““K-pop as we know it wouldn’t exist without democracy and television — specifically, South Korea’s reformation of its democratic government in 1987, with its accompanying modernization and lightening of censorship, and the effect this change had on television. Prior to the establishment of the nation’s Sixth Republic, there were only two broadcast networks in the country, and they largely controlled what music South Koreans listened to; singers and musicians weren’t much more than tools of the networks. [Source: Aja Romano, Vox, February 26, 2018]

“Networks introduced the public to musical stars primarily through weekend music talent shows. Radio existed but, like the TV networks, was under tight state control. Independent music production didn’t really exist, and rock music was controversial and subject to banning; musicians and songs were primarily introduced to the public through the medium of the televised talent show, and radio served as little more than a subsidiary platform for entertainers who succeeded on those weekend TV competitions.

“Before the liberalization of South Korean media in the late ‘80s, the music produced by broadcast networks was primarily either slow ballads or “trot,” a Lawrence Welk-ish fusion of traditional music with old pop standards. After 1987, though, the country’s radio broadcasting expanded rapidly, and South Koreans became more regularly exposed to more varieties of music from outside the country, including contemporary American music.

“But TV was still the country’s dominant, centralized form of media: As of 1992, national TV networks had penetrated above 99 percent of South Korean homes, and viewership was highest on the weekends, when the talent shows took place. These televised talent shows were crucial in introducing music groups to South Korean audiences; they still have an enormous cultural impact and remain the single biggest factor in a South Korean band’s success.

Seo Tai-ji Syndrome

Seo Tai-ji and Boys sold over 3.5 million recordings, a record in Korea at that time, and caused a huge sensation in the mid 1990s. In 1996, a few months after their fourth album “Come Back Home” sold a million copies the group suddenly broke-up, sending tens of thousands of schoolgirls into fits. Huge crowds of screaming girls formed around hotels where the band was staying and one attempt by the band to leave the country was scuttled when hundreds of girls showed up at the airport and wouldn't let them board the plane.

On the 1992 song ‘Nan Arayo’ Jon Caramanica wrote in the New York Times:: “A new jack swing anthem from the group widely credited with beginning the innovations that would eventually lead to what is now understood as K-pop. “Nan Arayo” has it all: tender soul harmonies, rat-tat-tat drum machine beats, a Flavor Flav sample and a video that sets hip-hop dance routines to a hard-rock guitar riff.” [Source: Jon Caramanica, New York Times, February 7, 2018]

During the height of Beatlemania-like "Seo Tai-ji syndrome," girls screamed so loud at their concerts they drowned out the music and jumped on the stage and grabbed anything that had been touched or sweated on by the group, especially by the charismatic lead singer Seo Tai-ji. At one concert in Taegu, three girls were trampled to death when 8,000 people showed up performance at a hall with seats for only 2,500 people.

Seo Tai-ji and Boys was very influential. Their rap songs style, dance routines, fashions, attitude and stage persona were imitated by a whole generation of vocal groups that came and went after they broke up. Seo Tai-ji later returned and was not shy about using profanity or sex in his work. In the early 2000s, he released a video with explicit sex scenes and nudity.

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.

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.

Lee Soo-man is regarded as K-pop’s primary architect. People at S.M. refer to him as Chairman Lee. John Seabrook wrote in The New Yorker: “Lee retired as the agency’s C.E.O. in 2010, but he still takes a hand in forming the trainees into idol groups, including S.M.’s newest one, EXO. The group has twelve boys, six of them Korean speakers who live in Seoul (EXO-K) and six Mandarin speakers, who live in China (EXO-M). The two “subgroups” release songs at the same time in their respective countries and languages, and promote them simultaneously, thereby achieving “perfect localization,” as Lee calls it. “It may be a Chinese artist or a Chinese company, but what matters in the end is the fact that it was made by our cultural technology,” he has said. “We are preparing for the next biggest market in the world, and the goal is to produce the biggest stars in the world.”

Life of Lee Soo-Man

John Seabrook wrote in The New Yorker: “Lee was born in Seoul in 1952, during the Korean War. He grew up listening to his mother play classical piano. At the time, the dominant Korean pop genre was trot (an abbreviation of “foxtrot”), pronounced “teuroteu.” Trot borrowed from Western music and from Japanese popular songs, a legacy of the Japanese occupation, from 1910 to 1945. It blended these influences with a distinctively Korean singing style called Pansori. Lee, however, immersed himself in American folk and Korean rock music, which started on U.S. Army bases and was popularized by the guitarist and singer Shin Joong-hyun, in the sixties. Long before K-pop came along, Korean musicians were masters at combining Western influences with traditional singing and dancing styles. [Source: John Seabrook, The New Yorker, October 8, 2012]

“Lee made his name as a folksinger, and toward the end of the decade formed a short-lived hard-rock band called Lee Soo-man and the 365 Days. He also became a well-known d.j. and the host of televised music and variety shows. Mark Russell, who interviewed Lee for his 2008 book, “Pop Goes Korea,” writes that the Korean government cracked down on the music scene, arresting and imprisoning several prominent musicians on pot charges. When a military coup installed Chun Doo-hwan as President, in 1980, Lee’s radio and TV shows were cancelled.

“Lee moved to the U.S., where he pursued a master’s degree in computer engineering at California State University, in Northridge. He became fascinated with the music videos that were a staple of programming on the newly launched MTV. If there is a single video from the eighties that captures many of the elements that later resurfaced in K-pop, it is Bobby Brown’s 1988 hit “My Prerogative,” with its triplet swing on the sixteenth note, a signature of New Jack Swing. Brown’s dance moves — a swagger in the hips, combined with tight spins that are echoed by backing dancers — also found their way into K-pop’s DNA.

Lee Soo-Man Creates U.S. Entertainment in Korea

John Seabrook wrote in The New Yorker: “In 1985, Lee received his degree, and, he told Russell, he returned home determined to “replicate U.S. entertainment in Korea.” Increasing prosperity, marked by the arrival of the 1988 Seoul Olympics, helped bring market-oriented democracy to South Korea and a general loosening of restrictions on the media. Around this time, Koreans coming back to Seoul from the U.S. brought the rhythms of rap and hip-hop, sung in Korean. The consonant nature of the language, with its abundance of ka and ta sounds, lent a hard-edged quality to the raps. In 1992, a three-member boy group called Seo Taiji and Boys performed a rap song on a Korean-TV talent competition, to the horror of the judges, who ranked them last, and to the delight of the kids watching at home (one of the Boys was Yang Hyun-suk, the future founder of Y.G. Entertainment). Korean music historians generally cite this performance as the beginning of K-pop. [Source: John Seabrook, The New Yorker, October 8, 2012]

“Lee founded S.M. in 1989. His first success was a Korean singer and hip-hop dancer named Hyun Jin-young, whose album came out in 1990. But, just as Jin-young was on the verge of stardom, he was arrested for drugs. Russell writes that Lee was “devastated” by this misfortune, and that the experience taught him the value of complete control over his artists: “He could not go through the endless promoting and developing a new artist only to have it crash and burn around him.”

“In effect, Lee combined his ambitions as a music impresario with his training as an engineer to create the blueprint for what became the K-pop idol assembly line. His stars would be made, not born, according to a sophisticated system of artistic development that would make the star factory that Berry Gordy created at Motown look like a mom-and-pop operation. Lee called his system “cultural technology.” In a 2011 address at Stanford Business School, he explained, “I coined this term about fourteen years ago, when S.M. decided to launch its artists and cultural content throughout Asia. The age of information technology had dominated most of the nineties, and I predicted that the age of cultural technology would come next.” He went on, “S.M. Entertainment and I see culture as a type of technology. But cultural technology is much more exquisite and complex than information technology.”

“But, while S.M. gets credit for inventing the factory system, its idol groups are seen by some as being too robotic to make it in the West. Y.G. is significantly smaller than S.M. in terms of revenue, but it has a reputation as an agency that allows artists like PSY a kind of creative freedom they would not enjoy at S.M.

H.O.T. Debut and Success

John Seabrook wrote in The New Yorker: “In 1996, S.M. débuted its first idol group: a five-member boy band called H.O.T. (short for High-Five of Teenagers). It was followed by S.M.’s first girl group, S.E.S., after the given names of the three members (Sea, Eugene, and Shoo). Both groups were enormously popular in Korea, and inspired other groups. Soon K-pop was pushing both traditional trot and rock to the commercial margins of the Korean music scene. [Source: John Seabrook, The New Yorker, October 8, 2012]

“In 1998, Lee began expanding into the rest of Asia. The idols sang in Japanese and Chinese, but the sound and style of the music and the videos adhered to the principles that had made them popular in Korea. Lee and his colleagues produced a manual of cultural technology — it’s known around S.M. as C.T. — that catalogued the steps necessary to popularize K-pop artists in different Asian countries. The manual, which all S.M. employees are instructed to learn, explains when to bring in foreign composers, producers, and choreographers; what chord progressions to use in what country; the precise color of eyeshadow a performer should wear in a particular country; the exact hand gestures he or she should make; and the camera angles to be used in the videos (a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree group shot to open the video, followed by a montage of individual closeups).

“C.T. seemed to work. By the late nineties, H.O.T. was topping charts in China and Taiwan. Both H.O.T. and S.E.S. disbanded in the early two-thousands, but Lee’s follow-up acts proved to be even more popular. BoA, a solo female singer who made her début in 2000, became huge in Japan. Super Junior, the boy group, débuted in 2005, and became bigger throughout Asia than H.O.T. had been. And in 2007 came Girls’ Generation, the nine-member group that represented cultural technology in its highest form, designed to conquer not only Asia but the West as well. Nikkei, the Japanese business magazine, put the group on the cover in 2010, suggesting that Girls’ Generation was the next Samsung.

Jin-Young Park, JYP Entertainment and Rain

Jin-Young Park, the founder of JYP Entertainment (JYP are his initials), speaks good English and had his first big success with Rain in the 2000s. His father was news correspondent based in the U.S. At age 9, Park moved with his mother to New York. He lived there for three years before Park returned to Seoul for high school. He later attended Yonsei University, one of South Korea’s best universities, during which time he released his first two albums. He graduated with a bachelor's in geology in 1996. [Source: Wikipedia]

Deborah Sontag wrote in the New York Times: Mr. Park “had made his debut in 1994 as a "crazy, lunatic hip-hop artist from the Ivy League" of South Korea. He was a bad-boy performer who wore see-through vinyl costumes, but he got away with being outlandish because he had graduated from a prestigious university, he said. After finding high-powered backers for an entertainment management and production company, Mr. Park opened the academy in 1998. He aimed to discover and make stars, and Rain clearly had potential as well as need. [Source: Deborah Sontag, New York Times, January 29, 2006]

“Mr. Park (who goes by the initials J.Y. or J.Y.P.) accepted him into the JYP Academy. "He had this hunger," Mr. Park said. "That is true," Rain said. "I was literally hungry." "As soon as I signed Rain, he asked me to help his mother and explained the situation," Mr. Park said. "I was like, 'Yo, get in the car.' We went to his house, and I saw his mom lying there on this cold floor. We got a big surgery done on her. But then she insisted on no more treatment. She wanted me to spend my money on her son. He would tell her, 'Yo, Mom, J.Y.P. has enough money to support both of us.' She passed away a year before he debuted."

“After three years of training, Rain's first stage experience came as a backup dancer for Mr. Park. Mr. Park, who still writes all his songs, created Rain's first album, "Bad Guy," in 2002. With the second album, "Running Away From the Sun," Rain said that he began asserting himself in the realm of choreography. "By the time his third album came out in 2004, they stopped calling him little J.Y. and started calling me Rain's producer," Mr. Park said. Soap operas are the engine of celebrity in Asia for Koreans, and so Rain's move into television was a calculated one. "We saw Korean drama flowing all over Asia," Mr. Park said. "I said to Rain, 'Since you know how to act, we should use this to make you go overseas.' As soon as his second TV drama, 'Full House,' exploded all over Asia, we went over to hit them with concerts."”

In the soap opera, "A Love to Kill," Rain played “a martial arts fighter. To alter his physique for the role, he told Korean journalists, he was jumping rope 2,000 times a day and eating only chicken breast and mackerel. This kind of discipline defines him. In addition to his acting, recording and some modeling, he is finishing a university degree in postmodern music. Although unable to attend many classes, he does all the homework, he said, plus studies not only English but Chinese and Japanese, too. Mr. Park said that Rain was motivated by a sense of obligation to his late mother. "He promised his mom that he was going to be the No. 1 singer in the whole world," he said. "That's why he never parties, never drinks, never goes out and practices hours every day."

“It was Mr. Park who, with 20 CD's in his backpack, set their global journey into motion. He took off for Los Angeles and went door to door "being nobody." After a year, he got his first call, from Bad Boy, P. Diddy's entertainment company, expressing interest in one of his songs for the rapper Mase. After that, the collaboration with Americans began. Mr. Park said he believed that other Asian pop stars have failed in the United States by trying "to impersonate what was going on here." He said that he and Rain wanted to avoid "being another couple of Asian dudes trying to do black music," by embracing their inner delicacy and letting their Asian-ness show. The moment is ripe, Mr. Park said. "Every market has been tapped except for the Asian market, and that's 5 percent of America," he said. "That's our base. But I believe that we can move beyond that, and I believe that the American music industry needs to partner with us to make inroads into Asia, too."

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 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]

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."

Korean Wave Begins 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).

K-Pop Hits Its Stride in the Late 2000s and Early 2010s

Aja Romano wrote in Vox: “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. [Source: Aja Romano, Vox, February 26, 2018]

“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.

Teresa Cerojano of Associated Press wrote: “The success is not by accident. South Korea has developed an entire industry to take attractive actors and singers and turn them into larger-than-life stars, carefully managing their look and every move. The polished productions caught on elsewhere, and a few bands such as TVXQ and 2PM are now being created with overseas markets partly in mind. The music is modeled on American and European pop, said University of the Philippines professor George Fabros, who taught in South Korea in the 1990s, but with crisper performances and flashy hair colors and fashion that appeals to Asian youth. "They train for years before their debut, and for every album they have different concepts so you won't get bored with them," said Daren Lazaro, a 20-year-old management student in Manila. For some, it is also easy to identify with stars and story lines from another Asian culture. The downside may be a stifling of individual creativity, but the TV ratings, DVD sales and screaming fans at K-pop concerts show it's a formula that works.” [Source: Teresa Cerojano, Associated Press, September 21, 2011]

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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