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The Korean Wave: How Korea Changed Entertainment

In the age of social media, people feel closer to their favourite celebrities than ever before. In the past, fans could only get a glimpse of their favourite idols’ inner lives through magazines and interviews. Nowadays, it’s as though we enjoy 24-hour access thanks to platforms like Instagram and TikTok. Meanwhile, reality TV shows have reached new heights of influence, with the likes of Keeping Up with the Kardashians spawning careers that demonstrate how the entertainment industry can impact everything from pop culture to politics.

When we consider modern celebrities, there’s no doubt that countless feel the need to connect with them, and sometimes that may involve wanting to own the similar clothes, homes, cars, and even beauty products that the rich and famous own and use. With thousands having an insatiable desire to learn more about their favourite stars, it’s no surprise that the incredible access we have to Korean stars today has driven the industry to massive heights. From private ‘Bubble’ chat rooms to video call fansign events, the Korean pop culture has its own unique way of making its way into our everyday lives.

While K-pop songs, K-dramas, and even K-beauty have experienced a huge surge in global popularity over the last few years, the growth of these pop culture pillars can be traced back decades, set into motion by the ‘Korean Wave’, also known as Hallyu.

Origins of the Korean Wave

In the years following the Korean War, South Korea was vastly different, with a host of heavy restrictions placed on what topics could be explored by artists. Everything from songs that had crude vocalisation and vulgar or ‘dangerous’ lyrics to the number of foreign films shown in cinemas were limited or banned as the government looked to promote domestic content instead. It wasn’t only cinema that was affected, and these strict censorship laws also prevented the country’s writers, directors, and musicians from creating content that mattered to them.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of South Koreans were not allowed to travel overseas until the 1980s, when a long-standing foreign travel ban was lifted. This major policy change meant that ordinary citizens who weren’t part of government bodies or worked in foreign companies and schools could travel for the first time. Young adults began to complete their education at foreign universities, and as they returned to Korea, their perspectives on art, culture, and business sparked a change in South Korean culture and history. Their exposure to the western world brought to life a new group of talents that were ready to pounce on opportunities in Korea that would later catapult the country’s culture to popularity. Especially when South Korea faced a severe economic crisis in the 1990s, these individuals would play a key role in turning the country’s fortunes around.

As South Korea opened up to the rest of the world, President Kim Dae-Jung recognised too that information technology and pop culture would lead the country to a brighter future. And it didn’t take long for his decision to be proved correct, with the South Korean government’s investment in its Ministry of Culture soon profiting from the country's first blockbuster film, Shiri, released in 1999. This cinematic release sold millions of tickets and generated massive returns, leaving both local and international investors with a sense of opportunity in the South Korean market.

Now, more than 20 years later, it’s safe to say that the Korean Wave has virtually turned into a tsunami, as the combination of modern streaming technology and a global fascination with the country’s culture has led to the hugely successful films and music that we know and love.

New Fortunes and Rising Above Stereotypes

In South Korea, the Ministry of Culture is one of the most important government departments, receiving billions every year to push the country's pop culture to a global audience. In fact, the department received S$7.64 billion in 2020, a 9.4% increase from the previous year and the biggest budget it's ever received. As one South Korean official explained: "Through an effective budget execution, [the ministry] will dramatically nurture the country's cultural potential and spread Korean cultural content across the globe.”

With much of this investment going towards the development of movies, music, dramas, and video games, the impact of this investment on the economy can't be ignored. For example, the Korea Foundation for International Cultural Exchange reported that Hallyu exports contributed S$12.8 billion to the economy in 2018. Meanwhile, as much as 55% of all inbound tourism describes how they want to experience South Korean pop culture for themselves. With so much attention being placed on entertainment, the country can now claim genuine superstars that audiences across both Asia and the West recognise more and more.

Global Recognition & Appreciation

While Korean celebrities have gone international before, the last few years have seen more success than ever. Director of Parasite Bong Joon-ho is one such example, having received the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and bringing home 6 of Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. With Parasite grossing approximately S$350 million worldwide, the film’s runaway success – alongside movies like Train to Busan and The Host – has captured the attention of an entirely new generation of fans.

Simultaneously, K-pop music is an even bigger contributor to the mass appeal of the Korean Wave. Remember how PSY’s “Gangnam Style” broke records on YouTube? Groups like BTS and Blackpink, have followed suit, breaking records every time a new music video is dropped. Some have even become regulars on late-night talk shows, performing to massive sold-out crowds at events like Coachella, and even getting nominated for the Grammys. Closer to home, Southeast Asia is the third-largest market for K-pop after Japan and China, with numerous endorsements, television appearances, and billboards reaching a rapidly growing fan base.

Besides facilitating the growth of the South Korean economy, there are other advantages to these cultural exports. While there have been East Asian actors involved in Hollywood films for decades, they're often roles that reinforce stereotypes and do not offer proper representation. However, as global audiences fall more madly in love with Korean entertainment, more stars have been in and will continue to receive better roles, combating ethnic stereotypes.

Webtoons, Video Games and New Media

While most people who pay attention to pop culture would know of the latest K-pop artists and hit K-dramas, it’s hard to ignore the likewise remarkable growth of webtoons. These much-loved online cartoons first emerged in the early 2000s, since spurred on by thriving websites and a highly accessible format on mobile. Although early webtoons were often created and shared by amateurs online, quality and variety have improved as demand soars.

Like the rest of the entertainment industry, the South Korean government has recognised the importance of webtoons by implementing supportive measures. For instance, there are public investment programmes, translation services, and efforts to reduce piracy, making the industry increasingly attractive to artists, investors, and international fans alike. As readership skyrockets, their widespread popularity has led to several live adaptations, which have also gone on to achieve success.

Perhaps the best-known example of this is the hit webtoon and now K-drama True Beauty starring idol Cha Eun Woo. With the English webtoon attracting about 6.3 million subscribers as of date, there is certainly a large global fan base (True Beauty is available on Viu).

Meanwhile, other widely read webtoons have been adapted into well-known video games, such as Tower of God and Hardcore Levelling Warrior. Powered by visually stunning aesthetics and compelling narratives, adapting these webtoons into various forms of media makes perfect sense. Plus, there’s a deliberate attempt to include international readers via translations, ensuring the medium captivates foreign consumers.

Although Japanese manga had a massive head start on the Korean industry, things aren’t as simple as they used to be. With the Japanese manga industry remaining committed to printed comics over digital webtoons, slowing physical sales has left some of the largest publishers all but struggling to adapt to the online market. Considering how webtoons have also received television adaptations once reserved for the most successful Japanese mangas – such as Slime Diaries, Seijo no Maryoku wa Bannou Desu – the swelling appetite for content based on webtoons is clear.

The Runaway Success of K-Pop

K-beauty is undeniably linked to one aspect of the South Korean Culture - K-pop music. At the heart of the Korean Wave is the K-pop sensation. But where did it begin? As censorship became less pronounced from the late 1980s and almost every South Korean household owned a television, a new stage emerged for artists to make their names – the talent show. With this form of entertainment still one of the most popular in South Korea, the humble talent show is where trio Seo Taiji and Boys made their famous live appearance in 1992 – an event often credited with launching the entire K-pop movement.

Despite the group’s performance of their song ‘I Know’ receiving the lowest score of the night from the judges, those watching from home took notice of their ground-breaking aesthetic. The track skyrocketed to the top of the charts for 17 straight weeks - RollingStone even listed it as one of the greatest boy band songs of all time. By combining South Korean culture and American pop music, Seo Taiji and Boys’ rap lyrics, choreographed dances, and street fashion established a new trend that would eventually become critical to the Korean Wave, paving the way for what we know as K-pop music today.

Although Seo Taiji and Boys would break up only a few years later, the group's influence would persist in shaping the entire K-pop industry, as former member Yang Hyun-suk launched mega music studio YG Entertainment.

Even before the 1990s were over, the K-pop movement was already fully underway. For example, early idol group H.O.T. sold over six million albums locally and was selected to perform alongside Michael Jackson at a charity concert in Seoul. As the industry slowly refined its use of incredibly catchy melodies, vibrant colours, trend-worthy choreographies, and attractive stars, it’s easy to see why this powerful formula has become loved by millions around the globe. Alongside a largely family-friendly image and relatable songs, K-pop was perfectly positioned for global reach once YouTube, social media, and smartphones entered the mix.

Nowadays, K-pop is a massive business. The Big 4 entertainment agencies achieve record profits virtually every year, with HYBE – the home of BTS – seeing their profits surpass S$937 million in 2020. BTS, in particular, has become a household name internationally, and they appear regularly in high-profile collaborations with some of the world’s biggest brands. For example, a partnership with Samsung led to the Samsung Galaxy S20+ 5G BTS Edition, a limited edition smartphone complete with a unique purple hue and collectable stickers. The result? A massive increase in interest for all other Samsung smartphones, especially those in the Samsung Galaxy S20 line-up. Well on their way to influence the world through K-pop, BTS has also joined forces with McDonald’s, Hyundai, Louis Vuitton and many more.

Fans & Organised Consumerism

You can’t talk about K-pop without discussing the unique role of fans. While there’s no exact data on how many K-pop fans exist globally, the Korea Foundation released figures in 2019 estimating that there were 89 million fans in 113 countries engaged in the Korean Wave - that is how much power and influence K-pop has in the world. In the digital space, supporting your favourite K-pop artist is akin to cheering for your favourite sports team, and fans are encouraged to display their loyalty in many ways. Whether you’re talking about fan clubs, spreading hashtags on Twitter, or driving the group’s song to number one through organised purchasing and streaming music videos on repeat once they’re released, fan culture in K-pop is undeniably powerful.

This idea of consumerism to support your favourite artists is seen in other aspects of the culture too. The beauty industry in particular benefits greatly from a range of collaborations and endorsements involving the biggest stars. As many of the most recognisable artists partner with cosmetic companies like Innisfree, Clinique, and Nature Republic, these K-beauty products are almost always in high demand. And with groups like Wanna One, BTS, NCT, EXO, Red Velvet promoting merchandise to their fan groups via social media, it's no wonder so many can’t wait to get their hands on the latest products.

K-Pop in Singapore & Beyond

As the Korean Wave makes its way around the world, many diehard fans in Singapore have not only fallen for K-pop artists and K-dramas, but also Korean culture on the whole. You only have to look at the top streamed artists on Spotify in Singapore to find BTS coming in at number one. Plus, idol groups such as Blackpink and Twice also appear close to the top. Outside of entertainment, Hallyu has also taken hold through cuisine as locals can't get enough of that delicious K-BBQ.

There are also popular tourist attractions like Madame Tussauds Singapore, which features a dedicated K-Wavezone where fans can get up close and personal with wax models of their favourite K-stars, including actor Kim Woo-Bin and singer/actress Bae Suzy. For those who wish to enter the Korean entertainment industry themselves, Singapore is also home to performing arts schools that specialise in K-pop choreography and singing.

Even if you're not part of the Korean Wave, there's no doubt that the flourishing Korean entertainment industry is loved by millions globally. Supported by the highly integrated nature of the industry, you can be sure that Hallyu's potent formula of incredible talent, dynamic storytelling, digital engagement, and government support won’t be stopped anytime soon.