During a White House visit in 2013 between former President Barack Obama and South Korean President Park Geun-Hye, the American leader advanced the diplomatic and political relationship between the United States and South Korea. Aside from policy, Obama emphasised the remarkable growth of industry in South Korea, highlighting a cultural phenomena that has swept up the world: the Korean Wave.
“Of course around the world, people are being swept up by Korean culture, the Korean wave,” Obama said at a White House press conference. “As I’ve mentioned to President Park, my daughters have taught me a pretty good ‘Gangnam Style.’”
The Korean Wave is operationally defined as the popularity of Korean entertainment and culture across Asia and other parts of the world. Ever since the 1990s, the industry has grown, becoming rapidly successful in other parts of Asia. As internet streaming has grows, Korean culture is spreading across the globe.
Traditionally, the entertainment industry has been dominated by the United States and, to a lesser extent, Britain and Japan. However, recently, government funding of South Korea’s entertainment industry has allowed a new culture to be widely publicized and celebrated.
Korea has not always been focused on developing its entertainment industry. The Asian Financial Crisis of the mid-1990s caused many of South Korea’s manufacturing companies to transfer to other industries, such as entertainment. In addition, the country loosened regulations during this time period, removing foreign movie quotas and lifting restrictions on cultural imports.
The Korean wave first grew through popularity of the Asian film industry, but more specifically the drama film industries. Korean dramas, coined as “K-dramas,” have been able to be spread globally with the influx of dedicated streaming services that provide subtitles in a variety of languages. There have been dubs of shows in multiple languages as well.
Additionally, the lack of Asian representation in many western film industries outside of particular roles has also stimulated the growth of these shows.
“I know many people who do not necessarily watch K-Dramas for the plot but rather the actors’ and actresses’ appearance.”
Junior Hyunwoo Roh
Another defining characteristic of the Korean Wave is its massive music industry, more commonly known as K-pop. K-pop has developed a distinct system of determining stars, or idols, through a trainee system that focus on developing talent provided by agency. Through these programs, future idols are pushed into developing a very specific image to cater to the public, creating likable personas that appeal to everyone.
K-pop idols fill in the void left by the American music industry, which has a severe lack of Asian influence despite their relatively large population. Consequently, many choose to follow these foreign celebrities rather than those of their own country, feverishly watching variety shows and emulating their fashion, much like how American culture treats its own celebrities.
The internet has also had a vital role in the growth of the genre. A majority of groups utilize the media platform YouTube as their main sharing service, generating hundreds of millions of views for some of the most popular songs.
The rise of Korean culture is not completely representative of what the country actually may stand for. Korea’s entertainment industry actively emulates western trends, whether it be fashionably or aesthetically, in order to gain the global appeal that American culture. As a result, the world’s image of Korean life is much different than what it actually entails. The divergence between the two images of the country may be misleading, especially because the westernized image is much more popular and vocal.
“In my opinion, the Korean entertainment industry, K-pop in particular, isn’t a good indicator of what traditional Korean culture is,” senior Andrew Park said. “As a Korean American, I feel like the state of Korean entertainment resembles more of what American culture is rather than that of Korea.”
Senior Andrew Park
Despite this, many still ascertain that the global growth of Korean culture has been beneficial for the country.
Park said, “Even though the image of Korea that many of us see is distorted, I still think that the Korean industry has been good to the country.”