This paper is an analysis of the Korean Wave and scholarly reaction to it. Specifically, the work asks “which domestic factors account for the popularity of Korean pop culture internationally, and why are these methods successful”? I find two prominent factors: the hybridity of the product and the extensive government influence promoting its success. However, authors differ as to why these factors are successful. In regards to hybridity, while some cite the erosion of Korean culture, others feel it is properly maintained despite the wide appeal of the product. Furthermore, in contextualizing government influence, many authors focus simply on the tangible benefits of promotion for South Korea, although one can take it a step further by contending that it parallels past regime decisions featuring a few common themes. Ultimately, this paper’s findings reveal that the domestic factors accounting for the success of the Korean Wave must be properly considered through a variety of means.
Keywords: Korean Wave, Hallyu, domestic factors, hybridity, government influence
The Korean Wave, or Hallyu, refers to the global increase in popularity for South Korean culture. It has been a tremendous success for the country, which is now disproportionately strong in soft power relative to its size. While many factors explain Hallyu’s international success, explanations vary depending on the perceptions of countries involved. As a result, to provide a mainstream perspective on the success of the Korean Wave overall, one must instead consider it through the lens of the domestic factors effectively putting it in the position to succeed. Which domestic factors account for the popularity of Korean pop culture internationally, and why are these factors successful? Two prominent examples account for the popularity of Korean popular culture outside of South Korea: the hybridity of the product and the extensive government influence promoting its success. Although both reasons are correct, authors differ in explanations as to why. In regards to hybridity, some cite the erosion of Korean traditional culture, while others feel it is properly maintained despite the wide appeal of the product. This paper finds a variety of evidence supporting the latter, although the logic of the scholars citing the erosion of culture is flawed due to a number of reasons. Furthermore, though many authors choose to focus simply on the tangible benefits of promotion for South Korea in contextualizing the government influence, one can contend that it parallels past regime decisions featuring a few common themes; the ROK’s heavy hand and compromising nature is evident throughout its history.
When explaining the popularity of Hallyu, the hybridity of the product itself reveals a key answer. Hybridity refers to the “adaptation and active articulation of global processes with local norms, customs, taste, needs, and traditions.”[i] Within the scope of Hallyu specifically, it refers to the ability of Korean pop culture to appeal to different groups. For example, K-Pop appeals to a wide audience in part because it features apolitical, family-friendly music and performers. As historian John Lie explains, while American singers are seen as celebrating sex and violence to Korean audiences, K-Pop singers are known for being polite, with gentle demeanors and clean-cut features.[ii] Furthermore, the music created reflects this innocent theme. K-Pop tends to deal with easy topics such as love, while politics and violence are rarely discussed, albeit with some exceptions.[iii] Songs generally avoid explicit lyrics as well, relatively speaking. Many artists intentionally censor themselves in order to reach the broadest audience possible, and when the artist Rain referenced his “magic stick,” the song was later revised.[iv] Therefore, these values create a hybrid product in that they appeal to a wide array of audiences, and are successful in doing so because they do not clash culturally elsewhere.
Along with featuring family-friendly values, K-Pop makes a conscious effort to promote its product internationally through its performers and lyrics. This helps explain the proliferation of multi-ethnic and diverse groups in the K-Pop industry, as different members can appeal to different fans. The group SNSD (Girls’ Generation) includes members proficient in English, Japanese, and Chinese, providing personal appeal for fans of each nationality.[v] John Toth, a 29 year old Caucasian computer scientist described in a New Yorker article the benefits of providing a personal touch. He explains that “you think you love them, but then you see Sooyoung look you dead in the eye and say in English, ‘Thank you for coming.’”[vi] To Toth and many others, the ability of K-Pop performers to connect with an international audience makes the experience more vivid.
While SNSD illustrates the hybridity of groups, Rain exemplifies the potential hybridity of individual artists and the benefits this entails. He is described as “simultaneously Asian but modern and Western, [though] not too foreign,” with the presentation of both his physique and music considered to be hybrid.[vii] Rain’s acting career in the United States has also been successful, and his two most famous roles have been as a Japanese, rather than Korean, man.[viii] Again, the hybridity of his looks, persona, and music allow for broader appeal.
Finally, it is important to note the hybridity of the lyrics within K-Pop. While songs are, of course, in Korean, many include a strong injection of lyrics in English. Girls’ Generation’s hit song, “Gee,” features the lyrics “gee gee gee gee baby baby baby,” which appeals to Anglophone listeners, while also appealing to those who are not well-versed in English due to its simplicity.[ix] Similar trends are evident in many other songs as well, offering English lyrics without featuring a level of complexity that would potentially alienate its listeners. K-Pop artists blatantly appeal to Japanese listeners using similar methods, as SNSD releases songs with extensive Japanese lyrics.[x] Some artists even release full songs in Japanese.
There is strong evidence displaying the hybridity of the music itself within K-Pop, especially between East and West, despite the differences in lyrics and meaning. While Korean music was influenced by that of Japan as well, the main shift accompanied the introduction of Western musical influence.[xi] Beginning with SeoTaiji and the Boys, K-Pop incorporated American styles such as rock, rap, and hip hop. Domestically, this was revolutionary, and it paved the way for a drastic impact internationally in later years. By combining Korean and American elements, the Korean Wave is easier for U.S. audiences to digest because they recognize their own culture embedded in these foreign products.[xii] Although K-Pop still presents the appearance of being foreign, these musical elements present a familiar feel to the product. Furthermore, as explained by the South Korean scholar Woongjae Ryoo, it essentially positions South Korean culture as an intermediary between East and West, largely capable of relating to both sides due to the aforementioned musical elements.[xiii] Thus, while the hybridity of the music appeals to Western audiences in particular, the Korean origins allow it to maintain ties to the rest of Asia as well. A graduate student in China explains that “it is easier to accept that lifestyle from South Koreans because they are culturally closer to us… we like American culture, but we can’t accept it directly.”[xiv] Therefore, oddly enough, the American elements of K-Pop appeal to the rest of Asia as well, because South Korean music mimics it in some aspects without copying its undesirable traits. Because South Korea is able to situate itself in between the U.S. and Asia, it enjoys popularity from both sides of the spectrum. Ergo, the hybridity of the music itself, along with the hybrid nature of its values, artists, and lyrics, explains why Korean popular culture is successful on a global scale.
Given the aforementioned research, scholars tend to agree that the hybridity of the Korean product positively affects its success globally. Thus, to find more variance in opinion, one must delve into what accounts for this hybridity. Historian John Lie prominently cites the erosion of culture, evidenced by the naked commercialism of the product, as the underlying factor.[xv] This reasoning is largely due to the focus of his work. By considering K-Pop and its influences within the scope of a rough timeline regarding Korean music, he finds that its features differ greatly from traditional Confucian values, which were evident in Korean music of the past. For example, the shift in culture can be seen through the shift in beauty standards of performers and paralleled by Korean society at large.[xvi] While chubbiness, representing wealth, used to be a desirable trait, skinniness is now desired by performers with few exceptions. Furthermore, plastic surgery, the new status symbol, is currently a common practice in the country, directly contradicting the Confucian idea of the body as a precious gift from parents.[xvii] This example represents Lie’s idea that the commercialized nature of the Korean product destroyed the culture of South Korea, and, interestingly, historian Siho Nam reaches a similar conclusion, despite the different scope. By viewing it mainly within the neo-liberal values of globalization, Nam considers the issue through a broad approach, emphasizing the flow of both culture and capital. He finds that, although some depict the Korean Wave as an antithesis to globalization, it is largely just a continuation of U.S. imperialism.[xviii] Therefore, despite taking a different perspective, Nam finds evidence of the overshadowing of local culture. However, both authors’ approaches, while factual, are flawed.
Lie’s argument is weakened by a number of inconsistencies. For example, while he states that Confucian ideology restricted political music, current K-Pop is apolitical and would thus appear to align with these values. More importantly, he is essentially cherry-picking certain traditional values to prove his point. Even if most of the examples he mentions are correct, he offers limited examples of “traditional values,” and calling K-pop a destruction of culture is an unfair leap in judgement. The aforementioned Woongjae Ryoo explicitly states that “South Korean dramas… often reinforce traditional values of Confucianism.”[xix] Ergo, while some of his statements are valid, limited examples and lack of an acknowledged counterpoint lead to an overly general assumption. Siho Nam’s article is more consistent in this regard, but he, like Lie, suffers from the underlying problematic nature of the argument.
To an extent, both authors use cultural essentialism to assert that the current product destroys South Korean culture. The question of “what is Korean?” prompts many answers, and it is hard to argue any are incorrect. There is no unity in the articulation of defining such a subjective concept. Thus, defining Korean solely as one specific idea (in this case, largely traditional values) is problematic in itself. Culture is not rooted in the past; rather, it ebbs and flows with the changes of society, and shifting cultural values may still result in something considered “Korean.” The focus on pop culture’s erosion of values also tends to cover a lack more complex understandings of history, as this societal shift is due to more than just pop culture itself. This is seen through the emphasis on the idea that SeoTaiji, a popular South Korean hip hop artist in the 1990s, was revolutionary. Although not untrue, there were subtle shifts before him that this claim overshadows.[xx] Finally, the tone of the authors’ arguments conveys largely negative connotations vis a vis K-Pop’s erosion of traditional culture, which brings up the question of whether it should be seen as such. One could argue that the erosion of culture in favour of new ideas is not a bad thing, and, even if incorrect, it furthers the idea that the claims being made here are entirely subjective in nature. Thus, the argument that hybridity destroys culture is overly bold, and other authors claim that Hallyu’s hybridity actually maintains it.
Many authors dispute the claim that the Korean Wave was due to the destruction of culture by stating that it has effectively continued it. Contrary to the opinion that a product must possess universal values to appeal globally, the original locally targeted content can co-exist with international interests. The astonishing success of Gangnam Style exemplifies this, as it serves as an interesting case study for ideas that, while being distorted and transformed, were not destroyed. Scholar Claire Lee, in describing the hit song, notes that it “criticizes Gangnam girls who are rich, materialistic, and full of vanity.”[xxi] However, while this specific theme is largely ignored internationally, the idea is still intact to a large extent both locally and abroad. First, parodies of Gangnam Style around the world include a rather critical view of a particular place.[xxii] Thus, PSY’s thoughts have not been removed; they have been adapted to fit a specific region. Furthermore, while it is true that the song’s original meaning is forgotten to some extent, his ideas remain, co-existing in South Korean minds along with its new meanings worldwide. The success of the Korean Wave does not mean Gangnam’s culture is lost, because domestically, it is the same as it has always been.[xxiii] If anything, the song has brought increased attention to the materialistic culture present in Gangnam, and Lee’s in-depth focus is beneficial in that it allows her to find the many values evident in the product.
Historian Yasue Kuwahara supports Lee’s findings as she contends that, in comparison to Japan’s “culturally odorless products,” Hallyu’s global appeal is due to its Korean-ness.[xxiv] Her conclusion is evidenced by Jung-Kim’s research on the success of the Korean movie, “My Sassy Girl Goes Around the World.” Just as with Lee, Jung-Kim’s narrow focus is strong; by solely considering the success of the movie and its remakes, she finds a trend that could be easily missed by a broad focus in studies of the Korean movies in general. My Sassy Girl was very successful locally and globally, thus inspiring many international remakes, most of which did not enjoy the same level of success.[xxv] As Jung-Kim asserts, this is because audiences are more receptive to unfamiliar aspects of products when they are not advertised as domestic.[xxvi] Since Hallyu is specifically seen as Korean, it is afforded this luxury, so it is illogical to reason that producers would rid their work of local elements in order to appeal to an international audience. By utilizing a narrow focus, the authors show that a product’s cultural values remain intact locally, and that destroying them would not be particularly instrumental towards its success.
In addition to the hybridity of the product, extensive government influence drastically accounted for its international success. The government has made a conscious effort to promote its cultural industry, largely beginning with President Kim Young-Sam. This was done by setting aside one percent of the national budget for subsidies and low-interest loans to cultural industries, launching agencies to promote and expand exports, and setting up cultural departments at universities.[xxvii] Chaebols (South Korean business conglomorates) like Samsung and Daewoo were also encouraged to invest in films and video production, and today, the government has a $1 billion U.S. investment fund for popular culture.[xxviii] As historian Shuling Huang details, the government promotes its cultural industry through other means as well. For example, they bought the copy-rights of popular K-dramas and distributed them in many countries free of charge. In one case, the U.S. was paid $30,000 per episode to air the K-drama, “A Love to Kill.”[xxix] While these are extreme examples, there is a general trend amongst Korean companies of selling broadcast rights for relatively small figures, made possible due to the subsidies provided by the government. The government has also hosted an annual trade show, Broadcast Worldwide, since 2001.[xxx] Therefore, extensive government influence in promoting the cultural industry via aid and other means largely accounts for its global success.
While this idea is fairly straightforward, authors differ in explaining why this government influence occurs. Many authors, like Huang, focus on the tangible benefits. He contends that the Korean Wave has been effective in helping Korean trademarks become world-class brands, and points to the product placement and idol promotion possible through pop culture as evidence. K-dramas are known to feature extensive product placement, with one LG official admitting that the company sponsored dramas to reverse the negative image of their company abroad.[xxxi] Korean idols are also commonly chosen as representatives for brands. The official South Korean tourism website uses famous actors to advertise. More importantly, these strategies, made possible by the international success of the Korean Wave, appear to have worked. For example, in Taiwan, many had never heard of Korean cosmetics, and for those who had, they were considered inferior to Japanese products.[xxxii] However, since the extensive marketing of Korean idols and products began, several cosmetic brands have seen success in the country.[xxxiii] Thus, pop culture has the ability to increase commercial profits, even outside the realm of the product itself.
The South Korean scholar Sang Yeon-Sung, while also considering Taiwan, takes a slightly different approach. He explains the government’s interest in promotion by contending that the Korean Wave is a diplomatic success. While Taiwan once held a negative perception of South Korea, Hallyu provided an opportunity for the countries to build a positive relationship after the break-up of diplomatic relations in 1992.[xxxiv] As pop culture increased in popularity, opinions of South Korea also improved. Of course, correlation does not equal causation, but interviews with Taiwanese citizens indicated that the popular culture gave off a favourable impression.[xxxv] This was due to music videos, appealing to a sense of East Asian cultural identity, along with advertising South Korean nationalism (a trait admired due to Taiwan’s own struggle in that regard), and exhibiting confidence.[xxxvi] Thus, Sang claims that Hallyu is responsible for a more positive relationship between the two countries, completing one of the ROK’s aims in promoting culture by doing so.
Huang and Sang, while making two unique points, also observe the underlying factor making these claims relevant. As both of them state, the effects have brought economic benefits to the country. For Huang, these benefits are evident through the recent proliferation of Korean brands in a new market, and, according to Sang, the increase in relations has led to tourism and purchases of Korean products.[xxxvii] Historian D.Y. Jin, in considering the government promotion of Korean films, reaches the same overarching conclusion and takes it a step further, stating that the overall goal of the regime “is not to secure cultural sovereignty, but is to do with economic imperatives.”[xxxviii] He cites the recent shift away from culture and towards purely economic motives that is evident in the film industry, such as blockbuster films emulating Hollywood in content.[xxxix] Jin is not claiming an erosion of culture like aforementioned authors. Rather, he claims that the government has no interest in specifically encouraging culturemotives are mainly economic. The authors’ findings, in detailing the various economic benefits involved, all corroborate this claim, so its validity is evident. However, by focusing on the tangible effects of government influence, these authors fail to consider the actions within the broad context of Korean history, which further explains why they took place.
While these authors are not wrong to conclude that the government intervened for various economic benefits, Lie takes it a step further by arguing that it parallels the strategies of past regimes. While many historians assume the decision to export was due to a lack of åadequate domestic market, this was widely exaggerated, with the more relevant factor being the ROK’s habitual “export imperative” dating back to the 1960s.[xl] Although Lie believes that the imperative nature of exports is largely a myth, he admits that the export-oriented industrialization cemented during the Park regime led to a cultural reflex advocating it. In his words, any economic problem in the ROK was met with one simple idea: “when in doubt, export.”[xli] There was also a predilection for taking risks that was evident within the country’s history, which further encouraged the idea of promoting the cultural industry abroad.[xlii] Therefore, Lie is correct in noting that it stems from a history of similar regime decisions. However, after touching on the issue, he then discusses other aspects, such as the businesses involved, which, although instrumental, are made possible by the strategy in place. Ergo, Lie’s broad focus acts as a restraint for this particular issue: further analysis of prior regime decisions may provide alternate, more specific parallels.
Given the limited discussion offered by Lie, other authors and evidence can be used to further the discourse. First, one can consider Sang’s findings on Hallyu’s effects on Taiwanese relations as parallel to past decisions. Japan, like Taiwan, used to have a negative perception of South Korea, albeit to a much greater extent. However, while many South Koreans did not favour diplomatic relations, Japanese normalization led to vast economic benefits, offering billions in grants and loans and a providing new market for the ROK.[xliii] Thus, the government saw the value in improving relations, and, as indicated by Sang, they would do so with Taiwan using popular culture years later. Furthermore, Suh Chung-Sok notes that the current state of interactions between the two countries heavily influences the entry of foreign products, even when compared to cultural proximity.[xliv] This indicates that South Korea would be correct in believing that there is legitimate value present through improving relations, thus making the prior experience particularly valuable. Finally, the government’s heavy hand in promoting the cultural industry parallels its prior success with intervening. Park forced projects on Chaebols, and, while they were not always financially viable, their efforts put the country in the best position to succeed.[xlv] Even recently, Jin stated that the government “demanded that domestic capital, including chaebol, invest in the film business,” and more generally, the heavy intervention seen simply through promotion itself parallels Park’s work with the Chaebols.[xlvi] Therefore, modern regime decisions can be seen through the lens of specific historical parallels.
Domestically, both the hybridity of Korean pop culture and extensive government influence were ultimately instrumental towards its global success. While some authors feel this is due to the erosion of Korean culture, there is substantial evidence indicating that the culture is properly maintained despite the wide appeal of the product. Furthermore, while it is not incorrect to focus simply on the tangible benefits of promotion for South Korea, one can further analyze Hallyu by contending that it largely parallels past regime decisions. Thus, the domestic factors accounting for the success of the Korean Wave must be considered through a variety of means.
Jin, D. Y. “Cultural Politics in Korea’s Contemporary Films under Neoliberal Globalization.” Media, Culture & Society 28, no. 1 (2006): 5-23. doi:10.1177/0163443706059274.
Ryoo, Woongjae. “Globalization, or the Logic of Cultural Hybridization: The Case of the Korean Wave.” Asian Journal of Communication 19, no. 2 (2009): 137-51. doi:10.1080/01292980902826427.
Lie, John. “What Is the ‘K’ in K-Pop?” Korean Observer 43, no. 3 (2012).
Kuwahara, Yasue. The Korean Wave: Korean Popular Culture in Global Context. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
Huang, Shuling. “Nation-branding and Transnational Consumption: Japan-mania and the Korean Wave in Taiwan.” Media, Culture & Society 33, no. 1 (2011): 3-18. doi:10.1177/0163443710379670.
Suh, Chung-Sok, Seung-Ho Kwan, and Tae Young Choi. “An Analysis of the Korean Wave and Cultural Proximity in Southeast Asia.” University of New South Wales. Korea-Australasia Research Centre, 2006.
Sung, Sang-Yeon. “Constructing a New Image. Hallyu in Taiwan.” European Journal of East Asian Studies 9, no. 1 (2010): 25-45. doi:10.1163/156805810×517652.
Lie, John. K-pop: Popular Music, Cultural Amnesia, and Economic Innovation in South Korea. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2015.
Kim, Hyung-A, and Clark W. Sorensen. Reassessing the Park Chung Hee Era, 1961-1979: Development, Political Thought, Democracy & Cultural Influence. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011.
Clifford, Mark. Troubled Tiger: Businessmen, Bureaucrats, and Generals in South Korea. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1994.
Seabrook, John. “Factory Girls.” The New Yorker. 2015. Accessed December 10, 2016. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/10/08/factory-girls-2.
Jung-Kim, Jennifer. “My Sassy Girl Goes around the World.” The Korean Wave, 2014, 85-100. doi:10.1057/9781137350282_5.
Nam, Siho. “The Cultural Political Economy of the Korean Wave in East Asia: Implications for Cultural Globalization Theories.” Asian Perspective, 2nd ser., 37 (2013).
Lee, Claire. “Gangnam Style As Format.” The Korean Wave, 2014, 101-116. doi:10.1057/9781137350282_5.
The content of this article does not represent the positions, research methods, or opinions of the Synergy Editorial Committee. We are solely responsible for reviewing and editing submissions. Please address all scholarly concerns directly to the contributor(s) of the article.
Benjamin Alperstein is a 3rd Year undergraduate student studying History, Sociology and Peace, Conflict & Justice studies at the University of Toronto.
[i] Yasue Kuwahara, The Korean Wave: Korean Popular Culture in Global Context (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).
[ii] John Lie, “What Is the ‘K’ in K-Pop?,” Korean Observer 43, no. 3 (2012):.
[iv] John Seabrook, “Factory Girls,” The New Yorker, 2015, , accessed December 10, 2016, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/10/08/factory-girls-2.
[v] Lie, “K in K-Pop.”
[vi] Seabrook, “Factory Girls”.
[vii] Woongjae Ryoo, “Globalization, or the Logic of Cultural Hybridization: The Case of the Korean Wave,” Asian Journal of Communication 19, no. 2 (2009): , doi:10.1080/01292980902826427.
[ix] Lie, “K in K-Pop.”
[xiii] Ryoo, “Globalization/Hybridization.”
[xv] Lie, “K in K-Pop.”
[xviii] Siho Nam, “The Cultural Political Economy of the Korean Wave in East Asia: Implications for Cultural Globalization Theories,” Asian Perspective, 2nd ser., 37 (2013):.
[xix] Ryoo, “Globalization/Hybridization.”
[xx] Kuwahara, “The Korean Wave.”
[xxi] Claire Lee, “Gangnam Style As Format.” The Korean Wave, 2014, 101-116.
[xxiv] Kuwahara, “The Korean Wave.”
[xxv] Jennifer Jung-Kim, “My Sassy Girl Goes around the World,” The Korean Wave, 2014, doi:10.1057/9781137350282_5.
[xxvii] D. Y. Jin, “Cultural Politics in Korea’s Contemporary Films under Neoliberal Globalization,” Media, Culture & Society 28, no. 1 (2006): , doi:10.1177/0163443706059274.
[xxix] Shuling Huang, “Nation-branding and Transnational Consumption: Japan-mania and the Korean Wave in Taiwan,” Media, Culture & Society 33, no. 1 (2011): , doi:10.1177/0163443710379670.
[xxxiv] Sang-Yeon Sung, “Constructing a New Image. Hallyu in Taiwan,” European Journal of East Asian Studies 9, no. 1 (2010): , doi:10.1163/156805810×517652.
[xxxviii] Jin, “Cultural Politics.”
[xl] John Lie, K-pop: Popular Music, Cultural Amnesia, and Economic Innovation in South Korea (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2015).
[xliii] Hyung-A Kim and Clark W. Sorensen, Reassessing the Park Chung Hee Era, 1961-1979: Development, Political Thought, Democracy & Cultural Influence (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011).
[xliv] Chung-Sok Suh, Seung-Ho Kwan, and Tae Young Choi, “An Analysis of the Korean Wave and Cultural Proximity in Southeast Asia,” University of New South Wales. Korea-Australasia Research Centre, 2006.
[xlv] Mark Clifford, Troubled Tiger: Businessmen, Bureaucrats, and Generals in South Korea (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1994).
[xlvi] Jin, “Cultural Politics.”