Korean Wave

korean wave by JULIE NOTARIANNI

The Korean wave refers to the significant increase in the popularity of South Korean entertainment and culture starting in the 1990s, in Asia, and more recently in other parts of the world. It represents a surge in the international visibility of Korean culture.

The term was coined in mid 1999 by Beijing journalists surprised at the fast growing popularity of Korean entertainment and culture in China. The wave has had considerable impact on the South Korean economy, as well as on the political and cultural influence of South Korea. For example, in 2011 based on international activity the Korean wave added approximately USD$3.8 billion dollars of revenue to the South Korean economy.

In the late 1990s, the Korean wave reached numerous Asian countries, including China, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Philippines, and Singapore. Korean dramas were a key aspect of this proliferation, as well as the subsequent establishment of niche markets in Europe and North America. Korean pop music, referred to as ‘K-pop,’ has played a significant role in the Korean wave. In recent years, Korean entertainment companies have recognized YouTube as a key component for spreading Korean culture. According to Bernie Cho, the president of the DFSB Kollective (a Seoul-based agency specializing in the marketing of international K-pop acts), Korean entertainment companies are ‘aggressively steering their efforts to go international via the Internet.’

The K-Pop fanbase has become embedded within mainstream popular culture and music in many East and Southeast Asian countries, but remains a niche interest in European and North American countries. The effects and impact of the cultural phenomenon was predicted to decrease in its formative years, but recent trends suggest otherwise. Although the Korean wave has reached new heights, concerns have been issued about long-term stable growth of Korean culture exports. Lee Dong Yeun, in a paper for the ‘Korea Journal’ (a peer-reviewed, English language academic journal focusing on Korean Studies), states that ‘if the Korean Wave continues to surge, reflecting the diplomatic relations that supports a capitalist logic rather than […] diversifying the cultural taste of the masses, then it will have to put up a hard fight against China’s ethnocentrism and Japan’s malleable nationalism.’

Korean male celebrities are among the highest-paid actors outside of Hollywood. According to the South Korean media, Bae Yong Joon (star of the hit TV drama ‘Winter Sonata’) is now charging US$5 million a film; the highest in Asia. At least nine other Korean male stars earn more than $10 million a year. Tourism to South Korea has increased significantly since the spread of the cultural phenomenon. Announced in 2008, Korea’s largest Kpop export TVXQ/DBSK/Tohoshinki made the Guinness World Records for having the world’s largest official fan club. Cassiopeia, the band’s official fan club, have more than 800,000 official members in South Korea, more than 200,000 official members in Japan (BigEast) and more than 200,000 international fans (iCassies).

Super Junior, a male ‘idol group’ (media personalities in their teens and early twenties who appear in the mass media as singers for pop groups, bit-part actors, TV personalities, models in magazines and advertisements) has achieved recognition beyond Asia, reaching notability in Europe, North America, and South America. Peru’s Top 30 ranking of ‘The Sexiest Men’ in the World included all of the members of Super Junior. The idol group gave exclusive interviews to Slovenian and Iranian magazines, and were selected by Brazilian Hallyu (fans of Korean culture) devotees to be the number-one Korean artist they want to visit Brazil. Both Mexico’s ‘TV Azteca’ and the United Kingdom’s ‘BBC’ acknowledged Super Junior to be the leading icon of the Hallyu effect.

Aside from the economic benefits, the hallyu also gave Korea political power. The Korea wave’s worldwide cultural influence translated into soft power of South Korea, increasing its voice in the global political arena. Due to the wave, South Korea’s national image improved noticeably from a war-stricken, poor country to a trendy and advanced one. A survey conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in 2008 found that about 80% of respondents from China, Japan, and Vietnam (three of the largest markets for hallyu) look to South Korean culture with high respect. Recognizing the soft power that hallyu grants upon Korea, the South Korean government actively utilizes the Korean pop culture in establishing or improving diplomatic relations. Celebrities are invited to various political affairs and often serve as honorary ambassadors of political campaigns.

A steady flow of the Korean wave pop-culture reaches North Korea, with smuggled soap-operas, movies, and music from the south sold in North Korean markets on CDs, DVDs, and USB sticks.

In Japan, the Korean wave phenomenon started after the successful airing of ‘Winter Sonata.’ The demographics mostly included older Japanese women at that time. ‘The Hallyu wasn’t a ‘big deal’ to Korea until 2002, when ‘Winter Sonata’ gained considerable popularity in Japan. From then on, it seemed as if Korean entertainment companies realized that they also had a shot at gaining a foothold in the prized Japanese market, but in order to do so, they had to proceed with caution.’ After the success of the Winter Sonata, many other Korean groups debuted in Japan, establishing a common route of debuting in Japan before debuting in other places, sometimes even before debuting in Korea.

Succeeding Korean culture booms happened through Korean music singers BoA and TVXQ; TVXQ’s ‘Best Selection 2010’ sold 413,000 copies. They broke a 15 year record as the highest first-week sales by a foreign group, which was last set by Bon Jovi in 1995. TVXQ was also the first Korean group to perform and sold out 100,000 seats at Tokyo Dome. Labelmate Super Junior followed in 2012 with their ‘Super Show 4 Tokyo Dome’ which also sold-out; it since has been followed by the SM Town concert which garnered the same number of audiences at the same venue in the same year. In 2004, K-Pop star Lee Jung Hyun was the first Korean singer to attend the prestigious ‘Kōhaku Uta Gassen’ (an annual New Year’s Eve television program produced by NHK, Japan’s national public broadcasting organization). Performing on ‘Kohaku’ is strictly by invitation, so only the most successful J-pop artists and stars of enka (a popular Japanese music genre considered to resemble traditional Japanese music stylistically) can perform; a performance on ‘Kohaku’ is a big highlight in a singer’s career.

Recently, K-pop girl groups have been advancing into Japan with a focus on the young, independent, and teenage market. K-pop groups are seen as ‘cool and attractive,’ with emphasis on being ‘strong-minded,’ rather than ‘cute and sweet,’ with emphasis on being ‘Kawaii’ (cute, adorable), which J-pop girl groups are known for. Korean acts debut in Japan to various degrees of success, mostly moderate ones. Japan was once held as an unattainable goal for Korean entertainers, but that is no longer the case. Unlike before, where Korean artists had to fully integrate themselves in the Japanese music industry in order to have a chance at success, Japan has become a Hallyu-friendly region where K-pop artists can make a name for themselves by simply riding the Korean Wave. ‘Generally speaking, Japan was (and still is) regarded with admiration and intimidation by many Asian countries in ways that spill outside the realm of the entertainment industry. This fear has its roots in history, and to this day, many people in China and Korea regard Japan with a sense of both awe and loathing; it’s a complex phenomenon, but it does explain the intimidation and air of ‘untouchability’ that Japan radiated/radiates, even after the success of ‘Winter Sonata.”

The introduction of the Korean wave into Japan has resulted in controversy with conservative and nationalist groups and Uyoku dantai (right-wing) in Japan organizing anti-hallyu demonstrations.

China was one of the first places where the phenomenon occurred as Chinese journalists coined the term for the cultural phenomenon. In 2006, South Korean programs on Chinese government TV networks accounted for more than all other foreign shows combined. In addition, Korean music has mass appeal in the Chinese and Taiwanese markets. China’s trade deficit in cultural goods has caused the government to attempt to limit the number of South Korean dramas and concert tours on several occasions. In Taiwan, Korean dramas’ success is credited to a specific emphasis on the localization process. There is such a high demand in Hong Kong for Korean dramas that several channels were made, solely dedicated to them. Despite the popularity of Korean dramas in the Sinosphere, Taiwanese and Chinese television stations, including Chinese state broadcaster China Central Television, have reduced the airtime allotted to Korean shows, because of fears that their respective domestic film industries suffer at the expense of imported Korean entertainment and criticism from the local film industry, including China’s State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television.

The Korean wave gained some interest from other parts of Asia such as the North Eastern part/states of India where Korean music/drama has shown increased viewings in place of banned Bollywood dramas and movies. There is also a very small minority of people spread across India, primarily youngsters in metros, cities or places with access to broadband internet who are aware and are often ardent fans of Korean movies and culture. In 2012, Korean girl group 4Minute released a non-official Hindi version of their latest title track ‘Volume Up.’ The Korean wave has also been picked up by youths of urban Nepal, and Korean music and dramas are becoming increasingly popular also in the Middle East where there is a channel called ‘Korea TV’ in Arabic. In India as well as Bangladesh and Pakistan, Korean music and television serials have acquired a trendy reputation and popularity. The Korean wave has also reached Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore where K-Pop concerts are quite frequently held, and parts of Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and other parts of Southeast Asia.

Korean artists BoA, Se7en, and JYJ have attempted to enter the American market, each with varying levels of success. Rain, a Korean superstar, entered the American film industry. Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas visited the YG Entertainment building (a Korean record label and talent agency) to meet Yang Hyun Suk, 2NE1, and Teddy regarding 2NE1’s American advancement. Will.i.am has also released a new music video for his single ‘Check It Out’ featuring Nicki Minaj, and it has gained interest in Korea for his use of Korean text. will.i.am expressed his excitement in working with 2NE1 by asking the girls to try recording a song that he’s been working on in the States. Representatives of YG Entertainment commented, ‘Through Will.I.Am’s visit, we feel that we’ll be able to get closer to materializing a release date for 2NE1’s American advancement album.’

Korean pop culture has been criticized in many of the places where its influence has spread, as is the case in nations such as Japan, China, and Taiwan. Existing anti-Korean attitudes may be rooted in historical hatreds and ethnic nationalism. In Japan, an anti-Korean comic book, ‘Hating the Korean Wave’ or ‘Hate Korea: A Comic’ was released in 2005, which became a #1 bestseller on Amazon.co.jp. Japanese actor Sousuke Takaoka openly showed his dislike for the Korean wave on his Twitter, which triggered an internet movement to boycott Korean programming on Japanese television. In 2012, ‘Al Jazeera’ revealed ‘punishing schedules and contracts, links to prostitution and corruption’ in the industry. Anti-Korean attitude also spiked when Kim Tae-Hee, a Korean actress, was selected to be on a Japanese TV soap opera in 2011. Since she was an activist for the Dokdo movement (a Japanese separatist group) in Korea, some Japanese people were enraged that she would be on the Japanese TV show. The Chinese media often criticize Korean stars for getting plastic surgery and in several parts of China, there are protests held to limit the amount of exposure of Korean entertainment.

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