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The Hallyu Wave of Korean Culture

Surely you know of K-drama and K-pop, right?

A lot of people, not just the Asians, craze on Korean dramas. When there is an ongoing K-drama series, people would stay updated and watch the latest episodes. The stream for these K-dramas. That is how powerful movies and series are from South Korea. Aside from the movies and series, the Korean pop or K-pop has also been dominating the music industry. Popular groups such as Blackpink and BTS paved the way for the Korean pop to fill the world. They have since been breaking records and achieving awards internationally.

They say that this is because of the Korean wave.

Now, what is the Korean wave?

The Korean Wave is a neologism which literally means the wave or flow of Korea. In Korean, it is called “Hallyu”. This is the South Korean culture’s increase in popularity since the 1990s. The initial stages of the rapid popularity increase were first driven by the spread of K-dramas and the K-pop across all Asia. It has since evolved from a regional development into a global phenomenon. The spread is carried by the social media and the domination of the K-pop music videos and performances on the video-sharing platform, YouTube.

And it’s not in the film, television, and music industry; different aspects of the South Korean culture such the Korean language, Korean fashion and Korean cuisine are also encompassed by the Korean Wave.

Korea: From Unknown to Household Name

Basically, you can say that the Korean Wave is the growing popularity of all things Korean. It’s not a surprise why most people put South Korea in their to-go bucket lists. They want to feel and experience the real South Korean vibe, and that is going the country.

With a lot of tourists wanting to travel South Korea, you can also never neglect the fact that this causes the South Korea’s economy to boost. The influence of the Korean wave really did the magic to the increasing number of foreigners visiting Korea. As the influence of the Korean wave increases, so as the number of foreign tourists entering the country, it is proportional. The cultural boom propelled tourism growth with South Korea welcoming 6 million visitors in 2005 and over 12 million visitors in 2013. Visitors still coming over in the following years. 14.2 million tourists visited Korea in 2014.

Korea as the Center of Culture

South Korea has really established itself as a major center of cultural production and a favorite tourist destination in the Asian region. Because the movies, K-pop groups, films, and soap operas have been gaining popularity, many people from many countries have been flocking into Korea to experience the Korean culture first hand.

Now, going back to the Korean pop culture, the spread of K-pop in the world was at least partly driven by the South Korean government. Their government supports its creative industries through subsidies and funding for start-ups. Not all countries do that to their local talents, and that is a very wise move. If you want to boost the economy of your country, why not start at the small businesses that makes up the big market?

The South Korean government has  a goal of becoming a leading global exporter of culture. This niche has been dominated by the United States for nearly a century. South Korea is one of the only countries in the world has a dedicated goal to become the world’s leading exporter of popular culture. Now, it’s time for other countries to spread their culture to the world.

Making Korea Visible to the World

The Korean culture really expanded into the international realm, which is a result of Korea’s successful development. The Korean Wave has given Korean tourism a boost and helped tremendously in repositioning the Korean country image globally. For example, the former United States president Barack Obama did a state visit to Korea in March 2012. During that visit, Obama made a reference to the Korean Wave.

By the Korean Wave, Korea would develop its “soft power”. The “soft power” is the intangible power a country wields. Hallyu has first spread to China and Japan, later to Southeast Asia, then to several countries worldwide where it continues to have a strong impact. The Korean Wave effect has been tremendous. South Korea has since then became very rich and futuristic. Because of the raging development, South Korea is the world’s 12th largest economy.

The South Korean government allocated a percentage of its annual budget to cultural industries to nurture popular culture in 2014, and the entertainment industry is one. Since the impact of Korean Drama and K-pop accomplished international recognition, the Korean society began to be recognized.

The developing social networking services and online video-sharing platforms such as YouTube have allowed the Korean entertainment industry which includes the K-dramas and K-pop to reach a sizable overseas audience.

Via streaming services, Korean dramas enjoy widespread availability and some of the streaming services also have subtitles in multiple languages which is very much need for the growing overseas audience. Most K-dramas have been adapted throughout the world, and some have had great impact on other countries.

Why is Korean Culture So Popular?

One reason of the surge in worldwide popularity of the Korean culture has been because of the display of their culture in K-dramas which people have adapted.

Hallyu has become an influential global phenomenon since the start of the late 2000s and the 21st century. A lot of the South Korea’s cultural aspects has been riding with the Korean Wave so it has since impacted the music, film, television industries and some of behavioral aspects and contemporary cultures of various people throughout the world.

The South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs or MOFA has been responsible for international advocacy of Korean culture which means that the South Korean government is involved in the organization of concerts such as the annual K-Pop World Festival. They are always supportive to their local talents.

The Korean Wave in Entertainment & Life

With that, it is rewarding for the country that the Korean pop culture is spreading overseas and is gaining popularity in the global market. The Korean Wave is definitely led by the entertainment industry of South Korea which includes music, drama and broadcasting.

Year 1999 in the month of February, “Shiri”, the first local big-budget film was released. It became a major commercial success for it grossed over US$11 million. It has surpassed the Hollywood blockbuster Titanic. Also, in February the next year, S.M. Entertainment’s boyband H.O.T. became the first modern K-pop artist to give an overseas or international performance. They did a sold-out concert in Beijing.

In 2001, the Korean film, “My Sassy Girl” was a major international breakthrough, by becoming a box office hit across the Eastern part of Asia. The film was hailed as the most exportable film in Korean film history. Its DVD release drew a large cult across the Southeast and some parts of South Asia. The film has resulted to a number of international remakes, a sequel and television adaptations. The female lead Jun Ji-hyun has become an iconic figure and was recognized in China and Vietnam. Her fashion style was emulated by young women throughout Asia. She is the typical example of how Korean stars have established Korean fashion as a new standard throughout the region.

The Korean Wave effect which includes the cosmetics industry and beauty industry are directly affected by the Korean Wave. Korean stars are used as marketing points to gain image and high reputation of leading the latest trends, for example, in the cosmetics industry. Korean stars as ambassadors of the brands gain so many potential buyers because of their fans.

During this time, several other countries in Asia were slowly experiencing a growth in Korean dramas and pop songs. Popularity in Korean products subsequently spread to other parts of India and the totality of Asia. BoA’s album “Listen to My Heart” became the first album from Korea to sell a million copies in Japan in 2002. Other K-pop artists started to venture into the Japanese music industry following BoA’s success.

Some of the biggest K-pop groups that has been emerging in the last 5 years has been Twice, EXO, Got7, ITZY, Seventeen, iKON, Red Velvet, Blackpink and BTS. The two leading K-pop groups would be Blackpink and BTS. Blackpink, the girl group that consists of members JisooJennieRosé, and Lisa. They are under YG Entertainment. The group debuted on 2016, with their single album Square One. From this album spawned their first number one single in their own country, “Whistle“, and first number one hit on the Billboard World Digital Songs chart, “Boombayah“. Blackpink has become the highest-charting girl K-pop act on both Billboard Hot 100 and Billboard 200, peaking at number 33 with “Sour Candy” (2020) and number 24 with Kill This Love (2019), respectively. Blackpink were the first K-pop girl group to enter and top Billboard’s Emerging Artists chart. They are also the first female K-pop group to have four number one singles on Billboard’s World Digital Songs chart.

Blackpink are the most-followed female group on Spotify and the most-subscribed music group on YouTube and have broken numerous YouTube records throughout their career. Singles “Ddu-Du Ddu-Du” (2018) and “How You Like That” (2020) produced the most-viewed Korean music video in 24 hours and most-viewed music video overall in 24 hours; “How You Like That” became the most-viewed music video by a K-pop girl group and even K-pop groups in general, on YouTube. They have been recognized as New Artist of the Year at the 31st Golden Disc Awards and the 26th Seoul Music Awards and as the most powerful celebrities in South Korea in 2019 by Forbes Korea.

            Blackpink’s accolades include three People’s Choice Awards, a Teen Choice Award, five Gaon Chart Music Awards, four Golden Disc Awards, three Melon Music Awards, four Mnet Asian Music Awards, two Seoul Music Awards, and five Guinness World Records. “Ddu-Du Ddu-Du” music video became the most-watched music video by a South Korean group, surpassing BTS‘ “DNA” in January 2019. The video has surpassed one billion views in November 2019. In September 2019, Blackpink overtook One Direction as the music group with the highest number of subscribers on YouTube. The girl group has surpassed Fifth Harmony and Little Mix to became the most followed girl group on Spotify, also in November 2019. 

Following the release of “How You Like That” (2020) and its music video, Blackpink broke several Guinness World Records, including those for the most-viewed YouTube music video in 24 hours and the most viewers for the premiere of a video on the online-sharing platform, YouTube. Blackpink were listed on Time Magazine’s “Time 100 Next” in 2019, this is a list of 100 rising stars, which was launched that year. Blackpink has been named by Forbes Korea Power Celebrity as the most influential celebrities of Korea in 2019 and the third most influential celebrities in Korea in 2020.

Now, going to BTS. BTS is a seven-member South Korean boy band formed in Seoul in 2010. They are also called as Bangtan Boys. They are originally a hip hop group, but their musical style has evolved to include a wide range of genres. The lyrics of their songs are often focused on personal and social commentary, touch on the themes of mental health, troubles of school-age youth, loss, the journey towards loving oneself, and individualism. The group formed as teenagers under Big Hit Entertainment.

BTS have a large social influence and as of 2019, have attained twelve Guinness World Records, including the world record for most Twitter engagements. They have spent 185 weeks at number one on the Billboard Social 50 chart to date. They were ranked fourth on Billboard‘s Top Social Artists of the 2010s—the highest group on the list—and were the most tweeted-about celebrities in the world in 2017 and 2018. BTS was awarded a fifth-class Hwagwan Order of Cultural Merit from the President of South Korea for their contributions in spreading Korean culture and language in October 2018. BTS were invited to become members of the Recording Academy in honor of their contributions to music in 2019.

 BTS were the first K-pop act to chart an album on the Billboard 200 for one year when Love Yourself: Answer reentered the chart in November 2019 for its 52nd non-consecutive week. As the first non-English speaking act to be included on the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI)’s the Global Artist Chart in 2018. The group had the second and third best-selling albums worldwide and were the second best-selling artists worldwide, coming second only to Drake

In 2019, BTS were once again the only non-English speaking act named as one of the top 10 Global Recording Artists of the Year. BTS were included in Forbes annual list of the 100 highest-paid celebrities ($57 million in 2019). In the United States, BTS accounted for 72.7 percent of the album units generated by K-pop acts in 2018 out of 17 acts. In their own country, BTS accounted for 41.9 percent of album sales in the first half of 2019, up from their market share of 25.3 percent the previous year. The group placed within the top 50 on Billboard’s Top Touring Artists of the 2010s list as the highest-ranked Asian act on the list and the only non-English speaking act. The boy group are the first Asian and non-English speaking act to headline and sell out Wembley Stadium. They also broke the record for the single highest-grossing engagement in Rose Bowl Stadium history.

Going back to K-dramas, the most-watched drama series in the Philippine television history, the 2001 Taiwanese drama Meteor Garden spawn a sequel and adaptations by other networks including the Korean channel KBS in 2009. The Korean adaptation of the drama was crazed by Asians. Having equal success to Meteor Garden, the 2002 Winter Sonata produced by the Korean channel KBS2 attracted a cult following in Asia. The sales of Winter Sonata’s merchandise which includes DVD sets and novels surpassed US$3.5 million in Japan. Winter Sonata marked the initial entrance of the Korean Wave in Japan. Other K-dramas such as the 2004 Full House saw a comparable level of success.

Along with the merchandise and tourism, the South Korean film and television programs earned $1.87 billion dollars in 2004 according to the government figures. In 2012, the Hyundai Research Institute estimates that the total value of the Korean Wave to be $2.3 billion dollars and this is just in the media and entertainment category.

The breakthrough for K-pop came with the debuts of TVXQ in 2003, SS501 and Super Junior in 2005, and the early success of BIGBANG in 2007. Aside from the K-dramas and K-pop, the Korean cuisine also became popular. The increased popularity of Korean cuisine is the side effect of this tourism boom of South Korea. Korean restaurants started opening in Sri Lanka and Bhutan to satisfy the demand in these countries.

Hallyu on Social Media

South Korea really took advantage of the 21st century digital technologies and social media. Social networking sites (SNS) and user-generated content (UGC) sites such as YouTube enabled fans across the world to interact with South Korean pop culture. The number of fans and fan clubs are overwhelming and still growing. The popular boy band BTS contributed largely to the growing number of fans and fanbases.

Korean pop music stars or idols consistently top the music charts throughout Asia. In 2002, Korean singer “Rain began his career and quickly became one of the most recognized singers in Asia through both his acting and singing talents. In 2005, Rain’s concert drew more than 40,000 fans in Beijing, China. In the next year, after his concert, Rain became the first Korean pop star to have performed in Madison Square Garden. You can say that his popularity has already reached the Pacific during this time. He had two sold-out shows. He was voted as one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time Magazine. Rain was often presented in the media as the face of the Korean Wave.

Psy’s music video “Gangnam Style” went viral in the years 2012 and 2013, it had a dedicated and growing global fanbase. It was the first YouTube video to reach a billion views.

YouTube has been a vital platform in the increasing international popularity of K-pop, reaching a global-wide audience. Started from merchandises, Korean products has since grown its popularity too. Korean cuisine and cosmetic products are two of the most recognizable features of South Korean culture overseas.

The Love for Korean Products & Brands

When Korean skincare products have gained widespread popularity, South Korea since then had the largest beauty companies in Asia Pacific Region which are the Amorepacific and LG Household & Health Care. One of the largest markets  for Korean cosmetics has been China. Korean products have also become popular in Singapore. In Cambodia, because of growing popularity of K-pop, it then led to the influx of Korean beauty products into the Cambodian market. Korean cosmetic and skincare products have also become popular in Thailand, Malaysia, and Japan among other countries.

A lot of stores in some parts of Asia now sell clothing, cosmetics, and DVDs that cater to fans of Korean pop culture. The widespread of K-pop and K-dramas have led to the encouragement of the widespread imitation of Korean fashion. This has then led to a halo effect encouraging also the sales of Korean products like cellular phones and flat-screen TVs.

The Korean brands have been emerging in the international market. Brands like  Samsung and LG have been the forerunners in creating world class brands in the consumer electronics industry. In 2017, the ranking by Interbrand of the world’s top 100 brands put Samsung as the 6th brand in the world with brand value of USD 56.2 billion. LG has also been known as a brand of repute. In the car industry, Hyundai and Kia are also making their names. There is a similar revolution in the car industry as to the electronics industry. Hyundai is touted as one of best quality cars in the market and is competing head on with the Japanese giants Toyota and Nissan. These industries have also been a great driver to the global emergence of the Hallyu effect.

South Korean exports emphasize superior quality, cutting edge designs and a contemporary feel for their products and services. That lead to the popularity of Korean brands across the world. Increased investment in research and development in creating products of superior quality has been established. Similarly, the entertainment industry also produces entertainment products like movies, music, soap operas that have been described as having excellent production quality.

It is no doubt that the South Korean movies now are of Hollywood production value and quality. The country has then focused on quality which has enticed many new customers and helped sustain the popularity of movies, music and soaps, which are the main products driving the Korean wave. In 2016, the television series “ Descendants of the Sun” was aired. The series has enjoyed immense success across Asia. During the two months it was aired, it gained 1.1 billion views. The increase in in the quantity and quality of movies, music and soap operas has helped sustain the growth of Hallyu.

Taking advantage of the success of Korean movies and series, the entertainment industry has been very proactive. Because of the growing popularity of Korean stars, the Korean Tourism Organization has made the best use of this huge interest in Korea by offering very attracting tour packages to tourists. The packages involve trips to shooting locations of famous soap operas, movies and series.

In addition to movies, Korean pop music by Korean music bands have also skyrocketed across the last decade. You do not need to be a K-pop fan to have heard of bands like Big Bang, Super Junior, PSY, Girls’ Generation, Twice, Blackpink and BTS. These are just some of the South Korean idols that have cumulatively sold millions of records worldwide. Today, there are at least more than a hundred K-pop groups with huge online presence. These groups have a combined number of fans nearly a hundred million in the world. This number speaks volumes about the explosiveness and the way that Korean pop music has proliferated the globe in the last 15 years.

The Role of the South Korean Government

Korea is one of the few countries in the world that has a Ministry of Culture. This is the ministry that focuses on Korean pop music, fashion, mass entertainment, comic books, cartoons and other key products. This division is referred to as the Cultural Content Office. The budget for this ministry is USD 500 million, of course, with the aim to build a USD 10 billion cultural industry export industry.

Because the Korean Wave has sustained and grown for how many years. The challenge will be on to how to carry it into the future. Novelty and newness have been the two of the main reasons for South Korea’s popularity to explode across the region and ultimately across the globe. The Korean government has since shown great maturity in handling this Korean wave however sustaining it over long periods of time will truly be a challenge they have to overcome in the future.

Innovation has been the greatest success driver to many Korean movies, music bands and soap operas. Korean producers have to be innovative not only in the themes and stories but also in the creative execution to continue to lure viewers across South East Asia. This is easier said than done given the enormity of the task at hand. South East Asian countries are all unique in themselves. Though soap operas like Winter Sonata was able to tap into the underlying common emotions and become hugely successful, it is open to discussion as to how long can Korean producers can continue to do that.

The main players in the success of Hallyu have been the popular Korean stars like Girl’s Generation Yonsama, BoA, Bigbang, and others. These celebrities have emerged as regional superstars with major companies – local and international – choosing them as their endorsers. The movies, soap operas and the various commercials are milking their popularity to a great extent. This may lead to an over-exposure of these celebrities. As the success of upcoming movies and soaps depend on these stars to a large extent, diluting their brand equity and image through over exposure would not be a very good idea. At the same time, controlling this over-exposure will be a great challenge for everyone involved from producers, companies to the celebrities themselves, as each one of them will want to maximize the star power.

The Korean government has been actively participating and supporting the growth of Hallyu. With the Discover Korea Your Way campaign by the Korean Tourism Organization and other Hallyu-wood projects, the government will be called upon to invest heavily in the entire process. To sustain investing overall a long period of time and to see through projects thoroughly will indeed be a daunting task.

Korea really needs to tap on the massive potential of the Korean Wave. All in all, there is no doubt that Hallyu has catapulted Korea on to the global stage. Because of the intense international attention on Korea and its pop culture scene and its creative economy, it is imperative for the Korean government to leverage on all its entertainment and cultural products to drive the brand equity of South Korea as a country.

Brand Korea needs to be able to strike a balance between not over-commercializing Hallyu, but to market and build its identity in a genuine way. The growth of the Korean Wave over the past two decades has been a fascinating one, and it is still unfolding.

Moving forward, it will be interesting to see how Korea continues to innovate and tap on the massive potential and popularity of the Korean Wave to sustain its appeal to global audiences. Because of this, it could enhance the nation brand equity of Korea, and contribute to the continued success of the Korean society, economy and culture. South Korea has become big and will become bigger in more years or even decades to come.


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