The Korean Wave or Hallyu refers to the rising cultural economy of South Korea exporting music, TV dramas, movies, cosmetics, online games, and Korean cuisine, etc. It is a Chinese term that means ‘Korean Wave’ to showcase the phenomenal growth of Korean popular culture. Soft power tactics as coined by Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye, have been used by the country through this wave to enhance their image.
An important factor that contributed to the circulation of Korean dramas was the Asian financial crisis of 1997. Many Asian economies came under the control of the International Monetary Fund during this period, including South Korea which was bankrupt. Korean media corporations attempted to sell their local content in foreign markets to make profits, and Asian buyers bought these as they were not expensive and relatable for Asian audiences. The dramas were rooted in the Confucian value system, including the importance of family, obedience, and respect for one’s elders. This made them attractive to Asian audiences.
Contemporary modern life experiences among Asian communities were strongly tied to each other in terms of shared cultural meanings. People in the same geographic region watching the same telecasted images can envision the ‘imagined community’ as elucidated by (Anderson,1983). The imagined community is a socially constructed community whereby people who don’t necessarily meet each other face to face, still feel connected to the people of a nation. Here values of ‘Asianess’ bind these communities together. Another aspect is the authenticity of the dramas. US cultural imperialism impacts pop culture and products globally. K-pop combines the global and local (glocal) heavily inspired by American Pop but modified to give the music a unique local Korean spin. It has the power to make fans want to learn more about the music, about the industry, and about the country, it came from. Korea capitalised on these very aspects and Japan, China, Taiwan, and Hongkong were among the largest importers of these programs.
The Hallyu phenomenon has had an immense impact, contributing to 0.2% of Korea’s GDP in 2004, amounting to approximately USD 1.87 billion. More recently in 2019, Hallyu has an estimated USD 12.3 billion boost on the Korean economy. The convergence of music and diplomacy has bolstered South Korea’s economy through concerts like those of BTS, increasing fans’ interest in the country to study Hangeul/Korean studies as well as boosting tourism.
Rise of Hallyu as a Bilateral and Diplomatic Tool at the World Stage:
The Korean Wave’s impact has been stark among East Asian nations. South Korea was formerly colonized by Japan. In the 1900s Japanese men who initially travelled to Korea were mostly business agents. According to Hirata (2009) Kisaeng tours (prostitution tours) were popular where these business agents travelled to Korea to have sex with Korean women, facilitated by Korean companies via under table arrangements to promote business deals. Since this was a great tourist attraction the perception of Korea by the Japanese was an inherently imperial masculine view, where sexual slavery of native colonized women prevailed. Eventually, with the rise in K-dramas, a lot of Japanese women were attracted to the ethnic and authentic values propagated, facing a ‘nostalgia’ for a pre-modern and pre-capitalist Japan, before the Meiji restoration and its drive to westernize. They even started visiting the locations where the dramas were shot hence changing the tourist perception of the country to a nostalgic feminine view, from a nation with an active sex trade to a site of cultural richness and values.
According to Iwabuchi “After having been colonized or overshadowed by its neighbours, Japan and China, for centuries, Korea finally has the chance to outdo them on the cultural stage”. Korean pop culture overtook Japanese pop culture from 2004 onwards, which was a significant victory for Korea to turn the tables on its colonizer.
K-pop has enjoyed a large degree of funding from Chinese investors. Chinese conglomerates like Alibaba have invested in SM Entertainment which is a major producer of Korean pop music. Chinese venture firms have also provided capital for Big Hit Entertainment which was the company that gave rise to the popular boy band BTS. Hence in terms of a business strategy to support its cultural ventures, South Korea has managed to tap into the Chinese market. In fact, EXO, who has a big fanbase in China, joined President Moon in his first official state visit to the country.
In 2017, a dispute over a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system led to a state sanctioned ban on importation of K-pop and K-dramas into China. THAAD is an anti-ballistic missile system that was signed between Seoul and Washington to secure Korean airspace. President Xi Jinping saw this as an obstruction to him establishing regional hegemony in the area and hence blocked Korean pop culture from entering the country. This led to South Korea expanding its market into more countries like Thailand and Philippines . It also signifies the huge role soft power plays alongside military sanctions.
The United States is South Korea’s most critical foreign policy partner. It helps counter China’s dominance in the region as well as any tensions with its former colonizer Japan. With the US as Japan’s primary military ally, it can be a mediator when Japan and Korea fall on opposite sides of an issue. It also helps counter any threat of regional destabilization from North Korea. For the US countering China and asserting a presence towards Russian and Japan remain important motivations to support South Korea.
While K-pop hasn’t made that much of an impact comparatively compared to other countries, it has entered middle eastern markets with its focus on conservatism and familial values. This indirectly keeps Korea in US’s good books as the US has many middle eastern allies. In 2014 Psy’s “Gangam Style” increased favourability for K-Pop in the US by 64%.
Korean beauty products have found significant success entering the American market, even shifting it. K-Beauty, as these products are called, is an economic powerhouse that is not only generating significant revenue for Korean cosmetic industries but also establishing and cultivating a standard of beauty that is leveraging soft power through attraction and co-option. Consumers in the United States are increasingly adhering to new Korean standards of beauty. The South Korean government has been efficacious in cultivating an industry that Americans have bought into. From 2013 to 2014, a store called ‘Korea Cosmetic Bliss’ opened in New York City, selling Korean cosmetic products which became popular.
Last year Tik-Tok users and fans of Korean pop music claimed to have reduced the attendance of Trump’s rally in Tulsa, Okla by playing an online prank. K-pop fan accounts shared information to encourage users to register for the rally and then not show up. BTS fans also claimed to have raised 1 million dollars post-George Floyd’s death with the hashtag match a million. Hence not only have South Korean products impacted US markets, directly and indirectly, they have also affected its internal politics.
Peninsula reunification has been an active agenda in both North and South Korea’s foreign policies. K-Pop has contributed to this particular objective by cultivating a pan-Korean identity internationally, that posits Korea as a unifying cultural force. This achievement has tried to counter the common narrative of viewing the Korean peninsula as impoverished and war-torn. In 2015, prominent members of the South Korean government and the K-Pop industry did come together in a music video organized by the One K Global Committee called ‘One Dream for One Korea’. Participants in the video included members from K-Pop groups like Exo, BTS, Got7, and Red Velvet, including PM Moon Jae.
In the 1960s action entertainment war films supported anti-communist propaganda by the government. In 1965 the Ministry of National Defense issued regulations supporting military related films. In 1966 an award for the best anti-communist film was added to ‘Daejong Film Awards’. While this was subsequently abolished, Korean war films have evolved from propagating anti-communist propaganda to films that promote nationalism and patriotism.
Descendants of the Son is a prime example of how the Ministry of Defense has actually aided patriotic nationalism by portraying the ROK armed forces in a positive light. The extent of the support includes military equipment like helicopters that appeared in the drama, and military facilities such as Camp Greaves (an American military base after the Korean War which was returned to Korea in 2007) were used as shooting locations. The Ministry of National Defense conducts content checks and then supports works deemed to enhance the image of the Korean military. For example, the first episode of the drama begins with a scene in which the main character fights with his special forces unit against the North Korean Army to rescue a comrade detained in North Korea. In the next episode, ROK Special Forces are depicted as superior to the US Army Delta Force.
While anti-north propaganda does persist in such dramas, this particular show also hints at reunification and mutual peace between both countries, contributing to both countries’ foreign policy agendas.
BTS has been invited for the 75th UNGA assembly making it the first boy band to be invited by the UN secretary general to talk about ‘youth education and empowerment’. BTS was also involved in the Love Myself campaign started by Unicef to encourage fans across the world to spread kindness and do good deeds.
In the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics EXO’s Baekhyun and VIXX performed at the opening ceremony. Here the idea of South Korea representing multilateral institutions and international events is apparent. Further, in 2021 BTS was nominated for the very first time for a Grammy, which they didn’t win but nevertheless, made it to the ‘Best Pop Group’ category. Parasite won 4 awards at Academy awards in 2020 and created history by becoming the first non-English film to win the best picture. Both Korean movies and music are now being recognized at international film and music awards.
Wedged between two military giants, the wave has been used by South Korea to enter into the markets of both Japan and China and carve a niche position for itself in the East Asian region. While the wave has been used to increase South Korea’s standing as a rising eastern power, it is yet to challenge the soft power of superpowers like the United States. The American Dream, Hollywood movies, Apple iPhones, Coca-Cola are some of the significant soft power tactics that influence populations globally. Korea will have to delve deeper to not just sustain but leverage its soft power position to continue to build the same, both in East Asia and worldwide.
Diya Narag is a first year LLB student at Jindal Global Law School interested in the intersection of human rights and policy-making.