The Korean Wave: Its Origin, Present Success and its Future

In 2008, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, in partnership with the East Asia Institute, published a groundbreaking report on soft power in East Asia based on public opinion surveys conducted in China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia and the US.[1] While the report focused on the rise of Chinese influence in the region, its finding draws attention to details about the contemporary power dynamics found among major East Asian countries, pushing forth a clear statement that economic power does not equate to cultural power. Even though China and Japan continue to be the dominant economic powers of the region, South Korea was ranked higher in terms of its perceived cultural and social influence, highlighting the unusual dynamics of soft power and its implications for geopolitical affairs in the region.

“Soft power,” a term coined by Harvard professor Joseph Nye in his now famous book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, comprises a variety of factors that together determine the degree of attractiveness of a country, accounted for by the popularity and influence of its culture, education, values or ideas. The cultural dynamics found in the survey are unusual in several regards, but particularly so in light of the historical direction of cultural influence in East Asia. For millennia, such influences generally originated in mainland China, passed through the Korean peninsula, and arrived in the Japanese archipelago. Comprehensive analyses of the recent trend and identification of the causes of this popular perception of Korea remains largely deficient; evidence for it, however, is abundant.

The explosive growth of Korean cultural exports around the world has led to the coinage of the term Hallyu, which translates into English as “Korean wave.” Hallyu, which genuinely took off in the mid-2000s, now caters to a broad audience in places as far from Korea as Central Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. Dae Jang Geum, one of the most popular Korean shows to be aired both domestically and internationally, has been translated and dubbed to over ten languages[2] and aired in over twenty countries,[3] including Egypt and Peru. The show gained a 57 percent viewer rate in Iran, and captured 9 percent of prime-time viewership in China, where top ranking series usually manage to rack up at most about 3 percent of the audience.

The popularity of Dae Jang Geum warrants attention, not only because it heralded the Korean Wave in dramatic serials, but more importantly because it embodies the uniqueness of popular Korean drama, nearly half of which are rooted in Korean history and heavily imbued with nationalistic sentiments. Dae Jang Geum, for instance, follows the life of a 15th century Korean royal kitchen apprentice who is expelled after having been accused on engaging in a conspiracy but patiently plans her comeback against her aristocrat enemies through her persistent hard work and subsequent recognition from the royal medical court. Given the culture-specific and perhaps even provincial content of Korean TV series, the question then arises: how do Korean cultural products manage to translate over borders, time, and language barriers?

The popularity of Korean cultural exports in regions mentioned seems to present a deviation from the gravity model, which the economists use to predict trade flows between a pair of countries based on geographical distance, relative land mass, market size, as well as cultural measures such as linguistic distance, religious affiliation, and colonial relations. Korea does export its largest volume of cultural goods to its immediate geographic neighbors, with whom it shares strong cultural and historical ties; out of 594 shows produced and exported by MBC (Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation: Korea’s leading television channel and producer of TV shows) between 2002 and 2005, nearly half went to Japan, followed by Taiwan and China.

Cultural dissimilarities among these countries, however, should not be glossed over. Even though Chinese, Korean and Japanese languages have at one point or another employed Chinese characters to transcribe their languages, Korean and Chinese grammar bear no relationship. The Korean language bears some grammatical similarity to Japanese, but sharply it differs in origins. Similarly, while a significant portion of the modern Korean population professes adherence to Christianity, religious affiliation in Japan and China paints a stark contrast.

Cultural connection grows even more tenuous as Hallyu travels further down the Pacific Rim and traverses deeper into the Eurasian continent. Other major importers of Korean TV series, such as Vietnam and Singapore, have little shared history with Korea, as is the case with Malaysia, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The success of both historical series like Dae Jang Geum and modern series such as Winter Sonata, in spite of the high cultural discount[4] they face, attests to the need for reexamining the traditional boundaries of culture to understand the popularity of Hallyu. One study done by The Korea Contents Association found that critical examinations of the message embedded in Korean TV shows, can help explain the success of Korean cultural exports.[5]

This alternative interpretation focuses on the social norms and demographics of the audience in importing countries. For instance, a large portion of drama serials taking place in contemporary Korea follows a repertoire in which the poor triumph over the powerful through hard work and a pinch of luck—a scenario that fosters hope for social mobility and can appeal to the audiences in developing countries. Also central to the plots of Korean drama series is the portrayal of unconditional and selfless love, which often manifests itself in personal sacrifice in face of the impending death of a terminally-ill loved one, which can speak to the audience without using suggestive motifs which are often poorly received in countries with conservative social norms. In a similar manner, countries where multiple generations share a household (which is common in the developing world) and kinship networks remain strong, prime-time TV shows are likely to be viewed by family members of varying age, in which case age-specific content will not fare well.

As such, even though Islamic 20th century Iran and Confucian 15th century Korea may seem to share little in common, the two societies may resemble each other on the emphasis placed on the respect for the elderly, and the values attached to loyalty and scholarly pursuits. Such an interpretation helps us understand the appeal of the Korean Wave, and its ability to span traditional boundaries of culture, particularly since individuals no longer identify themselves strictly along the lines of language, ethnicity or religious affiliations.

Given the idea that the emergence of the Korean Wave nevertheless relies on some sort of cultural affinity, why is the Korean Wave happening now and not earlier? Undoubtedly at the center of this sudden peak is the improvement in the overall quality of Korean TV shows, as manifested in the greater degree of sophistication and variation in plots and investment in costumes and sets, which has been made possible by a booming economy that has allowed for increased in investment in the entertainment industry; spending here rose from $8.5 billion in 1999 to $43.5 billion in 2003.[6] This surge helps explain recent successes, but can also suggest future challenges: With sustained economic growth both of itself and other countries, Korean cultural products can hope to capture a larger audience, but so can the products of its neighbors, some of which are growing at a faster rate. The development and advancement of the entertainment industry in less developed parts of Asia, the Middle East and Latin America may pose a challenge for future Korean cultural exports, especially since the popularity of Korean dramas and other cultural products so far have not been based on a carefully calculated consideration of the taste of its global audience. As countries develop and become capable of producing their own TV series, Korean TV series will be met with the challenge of customizing its shows to cater to its target audience.

If these concerns focus on uncertain future contingencies, imminent and tangible issues already face policymakers in Korea. The aggressive expansion of Korean TV series abroad have not gone unnoticed by foreign governments, which have their own set of objectives and often feel the need to protect the local culture. The Chinese government, for instance, has already taken the step to limit the number of showings of Korean dramas, and its Ministry of Propaganda has accused Korea for advancing “imperialistic designs” on China, both actions reflecting the growing concerns over the impact that Korean cultural imports have on Chinese culture. Also, should the Korean Wave continue to attract a larger audience in different countries, foreign governments might demand imports by the Korean market, which has a long tradition of restricting foreign goods of any kind.[7]

If the success of Korean cultural export goods were viewed predominantly as an opportunity to exercise greater cultural and social influence and as a means to benefit from foreign revenues, it is also having unintended internal consequences. The popular reception of Korean culture abroad has contributed to the steady increase of tourists who visit Korea to see the drama sets, eat Korean food featured in the shows, and experience the culture first-hand. Similarly, a positive image created abroad is also encouraging long-term immigration—and with a burgeoning economy in need of labor, Korea is faced not only with the reality of, but also the necessity for, immigration. While much of labor migration is attributed to the economic opportunities created through Korea’s rapid growth, the positive portrayal of Korean society on TV can only help in instilling a favorable perception of, and a sense of familiarity with, a country where one can hope to study, find work, or to even find a husband (through broker agencies).

Hallyu is thus perhaps contributing to the influx of foreigners that is reshaping not only the demographic pattern, but is also challenging Korean people’s traditionally held beliefs about and attitude towards race relations. Both subtle and outright inhumane discrimination against people of color are routinely reported in South Korea, and the Bath House Case in October of 2011, in which a recently naturalized ethnic Uzbek woman was denied entrance to a bath house on the grounds of the danger of spreading AIDS, serves to show that Korea has a long way to go to cope with its prejudice and stereotypes. For a country that has maintained one of the most homogeneous populations in the world, the changes brought about by the Korean Wave and economic development will undoubtedly spell serious social, economic and quite conceivably, political consequences in the years to come.

[1] David Shambaugh and Christopher B. Whitney. Whitney, Soft Power in Asia: Results of a 2008 Multinational Survey of Public Opinion. Asia Soft Power Survey 2008 The Chicago Council on Global Affairs

[2] Arabic, Cambodian, Chinese, Hindi, Hungarian, Japanese, Laotian, Persian, Thai, Turkish etc.

[3] Australia, Canada, China, Colombia, Egypt, Hong Kong, Hungary, India, Iran, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, Peru, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sweden Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, the United States, Vietnam etc.

[4] Cultural discount refers to the idea that products strongly imbued with culture-specific content are more difficult to sell over cultural boundaries.

[5] Moon-Haeng Lee, “Study on Characteristics of Korean Drama Exports to 8 Asian Countries,” Suwon University, 2007.

[6] Norimitsu Onishi, “South Korea Adds Culture to its Export Power” The New York Times 29 June 2005.

[7] Since the outset of its encounters with the West, which took place under the de facto rule of Heungseon Daewongun, Korea has persistently exhibited protective trade policies, and the cultural industry is not an exception. This trend continues to date.


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