A Hallyu Hurricane [Part 2]: Power of Culture

Picture of By Cindy Zheng

By Cindy Zheng

Korean culture has become ubiquitous – from Kimchi to K-pop, Hallyu has made itself known in all places. But other than Korean products and content being more easily accessible, what else has it affected? How does having your nation’s culture explode into global popularity affect not only the country’s economy, but international relations? In the second article covering the Hallyu Hurricane, we investigate how the world has been and is affected by the storm, from soft masculinity to soft power.

Sometimes it’s the little, bizarre facts that make you question how much power culture can hold. Such as that it’s awfully coincidental how, right after BTS releases their summer hit “Butter”, sales of dairy product rose. Or that in Algeria, a country with no historical affiliation with Korea, using Korean phrases such as “Aigoo!” (Oh no!) or “Hajima!” (Stop it!) is becoming commonplace. It would be obvious to everyone that South Korea is doing pop culture alarmingly right – and how exactly they do so remains a mystery for many.

From trends to values

From a creator-standpoint, South Korea has facilitated some of the most interesting developments, particularly for YouTube. Just as the platform is continuously growing in the country, the ideas keep coming. Content like Mukbang and Silent YouTube are just some of the national trends that have been embraced and adapted globally. And Hallyu has enabled much more to be embraced, like an entire foreign language.

What shocks people the most about K-pop’s popularity is not necessarily the music or the outfits, it’s the language. Topping the charts with a non-English song has always been difficult – that songs in a language only roughly 1% of the world speaks are outselling English equivalents worldwide is mind-blowing. No wonder more people than ever are eager to learn Korean.

But most people in Algeria did not attend a language class, the majority just watched a lot of Korean content. So, if adaptation comes from observation, what else will or already has been weaved into global culture?

New idols, new ideas

One of the many appeals and a reason for much criticism in Hallyu, is its depiction of beauty. Specifically, male celebrities stand out in Western standards since the box of masculinity in the societal acceptance shelf proves to be much less narrow in South Korea. It shows how make-up, clothing as well as behavior between peers mustn’t reflect one’s gender.

The so-called ‘soft masculinity’ is embodied by K-pop idols as well as K-drama actors and is a stark contrast to the hyper-masculine image present in Western media. Some researchers already suggest that the traditional idea of masculinity for viewers is changing due to a possible cultivation effect of consuming K-dramas.

Much of this is deliberate, Hallyu has always been focused on spreading Korea’s cultural heritage. K-pop’s biggest figurehead, boy group BTS, often incorporate elements of their Korean heritage in their music and performance, in the form of classic Korean music or traditional clothing.

Around half of all foreign tourists in South Korea are accounted for by Hallyu, more than 7% in 2018 to the group alone.

Their power has been used wisely: They have been Seoul’s tourism ambassadors since 2017 and have an educational series on Korean language. And it seems to work: Around half of all foreign tourists in South Korea are accounted for by Hallyu, more than 7% in 2018 to the group alone.

Hallyu in numbers

It’s not only the tourism sector that’s been affected, Hallyu-related exports reportedly brought in $12.3 billion in U.S. dollars in 2020, a rise of 22.4% from 2018. In rankings, South Korea is the 12th highest in national economies of the world in 2019, and the 8th in export nations, the third even in Asian terms.

Other players have understood the ripple effect of Hallyu, as mentioned previously, Netflix has heavily invested in South Korean productions with the anticipation that Korean content will  make up to 17% of the company’s total revenue.

Furthermore, there are measures taken to ensure that the success is viable long-term. K-pop bands are becoming more diverse in their backgrounds to appeal to more audiences and mergers with companies beyond national borders are made.

Global effects through global approach

The last example shows how Korean companies have begun taking over foreign markets with more than just their own products. The company behind BTS, recently merged with the American label representing stars like Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber.

Naver, the Korean equivalent to Google, has bought Wattpad, a fandom-powered application similar to Webtoon (which is also owned by them), only that it focuses on novels instead of cartoons. This merger basically asserts their control over the market of online user-generated storytelling format, which has a monthly audience of more than 166 million people.

Of course, South Korea’s export power expands far beyond the cultural sector. The country is building almost half of the world’s demands in ships, while specializing in technology with players like LG, Samsung, as well as being one of the biggest car industries with the likes of Hyundai and Renault.

But it’s not those developments that make other countries worried. The cultural sector is regularly shaken by geopolitical turbulence. After South Korea deployed a U.S. defense missile system in 2016, China showed their stance by banning South Korean products, TV shows, even cancelling shows by South Korean musicians in China.

From wave to weapon: Hallyu as soft power

In another example of geopolitics, Southeast Asia has China and the U.S. currently battling over dominance in the construction of 5G networks for the area. To combat China’s dominance in the digital arms race, it was suggested that the U.S. could partner with South Korea instead, and the popularity of Korean culture proves to be a competitive advantage in Southeast Asia, a spike of so-called soft-power.

The term is coined by Joseph Nye and denotes a situation “when one country gets other countries to want what it wants” without deploying “the hard or command power of ordering others to do what it wants.” Put simply, it is about “winning hearts and minds.” It’s something definitely needed and found – South Korea with its tense political relationships and precarious location, has been described as the “soft-power mecca of the 21st century”.

While its translation into actual foreign policies is debatable, it certainly has ensured the spread and endorsement of Korean as a language, as a culture, and as a standard, all over the world. Even if culture does not equal change, it can be the first step.

It’s a step many take very seriously. North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un has called K-pop a “vicious cancer” which supposedly corrupts the younger generation. Its censorship is part of the political agenda, the consumption of South Korean entertainment is punishable by law. Hallyu has been called a ‘cultural weapon’ in North Korea, where it is referred to as nampung (‘Southern wind’).

Culture as a Trojan Horse

What may sound drastic is founded on serious consequences of Hallyu: In a South Korean study, nearly half of the questioned 116 North Korean refugees have stated that they consumed South Korean entertainment frequently. For more anecdotal evidence, several refugees have spoken out on its influence: Jang Se-yul, a former North Korean math professor stated he fled the country after viewing a K-drama. After being imprisoned for watching said drama, he was able to escape and decided to defect, especially after witnessing South Korea’s comforts in the series.

““I am sure these soaps have an impact on North Koreans, and I am the proof,” he said. “In the future, if they spread, they can even help foster anti-government movements. That’s why the North Korean authorities are so desperate to stop them from spreading.”

More than the depicted romances, the vision of a bustling country that strongly contrasts their current living conditions, one that is not only geographically neighboring, but share much of history and traditional culture, these things have motivated many. Jeon Hyo-jin puts it like this:

“Through the dramas, I learned how strange my own country was, how full of lies.”

The current war

Hallyu is by far not the first and surely won’t be the last country whose culture becomes well-beloved on a global scale. The fascination and subsequent obsession over one country’s culture is not particularly new. Many people, not only dictators, are worried about these developments. Some call the process of a country one upping another in promoting their local trends worldwide a pop culture war. And there is a certain consequential risk as in what amount of consumption of foreign culture can be considered a healthy amount for a country, or an individual.

For Hallyu, people that are considered too invested are called Koreaboos. It’s virtually the same as Weeaboos, people obsessed with Japanese culture to unhealthy levels, or Teaboos, the colloquial term for anglophiles, those whose admiration for England goes overboard.

It should go without saying that not every person listening to K-pop or developing a taste for Korean BBQ is a Koreaboo – most of them are not. If that were true, the large majority of people would probably be America-boos. All countries are part of and grew used to the Americanization that started back in 1907 and exploded due to high speed Internet and the power of many U.S. tech companies, something that’s continuously discussed with high scrutiny.

There will always be new cultural tides as well. For instance, a recent addition is increased popularity of African entertainment which, from music over fashion to tech, is on many people’s radar. The Hallyu Hurricane, however, is a notable divergence in many ways.

A cultural catalyst

Hallyu is kind of an in-betweener as of now, not as large as the acculturation of the U.S. on a global societal level, but greater than the more selectively adapted Japanese culture in certain niches. What stands out is that unlike the States or even the U.K., there is no political or historical pedestal that explains the source of their cultural influence. It’s more the other way around: South Korea’s cultural success, the Hallyu Hurricane, could prove to be the defining catalyst for their political future.

But it still might take a while for that. Another facet of having no precedent is novelty, which can lead to xenophobia in this case. Much of the criticism towards Hallyu is due to underlying racially charged patterns, or just pure racism, something we should deconstruct and leave behind.

It’s yet another reason why Hallyu’s impact might also not be taken seriously by many – partly because it’s a predominantly female powered fandom, and male ones suffer less from stigmatization. Fandoms of sports’ clubs usually enjoy more acceptance than the ones of K-dramas, whose image is housewives and soap operas.

Due to these many facets, Hallyu has even become a popular research topic – it’s the accumulation of globalization and digitization of a specific local culture, unprecedented in endless ways. Many people are curious about the country that is four times smaller than California, less than half the size of London, which has penetrated global culture in all possible areas.

So keeping in mind that culture alone won’t bring about regime change, it can make sales soar, economies prosper, and influence mindsets, even urging viewers to long for a different life. In the words of Geum Hyok Kim:

“Culture is soft, culture is light, but culture has power to distribute information to people. I believe in the power of culture.”

Cover: Seoul Nightview, by P. Onganankun (Unsplash)

Edited by: Andreea Rebegea

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