The Power of Culture

Picture of By Cindy Zheng

By Cindy Zheng

Hallyu is nothing new. Deriving from Chinese, meaning “Korean Wave”, it describes the rise in popularity of Korean culture overseas, most often linked with K-pop and K-dramas. This phenomenon reaches so far back that it has already been named Hallyu 2.0 and Hallyu 3.0 for its new developments – so why would I go and re-heat this dish again? Well, not only does the current phase of Hallyu deserve a better title than ‘Hallyu 4.0’, the heights of this current wave have transformed into a hurricane.

South Korea is remarkable in many ways: it boasts the world’s fastest internet, places on top for liquor consumption, and Seoul, its capital, should be rightfully nicknamed The City That Never Sleeps, as its citizens are recorded to get less sleep than those living in NYC. However, the East Asian country has grown a reputation in recent decades for accomplishments in another area: its entertainment industry.

The Korean Wave was allegedly kicked off in 1998, when due to a national economic crisis, the president placed his bets on profiting from cultural export. Aided by subsidiaries, business conglomerates (also named chaebols) worked together with official institutions to ensure that cultural products would be successful worldwide, setting certain standards to ensure quality and competitiveness. The fruits of their labor are evident all over the world today.

From music to films to cartoons

Internationally, the most attention is currently diverted to the wave that Korean popular music is riding on. K-pop has been praised, documented, and analyzed in heaps. K-pop idols have broken down more than one barrier, on a national as well as global scale, achieving global top hits with songs and albums that are predominantly in Korean.

In the cinematic world, South Korea made history in 2020 when director Bong Joon-ho received both the Palme D’Or and the Oscar for Best Picture in 2020, the first time a non-English speaking film won for this category. This achievement has elevated the popularity of the already beloved Korean cinema to heights like never before.

The small screen, however, has enjoyed success that dates even further back. Although recently several variety shows, like the Masked Singer, have spread globally, the most fundamental part regarding television for Hallyu is Korean dramas. 

While K-dramas have been around for ages, their success has been amplified through streaming services making them more accessible than ever. Netflix has introduced more than 80 original Korean productions to their platform and recently invested $500million in Korean content. Other streaming services also jumped on the bandwagon, an example being Viki, an exclusive outlet for East Asian dramas, which capitalizes on the enormous following by turning them into translating and subtitling volunteers. 

South Korean media has also been able to utilize the digital sphere in other ways. A notable development being webtoons, comics that are published and read digitally. While the world may be more familiar with Japanese manga, the Korean counterpart manhwas, both meaning comics in their respective languages, has gained a lot of traction in recent years. The advantage of them being easily accessible online has led some to believe that South Korea could slowly be able to challenge Japan as the default comic powerhouse. 

What sounds like a little helpful application has become the catalyst for several major productions.

There are several platforms for this, Line Webtoon being the most popular outlet for international audiences. Webtoon apps allow creators to post and publish their stories, often with regular schedules and interaction tools that connect them with their audience directly. Readers are lured in through free access to high-quality content. What sounds like a little helpful application has become the catalyst for several major productions.

For television, but also film, more than 100 webtoons have already been adapted to the screen in the recent decade. An especially notable adaptation is Tower of God, a fantasy adventure that has been compared to the likes of Naruto and Dragonball in length and epicness. The series was notably animated by a Japanese studio, while the intro soundtrack was sung by a K-pop group, a nod towards its heritage that showcases how South Korean cultural products support and enable each other, one explanation for its reach.

Netflix has also made good use of webtoons, their very first production of a Korean series was based on the webtoon Love Alarm, and the streaming service has since planned many more series based on the digital comics. The productions also expand beyond South Korea as webtoon creators are from all around the world. An example is the comic Lore Olympus, a modern retelling of Greek Myths, penned by an American creator who has announced its production into a Netflix animated series. 

Hallyu in everyday life

The Hallyu Hurricane exceeds entertainment as the popularity of Korean media logically follows with a rise in demand for Korean products. For many consumers, the lifestyle and beauty ideals of South Koreans have already overshadowed local standards.

In skincare, trends like the 10-step-routine and glass skin made waves worldwide. Korean cosmetics are the second in consumer product exports, preceded only by tour products of K-pop idols.

The popularity of Korean food has also increased, rising about 20% in countries like the United States and India.

The popularity of Korean food has also increased, rising about 20% in countries like the United States and India. Specifically, national staples like Kimchi and Ramyun are becoming desirable overseas and Korean dishes like bulgogi, bibimbap and Korean BBQ are enjoying high demand. 

This development can be seen as a rather positive one – South Korea is one of the least obese countries in the world, something that can be influenced by diet. However, other trends in the country are deemed much less positive.

The dark side of Korean culture

Similar to other parts of the world, South Korea faces a mental health crisis, and has the highest suicide rate among OECD countries. This can be observed in the entertainment industry, with scandals relating to certain idols succumbing to industry pressures, but there are many influencing factors. An increasing number of voices have criticized the intense pressure put on South Koreans on academic and professional success from early childhood, alongside an internalized stigma of mental health in society

The education system is the target for much of the criticism. In a similar fashion with neighboring countries, it drills pupils to live to study, and many do so for up to 16 hours a day. This is connected to the overall achievement-oriented values in South Korea and East Asia in general, enhanced with the aim for perfection and conformity, which shines through K-beauty.

Many South Korean societal issues concern sexism as well. The country faces the largest gender wage gap in developing countries, and women have historically faced much workplace discrimination. In the music industry, this unfolds in the way that female idols are held to much stricter standards than male ones. Additionally, women face much stricter beauty ideals. With Seoul as the plastic surgery capital of the world, appearance is key in South Korean society, a part of the overall ambition for perfection. The perceived necessity of a specific kind of beauty makes even very young teenagers go under the knife.

Knowing that the society is also known to be one of the loneliest, an emergence termed honjok (“alone tribe”), the fear of being shunned by peers because of appearances might be more understandable. It is also one of the reasons for the popularity of Mukbang, as it makes eating alone less lonely. 

People are quick to dismiss foreign cultures for reasons that I have just stated – K-pop as a manufacturing industry of interchangeable artists, based on greed and sexist standards, K-dramas as soap operas that stereotype its characters and cater to impressionable female audiences, transferring impossible beauty standards. Nonetheless,  virtually every nation or culture suffers from worrisome standards like these.

Very similar patterns in Western countries are easily ignored, such as the equally pressure-loaded industry of competitive sports such as football in France, Italy, and Germany, next to the mass of questionable reality TV series and celebrities with their own beauty ideals spreading from the United States. However, all these do not suffer the same kind and amount of criticism, as they are already more established in western culture.

Looking ahead: The aftermath of a hurricane

We have now established the ways in which the world has grown more Korean, but there is still much to understand. For example, its comparison with similar cultural tides, from otakus to anglophiles, and understanding how it can be wielded as a soft power for a country’s image.

In my next article, I will explore this topic further, adding insights regarding political, economic, and societal effects. Looking into fandom culture, geopolitics, and industry events, let us understand what the power of culture can accomplish. After all, despite the destructive force that hurricanes are, they do offer the minor benefit of replenishment and balancing global heat. The Hallyu Hurricane might turn out to be a much-needed rain for the world.


Cover: Cindy Zheng

Edited by: Rita Alves

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