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Hallyu: How South Korea’s Cultural Wave Became Global

Hallyu, commonly referred to as the Korean Wave, symbolizes the worldwide dissemination of South Korean popular culture, encompassing various forms such as music, television shows, video games, and even culinary delights.

Anadolu Agency (AA) underscores the transformation of Korean cultural products into components of state policies. The driving force behind this phenomenon is the utilization of soft power to bolster and propagate the Korean identity.

Admiration to fervent fandom

In the late 1990s, during a crisis, Kim Dae-jung, the ruling figure of South Korea, attempted various strategies to overcome it, capitalizing on the popularity of Korean dramas in Japan and China. Kim’s government aimed to invest in cultural products, a policy that was passed down to subsequent administrations.

Professor Mutlu Binark from Hacettepe University, who conducts fieldwork on K-Culture in South Korea, told AA that due to the affordability of K-dramas and their melodramatic narratives, interest in these dramas surged in Japan, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand in the late 1990s.

“Due to their affordability, the melodramatic structure of the narratives, and their reinforcement of traditional values and patriarchy, the consumption of these dramas in neighboring countries can also be interpreted as a cultural affinity,” Binark said.

The Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism of South Korea holds a special position in the implementation of these policies. The government implements cultural policies through special companies within the ministries to promote the dissemination of cultural products.

Ok Young-Ju, deputy chief of Digital Music at CJ ENM, the production company behind the award-winning film “Parasite,” mentioned that the company’s establishment was not directly supported by the government.

However, certain incentives, such as tax advantages for specific cultural projects and privileges like deferred military service or diplomatic passports, have become visible through state support. These incentives, along with credit encouragement and subsidies for entrepreneurs, contributed to the rapid growth of the industry.

“During the economic crisis, the South Korean government decided to transform the interest in Korean dramas into a form of cultural policy and investment,” Binark pointed out.

South Korea’s ‘grand strategy’

Consistently pursued and followed by successive governments, this policy has become South Korea’s “grand strategy,” Binark said.

While some experts in the field argue that state contributions are limited, million-dollar budgets and diplomatic privileges speak otherwise. Prime ministers and presidents themselves continue to personally promote this culture.

Established within the ministry in 1994, the budget of the “Cultural Industry” unit was 5.4 billion Korean won (KRW) ($4.1 million). In 1999, the unit underwent further development with the creation of sub-divisions including coordination for the cultural industry, film and video support, broadcasting and journalism, gaming and music, and cultural goods. The budget was then set at 100 billion KRW ($76.9 million).

In 2003, subsidies for cultural initiatives were increased. Former President Lee Myung-bak, also known for promoting Korean cuisine, prioritized cultural exports.

The government, which divided the Hallyu wave into three phases, targeted the global market, encompassing digital games, dramas, cuisine, and language, within the dominant realm of K-Pop.

Content enrichment efforts

In 2004, the budget for the “Culture Industry” was increased to 172.5 billion KRW ($132.8 million), and a new “Cultural Media” section was established. This led to the creation of two subsections: “culture industry policy” and “content support.”

In 2007, the ministry established the “Culture Industry Center” to coordinate these sections, with a budget of 197.7 billion KRW ($152.2 million). By 2012, the budget was further raised to 249.1 billion KRW ($191.7 million), along with a restructuring of the sections.

Within the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, several key organizations have played significant roles in shaping and implementing South Korea’s cultural policies. These include the Korea Creative Content Agency (KOCCA), the Korea Culture and Information Service (KOCIS), the Korea Foundation for International Cultural Exchange (KOFICE), and the Korea Film Council (KOFIC).

Binark emphasized that among these agencies, KOCCA stands out as the most important one. He stated: “Recognizing that Korean cultural content could serve as a form of export, there has been a strategic approach within the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism to establish agencies that sometimes change, expand, or narrow down in focus.”

He pointed out that under the umbrella of KOCCA, diverse subunits are encompassing all industries.

“There are various subunits that include internet comics, design, dramas, music, cuisine, graphics, and animations. This provides a range of opportunities to promote cultural content,” he said.

The 11th president of the country, Park Geun-hye, promised to prioritize “cultural enrichment” as a main goal of her administration and continued the state policy. The Park government aimed to diversify Hallyu content by continuing the efforts of the “Hallyu Culture Development Council” established by Lee.

‘Gangnam Style’

In 2012, PSY’s Gangnam Style song and its unique dance became known worldwide, with the music video garnering over four billion views on YouTube. The song was played even at the presidential inauguration where Park took over from Lee Myung-bak.

Korean singer PSY’s international success helped legitimize the Culture, Sports, and Tourism Ministry’s million-dollar grant programs in the public eye. The song spread like an epidemic, making appearances at birthday parties, graduation ceremonies, and TV shows. Through this song, K-pop gained successful exposure in the European and American media.

During these years of solidifying K-pop’s global presence, the same entertainment company’s group, BTS, also made waves. South Korean President Moon Jae-in awarded the group members the title of special cultural envoys due to their potential to generate income for the country.

Alptekin Keskin, a sociologist who works in the field of K-Culture, said that BTS became an example for Korean youth. He said: “Following their appointment as special diplomatic envoys, BTS went to the UN General Assembly with the president, delivered a 7-minute speech, and performed ‘Permission To Dance’ in front of world leaders. They shared this on various platforms like YouTube. These are the steps that reinforce, support, and strengthen a national and Korean image.”

Attendees of the 25th World Scout Jamboree enjoying a K-Pop concert during the closing ceremony of the 2023 World Scout Jamboree in Seoul World Cup Stadium in Seoul, South Korea, Aug. 11, 2023. (EPA Photo)
Attendees of the 25th World Scout Jamboree enjoying a K-Pop concert during the closing ceremony of the 2023 World Scout Jamboree in Seoul World Cup Stadium in Seoul, South Korea, Aug. 11, 2023. (EPA Photo)

Binark pointed out that direct financial transfers to companies are not considered, and support for independent cinema operates separately. He stated: “In the Korean drama industry, there is more investment support from local municipalities for promoting urban culture. The Korean government provides various forms of support for developing new ideas and training screenwriters in dramas.”

Binark emphasized that these supports are categorized under various headings, allowing for human resources and shooting location assistance, as well as foreign market support. He added: “Companies are making good use of these supports, keeping the existing interest alive. The (COVID-19) pandemic has led to incredible momentum in the creative content industry. While industries around the world were regressing, the creative content industry in Korea didn’t regress.”

“Korean cinema has followed the same path. Global capital is also showing interest in Korea. Netflix has chosen Korea as the center of all its investments in the Asia-Pacific region and has made two major studio investments in Korea,” Binark said.

Highlighting the expectations of Korean content becoming more widespread on global online platforms, Binark drew attention to the government’s initiatives.

He stressed: “The Korean government has announced incentive programs for the use of 5G, augmented reality technologies, and all these technologies in the music and creative content industries. They call it the ‘Digital Renaissance.’ The Korean government has allocated funds for this purpose, and companies are readily accessing and using these funds.”

Return on cultural products

Highlighting that South Korea’s content industry surpassed $10 billion in the first half of 2019, Keskin mentioned that K-pop, K-drama, and K-food particularly expanded onto platforms like Netflix during this period.

According to the Hyundai Research Institute, the BTS group generates an estimated $3.5 billion worth of economic activity annually. Around 7% of visitors to South Korea in 2017, approximately 800,000 tourists, stated that they visited the country due to their interest in BTS.

K-pop concert in North Korea

The situation reached a point where in 2018, the K-pop group “Red Velvet” performed a concert in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, upon an invitation from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. This marked the first time a North Korean leader participated in an event organized by South Koreans.

In 2019, South Korea garnered attention with the film “Parasite,” which was released on the digital content platform Netflix. The film won the “Best Picture,” “Best Director,” and “Best International Feature Film” awards at the 92nd Academy Awards. For the first time in Oscar history, a non-English film was honored with the “Best Picture” award.

Not long after, in 2021, the South Korean series “Squid Game” on the same platform achieved 63 million hours of viewing in just two days during its debut week.

Building on these successes, Netflix announced a $2.5 billion investment in South Korean content over four years.

Binark attributed the success of the Hallyu Wave to the organized agencies under the government that employ a quality and skilled workforce, utilize human resources, and their autonomy.

Source : DailySabah