By Ethan L. ‘25 and Allison H. ‘25
You have probably heard of the breakout hit TV series Squid Game, or perhaps the four-time Academy Award-winning movie Parasite. You have also most likely listened to a song or two by international sensations like BTS and BLACKPINK. In the past 20 years, Korean entertainment has taken the U.S. by storm. Whether it’s music or film, Korean media is growing more and more popular and universally appreciated. This outburst of culture and arts could have never been predicted, even 40 years ago. South Korea was just out of the Korean War and was one of the poorest countries in the world, only noticed for ‘exotic’ foods like Kimchi. Fast forward to today, Korea flourishes, with thriving high-tech metropolises, strong industrial and manufacturing bases, delicious food, and above all, a globally recognized network of entertainment. How did this happen? After the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, the Korean government decided that the nation as a whole should prioritize creating the world’s fastest internet connection and become the first non-English-speaking country to universalize its pop culture effectively. Utilizing that fast connectivity, all that was left was to find individuals with the time and talent to bring this vision to reality. Most entertainment companies in Korea were then created to handle all aspects of entertainment and production for idols, enabling celebrities to work on everything from PR to performances all under one label. In Korea, a K-pop idol refers to a member of a group or a solo artist. Once their production became more well known, other Korean industries enhanced the spread, allowing Korean entertainment and cosmetics, food, and video games to become more available beyond Korea’s borders. This constant overlapping between different economies is a huge factor in the popularity of Korean culture today. An example of this is how K-pop and K-beauty brands often collaborate by having idols endorse certain brands or products. This strategically influences K-pop supporters to purchase more K-beauty products and increases the likelihood of K-beauty fans becoming interested in K-pop.
So how did the ‘Korean Entertainment Wave’ hit America and many countries so hard? A lot of the answer lies within the advancement of social networking and video sharing platforms, which have allowed the Korean entertainment industry to reach a massive overseas audience and fanbase. Korean TV shows and films were able to gain recognition thanks to streaming services like Netflix, where viewers were more exposed to culturally diverse content. But this does not cover up the immense creativity and talent of Korean film creators and directors like Bong Joon-ho (director of Parasite, Okja, and Snowpiercer) and Hwang Dong-hyuk (director of Squid Game). They have created captivating stories that relayed emotion with the audience on a deeper level on the screen. Although there may be a language barrier between fully understanding Korean movies and shows, the recurring themes, well-filmed cinematography, and thought-provoking ideas connect to the worldwide audience. This is how South Korean shows like Itaewon Class, and Crash Landing On You, and especially Squid Game are predicted to surpass in popularity in shows like Bridgerton, The Witcher, and Stranger Things.
In the music spectrum, Korean popular music is another explosion of the Korean Wave. K-pop has become increasingly popular in recent years, and it doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon. You’ve likely heard of Korean girl and boy bands, and maybe you’ve even learned the choreography of their hit songs. Most of their success so far is attributed to their ability to appeal to young audiences globally. While neighboring countries such as China and Japan use social media platforms popular within their own countries and mainly advertise in-country, K-pop companies have always targeted audiences worldwide, incorporating trendy merchandise such as lightsticks and toys that draw in younger fans. Subsequently, BTS’s music success has a lot to do with the subject of its music. While many pop songs today are about relationships and love, BTS delves deep into pressing matters like anti-bullying, elitism, self-love, and mental health. Their ability to relate to a large audience and emotionally connect with their listeners while being humble and entertaining is a rare case these days in music.
Korean culture and entertainment continue to grow and spread. According to the Korean Foundation, there were 89 million Hallyu (Korean Wave) fans in 113 countries in 2019, which is constantly increasing today. The 38,000 square mile east Asian country of South Korea may seem small compared to the rest of the world, but its impact and influence on the globe today is immense.