Catching the New Wave

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Cultural flows have proved more multi-directional than commentators could have imagined

The English-speaking world has dominated global pop culture for as long as anyone can remember, but when it comes to the wave of South Korean cultural exports, we suddenly find ourselves two steps behind everyone else. The term Korean Wave, or Hallyu in Korean, was coined from the Chinese characters han liu in the late 1990s, and has since taken off as a description for the increasing popularity of South Korean film, television and pop music.

And yet when PSY’s anticapitalist parody music video for Gangnam Style went viral in 2012, you would have been hardpressed to find a British person who could tell you what the K in K-Pop, the now ubiquitous term for South Korean pop music, stood for. Fast forward to 2020, and Bong Joon-ho’s dark comedy Parasite became the first foreign film to win Best Picture at the Oscars, and K-Pop frontrunners BTS scored their second Number 1 album on the UK charts with Map of the Soul: 7.

The enduring hegemonic position of the American cultural industries must be acknowledged. But cultural flows in the 21st century have proved more multi-directional than mainstream commentators could have imagined. Korea’s cultural achievements are especially remarkable given the country’s tumultuous history. In the 20th century it endured 36 years of Japanese colonial rule, ending in 1945, followed by national division and a civil war that left both sides devastated.

The poorest countries in the world, depending on US aid and lagging behind its northern neighbour until the 1970s, when its fortunes turned in what is dubbed as the “Miracle of the Han River”. This period of fast-paced economic development under the authoritarian rule of General Park Chung-Hee came at great cost to the working class, whose anger at the exploitative and repressive regime led to a powerful movement for democracy in the 1980s and 90s.

This movement was shaped by a Minjung or people’s culture, drawing on the collective creativity to produce radical art, literature, theatre and film. The Korean Wave emerged from the Asian financial crisis in 1997, then president Kim Daejung, a veteran of the democracy movement, made the decision to shift the country’s export focus from heavy industry to technology and culture.

Some have attempted to frame Hallyu as an accidental success. But this disregards the millions invested by the state into new entertainment companies encouraged to direct their focus towards profitable foreign markets. By the time the West woke up to Hallyu in 2012, K-Dramas and pop music had already spread across Asia. Explanations put forward to account for the positive reception of Korean television often hinged on the theory of cultural proximity.

This suggests, for example, that because Asian countries share certain family values, viewers can empathise to a greater degree with Confucian themes. But there are limitations to this theory. Leaving aside the fact that notions of Asia as a culturally homogenous entity are reminiscent of Orientalist ways of thinking, cultural proximity does not explain Hallyu’s popularity in the West. One buzzword among industry insiders is ‘glocalisation’, the art of selecting familiar elements from American, European and Japanese pop culture and repackaging them as Korean, before re-exporting it as something new and exciting.

This process is far more complex than simply imitating American bubble-gum pop. Musically speaking, it usually means speeding up beats while retaining a softer, ostensibly more feminine tone in the vocals. Other elements of the industry’s success are well documented, including intense training regimes for artists, investment in the high production value of music videos, and so on. Drawing inspiration from the Japanese aidoru system, K-Pop ‘idols’ are expected to be all-round talents in order and maximise interactions with fans.

K-Pop has developed alongside the internet, and now traditional face-toface ‘fanmeets’ are largely being replaced by Instagram livestreams. Product placement means that K-Pop is one giant advertisement for Korean beauty products, fashion brands and food, leading to a surge in demands across the world.

Since the establishment of a more democratic system in the 1990s an growing number of films and books that address the collective trauma left behind by the 20th century have become mainstream. But for the most part, K-Pop and K-Dramas present a lighter, more sanitised version of Korean culture, still subject to censorship around the portrayal of sex, drugs and swear words — one feature that makes it attractive as an alternative to American pop.

There is, however, a darker side to the K-Pop industry that relates to the exploitation of its young stars in the form of “slavery contracts” which demand adherence to gruelling schedules, strict control over private lives and, at least at the beginning of an artist’s career, low financial rewards. The expectation to maintain an unrealistic body weight and plastic surgery is reinforced by cyberbullying on social media.

The toll this produces on K-Pop stars’ mental health was exposed by the tragic suicides of three well-known idols: SHINee’s Kim Jonghyun, F(x)’s Choi Jin-ri (Sulli) and Kara’s Goo Hara. Last year saw several high-profile Korean boy band members convicted of sex crimes including molka, the distribution of unconsented sex videos via online chatrooms. This, along with common reports of workplace sexual harassment has contributed to a growth in serious conversations about the misogynistic culture within K-Pop.

Korean women are fighting back — anti-molka rallies regularly see thousands on the streets expressing their outrage against the lack of an adequate response from the police and justice system. The #MeToo movement marked an important turning point in the struggle against workplace harassment. With an estimated one-third of Korean women undergoing plastic surgery as a result of rigid and homogenising beauty standards, many have vowed to “escape the corset” conditions and mental health protection.

The transnational, largely internet-based nature of the K-Pop fandom gives it a grassroots element that in some ways counterbalances the power of the entertainment companies. While K-Pop itself tends to reinforce traditional gender norms, its comparatively androgynous fashion and beauty trends have been co-opted by international fans to subvert societal expectations around gender and sexuality.

The progressive nature of the fandom has also directly influenced the industry. The first openly gay K-Pop idol, Holland, made K-Pop history with his debut in 2018 — and received a huge boost from international fans who crowdfunded his first mini-album.

In appealing to so many worldwide, K-Pop has enhanced the reputation of South Korea, acting as a form of ‘soft power’ when it comes to diplomatic relations. But China has not hesitated to use its position as one of Hallyu’s most important markets against the Korean government. In 2016, when the US installed a missile defence system in South Korea, China implemented a ‘Hallyu ban’ that hit the Korean entertainment industry hard. The Chinese government used this temporary break from K-Pop concerts and Korean drama to call on its own cultural industries to develop a more globally competitive edge.

With Chinese tech companies such as Huawei and ByteDance (owners of popular social media app TikTok) now taking over large sections of the global market, there is some speculation as to whether China could at some point become the next cultural powerhouse to emerge from Asia.

So for now, what is next for the Korean Wave? There have been debates on whether Parasite winning four Oscars is a one-off or a real turning point for the Korean film industry. Those who in the early 2000s that dismissed K-Pop as a passing fad have clearly been proved wrong, and now South Korea has become the first Asian country to successfully export all of its cultural products worldwide — including video games, which bring in far greater revenue.

It’s still unclear how the growing cultural power of China will affect its smaller neighbour. But the success of Hallyu reflects the emergence of new global cultural centres outside of the West — and that alone makes it worth paying attention to.