Riding the K-wave: how Korean pop culture made a splash in the West

Squid Game is the culmination of the rapid growth of interest in Korean culture.
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Once one of the world's poorest nations, South Korea is now making waves with its pop culture exports. Emily Anderson explores a global phenomenon.

A hyper-violent, Korean survival drama might not sound like a recipe for a megahit. 

But when Squid Game premiered on Netflix, it wrapped its tentacles around audiences worldwide, smashing records and sending social media into a meme frenzy. 

The series garnered 111 million viewers in one month, eclipsing the racy period drama Bridgerton and securing The Crown as Netflix’s biggest new release ever. 

Despite all the hype, Squid Game isn’t just the internet’s latest obsession.  

The global boom of South Korea’s pop culture exports, a phenomenon referred to as “Hallyu” or the Korean Wave, has been building up for years.  

The growing presence of Hallyu

Hallyu can be seen everywhere, from Korean content gracing our screens, to catchy K-pop tunes filling our airwaves, and even K-beauty products lining our shelves. 

Xuaniss Lim, vice-president of the Korean Appreciation Student Association (KASA), said the breakout success of the boy band BTS signalled a turning point for Korean popular culture.  

“BTS was the one thing that blew up, and then it opened up a lot of pathways for both actors and actresses, and also other artists,” she said.

Riding the K-wave: how Korean pop culture made a splash in the West
BTS in 2019 Clockwise from left: Jin, RM, Jungkook, J-Hope, Suga, V, and Jimin. Picture: Wikipedia

“For films and TV, Train to Busan [2016] was the first one that got international recognition and then Parasite [2019] and now Squid Game, so it’s just little steps.”

KASA, a Monash University club, was established in 2015 as a “safe space” for students to engage in modern and traditional Korean culture. 

Ms Lim said the club has seen steady growth as people have become more interested in what was once considered a niche interest. 

“People are not usually just into K-pop  – there’s so many other aspects of Korean culture, and our club is here to teach them about it,” she said. 

Hallyu has also spurred an interest in learning Korean, with the language-learning app Duolingo reporting a sharp increase in new learners studying the language compared to last year.  

Meanwhile, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) revealed that it would be incorporating 26 Korean words into its latest edition.

“We are all riding the crest of the Korean Wave, and this can be felt not only in film, music, or fashion, but also in our language,”  the OED said in its recent announcement announcing the language additions

A boost for Korea’s national image 

By the end of the Korean War, South Korea was one of the world’s poorest nations – now it has the 10th largest economy.

Dr Sung-Ae Lee, a lecturer in Asian studies at Macquarie University, said this dramatic transformation didn’t come out of nowhere.  

Riding the K-wave: how Korean pop culture made a splash in the West
Train to Busan was a break-through horror movie.

“I think a major factor in the export success of the Korean Wave has been government support, a deliberate attempt to develop Korea soft power through the export of popular culture,” Dr Lee said.

The cultivation of soft power is largely about changing the image, cultivating Korean brand, and this has been quite successful.

In recent years, the Korean government’s “soft power” strategy has involved leveraging the nation’s celebrities and idols at diplomatic events. 

In September, BTS took to the stage at a United Nations sustainability event to deliver a heartfelt speech, plugging vaccines and addressing issues such as climate change.

Korean culture’s international appeal 

While the slick production values certainly add to the allure of Korean entertainment, Dr Lee said it was the storytelling that really resonated with audiences worldwide. 

“Although the society and social settings are Korean, the narrative forms are global,” she said.

At their cores, both Squid Game and Parasite are social critiques of inequality and capitalism, but Dr Lee said that Squid Game had proven to be particularly timely for audiences. 

Riding the K-wave: how Korean pop culture made a splash in the West
Parasite was the first foreign language film to win the Best Picture Oscar.

“I think the inequality of race and opportunity is a global problem made more apparent by the pandemic, so the pandemic seems to have produced the ready audience,” she said.  

When reality is as dark as it has been … people might turn to dystopian stories as a way of processing trauma.

Behind the choregraphed dance moves and flashy music videos, social commentary can also be found in many K-pop songs. 

The song Wake Me Up by B.A.P. portrays mental health issues facing younger generations, while MAMA by EXO explores the negative impacts of technology on society and relationships.

Ms Lim said K-pop brings something different to music than what Western countries have to offer. 

“There’s singing, rapping, dancing, all in one … people would say it’s manufactured, but we acknowledge the effort they put in to create this,” she said.

The power of representation

In a monumental moment for Asian representation, at the 2020 Academy Awards Parasite became the first foreign-language film to take home the Oscar for Best Picture. 

Just a few short months later, COVID-19 sent most of the world into lockdown, and reports came out detailing a rise in Asian hate crimes.

A study by the Australian National University found that 84.5 per cent of Asian-Australians experienced racial discrimination between January and October 2020.  

Dr Lee talks about anti-Asian attitudes.

“This survey shines an important light on the experiences of Asian-Australians, particularly in a very distinct moment in our history,” said the study, released in November 2020. 

According to Dr Lee, the issue has been bubbling beneath the surface for quite some time.  

I think the pandemic has only fuelled an already existing anti-Asian racism, providing a thin excuse to express it more loudly.

Dr Lee said that for media to have an impact on perception, it must depict society with a multicultural fabric and not typecast roles by ethnicity.

“Any account of gender or career is littered with sentences that begin with ‘she’s the first woman of Asian descent’ or something like that,” she said. 

“In an ideal world, ethnicity wouldn’t matter, and perhaps in another 15 years, we might be close to it.”

Riding the K-wave: how Korean pop culture made a splash in the West
Memes highlight the many issues facing Koreans of the “give-up generation”.

Why South Korea’s youth think their country is a living hell

The satirical term Hell Joseon began circulating on social media around 2015 before swiftly making its way into the mainstream media. 

The English “hell” was deliberately combined with “Joseon”, in reference to the Joseon Dynasty, a hierarchical kingdom that ruled Korea until the early 20th century. 

Hell Joseon embodies a growing sentiment among Korea’s youth that contemporary Korean society is unfair, corrupt, and hellish – much like the dynasty they supposedly left behind.

Intense academic pressures, ballooning debt, and fierce competition for jobs are just a few of the issues afflicting younger generations. 

The total amount of household debt in Korea has now surpassed the country’s GDP, and youth unemployment is skyrocketing.   

South Korea also has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. 

Some young Koreans mockingly refer to themselves as the “give-up generation”, with the socio-economic climate forcing them to forgo life events such as dating, marriage, and raising children.