“Korean Wave” Brings Asian Pop Culture to American Shores

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by Alex Forster
Girls’ Generation perform at an Intel Core Processor promotional event in Korea. Image used under Creative Commons license from http://anngabriel.egloos.com/tb/5425997

This past Tuesday on Late Show with David Letterman on CBS and Wednesday morning on LIVE! with Kelly on ABC, American audiences were captivated by performances from Korean pop sensation Girls’ Generation. The group, known as SNSD (소녀시대, So-nyeo Shi-dae) in Korea, is a major player in the Korean music industry. Between music sales and concert tours, as well as the licensing and sales of Korean dramas to foreign broadcasters, Korea’s entertainment industry generated $3.8 billion in revenue from overseas markets in 2011.

Riding on the popularity of Japanese animation in the 90s and early 2000s, South Korea entered the cultural export market with all pistons firing. The term “Korean Wave” was coined in 1999 by a Chinese journalist commenting on the recent influx of Korean music and movies into his country, but it wasn’t until 2003 that Korean dramas, the early driving force behind the Korean Wave, fully exploded onto the international market. Though the wave of dramas – known for their roguish protagonists and manipulative mothers-in-law – initially caused the greatest ripples in East and Southeast Asia, the advent of online streaming content has enabled a huge increase in followers around the globe over the last few years. This attention to one aspect of Korean culture also allowed others to flourish, as Korean pop music (K-Pop), Korean food and cooking, and even tourism to Korea also earned greater regard during the same period. The past few years have seen multiple Korean celebrities enter the American film and music industries on the laurels of their successes in Asia. In 2009, the girl group Wonder Girls released an English-language single which debuted on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart – the first ever Korean group to accomplish the feat. In 2011, BigBang, a boy band, saw their album Tonightreach the top ten on the US iTunes digital downloads chart. The surge in Western interest in the genre motivated Billboard to start a new chart exclusively for K-pop in August of last year.

Exporting its cultural assets is a booming business for Korea, and the figures are increasing annually. The presence of Korean stars in the American entertainment industry is certainly not bad for business, either, as American films with Korean actors tend to do exceptionally well in the Korean market. For example, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009), which starred popular Korean TV and movie star Lee Byung-hun in a major role, earned more than 10% of its total overseas sales in South Korea alone. In the same year, Ninja Assassin starred Korean singer and actor Rain as its protagonist. Over 26% of the movie’s overseas earnings came from South Korea, equivalent to roughly 7% of its total revenue. Furthermore, the presence of a Korean music idol in the movie brought it significant attention in other Asian markets where the Korean wave has made an impact. Of Ninja Assassin’s top nine foreign markets, six of them were in Southeast Asia. The figures become even more revealing when considering the relative populations and cost of the average movie ticket in the various nations in which it profited.

Seoul is a major cultural and financial center. Image used under Creative Commons license from VancityAllie on Flickr.The economic strength of the Korean Wave has not escaped the notice of South Korean government officials. This video by the Seoul government uses multiple music groups and iconic locales from Korean dramas to promote tourism to Korea. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade announced in its 2012 policy brief that promoting the Korean Wave abroad would be a major aspect of its mission for the coming year. While Korea is already a known global force in manufacturing and electronics, it is seeking to expand the amount of soft power it wields by leveraging its cultural assets to gain Korea increased attention and visitorship, along with the tourist revenues that entails. Having already hosted a G-20 summit in 2010 and the 4th High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in 2011, and now gearing up to host the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit, Korea is also hoping to use this exposure to attract millions of tourists and their millions of dollars to the 2012 Expo in Yeosu. Between the Expo this year and the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang in 2018, there is likely to be significant coordination between government organizations seeking to promote their events and pop stars looking for more exposure in diverse markets. It is a symbiotic relationship that stands to benefit the Korean government and the pop groups, as well as proving profitable for both foreign and domestic investors in the country and the sponsors of the events. US companies always invest heavily in the Olympics and given the environmental theme of the 2012 Expo, American green technology companies stand to gain widespread recognition if the visitor turnout is high.

Though pop culture is notoriously fickle, global interest in Korean popular culture shows no sign yet of decline. With new dramas and fresh-faced singers emerging regularly, there is certainly not going to be a shortage of complex plots to follow or tricky dance moves and lyrics to memorize any time soon.