In this first in a series on the Korean Wave, or hallyu, The Diplomat investigates the history behind the phenomenon.
What are the roots of the Korean Wave—the remarkable global rise in popularity of South Korean pop culture over the past decade? Analysts I’ve spoken to agree the trend began in the late 1990s in Taiwan, where the unexpected popularity of a politically endorsed hit dance music group called Clon sparked an interest in Korean pop and then Korean TV shows. The interest and fanfare surrounding the latter soon spread to China and Japan, among other places, and through the early 2000s fanned out as far as India and the United States (and even Iran—I’ll be talking about this more on Monday.)
So why did it take off in the first place? Jung-Bong Choi, assistant professor of Cinema Studies at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, told me that the Korean Wave was likely given a boost by economic circumstances. In the mid-1990s, South Korea’s rhetoric and foreign policy shifted from being somewhat isolationist to pro-globalization—Korea was opening up to the world.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Jung-sun Park, professor at California State University at Dominguez Hills concurs, writing on hallyu in the book Korea at the Center: Dynamics of Regionalism in Northeast Asia: ‘The South Korean government’s growing attention to the genre of pop culture is largely motivated by nationalistic intention, that is, the expansion of South Korean cultural and economic influence in the Asian region. This outward-bound, expansionist new nation-building effort in the globalizing era was first vocalized in the early 1990s in the name of segyehwa (usually translated as globalization although the term/concept often encompasses broader globalization discourses).’
She also elaborates on how this shift toward globalization at the time is specifically connected to the rise of hallyu:
‘During the economic crisis in the late 1990s (Korea) had to go through the major “restructuring processes” for its economy and society imposed by the International Monetary Fund. Having recovered from the economic crisis, the South Korean government in the early 2000s was ready to reposition Korea in the world and (hallyu) appeared to be a timely symbol for a new position.’
But as Choi points out, it wasn’t just about the money—there were political developments that were underpinning the changes. He notes, for example, that the regime change that took place in the 1990s, following a long period of military dictatorship in South Korea, ‘really opened up a new age of liberal expression and deregulation and people buying things—and creativity.’
‘Everything was politically censored or self-censored by artists or the media to that point, and then all of a sudden people started expressing stored emotions that were curved during this long period of oppression,’ Choi told me.
He told me that this change was fueled by the democratic movement that took root in Korea throughout the 1980s and early 90s. ‘Ordinary citizens became artists of their own. This, combined, with the regime change, brought about the renewal of TV programmes, music and the cinema in Korea—it was the cultural consequence of political change,’ he said.
Jung-sun Park, whose work on hallyu has been widely cited, told me that it’s important not to generalize on the trend, because it’s such a remarkably diverse and complex topic. However she suggests that in the US, the phenomenon likely started thanks to the promotion of Korean pop culture by Korean-Americans and students studying abroad.
In addition, as Park has noted in the Korea Herald, the increasing availability of Korean pop cultural products, helped by the increased speed of information sharing through improved technologies and development of transportation, really helped the trend take off by reducing the distance between Korea and Korean-Americans in both a physical and also a psychological sense.
In Japan meanwhile, one show in particular is seen as having been behind the way the trend took off there—hit TV drama, Winter Sonata (2002).
Michael Shin, professor of Asian studies at the University of Cambridge, recalled to me the start of the phenomenon in Japan from his own experiences traveling through Asia in the early 2000s:
‘I don’t think it was until Winter Sonata (2002 Korean drama) that hallyu really took off in Japan. I remember up until then in Tokyo’s Narita airport, you couldn’t exchange Korean money. Throughout the 1980s and early 90s, none of the banks would accept Korean currency. They developed all these electronic dictionaries, but they didn’t have a Korean-Japanese one—until the Korean Wave started. It’s an interesting puzzle because if you look at the pattern of the Korean Wave, different dramas are popular in different countries.’
Shin, a Korean-American, was in South Korea at the height of the democracy movement in the 1980s. He told me it was the excitement of being there at the time that really sparked his own interest in delving into Korean issues more:
‘There are a lot of Korean-Americans of my age and generation who went into Korean studies…many of us started going to Korea in the summers and we would see all of these demonstrations and then I was here in 1987 when they had the massive demonstrations that led to the overthrow of the military dictatorship. And it’s a cliché, but you felt like you were witnessing history being made, and it was intoxicating to see that.’
It’s this idea of a sense of energy that I’ve found to be a recurring theme with the people I’ve spoken to on this subject, and I’m looking forward to sharing more of this next week when I take a closer look at some of the issues associated with Hallyu and its enduring popularity. What had its roots in part from a sense of change has, as Choi told me, fueled Korea’s cultural ‘renaissance’ of the mid-90s.