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Korea’s Hallyu Boom?

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New Emissary

Korea’s Hallyu Boom?

Korean Wave has put South Korea on the map culturally. But has it brought economic gains for the nation?

In the fourth of our series on the Korean Wave, or hallyu, The Diplomat looks at the economic implications of the phenomenon.

Soft power: ‘The ability to obtain what one wants through co-option and attraction.’ (Wikipedia, 2010)

Hallyu, or the Korean Wave phenomenon, has helped put South Korea on the map as a modern Asian nation with much to offer culturally. But has it brought economic gains to the nation? And, if so, does the South Korean government acknowledge hallyu as something that has large-scale financial potential?

Jung-sun Park, a professor at California State University at Dominguez Hills, asserts in the book Korea at the Center: Dynamics of Regionalism in Northeast Asia, that the popularity of a country’s pop cultural products does indeed often have ‘significant repercussions in other industries and intangible arenas.’

She says that she also sees evidence that the South Korean establishment might have embraced the Korean Wave: ‘I think that some Korean government officials' interest and initiatives in cultural domains are related to the success of the Korean Wave,’ she told me. ‘At least, the popularity of Korean pop culture overseas opened their eyes to the new possibilities and power of pop culture.’

One of the best examples of an industry that has the Korean government paying attention would have to be the nation’s tourism industry, which has undoubtedly benefitted from an increase in visitors.

According to Park, since Korean dramas have gained mass popularity worldwide, more and more tourists are going to South Korea simply to ‘meet’ their favourite idols in the form of ‘fan-club meetings or observing their favourite stars making dramas or films’ or simply visiting shooting locations of popular dramas. Of course, such activities also encourage shopping and other kinds of sightseeing, giving a further boost to local economies.

I’ve mentioned earlier in this series the popularity of organized Korean drama tours amongst middle-aged Japanese women. In fact, the official Korea Tourism Organization now features on its website various domestic travel packages dedicated solely to TV drama-related tours. These include the daily Dae Jang Geum (Jewel in the Palace) theme park tour for around $30, or a longer 2-night 3-day Jewel in the Palace tour that includes visiting filming locations for $200.

Apart from the travel aspect, Park says that there are many other Korean products, from pop music and films to computer games, fashion styles, foods, cosmetics and electronics that have become popular internationally because they’re tied to the hallyu phenomenon. Some specific examples here include ‘Samsung cell phones, LG electronics goods and De Bon cosmetics,’ which have all ‘considerably expanded their market shares,’ since hallyu, Park says.

Another key cultural export that continues to grow in popularity worldwide is Korean cuisine, which Park told me seems to have had a particularly positive impact. Acknowledging this particular trend, the South Korean government has, along with the food industry, made an effort to further globalize Korean food by ‘experimenting with new recipes, cooking techniques, presentation styles and more,’ and promoting it overseas through various channels.

All this has been bolstered by the rising influence worldwide of youth culture. Contemporary young people in developed countries often want to be (and be seen to be) in the know when it comes to global trends and fresh and exciting new cultures. Think of young Chinese viewers of Korean dramas, for example, who with their country’s rapid modernization see that the forward fashions and urban lifestyles portrayed in Korean dramas might soon be within reach for them.

The potential in this demographic of consumers and fans hasn’t gone unnoticed by the entertainment industry in Korea as well, which has responded by establishing large-scale management companies and creating a star system that, according to Park, provides ‘organized and systematic training, promotion and image-making of entertainers.’ New techniques within the industry also include training foreign entertainers ‘before they begin their careers in their native countries so that they can perform in the “Korean” style,’ and ‘educating new talents with the regional or the global market in mind through language training (and) image making.’

But there’s something of a dark side to all this, according to Prof. Jung-Bong Choi of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Choi told me that in his view, hallyu has become a ‘sort of circus,’ with ‘a lot of economic interests involved.’ Indeed, he told me that the reason he became interested in studying Korean culture in the first place was because the rise of the phenomenon had made him ‘very angry about Korean intellectuals’ attitude toward hallyu because they were ‘largely into the nationalist ideology and trying to promote (it) as a powerful product.’

Choi said that in the mid-1990s in South Korea, there was a ‘sudden shift of rhetoric and entire policy to buy into globalization and a very mercantile spirit to sell the commodities.’

‘Because Korea was losing its competitive edge over China…competing with China in the manufacturing industry was a folly and so they had to gradually shift away from it and go more into a lucrative and profitable industry. That was, the culture industry and the IT industry. So hallyu in some ways, he implied, ‘was orchestrated by the state.’

Korea's Hallyu Boom


In my last entry on this series on Friday, I’ll look at whether the Korean Wave was actually manufactured and what the future might hold for it. 

Images: jingdianmeinv / Flickr (top), Pedro Pimentel (bottom).