Over the past decade, an increasing amount of Korean popular cultural content, including television dramas, movies, pop songs, and their associated celebrities have gained immense popularity. This has happened not only in China, Japan and other East and Southeast Asian countries, but also in Iran, Egypt and Zimbabwe and others. News media and trade magazines have recognized the rise of Korean popular culture in the world, dubbing it the “Korean wave” (“Hallyu” in Korean).
The Associated Press reported in 2002: “Call it ‘kim chic.’ All things Korean – from food and music to eyebrow-shaping and shoe styles – are the rage across Asia, where pop culture has long been dominated by Tokyo and Hollywood.” According to Hollywood Reporter, “Korea has transformed itself from an embattled cinematic backwater into the hottest film market in Asia.”
Yet a few years ago, Korean popular culture did not have such export capacity, and was not even critically acclaimed by scholars. For example, The Oxford History of World Cinema, published in 1996, is alleged to have covered “every aspect of international film-making” but does not make any reference to Korean cinema, although it pays tribute to Taiwanese, Hong Kong, Chinese and Japanese films. Korean music was also ignored by researchers, as can be seen in the following comment in World Music: The Rough Guide published in 1994: “The country has developed economically at a staggering pace, but in terms of popular music there is nothing to match the remarkable contemporary sounds of Indonesia, Okinawa, or Japan.” The tremendous disparity between such evaluations as noted above and the recent success of Korean popular culture makes us become curious about the Korean Wave. Also, will this new development of cultural flow lead to a new stage in cultural exchange in Asia?
What is the Korean Wave?
For a start, the Korean Wave is indebted to the media liberalization that swept across Asia in the 1990s. The Korean Wave seemed to have found its beginnings sometime around 1997 when the national China Central Television Station (CCTV) aired a Korean television drama “What is Love All About?” which turned into a big hit.
In response to popular demand, CCTV re-aired the program in 1998 in a prime-time slot, and recorded the second-highest ratings ever in the history of Chinese television. In 1999, “Stars in My Heart,” another Korean television drama serial, became a big hit in China and Taiwan. Since then, Korean television dramas have rapidly taken up airtime on television channels in countries such as China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore which saw media liberalization beginning in the 1990s.
In addition, the economic crisis in Asia in the late 1990s brought about a situation where Asian buyers prefer the cheaper Korean programming; Korean television dramas were a quarter of the price of Japanese ones, and a tenth that of Hong Kong television dramas as of 2000.
Since its initial popular reception within the so-called pan-Chinese pop sphere (comprising China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Chinese communities in Southeast Asia) and Vietnam, Korean television drama gradually expanded its reach. Tear-jerker “Winter Sonata” was first broadcast on the Japanese NHK BS Satellite in April 2003, and was re-aired on the same channel in December the same year. On popular demand, NHK aired it for the third time, this time on its terrestrial network in summer 2004. Although it was a third run, and despite being aired on Saturdays at 11:10 p.m., “Winter Sonata,” favourably nicknamed Fuyusona in Japanese, commanded an average of 16-17 percent share.
In late 2004, the Korean television drama made a fourth run, a record for a foreign program, on the Japanese public broadcasting network NHK. This time, Winter Sonata was aired with subtitles instead of dubbing (which is conventional for imported programs), in compliance with the local fans’ demand to enjoy the drama with a “genuine Korean feel.” In particular, actor Bae Yong-jun’s fandom in Japan was such that when he visited the country in April 2004, about 5,000 female fans gathered at Tokyo’s Haneda airport to greet him.
When the popularity of Korean television dramas was gradually weakening in the pan-Chinese pop sphere, “Dae Jang Geum” (“A Jewel in the Palace”) ignited a bigger craze for Korean popular culture. “Dae Jang Geum” is an epic drama based on a real life story of a woman who rose from a lower class to become master chef in the royal palace during King Jungjong (1506-1544) in the Joseon dynasty. In May 2005, the show’s final episode became the most-watched television show in Hong Kong history with more than 40 percent audience ratings. Chinese president Hu Jintao and Hong Kong film stars including Andy Lau and Chow Yun-fat have publicly confessed that they are fans of “Daejanggeum.”
Korean popular culture has not produced another blockbuster TV drama whose popularity can be likened to “Daejanggeum.” So it is often claimed that the Korean Wave is almost dead in Japan and China. But the Korean Wave is now expanding to Europe, Africa, and the Americas. It was reported that when the Korean President Roh Moo-hyun visited Mexico in 2005, local fan club members of Korean actors Jang Dong-gun and Ahn Jae-wook sat outside of Roh’s hotel asking him to send these stars to Mexico.
When it was aired in Iran in early 2007, Dae Jang Geum recorded 90 percent audience share. In August 2008, when the originally planned “Daejanggeum” was canceled in Zimbabwe because of the broadcasting of the Olympic Games, there was a huge number of protest calls to the TV station to return to the original schedule. The station had to broadcast “Daejanggeum” instead of the Olympic Games. In December 2008, 4.8 million people in Zimbabwe, about a third of the country’s total population, applied to participate in the TV station-sponsored “Daejanggeum Quiz.”
The Korean Wave has another aspect of music. In the late 1990s, a regional music television channel, Channel V, featured Korean pop music videos, creating a huge K-pop fan base in Asia. In particular, the boy band H.O.T. topped the pop charts in China and Taiwan in 1998. The band was so popular that album sales continued surging for a while even after the band’s break-up in mid 2001. Following H.O.T.’s successful concert in Beijing in February 2000, many K-pop stars such as Ahn Jae-wook (who was also in “Stars in my Heart”), boy bands NRG and Shinhwa, and girl band Baby V.O.X. have held concerts in China, attracting crowds of more than 30,000 Chinese youth for each concert.
Korean singer BoA is popular throughout Asia. In particular, she is one of only two singers who have made their first six consecutive albums number one spot on the Oricon Chart, Japan’s equivalent of the American Billboard Charts. Rain (“Bi”), famous for his powerful dance moves, is arguably considered the most popular male singer in Asia. Although his fame is limited in the United States, tickets for his concerts in Seoul, Tokyo and Taipei are often sold out the moment they become available. Now, most of Korea’s top singers take their concerts to Beijing, Hong Kong and Tokyo and often record their albums in the local languages before marketing their albums in these countries.
The Korean Wave in film started in 1999 when “Shiri” was shown in Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, receiving critical acclaim and drawing large audiences. Since then, Korean films have become regular fixtures in cinemas across Asia. For example, among the nine movies screened on Aug. 9, 2003 at the cinema Cathay Cineleisure Orchard, Singapore, three were Korean films, including “Conduct Zero,” “Marriage is a Crazy Thing,” and “My Tutor Friend.” When the Korean film “Joint Security Area,” was opened in Japan on May 26, 2001, it became the first Asian import in the Japanese film market to be shown on as many as 280 screens. The success of Korean cinema in Asia has now spread to the Americas, Africa and Europe, with more and more Korean films are attracting theatergoers.
Major U.S.-based distribution companies such as Fox and Columbia have started to take Korean movies on board their global distribution runs. Furthermore, Hollywood studios are eager to buy remake rights to Korean films. For example, DreamWorks SKG paid $2 million for the remake rights to the Korean horror film, “A Tale of Two Sisters” in 2003. “The Uninvited,” the movie’s Hollywood remake, was released in Korea in April 2009. Director Steven Spielberg is currently in the development stage of remaking “Oldboy,” which won the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival.
Against this backdrop, Korean pop stars have become cultural icons in the region. One example is Ahn Jae-wook, who has commanded tremendous popularity in China, as evidenced by his clinching the number one spot in a poll of the most popular celebrities in 2001, surpassing even Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio who was still at the height of his global popularity. Korean stars have had a big impact on consumer culture, including food, fashion, make-up trends, and even plastic surgery. Their wide appeal helped BoA and Rain appear in advertisements for many brands. It is not uncommon to find young Asians decorating their backpacks, notebooks, and rooms with photographs of Korean stars. In the streets of Hanoi and Beijing, it is common to find young members of the “Korea Tribe,” or Koreanophiles, sporting multiple earrings, baggy hip hop pants, and the square-toed shoes of Seoul fashion. So popular are Korean actresses Lee Young-ae, Song Hae-kyo, Kim Hee-sun and Jeon Ji-hyun that it has been reported that their wanna-bes in Taiwan and China request their facial features when going for cosmetic surgery.
The growing popularity of Korean pop culture has more implications than simply earning foreign currency, especially considering that the country has had some diplomatic friction with its neighbours in the past. The Vietnamese still vividly remember that Korean soldiers fought against their Liberation Army during the Vietnam War. The Taiwanese have felt betrayed by Korea ever since Seoul suddenly severed its diplomatic relations with Taipei to establish new ties with Beijing in 1992.
In this vein, Korean pop stars have contributed to Korea’s foreign relations. In one instance, Korean actor Jang Dong-gun and actress Kim Nam-ju enjoyed such popularity in Vietnam that the Vietnamese even labelled them their “national” stars. The then Korean President, Kim Dae-jung, even invited the pair to the dinner he hosted for Vietnamese President Tran Duc Luong when the latter visited Korea in 2001. BoA, who made the cover of the French Le Monde in July 2002 as an icon of cultural exchange between Korea and Japan, was invited to the two countries’ summit conference in June 2003 in Tokyo.
The meaning of the Korean Wave
What political-cultural meaning can we elicit from the Korean Wave phenomenon on the international level? The U.S. historian Meredith Woo-Cumings once said that East Asia is “an area without an identity, a region incapable of imagining itself as a community.” For most Asians, other locales of Asia have long been the unknown. As U.S. communications scholars Waterman and Rogers called American culture “the common denominator” of popular culture in East Asia, most Asians have long referred the West for cultural consumption as well as for modernization. In the 2000s, we are consuming images originated from Japan, Thailand and Korea. The vitality of East Asian popular culture is growing, evidenced in the success of Japanese video games, television drama and anime, Chinese movies, Hong Kong and Taiwanese pop-music, and what is called the Korean Wave. These changes are meaningful for regional cultural exchanges that had long been denied their prosperity or existence by the dominance of hegemonic U.S. culture.
According to anthropologist Benedict Anderson, national identity is constructed through daily rituals of media consumption by which the readers and audiences imagine the media’s co-readers and audiences to be a part of the same commonality, although they will never know most of the other members. In the same way, we suppose that a growing number of audiences of pan-Asian popular culture may develop regional subjectivities and communal consciousness and even regard themselves as sharing a fraternity with other Asian audiences.
However, there are some limitations of such cultural consumption in Asia: Such dissemination of popular culture is largely market-mediated and oriented, serving basically commercial needs; the flow of popular culture in Asia is largely uneven; and it is unclear how much the Vietnamese consumption of Korean TV drama promotes understanding of Korean society, and vice versa. There are many cases in which mediated information of a certain society is often limited and flawed, leading to misunderstanding between cultures. These are questions that require more research. With due understanding of the nature of cultural exchanges in Asia, we have to make further efforts to find ways to promote more equal international communication in Asia.
The “Korean Wave” only laid the foundation for the “Asian Wave.” (Korea Herald)