Culture from the Far East: Why is South Korea’s culture so popular in the West right now?

Whether fashion, music or film: South Korean culture is becoming more and more popular in the West. Series like “Squid Game” or bands like BTS inspire an audience of millions. Why is that only?

Nine years ago, in mid-July 2012, a slightly overweight man with a black gel mat and sunglasses published a song on the Internet that almost everyone in the world has heard since then. On YouTube, “Gangnam Style” – a hilarious and cheerful music video – has received more than 4.2 billion views and over five million comments as of today. One of them is: “Without realizing it, we’ve been listening to K-Pop since we were seven years old.” Countless people around the world grew up with the South Korean hit by the artist PSY. But few will have guessed at this point that something is coming from Korea.

Today this something has long since arrived. It bears the name “Hallyu” and translates as something like “Korean wave”. The term roughly describes the worldwide increasing enthusiasm for Korean food, for music, film, fashion and art. This wave started years ago in Asia. But the cultural brand is also in Europe South Korea meanwhile very popular.

The Netflix series “Squid Game” is currently causing a sensation internationally

When the South Korean director Bong Joon Ho appeared on the stage in Los Angeles in February of last year, he looked perplexed. His film “Parasite” had just won four Academy Awards for best film, best director, best international film and best original screenplay. “Thank you – I’ll drink until the next morning,” said Joon Ho at the award ceremony. It was the first time ever that a foreign language film won in the “Best Film” category, a turning point. And a milestone in South Korean popular culture. But “Parasite” is by no means the country’s only cinematic export hit.

A scene from season 1 of the Netflix series “The Squid Game”.

Photo: dpa

The Netflix series “Squid Game” is currently causing a sensation internationally. With around 111 million fans, it is the streaming provider’s most successful production to date. “Our biggest series start of all time,” wrote the company recently on Twitter. The director? A South Korean. A second season? Done deal.

South Korea is also gaining ground in the fashion world

And then there is music in South Korea. It’s a real industry in the country. One that is increasingly being heard abroad. Hardly anything is left to chance. It is not uncommon for ten years of state-sponsored auditions, image search and strategy consulting to pass before a K-Pop band – the K stands for Korea – comes into the public spotlight for the first time. Abroad, bands like BTS and Blackpink are associated with Korean pop music. They tour all over the world, their songs have English names, and they have already topped the US charts. That is not by accident. Some of the song compositions are very similar to western radio hits.

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The South Korean K-Pop band BTS performs the song “Permission to Dance” in a recorded message that was played during the UN General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York.

Foto: Richard Drew, dpa

South Korea is also gaining ground in the fashion world. In Milan, Paris or Berlin it is easy to think of yourself as the avant-garde, the ultimate in the fashion industry. Karl Lagerfeld recognized the potential of South Korean megacities early on. He came to Seoul for his Chanel cruise show in 2014. That strengthened self-confidence, Korean fashion designers in Europe and the USA have long been welcomed with interest. Korean labels such as Lie by Chung Chung Lee and Greedilous by Younhee Park appear at fashion weeks around the world.

For the West, Korean culture is alien, but tangible

How is it that Korea’s cultural goods are becoming increasingly popular in the western world? A call to You Jae Lee, Professor of Korean Studies and Managing Director of the Korean Studies Department at the University of Tübingen. He says he cannot really explain the phenomenon of the past ten years. But he has different assumptions. “Series like Squid Game or films like Parasite hit a nerve abroad,” says Lee. In Korea, on the other hand, they are not that popular. It is probably similar with fashion or music: “There has to be a code that speaks to people abroad.”

Korean cultural export that is also successful in the West: the film “Parasite” (left) received an Oscar.

Photo: Koch Film, dpa

For the west, the Korean one Culture alien, their contemplation a “consumption of the alien,” explains Lee. As a capitalist and industrialized country, however, Korea is not so alien that it seems daunting. In addition, the Korean cultural market is organized very competitively and capitalistically. Companies invest a lot of money in the cultural sector. Korean popular culture is not just a state-sponsored product, says the professor. Certainly there are funding for music and film here and there. “But only to a limited extent, and that also exists in Germany.”

Korean language courses are more popular than ever

In a representative ranking of the culturally most influential countries in the world, South Korea ranks seventh this year. Ascending trend. The country is well aware of its current hype. “It is very much noticed,” says Lee, “it is a very good advertisement for the culture.”

This is underscored by figures like these: The company “Duolingo”, which offers online language courses, announced at the beginning of October that since the start of the “Squid Game” series in September, 40 percent more users had registered for Korean courses in the United States than in the same period last year. In Germany, too, says Lee, interest in Korean has increased tremendously – regardless of the Netflix production.

And the professor himself notices “Hallyu”, the Korean wave, in this country. For example, because more and more people want to study Korean studies at his university in Tübingen. Lee says: “We can now only accept a quarter of the applicants.” That was very different at the beginning of the course ten years ago.