How South Korean Hallyu and Pop Culture Wowed the World

From Squid Games at BTS, the made in Seoul is everywhere. What is South Korea’s recipe for making a soft power who is behind Hollywood? We tell you.

Korea is the new Hollywood? K-dramas, K-cinema, K-comics, K-food… Korea irrigates all fields of world culture, to the point where we now speak of K-nation. Having become essential and iconic, the products of the South Korean cultural industry are omnipresent. But how a country brought to nothing by World War II and decades of Japanese rule could be reshaping the contours of la pop culture ? Some elements to understand this mystery.

The mystery of the hallyu: a little history

Since the 1990s, cultural products made by Korea have been exported on a massive scale, first to its Asian neighbors, later to Central Asia, Africa and Latin America. Baptized hallyu, (literally korean wave) by a Chinese journalist, the phenomenon does not seem to be waning.

“The French often have the impression of a spontaneous generation, as if overnight Korean pop culture had been parachuted among us … But all this is the result of a long process” explains Didier Borg, seasoned entrepreneur passionate about Korea from South and founder of Delitoon, a webtoons broadcasting platform in French.

In the 1950s, after more than 40 years of Japanese occupation, South Korea is bloodless, reduced to nothing by the Japanese cultural genocide and among the poorest countries in the world. Since then, South Korea has been plagued by a tremendous appetite, a desire to rebuild something, coupled with a more intangible feeling, the they have. The difficult term to translate encapsulates a sense of collective suffering and anger linked to the Japanese military occupation. The envy of a cultural influence of South Koreans would be in part attributable to this national trait: how to ensure no longer under the yoke of foreign powers?

The turning point of the 2000s

In 1997, the South Korean president nearly suffocates: the movie Jurassic Park has generated as much revenue as one of the flagships of its industry, the Hyundai company. The government then takes a decision that will weigh heavily on the country’s destiny: from now on, South Korea will focus on the development of its cultural industries.

“For this, Koreans are imbued with what they consider to be models of success,” said Didier Borg. From the Americans, they borrow the conquering dimension, the mechanics of soft power and the ability to produce content that crosses all borders. To the French, the political will to defend culture and its ecosystems. In the shaker South Korean thus finds itself a strange mixture: the glitter of Hollywood and the political action, with in particular the creation of the statute of intermittent of the spectacle.

From the 2000s, South Korean state notes with amazement that the appetite for korean products, and in particular the K-dramas, crosses the borders of Asia to extend to the world. For journalist Ophélie Surcouf, author of the book Why Korea? , the Korean state would have mostly surfed on the impetus of entrepreneurs and creators, who “just wanted to do things. According to her, it is a posteriori that thehallyu would have been conceptualized, going so far as to be cut into hallyu (hallyu 1.0, 2.0, 3.0 …) according to the different export waves. But anyway, it all started with les K-dramas

The magic of K-dramas: romances against a backdrop of youth and beauty

“It is the consumers who are fans of romantic comedies who have made the bed of the hallyu thanks to their appetite for K-dramas from the first hour, spiked content to positive messages. Closer to Bollywood than to American series to which we were fed, these dramas from the end of the 90s are steeped in clichés and logics of couples that do not correspond to us. Cultural appreciation was therefore not evident in Europe, but it worked very well for example in Asian territories, in Hindu and Buddhist countries as well as in Muslims. And especially in China, where they were perfectly calibrated to pass the filter of all censorship, ”reports Didier Borg.

With this safe entertainment, thees K-dramas transport viewers into a soft and padded universe that does not exist, contrasting radically with violent or over-sexualized American programs.

In 2007, Jewel in the Palace attracts 90% of audiences when its 54 episodes are broadcast in Iran. Celebrated in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, the series, which chronicles the adventures of a young working-class girl becoming an apprentice cook at the royal palace, marks a turning point for the hallyu. In 2014, My Love from the Star has over 2.5 billion views online in China, directly following the legacy of the first wave of K-dramas featuring young, rich and beautiful heroes, as with Winter Sonata (2002), a blueberry telling the story of a love triangle.

From rose water romcoms to morbid thrillers

Over the years, K-dramas have diversified and have attracted a larger audience.

The arrival of cable in the mid-2000s partly explains this change. The latter allowed the insertion of advertisements, hitherto prohibited on public channels. The revenue boom is reshuffling the cards and producers are trying their hand at other genres: thrillers, police, adventures …

In 2016, strangely, it is geopolitics that will give new impetus to the deployment of K-dramas. Outraged by the Thaad’s deployment, the American anti-missile system deployed on South Korean soil to counter threats from North Korea, China, the main consumer of K-dramas, blocks all imports from South Korea. The country loses the main customer in its industry and is forced to find other markets. Under the benevolent gaze of the state, the studios are in full swing.

Netflix had already captured South Korea’s creative potential. Since 2015, the platform has hosted programs – series or films. “The crazy success of the series Squid Game is just the most massively visible adoption by Europe and the United States of this type of program, but there have been many others before, ”emphasizes Ophélie Surcouf.

Obviously, the violent cynicism of Squid Game no longer has much to do with the very sleek aesthetic of first-gen K-dramas. “Today we produce a lot of very critical content towards our country,” underlines Jinah Kim, doctoral student in sociology of the arts at the University of Paris III. The series Squid Game Where D.P, inspired by a webtoon recounting the journey of a soldier who had just joined the army for his military service, reveal the tensions of an unbalanced society. Still obligatory for South Korean men, military service lasts a year and a half in Korea and causes a series of suicides. Showing this kind of thing is not a problem for the State, which sees in this the way to interest the world in South Korea … ”

K-pop enters the dance

In a context of soft power, les K-dramas would therefore play the role of an appeal product. “People enter Korea from a vertical, whether it’s K-dramas or K-pop. It’s like a thread that you pull, before falling into the pot ”, laughs Savannah Truong, founder of Kick Café, a place dedicated to K-pop lover in Paris.

And after the dramas, it’s K-pop’s turn to export massively. “The South Koreans go there vertical by vertical, with method,” observes Didier Borg. In 2010, French K-pop fans were to demonstrate in the streets of Paris to extend a concert; in Seoul, YG production house, who alongside SM Entertainment and JYP Entertainment give it a go in Korea, begin to take an interest in European and North American markets.

Taking advantage again of an organic impulse, the State supports the movement. “When BTS sings at the UN, it is an eminently political act to express to the world what modern Korea is, a Korea that carries humanist and ecological values,” recalls Didier Borg.

Pali pali: creating cultural products like we produce iPhones

Is there a recipe for the success of Korean products? Part of the success undoubtedly lies in the high standards of its industry. “If that doesn’t work, they stop,” observes Didier Borg. Where the French are part of a logic of conservation and perpetuation, the South Koreans place themselves in a dynamic of market and test and learn. It is very telling that the KOCCA, the equivalent of our CNC (National Center of Cinematography) does not use the term “culture” and prefers that of “creative content“. Where we French rely on our heritage to create culture, they will try to make something new by drawing inspiration from what works.” An analysis shared by Ophélie Surcouf: “They are not afraid of go get inspiration elsewhere and mix the inspirations to pass them to the Korean mill. ”

Another key to success, industrialization of processes. “They are not going to create a Michael Jackson, but a thousand,” says Didier Borg. K-pop groups are mass-produced from meticulous market analyzes, and production houses go so far as to speak of “generation” of groups, as with iPhones … “The production house SM Entertainment has, for example, designed an approach to shape the chain of idols perfect, pop music stars, based on dance lessons, singing and languages ​​(English, Japanese and Chinese). And the recipe works, as evidenced by the international successes of groups like BTS, Blackpink or NCT.

A country that handles tech like no other

And South Korean pop culture also takes well abroad, it is also because the country knows brilliantly how to make use of technology. It is undeniable, the country cultivates a pronounced taste for technology. “Korea has the highest Internet speed in the world, three times faster than France, 5G is already commonplace there,” says Jina Kim. But above all, technology is always integrated into the products of pop culture.

As proof, the very popular Weverse application, designed by Hybe, parent company of BTS production house. This platform condenses multiple functions: follow the news of its idols, access to exclusive content, exchange with other fans, and of course buy all the derivative products.

The Korean Dream

In 2021, South Korea is undeniably exciting the imagination. So is there a Korean dream like a American Dream ? No doubt, and he could perhaps supplant the latter.

To post-war European homes, the American dream promised the comforts of modernity. Today, the Chilean middle class dreams of flying to Seoul, convinced that by dint of hard work and sacrifice it will be able to afford a better life in this new El Dorado. “This is quite the ethos of BTS, ex-underdog of K-pop, which by dint of hard work has risen to the rank of world superstar, ”recalls Ophélie Surcouf.

” Most the korean dream, it is above all the possibility of leaving one’s own culture, explains Didier Borg. I can annihilate my identity for the benefit of another, and transcend all distinctions, of gender or ethnicity, and regroup with others around the culture of another country. We are on the verge of inventing a new religion, ”laughs the entrepreneur. Maybe that’s it after all Korea Mania. The fantasy of a better world.