What Makes South Korean Pop Culture So Successful | Culture | DW

The game world is as colorful as the selection in the chewing gum machine. It is unthinkable that a threat lurks here – until the game starts and suddenly people die, by the hundreds. For the time being, the survivors had sheer horror written on their faces.

This does not reveal too much about the Netflix series “Squid Game”, one of the greatest successes in the still relatively young history of the streaming provider. The basic plot has long been known, after all, the series has triggered a global hype and has been widely discussed, both hymnically praising and extremely critical, because of the explicit scenes of violence.

The success of the production from South Korea is not a one-off, but rather the high point in a series of successful pop culture exports from the country.

Chart successes, literary prizes, film of the year

New albums by K-Pop groups like BTS or Blackpink top the charts around the world, and their appearances ensure fans screaming hysterically. South Korean literature wins international prizes, the writer Han Kang received the Man Booker Prize in 2016 for her novel “Die Vegetarianin”, the writer Kim Young-ha in 2020 the German Crime Prize for “Recordings of a Serial Killer”.

In 2019, Bong Joon-ho’s film satire “Parasite” caused a sensation and surprisingly won four Oscars in 2020, including for the best film of the year.

The Blackpink singers have been trained and cast over the years

The current success of South Korean pop culture, however, has a long lead-time. The term Hallyu, which describes the popularity and spread of contemporary culture from South Korea, also known as Korean Wave, was coined in the mid-1990s.

This wave first spread to other Asian countries. “Hallyu quickly conquered the Chinese market, but the industry has always looked to the USA, where it has suffered many failures,” says Michael Fuhr, managing director at the Center for World Music and research assistant at the Institute for Music and Musicology at the University of Hildesheim.

South Korea differed from other markets early on through its idol training system, says Fuhr, who is doing his doctorate on K-Pop and most recently worked with scientists from Liverpool and Seoul on a research project on fan culture in K-Pop.

Success with military drill

For years, the big entertainment groups YG, SM and JYP let children and young people go through a tough program to design girl and boy groups on the drawing board. Hundreds of young people train with military drill in 14-hour days in the hope of getting one of the coveted places in a group in the end.

At the end of the noughties, the Girls’ Generation group cast by SM Entertainment celebrated great successes in South Korea and Japan, but the international breakthrough failed to materialize, as did the boy band Big Bang, which was put together by YG in 2006.

In 2003 the movie “Old Boy” made for a respectable success, which Spike Lee re-filmed ten years later with Josh Brolin for the US market. That should hardly be necessary today.

A milestone for the final breakthrough, especially for South Korean music in the West, was 2012: The song “Gangnam Style” by the rapper Psy became a global hit, within a few months users clicked the video more than a billion times on YouTube, and it still has to this day there more than 4.2 billion views.

“Psy wasn’t a classic representative of K-Pop,” says Michael Fuhr, “but you saw for the first time in its success that the language was no longer an obstacle to an international hit.”

The video platform YouTube expanded the possibilities. Suddenly, record companies were no longer dependent on editors and broadcasters playing their songs or videos – the target groups could put together what they liked. Since then, digitization and social media platforms have developed rapidly anyway.

A complete package is sold

“The fans of K-Pop are well networked, the fan culture is very participatory and the industry knows how to serve it,” says Michael Fuhr. When composing the groups, care is taken to present the band members with different character traits so that as many young people as possible can identify with them.

The bands have to be present online so that the fans get the feeling that they are part of the lives of their idols, says Michael Fuhr. “It’s a package that is being sold.” As soon as the idols present themselves in public differently than the fans expect, the pendulum swings to the other side: Hateful comments and pressure have already driven some stars to suicide.

Seven young men standing in front of a cheering audience as a K-pop group

The K-Pop group BTS is globally successful, here at the American Music Awards in Los Angeles

The high production quality of music and videos also contributes to its success. “From a western point of view, what you see there is somehow new, but at the same time there is a recognition value,” says Michael Fuhr, referring to the well-known model of boy bands like Take That or the sophisticated choreographies at Michael Jackson.

“The western markets have had enough of US pop stars and the new is exciting, but at the same time not too strange.”

Imagery with video game aesthetics

The essential recipes for success of “Squid Game” also lie in the imagery. The colorful aesthetic of the series is particularly familiar to a younger audience from video games – and there is hardly a scene that is better networked globally than that of gamers. Word of mouth is said to have contributed significantly to the success of the series: When Netflix published the series, it started rather slowly. It was only when the first viewers were enthusiastic and recommended “Squid Game” that the nine-piece series became a sure-fire success.

The symbols worn by the guards in the series – circle, square and triangle – can also be found on the controllers of the game consoles. The gaming community is meanwhile exchanging views on Twitch and Tiktok, where there are countless parodies in “Squid Game” costumes.

Just like the South Korean music industry, streaming services also ensure that their content can be connected anywhere in the world. “Lack of money, the elbow society and the growing gap between rich and poor are well-known motives that are really understood all over the world,” says Michael Fuhr.

In one scene from the film Parasite, a family of four is sitting on the floor folding pizza boxes.

In the South Korean film Parasite, a poor family makes money folding pizza boxes

Here, too, the familiar meets the new. Both “Squid Game” and “Parasite”, the 2016 zombie film “Train to Busan” or earlier “Old Boy” convey social criticism. The formats give, even if only on the edge of their main plot, an impression of the world in which South Korea lives.

Because behind the colorful world there are real problems. Away from the glittering world, many people in South Korea live in poverty, live in cramped conditions, often without electricity and water or in basements, like the poor family who pushes their way into the life of a rich family in “Parasite”.

To the demo in “Squid Game” disguise

According to the OECD, around 15 percent of the 52 million inhabitants have less than the average income at their disposal, poverty in old age is 50 percent, and youth unemployment is just under ten percent – almost twice as high as in Germany.

Many families go into debt in order to provide their children with a good education. At the same time, it is common in society to look down on those who have less.

Protesters protest against the government's labor policy in Seoul. They wear costumes based on those from the Squid Game series

Protests in South Korea’s capital Seoul: Protesters wear costumes based on the “Squid Game” series

“Society is still very capitalistic,” says Michael Fuhr. There is “a high work mentality and in parts a neo-Confucianist value hierarchy”.

Even the playgroup that hopes to win millions in “Squid Game” has driven into desperation for money. How close at least the initial situation is to reality was shown last October by protests against the government’s labor market policy, to which demonstrators in Seoul came in masks and clothes in the style of “Squid Game”.