Beijing journalists first coined the term Hallyu Wave, or Korean Wave, in the late 1990s as they discussed the sharp rise in global popularity and interest in Korean culture and pop-culture. The term encompasses the increased interest in Korean pop (K-pop), Korean dramas (K-dramas), and the rising number of Korean brands, like Samsung, which are becoming players in the global arena.
Since the term first appeared in 1999, that’s the time period we’ll look at for the origin of the Hallyu Wave.
Due to the financial crisis of 1997, South Korea started restricting cultural imports from Japan, which then led to a cultural void of sorts. To combat turning to other countries for culture and facing a financial outflow, South Korea’s Ministry of Culture embarked on a mission to strengthen the local culture within Korea and to build on local talents. This involved creating 300 culture-based departments in universities across Korea.
This worked well in South Korea’s favour and they produced their first local big-budget film, Shiri, which turned out to be extremely successful, grossing even more than Titanic.
Also around this time, numerous K-dramas starting airing in China, leading to huge surge in Korean cultural imports to China. This, then, is the start of the Hallyu Wave.
The surge was not limited to China, as other countries in East Asia, such as India and Japan, and other Southeast Asian countries started turning to Korean entertainment for their fix. This was the most prominent when Winter Sonata, produced by Korean channel KBS2, amassed a cult following in these countries. Perhaps thanks in part to Winter Sonata and other popular Korean dramas released around the same time period, like Full House, South Korean dramas started to take over the prime-time slots available on Asian television.
While the dominance of K-drama was spreading, K-pop was also garnering a lot of attention. This is largely spearheaded by boy-band H.O.T. and Korean star BoA. The former became the first K-pop artist to perform overseas, while the latter had the first album as a Korean artist to sell a million copies in Japan. The breakthrough really came around 2005 when big names such as SS501 and Super Junior debuted, quickly rising to idol-status across Asia.
With the development of social media, video-sharing sites, digital technologies, and of course, the smart phone, the Hallyu Wave spread globally around 2010, as evidenced by how Korea’s music exports boasted a 168% growth. K-pop and K-drama gradually became popular with the Western audience and started gathering a global fanbase. This was especially evident after Psy’s viral hit Gangnam Style which brought K-pop to mainstream attention.
Thanks to YouTube and other streaming sites, the Hallyu Wave managed to hit the shores of the United States hard despite local reluctance to air K-pop music and Korean television shows. 2012, the year Gangnam Style became viral, was also the year U.S. President (at the time) Barack Obama mentioned, and in a way, acknowledged the Korean Wave.
Currently, Hallyu marketing is prevalent globally as companies exploit the popularity of Korean culture in order to broaden their market. LG Electronics is a good example of this. They have been bringing Korean concerts worldwide and hiring popular Korean stars to endorse their products so as to increase brand awareness globally.
Perhaps the biggest question now would be: how can other countries replicate the success of the Hallyu wave? Or, if you’re a company: how can we take advantage of this?