Popular Culture

Korean entertainment has been popular in Asian countries for decades thanks to their soap operas being a major hit amongst housewives. Some of the top dramas include City Hunter, Boys Over Flowers, You’re Beautiful and Jewel in the Palace that is even extremely popular in Iran. Although other Asian countries such as Japan and Taiwan also have large entertainment industries, these soap opera shows have won the hearts of its viewers with their elaborate romantic stories. The shows are carefully designed to play into peoples dreams. Some dramas tell of the story behind how a poor girl met a rich guy and ended up getting married to him. Others reveal the lives of celebrities by showing the everyday lives of singers and actors. The ones that target older audiences often have a storyline set in ancient Korean times, with themes such as the royal family, forbidden love, loyalty, and betrayal. More recent shows even featured main characters that are actually aliens from another planet or vampires. Many of the shows are produced with large budgets, allowing for the use of extravagant scenes like that of movies. Although Korean dramas have been popular for a while, Korean pop music has just recently caught global attention.

After Psy’s big hit “Gangnam Style”, Korean pop music finally penetrated the mainstream American market, as well as emerged on the global entertainment state. The song made its mark in history as the most viewed video in all of YouTube history since its creation. In 2012 alone, it generated a whooping $8 billion in revenue from the 2 billion views on YouTube. What used to be a small niche community of K-pop followers exploded into an army of K-pop fan girls and boys. A characteristic feature of Korean pop culture is their large bands and groups of singers, with some of the most well known ones being Girls Generation, Big Bang, 2NE1, and Super Junior. Their music is very catchy and upbeat, with a style that is unique in that they always have flashy music videos to accompany each song. In a typical music video, a storyline will be played out that includes the members of the band performing a well choreographed dance routine. Their use of glamorous, bold colored clothing and unique fashion styles present a different change of pace from other entertainers, contributing to their rise to popularity. An example of their music can be seen in the band SISTAR‘s song “Shake It”:

However, K-pop can also satisfy the music cravings of one that prefers ballad songs. The same bands that produce these crazy upbeat music also churn out quite a few emotional slow songs each year. The music videos that accompany these slow songs typically show a touching romance between two lovers. Some videos are so deep and tear-jerking that many wish that they be made into dramas. With the rising popularity of K-pop, it has become South Korea’s biggest export. It not only brings attention to the Korean peninsula but also much financial revenue. The Korean entertainment industry has brought in many tourists to the country, as well as promoted Korean products such as Samsung cellphones.

Today, South Korea is seen as an economic and cultural powerhouse; however, just fifty years ago they were one of the poorest, war-torn countries in the world. After being wrecked by World War II and the subsequent Korean War that separated the peninsula into two, South Korea started its climb to re-establish its international status. Korean pop culture was a huge contributor to the country’s rapid rise to a developed nation. It reformed Korean culture, attracting many intrigued tourists to the peninsula, as well as consumers for Korean products. The number of tourists are increasing every year due to the increased number of people that consume South Korean media. Below is a world map depicting the number of views of Korean music videos.

This map was created based off of information obtained in 2011, however with Psy’s release of the global hit song “Gangnam Style”, we can expect the numbers to be much higher worldwide. South Korea has taken full advantage of the popularity of their entertainment industry. Korean entertainment and pop culture has become one of the country’s biggest export, generating a large revenue for the government. The South Korean government recognizes the value of their country’s entertainment industry and has taken great measure in ensuring their success. According to Euny Hong, author of The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture, “Korea is throwing all of its weight and billions of dollars into making itself the number one exporter of pop culture in the world, the idea is that if you create the supply, the demand will follow. That’s not an intuitive sales model”. Despite going against economic theories, South Korea’s entertainment export plan worked fabulously. Large revenue is also generated by collaboration between South Korean entertainment companies and cosmetics or technological companies. Advertisements such as the one below show the collaboration between Korean entertainment as well as technological companies in promoting their products and services.

The actors and actresses in Korean dramas use Samsung phones, drive Hyundai cars, and use Korean make up brands to promote their countries other industries. An example of this would be when the Yves Saint Laurent lipstick worn on the show My Love from Another Star sold out internationally after having appeared on the show. The power of advertising on Korean dramas is so significant that the country’s export of cosmetics increased by six hundred percent in the last decade. Two decades ago, Samsung was still a small brand, struggling to compete with Western technological companies. However today, it is one of the biggest cellphone brands, competing on par with Apple’s famous iPhone. Just ten years ago Hyundai cars were known to cause fires and were only purchased if someone was desperate. Yet today the Hyundai Genesis is a coveted luxury car. Aside from the great technological advances made by these two companies, Korean dramas definitely helped give them a second chance and contributed to their popularity.

Surprisingly, these South Korean soap operas are popular even in the most unexpected regions of the world. Hong claimed in her book that “the Korean historical costume drama The Jewel in the Palace is so popular that Iranians reportedly organize their mealtimes around the show”. Knowing that their shows are popular even amongst Middle Eastern countries and third world countries, the South Korean government has invested into making subtitles for their dramas in many different languages. The South Korean government then sells these shows to those countries for them to air on local television. Although it is quite strange for a country’s government to be involved in the entertainment industry, it is quite admirable to see the unity of the nation. How rare it is to see a country where its government, entertainment industry, technology industry, and cosmetic industry are all cooperating to secure the future prosperity of the nation!

The government as well as other Korean industries have all helped K-pop along its road to success. The South Korean government dedicated one percent of the national budget to support the export and development of K-pop. This fund is split between subsidies for cultural industries, establishing cultural departments at Korean universities, and creating agencies to promote K-pop globally. The CEO of Lowe Profero, Wayne Arnold, explains the mindset behind why the Korean government puts so much effort into developing its nation’s popular culture. He states, “Korea has, like many nations, struggled with its purpose in the world. It has a small population compared to the giants nearby whether that be Japan or Russia or China. What it has realized is that it can influence these populations by spreading its culture and its Korean way through music and television”. Big Korean companies would often sponsor certain bands to both promote K-pop as well as their own brand image. An example of this would be the sponsoring of Big Bang‘s 2012 global tour by Samsung.

It’s hard to believe that South Korea, the world’s 11th largest economy had a GDP lower than that of Ghana just 50 years ago, in 1965. The compelling rise of South Korea from one of the world’s poorest countries to the culture powerhouse it is today can be attributed to their hard work ethics. As with many East Asian cultures, Korean culture emphasizes self-sacrifice, hard work, and dedication. Korean children are trained to endure long hours dedicated to studying, and thus allowed Korean entertainers to develop the discipline to practice singing and dancing for long hours. As quoted from Jie-Ae Sohn, the former president of South Korea International Arirang TV & Radio, “the proverb is you get into the dream university if you sleep three hours, if you sleep five hours, you don’t; it’s that kind of educational values that are pumped into the Korean educational system that really get these kids trained. They desire to be K-Pop stars. They will sacrifice 21 hours of their 24 hours to train…it’s sort of inbred in them”. It is this kind of mentality as well as the success of the Korean entertainment industry that puts extreme pressure on many of its entertainers. Celebrities often times choose to go under the knife in order to remain competitive. Even Miss Korea is not spared from this type of pressure. It has been speculated that the Miss Korea of 2012, Kim Yoo Mi, has underwent plastic surgery, changing multiple aspects of her face. Various before and after pictures have been released onto the internet revealing her changes. The desire to have plastic surgery in order to remain competitive also stems from the fact that South Koreans seem to have one universal standard of beauty, unlike the multiethnic United States of America.

Below is a picture of Kim Yoo Mi, the Miss Korea of 2012 and the Miss Universe Korea of 2013.

Since the South Korean population is largely homogenous, they are able to universalize a standard of beauty for their people. This standard generally consists of having a small V-shaped face, a high nose bridge, double eyelids, fair skin, and dark, straight eyebrows. Those that do not have these features often times choose to achieve them through surgical means. Due to the rampant spread of  cosmetic surgery amongst celebrities, the South Korean people have grown to accept it as a common practice. Kids as young as fourteen years old are allowed to get surgery performed without adult permission. Blepharoplasty (double eyelid surgery) can be done for as little as USD $50. (Although it is not sure if it would be safe to have it done at a place that offers such a low price…) Plastic surgery has become a part of Korean culture, and people from all over the world flock to Gangnam to get their face fixed. Parents or relatives will often times offer plastic surgery as a graduation gift for high school seniors or college graduates as well. This phenomenon is yet another example of how great the influence of popular culture is; that it can change the attitude of an entire nation towards a certain thing such as plastic surgery.

South Korean entertainment can also serve as an awakening for their Northern counterpart. In recent years, there has been a lot of South Korean media that has been leaked to North Korea, prompting the young people in North Korea to escape the country or start a revolution. Many North Korean refugees that have escaped to South Korea expressed that their motivation came from watching South Korean television shows. Their eyes were finally opened to the outside world through these soap operas.

As big as it is now, there is definitely no country that is not affected by the popular culture of South Korea; even if it is just hearing Psy’s song “Gangnam Style”. It is the very essence of the country!

Here is a great video that talks about the evolution and advancement of K-pop throughout the years, as well as its influence globally.