Psy’s “Gangnam Style” was the first YouTube video to reach one billion views. BTS’s “Dynamite” last year became the first South Korean act to top the Billboard Hot 100. Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” won four major Oscars. In India, Korean dramas just last year saw a whopping 370% growth on Netflix, and the language learning app Duolingo ascertains Korean is presently the 2nd fastest growing language in the world. According to the Korea Foundation, the number of members of Hallyu (‘Korean wave’) fan clubs in 109 countries worldwide, excluding South Korea, has already crossed 100M. Long story short to all cynics – it’s a transcontinental global phenomenon, not a passing fizz.
South Korea has so meticulously blended western influences with their home influences that it is a masterclass for every brand and country that desires to be culturally relevant and economically potent at the same time. And it’s not a one-off category like Mexican soap operas or Japanese anime, their cultural content cuts across all spheres of art – movies, tv shows, music and games. A truly unrivaled feat. In the next five minutes, let’s together decode how they achieved it and how can you too:
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The meteoric global rise of Korean influences in art was a slow-cooked, intricately designed strategy, not sweet serendipity, which they generously save for their dramas. South Korea is placed first in the latest 2021 Bloomberg Innovation Index. Their government is aware, supportive and goes the extra mile much more than any other country in the world to promote originality actively. Just look at South Korea’s 2020 budget, which was their biggest-ever allocation to the culture ministry. They allocated an exclusive budget (1.1 trillion won/983.5Mn$) for supporting and nurturing the virtual reality content market, for creating a VR content exhibition space in central Seoul (40 billion won/35.7Mn$), assistance funds for traditional content creators (113 billion won/101Mn$) and funding to support local filmmakers, cartoonists and fashion designers to expand into overseas markets (32.3 billion won/28.9Mn$).
According to the ministry, the biggest motivation of foreign tourists for visiting Seoul is “Hallyu,” and they are diligently getting geared up. The Korean government is in the process of creating “K-Culture Valley” (2024) in Goyang for reportedly 1.2Bn$, a Hallyu-inspired theme park housing film studios, restaurants, live music concerts, movie galleries to malls selling Korean celebrity merchandise. What Ireland and New Zealand tourism has been trying to do with the promotions of GoT and LOTR locations is what South Koreans have already mastered with their homegrown and wholesome “Hallyu Experience Program” where k-pop, makeup, styling, cooking and shooting destinations are included. Soft power triumphs at its epitome.
South Korea is also one of the rare modern countries that invests its government funds into the nation’s startups. As of August 2020, the Korean Culture and Information Service have set up 32 Korean Cultural Centers in 28 countries across Africa, Asia-Pacific, Europe, and America to promote Hallyu. In India, this January, their 600 seater Online Korean Language Hobby Classes were filled out in 2 mins. Every country should take notes on how organized and well-planned their cumulative approach is.
The hype specialists
How many countries do you know of that have a culture ministry structured as well as a multi-billion dollar corporation? Back in 2012, the Culture Ministry of South Korea created an advisory committee of 19 leading figures in the country’s cultural scene to further accentuate Hallyu’s reach. And a little later, in 2015, they launched a task force team with Korean Broadcasters Association to support Hallyu led by private players. How well thought their efforts are to make the wave turn into a tsunami can be easily seen by their culture ministry’s organizational finesse and depth. Just look at one of the many divisions dedicated to the country’s cultural export industry – the Content Policy Bureau, which houses the Cultural Industry Policy Division, Film and Video Content, Industry Division, Game Content Industry Division, Popular Culture Industry Division (Korean pop music, fashion, mass entertainment, comic books, cartoons) and the recently created even more niche, a nine-member, Hallyu Content Cooperation Division whose surgical job according to The Korea Herald is to ‘conduct in-depth research on Hallyu’s business environments and pursue three main goals in the new era: to diversify Hallyu content, to foster other industries through Hallyu content, and to create a sustainable environment for the growth of Hallyu.’
South Korea understands the importance of being globally relevant without discounting their patriotic, homegrown roots and talents. Soju, Ramen and Samsung are unsuspectingly yet handsomely sprinkled across their popular dramas, songs and games. Actually, next time you’re watching a K-Drama you like, take a shot every time you see an Apple phone or a French snack. And on the other end of the spectrum, it is equally important to notice that entertainment decisions like title tracks of KDramas or hook words of KPop intentionally have English words. Something you will rarely see in Japanese or Chinese popular entertainment. Their art tactfully weaves ingrained habits like always taking off shoes before entering a house, respecting elders while drinking, aspiration for being a chaebol (family-run large industrial conglomerate), weekend fried chicken treats and after office soju-barbeque work diners. Interestingly though not surprisingly, they also make sure to put due focus on local brands. As a K-world fan, even if you have never been to South Korea before you would know about Dal.Komm coffee chain or the hard-to-miss product placement of a dozen Korean makeup brands – KAHI Wrinkle Bounce Moisturising Stick and Cellreturn LED Mask (The King: Eternal Monarch) to Manyo Factory’s Bifida Complex Ampoule (Crash Landing On You).
The kind of sacrosanct reverence South Koreans have for their culture is the base of this potential trillion-dollar industry. If you belong from a non-English speaking country and when talking to the world about your art, do you talk in English or proudly continue in your mother tongue even if you know the language like a lot of Korean celebrities? They don’t trade accessibility with their culture’s exclusivity. And that kind of preservation value for one’s heritage is so beautifully rare. When you sell something you truly believe and love, you don’t really need to sell it, do you?