The Korean Wave (Hallyu)

by Youna Kim

In June 2011, Korea’s production company held its first European concert in Paris, singing for fans from France, the UK, Germany, Spain, Italy, and so on. The company initially scheduled only one show at Le Zénith de Paris concert hall which seats about 6,000, but the tickets sold out in 15 minutes, prompting hundreds of fans to organize flash mobs in front of the Louvre museum to demand an extra show. The company thus decided to arrange a second concert, then again the tickets sold out in minutes. An online-based fan club in the UK organized similar flash mobs in London’s Trafalgar Square to demand shows from K-pop acts. In 2012, Korean singer Psy became a global phenomenon with his song Gangnam Style and horse-riding dance move – the most watched video of 2012 on YouTube (2 billion views as of June 2014).

The Korean Wave

The Korean Wave (Book Cover)

Since the late 1990s South Korea has emerged as a new center for the production of transnational popular culture, exporting its own media products into Asian countries including Japan, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. The spread of Korean popular culture overseas is referred to as the “Korean Wave” or “Hallyu” – a term first coined by Chinese news media in the middle of 1998 to describe Chinese youth’s sudden craze for Korean cultural products. Initiated by the export of TV dramas, it now includes a range of cultural products including Korean pop music (K-pop), films, animation, online games, smartphones, fashion, cosmetics, food and lifestyles. While its popularity is mainly concentrated in neighboring Asian markets, some of the products reach as far as the USA, Mexico, Egypt, Iraq, and most recently, Europe. This is the first instance of a major global circulation of Korean popular culture in history.

A revival of the Korean Wave is being anticipated by the development of digital media forms, the use of the Internet and online marketing. While the rise of satellite broadcast fueled the spread of the Korean Wave in the 1990s, social networking services and video-sharing websites such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are now playing a primary role in expanding “digital Hallyu” to Asia, the USA, Europe and elsewhere. Korean dramas are being uploaded to the Internet and available with subtitles in various languages including English, Japanese, Chinese and Spanish. Driven by a desire to “help” their idols, fans do real-time translations of idols’ performances on the social media.

The interest in Korean popular culture has further triggered an increase in foreign tourists visiting the locations where their favorite dramas and acts had been filmed. Its impact has reached into communist North Korea. In 2005, a 20-year-old North Korean soldier defected across the demilitarized zone and the reason given, according to South Korean military officials, was that the soldier had grown to admire and yearn for South Korea after watching its TV dramas which had been smuggled across the border of China. Similar cases have continued to occur, while the means of access to the Korean Wave media culture has expanded through the use of the Internet and cellular phones in North Korea. According to recent interviews with North Korean refugees, young people from the wealthy families of Pyongyang are willing to pay around $20 a month for private lessons to learn the fashionable dances of Girls’ Generation (Sonyosidae), one of the most popular girl groups in the Korean Wave music.

In the past, national images of Korea were negatively associated with the demilitarized zone, division and political disturbances, but now such images are gradually giving way to the vitality of trendy, transnational entertainers and cutting-edge technology. The success of Korean popular culture overseas is drawing an unfamiliar spotlight on a culture once colonized or overshadowed for centuries by powerful countries. The Asian region has long been under the influence of Western and Japanese cultural products. In the European imagination, Korea was once thought to be sandwiched between Japan and China and known only for exporting cars and electronics products, but now has made itself known through its culture. The Korean government sees this phenomenon as a way to sell a dynamic image of the nation through soft power, the ability to entice and attract. The sudden attraction of the Korean Wave culture has presented a surprise: Why has it taken off so dramatically at this point?

Why popular (or not)? Why now? What does it mean socially, culturally and politically in global contexts? This book The Korean Wave: Korean Media Go Global (2013) argues for the Korean Wave’s double capacity in the creation of new and complex spaces of identity that are both enabling and disabling cultural diversity in a digital cosmopolitan world. While not denying the obvious power of Western, particularly American, dominance over the international media landscape and the continuing significance of Western media imperialism, this book considers the Korean Wave in the global digital age and addresses the social, cultural and political implications in their complexity and paradox within the contexts of global inequalities and unevenpower structures. The emerging consequences at multiple levels – both macro structures and micro processes that influence media production, distribution, representation and consumption – deserve to be analyzed and explored fully in an increasingly global, cosmopolitan media environment.


For more details and references, please see:

Kim, Youna (2013) The Korean Wave: Korean Media Go Global. London and New York: Routledge.


Youna Kim

Youna Kim

Youna Kim is Professor of Global Communications at the American University of Paris, France, joined from the London School of Economics and Political Science where she had taught since 2004, after completing her PhD at the University of London, Goldsmiths College. Her books are Women, Television and Everyday Life in Korea: Journeys of Hope (2005, Routledge); Media Consumption and Everyday Life in Asia (2008, Routledge); Transnational Migration, Media and Identity of Asian Women: Diasporic Daughters (2011, Routledge); Women and the Media in Asia: The Precarious Self (2012, Palgrave Macmillan); The Korean Wave: Korean Media Go Global (2013, Routledge); Global Nannies: Minorities and the Digital Media (in preparation).