Korean Wave Invades Pop-World

The Global Contemporary Popular Culture (Part 2)

Some of the iconic cultural elements of South Korean pop-culture.

Asian contemporary popular culture has never been swept so strongly by a wave like Hallyu, or more famously known as ‘The Korean Wave,’ a phenomenon describing the tidal impact of South Korea’s popular culture on the world.  The wave carried some addictive elements which made it difficult to resist it – K-dramas, K-pop, K-movies, K-phones, and K-food – oh-K we get it!

The word Hallyu is a Romanised form of the Hangul word Hanryu (한류). It is made of two root words: han (한) which means ‘Korean’ (more or less), and ryu (류) which means ‘flow’ or ‘wave.’ Thus, it refers to the spreading of Korean culture. It is said that there were 987 Hallyu organisations scattered all around the globe since 2013 with a combined number of 9 million members.


K-dramas (also Korean dramas) are television dramas in Korean language, made mostly in South Korea. These dramas have become widely (and wildly too!) popular worldwide. They are accessible since subtitles are embedded according to choice of language and are also readily available through streaming services. Korean drama fans are notoriously known to perform ‘series-marathon’ and ‘cry-till-you’re-dry’ nights out. The Korean drama element is perhaps the country’s biggest export. (Examples: All About Eve, Winter Sonata, Stairway to Heaven, Full House, Secret Garden, and Dae Jang Geum which was sold to 91 countries including Iran where it received 80% viewership.)

K-movies (also Korean movies) have also captured both the global cinemas and the on-line movie channels. Even people who are not inclined to watching tele-series (regardless of nationalities, Western or Asian) are not spared from the sweeping tides of ‘The Kwave,’ (a contraction of The Korean Wave).   Korean movies have become big internationally and film communities worldwide are expressing their admiration for Korean films, actors, and directors.

Directors Im Kwon-taek, Lee Chang-dong, Park Chan-wook, Hong Sang-soo, Kim Ki-duk, Kim Jee-woon, Im Sang-soo, and Bong Joon-ho are some of the towering figures in the film industry. They have already drawn favourable attention from Western critics. Three of these, Park Chan-wook, Kim Jee-woon, and Bong Joon-ho, were even employed by some of Hollywood’s big studios to make films for the commercial audience. Film celebrities like Lee Byung-hun, Jung Ji-hoon (Rain), Jun Ji-hyun, and Bae Doona are also enjoying commercial success and even appeared in Hollywood movies. (Examples: My Sassy Girl, Old Boy, The Host, The Wailing, The Thieves, and I Saw the Devil.)

Samsung and LG are two of the largest cell phone companies in the world. Let’s call them K-phones shall we. It is estimated that 98% of South Koreans own mobile phones; because for them these devices are not just used for calling and sending messages – they are already an essential part of people’s day-to-day activities. From viewing live programmes to watching movies; from visiting websites to keeping track of their social media statuses; everyone is just practically attached to it.

Korean Cuisine (or K-food?) has now become an important part of Kwave’s growing influence. According to KOREA.net, “Restaurants serving traditional Korean dishes began to open in the world’s leading metropolises such as New York, London and Paris, attracting praise even from the choosiest gourmets. Kimchi, Bulgogi, Bibimbap and other dishes loved by Korean people through many generations are now beginning to appear in homes around the world.” Even here in Metropolitan Manila, Korean restaurants have been multiplying steadily.

K-pop (also Korean Popular Music) is a particular genré characterised by strong emphasis on audio-visual performances. K-pop has been invading the current global music scene and its waves still roll towards all directions: Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, North Africa, Latin America, and even the West. K-pop even entered into the Japanese music market despite Japan’s strong J-Pop and Animé soundtrack culture.

Again from KOREA.net, “The popularity of K-pop singers is largely based on their excellent vocal abilities, dazzling stage presence and well-choreographed, impeccable dance performances among other things.

K-pop is perhaps best represented by Psy’s Gangnam Style that swept the world , in style! When it was released in 2012 the song easily reached the top spot of the British Official Singles Chart and sat second spot on the American Billboard’s Hot 100. It took Europe by storm; countries like France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Russia suddenly found themselves performing the horse riding dance. Its music video on YouTube has been watched over 3 billion times already. The global audience just can’t get enough of it. (Examples of other K-pop artists: BTS, Big Bang, 2NE1, Girls’ Generation, 2PM, and Wonder Girls.)

Short documentary on K-pop Wave

FRANCE 24’s Olivia Salazar-Winspear heads to Seoul, going behind the scenes of the music industry at one of the city’s many K-pop academies, where students train in dance, singing and production.

  • Marinescu, Valentina, ed. “ The Global Impact of South Korean Popular Culture: Hallyu Unbound.” ResearchGate.net, Korean Studies 39 (1) : 113-114 · January 2015
  • Ter Molen, Sherri L. “A Cultural Imperialistic Homecoming: The Korean Wave Reaches the United States.” In Yasue Kuwahara ed., Korean Wave: Korean Popular Culture in Global Context (Basingstoke, GBR: Palgrave Mcmillan, 2014), pp. 149-179.
  • Ju, Hyejung. “Transformations of the Korean Media Industry by the Korean Wave: The Perspective of Glocalization.” In Yasue Kuwahara ed., Korean Wave: Korean Popular Culture in Global Context (Basingstoke, GBR: Palgrave Mcmillan, 2014)
  • KOREA.net. “Hallyu (Korean Wave).

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