What to Make of Korean Wave?

Dear Korean,

What do you make of the 'Korean wave', is it just an easily replicable fad or are Koreans becoming a key player in Southeast Asian pop culture?


Dear Joonki,

When many a K-pop group fills up stadium after stadium across Asia with their concerts, it is pretty hard to say that Korea is not a key player in Asian (not just Southeast Asian) pop culture:

Many of the readers of this blog come here because Korea's pop culture, so not much elaboration would be necessary about "Korean Wave". But of all the achievements of modern Korea, its rise as a soft power nation is the greatest surprise to a lay observer. One might have reasonably expected Korea to make better and better products until those products become world-class, but this? This is not just a function of having a lot of money. There are plenty of wealthy countries in the world which do not leave a particularly strong mark in the regional and world culture. Germany is far wealthier than Korea, but one does not hear all that much about German cultural products as far as pop culture is concerned. (That is, unless one counts the subtle yet undoubtedly powerful cultural influence generated by beautifully performing machines.) The same is true for, say, Canada or Spain, although they are about as wealthy as Korea.

What does the Korean make of Korean Wave? There are many factors responsible for Korean Wave's success. Here are some preliminary ideas of what some of those factors might be (that may well turn out to be really wrong):

- Korea is wealthy. Like the Korean pointed out above, this is not a sufficient condition. But it is pretty clearly a necessary condition. Only wealthy people have the time and money to nurture a pop culture. As a result, Korean dramas and Korean movies rarely lack production value. More specifically, having major production companies with the resource to commit to a longer-term strategy and delayed return on investment has been critical for Korean Wave's success.

- The competition in Korean pop culture market is cutthroat. Entertainment market in Korea is not very big. There is enough for a spectacular winner, but not enough for a second place who can get by. This is conducive to creating a type of "success formula" that can be widely shared within the industry. This means that Korean pop culture consistently maintains a level of excellence.

- As Asia became wealthier overall, the pop culture market in Asia grew enough such that there is an international demand of good pop culture products. This goes hand in hand with the fact that ...

- Korea's pop culture filled the need that was left unfulfilled by other major pop cultures, most notably from U.S. or Europe. Asian people want pretty Asian faces to whom they can relate. Similarly, Asian people want Asian-style narrative arcs, focusing more on the relationship between people instead of what happens next. (This is obviously a gross over-generalization, but bear with the Korean here.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.