The High Tide of the Korean Wave III: Why do Asian fans prefer Korean pop culture?

A Korean scholar cites economics and Asian values as the causes for Hanryu, the "Korean Wave"

The Korea Herald
Monday, February 4, 2008

By Sung Sang-yeon

The rise of the Korean Wave

Korean popular culture has become one of the most beloved pop cultures among Asian fans over the last 10 years. Asia is no longer dominated by American popular culture, and fans now are choosing what they consider to be more "Asian." Many have recently come to prefer Korean popular culture, which they perceive to be fresh and trendy, as well as something that contains Asian values and sentiments.

More and more people throughout Asia are choosing to watch Korean movies, listen to Korean popular music, follow Korean soap operas, and even travel to Korea to visit sites they have seen in their favorite Korean dramas. The sudden rise in popularity and the dissemination of Korean popular culture throughout Asia is new, unprecedented, and fascinating. This cultural flow in contemporary Asia is called the "Korean Wave."

The Korean Wave is becoming popular in discourse in Asian countries and beyond. Many scholars and journalists have written about it in academic journals, newspaper columns, and magazine articles, putting forth reasons for the emergence of Korean popular culture as a force throughout Asia and speculating on its potential influence on the future of the region. Clearly, as a product similar to the products in consumers' own cultural backgrounds, the Korean Wave provides Asians with reassurance that, even within an increasingly globalized world, Asian identity remains strong. In Korea, popular and scholarly articles alike have discussed the influence of the Korean Wave on Korean society, argued for the superiority of Korean culture over other Asian cultures, and noted positive reactions of Asian societies to Korean popular culture in newspapers, television documentaries, and elsewhere.

The Korean Wave is a topic of debate and doubts from many angles. Many observers believe that it will not sustain its popularity and insist that its producers and artists will not be able to meet the demand for innovative products needed to continue attracting Asian audiences. Indeed, some argue that its popularity is already fading and it no longer interests Asian fans as much. Some disparage the quality of Korean popular culture, which, they argue, spread only as an affordable replacement for the products of Japanese popular culture after the sudden economic drop of the 1990s.

Although there have been pessimistic debates about the Korean Wave in Asian countries, the presence of Korean popular culture has become increasingly obvious in Taiwan and among Asians living abroad. During multiple visits to Taiwan between 1999 and 2006, I have seen dramatic changes in people's attitudes toward Korean popular culture as well as the increased presence of Korean popular culture in Taiwan.

Also, as a Korean living in Europe, I often notice the growing consumption of Korean popular culture among overseas Asians. There are active interchanges of Korean popular culture, such as sharing the DVDs of Korean television dramas and purchasing many Korean DVDs whenever overseas Asians return to their home country. In this essay, I discuss how the Korean Wave started and why it spread throughout contemporary Asian society.

This paper is mostly based on the research I have done in Taipei, Taiwan and Vienna, Austria since 2001. My analysis is based on opinions put forth by Taiwanese and overseas Asians, including, Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Philippines, through individual interviews and research on news stories, web pages and academic journals.

Starting point of the Korean Wave

The term Korean Wave refers to the phenomenon of Korean popular culture, disseminated primarily through the mass media and enjoying a broad popularity outside of Korea. It includes Korean-identified television dramas, movies, internet games, fashions, and popular music. It is unclear exactly when the term Korean Wave started to become popular among Asians, but public media began recognizing Korean popular culture in mainland China in 1997, when the Korean television drama "Star Is in My Heart" was broadcast in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and other Asian countries.

The Chinese broadcasting company Phoenix TV, which broadcasts throughout Asia, showed this drama under its Chinese name, and the broadcast met with broad popular appeal, especially in mainland China. The drama caught people's attention in part because its main actor, Ahn Jae-Wook, was particularly attractive to Chinese and Taiwanese women.

Chinese audiences were attracted to the "modern image" seen in the fashions, hair styles, and lifestyles of South Korea. The views and items portrayed in this drama, such as tall buildings and fancy cars, and the high standard of living, portrayed South Korea as a modern and developed country. According to Kim Hyun-mee, the dominant image of Korea to Taiwanese had previously been filled with roughness, violence, and a lack of material and cultural refinement, but after Taiwanese had viewed Korean television dramas, they revised their impressions. The modern images projected, such as following the latest fashion, fast tempo and cheerful background music, and emphasizing the visual imagery, all showed Korean television drama to be trendy, and Taiwanese realized that Korea was much more modern than they had thought it to be.

After the popularity of "Star Is in My Heart," Korean soap operas rapidly gained airtime on television channels in Asian countries. In addition to the attractiveness and contents of Korean television drama, the economic crisis in Asia quickly led Asian buyers to prefer cheaper Korean products than Japanese products. In 2000, Korean television dramas were a quarter of the price of Japanese ones, and a tenth of the price of Hong Kong television dramas. The reasonable price of Korean popular culture, such as music, television dramas, and movies, was one of the main factors that attracted Asian production companies to buy Korean products at the beginning of the Korean Wave.

The role of popular music in the circulation of Korean popular culture in Asia is very significant. In the late 1990s, Channel V featured Korean popular music videos and obtained many Asian fans, particularly due to the teenage groups and the Asian sentiment contained in music videos. "In particular, the boy band H.O.T. found itself topping the pop charts in China and Taiwan in 1998; the band was so popular that album sales continues to surge, even after the band's break-up in mid-2001," says Shim Doo-bo in his 2006 paper on Korean pop culture in Asia. Followed by H.O.T., teenage groups such as NRG, S.E.S., and Baby Vox attracted Chinese and Taiwanese young audiences, and especially in Taiwan, the Korean duo CLON achieved unparalleled success. Interviews that I have conducted with sales managers at music-production companies show that the success of CLON's debut in Taiwan is the most important fact of the Korean Wave there. CLON's popularity interested many Taiwanese in Korean popular culture, including its soap operas and movies. The reason that Korean popular music attracted so many Asian fans is that it has adopted Western pop music and recreated it in Korean style, through fashion or performance style.

Korean movies added to the Korean Wave by offering sensational scenes and plots, in a manner different from those offered by Hollywood. They contained strong Korean characteristics and sentiments, which many Asians could easily assimilate.

For example, the Korean movie "Shiri" became a hit in Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore because of the way it deals with the sensitive North and South Korean issue, and it accordingly interested people in neighboring countries. Although "Shiri" is a political movie, it invokes sentiments that Asians readily feel, as when they watch a tragic love story between North Korean female agents and South Korean special agents. Also, Korean movies such as "Shiri" and "Joint Security Areas" (commonly called "JSA") attracted many Japanese viewers, and this led many Koreans to be prouder of their national popular culture because Japanese popular culture had been the most recognized in Asian societies until then.

By the early 2000s, after the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the Korean government had begun targeting the export of Korean popular culture as a new economic initiative. President Kim Dae-jung (inaugurated in 1998), who informally called himself the President of Culture, established the Basic Law for the Cultural Industry Promotion in 1999 by allocating $148.5 million to this project.

Through this learning process, Koreans have provided their own twists to foreign styles and forms, by blending and adding their indigenous traits and unique flourishes in innovative ways. Therefore, products similar to American products that have recently been called the Korean Wave are said to evoke a sense of familiarity among people in Asia. For example, the popularity of Korean television dramas in Asia owes much to the familiarity of Confucian-based values, such as family-orientedness, respect for the elderly, and preference for sons. The trendy and modern images projected in Korean television dramas were not the only things that attracted Asian fans: the dramas confirmed what people called their "adherence to Asian social mores."

The portrayal of South Korea in television dramas, the high quality of the visual images in Korean movies, Confucian sentiments incorporated into music videos and soap operas, the active promotion of Korean production companies, and the sudden economic drop of Asian companies all created opportunities for Korean popular culture to circulate throughout Asian countries.

Why Korea?

My research on the Korean Wave in Taiwan and overseas Asians in Vienna reveals three specific reasons for the popularity of the Korean Wave in Asia. The most apparent is that South Korean popular culture expresses Asian values and sentiments, which Asians can easily assimilate. Many interviewees pointed out that the values and sentiments they see in Korean soap operas are more acceptable than Western or Japanese popular culture because they derive from Confucianism and are the real sentiments of real Asian lives. Many Taiwanese and Asians living in Vienna empathize with Korean popular culture because it presents Asian sentiments under modern conditions, as in fashions and lifestyles.

Many people that I interviewed pointed out the importance of "family values" and social relationships. According to Alice Chen, who considers herself a great fan of the Korean Wave, Korean television dramas convey the traditional roles of men and women in relationships better than other Asian products.

"I believe that the Korean Wave results partly from this search for 'Asianness' in contemporary Taiwan. Many Taiwanese believe that Korean popular culture contains what Taiwanese consider to be an Asian character or value. Something they miss in Western culture, or even in Japanese popular culture -- which some Taiwanese respondents have criticized -- is that it is too unrealistic to Taiwanese situations. I love to see Korean soap operas. They are always so sentimental and sad. You know, like the old-time stories. This makes me wanting to see more Korean soap operas." (Alice Chen, interview with author, April 1, 2002)

As expressed by Alice Chen, the evocation of Asian sentiment and values is an important factor that attracted Taiwanese to Korean popular culture.

Many Asians that I interviewed in Vienna, Austria also point out the Asianness contained in Korean soap operas is the most attractive drive of Korean popular culture. According to Dorcy, who is from the Phillipines, told me how popular Korean soap operas are among them. She argued since Korean soap opera is so popular in the Phillipines, she always purchase whenever she return home and share with her friends here. According to her, "I think every Asians like Korean soap operas. Not only us but I know other Asians like to watch them, too" (Interview with author, Dec. 15, 2007). Through interviewing many Asians living in Austria, it is discovered that the Asian sentiment and values that are expressed in Korean popular culture is the most significant reason behind the circulation of Korean popular culture among Asians.

The second reason is that the economic decline of Asia forced television producers to seek out products cheaper than Japanese and Western products. One of these was soap operas, the starting-point of the Korean Wave in Taiwan. According to Shim Doo-bo, the Korean Wave arose mainly because of the media liberalization that swept across Asia in 1990s, when the economic crisis made Asian buyers prefer the cheaper Korean products compared with Japanese and Hong Kong products. Lili, the primary producer of K-Pop Entertainment at Gala-TV in Taiwan, told me that the main reason that GTV began programming Korean soap operas was because of their cheap prices compared to Japanese products, and Korean soap operas were even cheaper than domestic ones. According to her, Korean soap operas were of much better quality then Taiwanese products, but were much cheaper, so GTV dubbed in Mandarin and aired the programs as if they were locally made soap operas. At that time, the cost of domestic dramas was as high as $20,000 per hour.

In 1999, GTV began buying old dramas from the Korean Broadcasting System under the considerations that it costs less than the domestic dramas and the quality of the Korean dramas could be guaranteed. GTV was informed that KBS had invested a huge amount of money in production. Indeed, Korea has long invested in dramas, and after 1993 it has encouraged the investment of private capital in the media industry. Therefore, to supplement domestic dramas, GTV introduced Korean dramas of low cost and good quality.

In the initial state, GTV domesticated the imported Korean dramas by adding domestic flavor and not labeling the dramas as Korean imports. GTV not only provided Chinese dubbings and subtitles, but also televised the programs right after domestic programs, so that people would naturally feel them to be their domestic programs. At first, Korean dramas had little success: they garnered no more than 1 percent of viewers.

But "Firework," first shown in 2000, took ratings to a historical high of 4.9 percent, and was then rerun several times. Its success led Taiwanese cable companies to import other Korean dramas. Seen in Taiwan throughout years, these dramas became one of the most important factors of the Korean Wave in Taiwan today.

The third reason for the success of the Korean wave is the self-confidence and nationalism Koreans show through their popular culture as well as in international events. The term self-confidence was often mentioned by respondents when they characterized South Korean popular culture. Most used the term when they described the performance of South Korean pop singers.

Taiwanese see in South Korean pop music a confident character, even if it is only the self-confidence of energy expended in singing and dancing. Many Taiwanese interviewees said South Korean self-confidence has made them curious about Korean society, and this curiosity has led them to learn more about Korean culture. According to Feng Lai, a journalist for the gossip magazine Apple, "Korean music is very strong and projects self-confidence. Just like their nationalism. They are strong and confident" (interview with author, May 3, 2002). As Lai points out, this is a reason why performers who project exaggerated masculine or sexy attitudes are favored in Taiwan.

Through South Korean pop culture, viewers can experience how Koreans manage to keep Korean values while incorporating Western elements into their culture. Korean pop culture has borrowed the best of Western popular culture and recreated it according to Korean tastes. That is why Korean popular culture differs from others: it expresses inner passion and powerful energy. Many Taiwanese claim they get a sense of the nationalism of the Korean people from South Korean popular culture.

Mally said, "I think Koreans are very proud of their culture and tradition. When I look at Korean soap operas or movies, I am always so amazed. They try to express 'Korea.' Look at all these ancient dramas, -- Daejanggeum (Jewel in the Palace), -- for example. I could just feel how Koreans are proud of their tradition and culture. The clothes, food, history, and all those things explored -- it still doesn't feel like old past. Korean people still feel so confident about themselves" (interview with author, June 15, 2004).

Movies like "JSA" and "Shiri," which deal with the political issues of the Korean peninsula, strongly affected Taiwanese. John at Avex Office in Taipei said, "After I saw these two movies, I felt very sad. Taiwanese cannot make this kind of movies. It is all about love and also probably too sensitive part to touch on, because we all don't think the same about politics anyway. Anyway, "JSA" and "Shiri" really impressed me, and I have seen another side of Korea. They are just a very strong nationality" (interview with author, July 15, 2004).

The circulation of popular culture in Asia is becoming much more active. Having started with Japanese popular culture and Hong Kong popular culture, many Asian teenagers now favor Korean popular culture. Some people argue that the Korean Wave is slowly fading away, and it no longer interests Asians much; however, many interviews that I have conducted with Taiwanese and overseas Asians show that Korean popular culture has its own distinctive character, which Asians can assimilate. Therefore, even overseas Asians are fond of watching Korean dramas. The Korean Wave has been an ongoing issue in Asia for ten years. To some Asians, it is not fascinating, or a new topic of interest, but it remains a very important element in intraregional circulation and thus has become part of the cultural makeup of the Asian pop cultural landscape.

Sung Sang-yeon is a lecturer at Philological and Cultural Studies, Department of Musicology at the University of vienna, Austria.  She obtained a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology at Indian University in 2008.