On November 21, South Korean septet BTS made history as the first Asian act to be hailed Artist of the Year at this year’s American Music Awards. The event pretty much had them on stage the entire night, where they performed two times and won two more awards — Favorite Pop Duo or Group and Favorite Pop Song for Butter — to raise their AMA tally to nine in total.
This is only the latest in an impressive string of other achievements for BTS, which has made a habit of breaking records and winning over fans across the globe even before their first AMA performance in 2017. Millions of people in countries like Indonesia, Brazil, and the Philippines have embraced the ARMY lifestyle.
But there’s more to K-pop than just insanely catchy music. In fact, BTS single-handedly contributes around $5 billion to the South Korean economy every year, creating jobs and revenue through music sales, brand collabs, and merchandise.
Alongside the work of popular acts like PSY, BlackPink, and TWICE, as well as other South Korean media like Squid Game (2021), Parasite (2019), and Train to Busan (2016), BTS forms part of the Korean Wave — otherwise known as hallyu.
A Success Decades in the Making
Far from an accident, hallyu literally means wave or flow of Korea, and is a movement to promote South Korean culture since the turn of the 21st century. The country has emerged as a major exporter of culture, which includes not just music, movies, and TV shows, but also video games, fashion, cosmetics, and food.
But how did a war-torn country transform into Asia’s leading tastemaker and cultural powerhouse?
Hallyu and the Importance of Soft Power
The Korean wave has a lot to do with something called soft power.
Coined in 1990 by Joseph Nye, a Harvard political scientist, soft power is the ability to attract cooperation and shape the preferences of other countries. It stands in contrast to hard power, which involves tactics we often think about when considering power in international relations, such as military force, economic sanctions, or other forms of coercion. Instead, soft power involves creating compelling stories, building networks, and making one’s country look cool.
In other words, instead of intimidating other countries to do your bidding, soft power is all about making other countries want the same things you want through appeal and attraction.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in has spoken about the importance of soft power in relation to BTS, too. “Korean culture is dominating the world,” he says. “And it is boosting the country’s national status and diplomacy.”
And he’s right to say it: South Korea went from a GDP per capita of $109 in 1965 to $31,489 in 2020, with the country being the world’s 10th largest economy.
At first glance, it feels like a stretch to relate all this to a catchy tune like Permission to Dance. But it’s worth noting that hallyu is not only very political but also, like many everyday things, it traces its roots in war — more specifically, in a distaste for war and foreign invasion.
Decades before Nye wrote the book on soft power, Kim Gu, a leader of the Korean independence movement, wrote about how he wanted South Korea to be “the most beautiful nation in the world.”
By this, he was careful to point out that he doesn’t mean for South Korea to be the most powerful nation, writing, “Because I have felt the pain of being invaded by another nation, I do not want my nation to invade others… The only thing that I desire in infinite quantity is the power of a noble culture.”
Writing towards the end of the Japanese occupation of Korea, Kim Gu noted that culture can make people happy — both in and out of Korea.
The Study That Changed the Course of Korean History
It was a while before Kim Gu’s dream would start building towards reality, as what followed afterward was the Korean War and the arrival of U.S. troops. When the wars ended, Korean President and dictator Park Chung-hee went on to encourage rapid industrialization of Korea’s sectors — but left out its media and entertainment industry.
Using its own soft power, the U.S. influenced the South Korean government to remove its restrictions on foreign films. This paved the way for many American companies to establish themselves on South Korean soil, including Twentieth Century Fox in 1988, Warner Brothers in 1989, Columbia in 1990, and Walt Disney in 1993. The end effect was that by 1994, Hollywood dominated the South Korean movie market.
For a while, no one thought much about this imbalance and, indeed, it’s one that still exists in many other countries today. But things started to change when people realized that there was more money (and power) in investing in local movies.
In 1994, a South Korean council found that a Hollywood blockbuster — more specifically, 1993’s Jurassic Park — was able to earn even more than 1.5 million Korean-manufactured cars.
At the time, Hyundai automobiles were a key source of national pride and a focus of government economic policy. But the findings turned South Korean leaders’ heads towards culture, not cars, as an export.
This idea was critical in the aftermath of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, which devastated the region and left the South Korean economy in shambles. “We must pour our energy into globalizing Korean culture,” said President Kim Dae-jung in his inaugural address in 1998. “Tourism, the convention industry, the visual industry, and special culture commodities are a treasure trove for which a limitless market is awaiting.”
My Sassy Girl Walked, so Crash Landing on You Can Run
From there, hallyu was born. It started with 1999’s Swiri, a thriller about North Korean espionage that was backed by Samsung and beat out Titanic at the box office. The media that followed — the romantic dramas Autumn in my Heart (2000) and Winter Sonata (2004), as well as the extremely successful film My Sassy Girl (2001) — are widely credited to have launched the Korean Wave across Asia.
These early successes showed the South Korean government that there is plenty to be gained from supporting local media. To allow creators and artists to thrive, they rolled out some key policies.
- Removing censorship: This provided more opportunities for young independent filmmakers, musicians, and artists to explore newer and bolder themes, the way more recent productions like Parasite (2019) critique worsening economic inequality. It’s worth noting, however, that South Korean superstars are often subject to implicit censorship.
- Establishing the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism (MCST): Before 1993, the Ministry of Culture was only a sub-organization of the Ministry of Education. By establishing the MCST, the government was able to consolidate its efforts in support of the entertainment industry, which includes investments in infrastructure like concert halls as well as special effects technology.
- Establishing the Korean Film Council (KOFIC): Working under the umbrella of the MCST, KOFIC is composed of industry professionals, which means that they’re more aware of the challenges and opportunities for the sector. It’s also been instrumental in protecting the film industry from the economic impact of Covid-19 and in encouraging recovery.
- Funding the creative industries: Early on, the country earmarked 1% of its national budget to subsidies and low-interest loans, and helped launch agencies for the creation and expansion of K-pop acts. For 2022, the MCST is set to have a record-high budget of 7 trillion won ($6.05 billion).
- Providing training and guidance: In South Korea, filmmaking and production skills are taught as early as elementary school, with many institutions investing in equipment for movie-making, blue-screen technology, and set design. Plus, actual practitioners also benefit from state guidance for things like international marketing and distribution of TV shows.
- Paying professionals behind the camera: In addition to actors and performers, people who work behind the scenes are celebrated, too, and are much better paid than their counterparts in other countries.
The policy and investments above pay for themselves — plus interest. Artists and celebrities also help promote South Korean culture by featuring tourist spots, architecture, instruments, and even clothing.
Earlier this year, for instance, newly appointed ‘special presidential envoy for future generations and culture’ BTS attended the 76th UN General Assembly and gave an inspiring speech for and about the world’s youth. That same day, they also presented Korean art as a gift from their government to The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Moreover, Big Hit Entertainment, the company that gave us BTS and TXT, partnered with the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies to create textbooks for K-pop fans who want to learn Korean. The South Korean government then took notice, promoting the textbooks by sponsoring language classes at six universities across the globe.
A Political Arena
In recent years, it’s been clear that hallyu in general and K-pop in particular are deeply political. In 2018, K-pop idols like Red Velvet and Baek Ji-young were invited to perform at a concert in Pyongyang in a historic summit of North and South Korean leaders.
K-pop songs, too, have become political tools. For example, a 2000 song called One Candle by veteran boy band g.o.d. was used as the unofficial anthem for the 2017 Candlelight Revolution protests, which involved 16 million South Koreans and saw the impeachment of then-president Park Geun-hye.
For the stars themselves, the highly political nature of media can also spell trouble. In 2016, TWICE’s Chou Tzu-yu, who was born in Taiwan, was made to apologize to China after she was seen waving a Taiwanese flag.
It’s also worth noting how K-pop fans, too, have been very political. Known to be some of the most dedicated people in the world, K-pop fans not only work together to ensure that their idols dominate streaming charts, but they’re also passionate activists.
It gets wilder when you go to countries whose love for K-pop has only grown in intensity over the years. In Indonesia, known for having the most K-pop fans in the world, fans have organized to fight climate change, raise funds for victims of natural disasters, and even set up a free Covid-19 vaccination drive.
Interestingly, fans have a history of turning on the K-pop industry, too, serving as a kind of corporate watchdog of sorts. For example, fans have been vocal about infamous “slave contracts” in K-pop agencies and were quick to defend Chou Tzu-yu when her management, JYP Entertainment, seemed to care more about canceled deals with Chinese media than for her wellbeing.
As the fan community continues to grow, it’s become a bit more reflexive. Today, K-pop fans are having more conversations about racism not just in the outside world, but also within their ranks, and the ways in which the industry appropriates Black culture.
Where (And What) Next?
“The eyes of the world are on Korean culture – Korean dramas, Korean film, Korean music,” said BTS leader Kim Nam-Joon, better known as RM, at the reception on the Met’s rooftop garden last September. “But there are still many great Korean artists who are yet to be discovered by the world.”
Indeed, for BTS and the many musicians, filmmakers, producers, performers, and artists of South Korea (and their legions of dedicated fans), the road ahead is an exciting one.
They’ve proven that not even a pandemic can stop the continuous rise of the Korean Wave — and we can only wait and see what they will achieve next.