ActivePaper Archive KOREAN WAVE - The West Australian , 11/7/2021



The boom in South Korean pop culture is the result of a strategy two decades in the making

When South Korean director Bong Joon-ho accepted the Golden Globe for best foreign-language film he couldn’t resist a gentle dig at the mostly Western audience.

“Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” he said.

One year later, that one-inch barrier has been not so much surmounted as well and truly flattened.

Squid Game, the South Korean TV series with a bleak anti-capitalist message about what desperate people will do for money, has become Netflix’s biggest hit.

Joon-ho’s film Parasite went on to sweep the 2020 Oscars, becoming the first non-English-language film to win Best Picture.

Meanwhile, in the world of pop music, South Korean boy band BTS has racked up four number one US albums faster than anyone since the Beatles and were last year named the biggest music act in the world by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry — a title previously held by Adele, Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran.

Simultaneously South Korean girl band Blackpink this year became the artist with the most YouTube subscribers worldwide, topping 65.5 million.

If it seems like South Korean pop culture is having a moment, that’s an understatement.

But there’s nothing accidental about the Korean Wave currently breaking over the Western world, which is the result of a Korean Government decision taken two decades ago.

And behind the story of South Korea’s incredible cultural dominance are lessons that Australia and WA can learn about how to sell themselves to the world.

Jo Elfving-Hwang knows more about South Korean culture than most people, as associate professor of Korean studies and director of the Korea Research Centre at the University of Western Australia. But the speed with which South Korean culture has swept through the Western world has surprised even her.

“If you told me in the early 2000s everyone would be watching a Korean TV series, I’d say ‘how did that happen?’” she tells STM.

That TV series is Squid Game, the phenomenon Netflix says is its mostwatched show in 94 countries, hooking in 140 million households with its bleak tale of the financially imperilled risking their lives for a chance of a fortune.

Such is the popularity of the show that Netflix last week delivered a creepy 4.5m replica of a murderous doll featured on the show to Sydney Harbour, allowing locals to play “red light, green light”, presumably without the threat of imminent death.

Squid Game might be the show of the moment but it’s just one grain of sand on the beach so far as South Korea’s output is concerned, much of which is coming to Australia or is already here.

Netflix, which saw the potential in South Korean content early, is releasing a new show just about every week.

Apple launched its streaming service Apple TV Plus in South Korea this week to coincide with its first Korean TV series, Dr Brain, staring Lee Sun-kyun from Parasite. And Disney Plus has five South Korean series in train.

To understand why South Korean content is going to be all over your screens this summer it’s necessary to look back to the 1990s.

This was a decade that, in Australia, saw John Howard oust Paul Keating as prime minister, legislation passed to introduce the GST and witnessed the rise of the fashion crime known as low-rise jeans.

In South Korea it was the decade that left the country on its knees, economically devastated by the Asian financial crisis.

“The financial crisis of the late nineties could have been the end but what was the response of the government?” Ms Elfving-Hwang said. “We’ll invest. And then came this creative content policy and I’m sure there were some sniggers but then it just took off.”

That “creative content policy” refers to a decision by the South Korean government to invest in its arts industry, with a view to exporting it to the rest of Asia, at least initially. That included direct investment by the government, the creation of film and TV training centres to produce a new generation of talent and tax breaks to encourage private investment.

What happened next was the start of the Korean Wave, or what is sometimes known by the Chinese word Hallyu — a term that, incidentally, has just been added to the Oxford English Dictionary. It refers to the global popularity of South Korea’s films, TV, music, movies and pop culture in general, sometimes even stretching to take in the country’s increasingly dominant role in the global skincare industry. »

If it seems like a foreign concept to Australians for a government to pump millions and eventually billions into the arts — South Korea’s culture budget in 2020 was about $5 billion — it’s worth considering South Korea’s history of government involvement in the industry.

Specifically: censorship.

Until the late 1980s South Korean audiences watched, read and listened to content that was largely controlled by the government. And it was not until the early ‘90s that the government lifted its ban on foreign travel for South Koreans.

Within a handful of years South Koreans who had been living in the dark, culturally speaking, had access to more culture than a tub of probiotic yoghurt and the potential for financial support to create their own.

Like every “overnight success” who has spent years waiting tables, the Korean Wave has been building for years.

The Western world had its first real taste of the power of South Korean pop music, or K-Pop, back in 2013 when the song Gangnam Style became a worldwide hit. The song’s singer, Psy, may have failed to become a star outside Asia but but his success showed that audiences didn’t have to know Gangnam was a territory in Seoul in order to enjoy slick production values and weirdly hypnotic dance moves.

Eight years later K-Pop is everywhere.

BTS has spawned the so-called BTS Army, an obsessive fandom that documents the seven-man group’s every move and who have helped the band become the most streamed group on Spotify and the most followed band on Instagram.

Last month Blackpink’s breakout solo star, Lisa, became the most viewed YouTube music video by a solo artist in 24 hours, a title she snatched from Taylor Swift.

At the same time Seoul has become a beacon for music artists across Asia.

Who has benefited from the Korean Wave?

A fair question after Squid Games creator Hwang Dong-hyuk gave an interview in which he noted that Netflix, which has reportedly made about $1 billion from the series, hasn’t paid him an extra money to reflect the series’ spectacular success. “I’m not that rich,” he said. “But I do have enough. I have enough to put food on the table.”

He also offered some insight into why now is the right time for something like Squid Game to find an audience.

“People commented on how the series relate(s) to real life,” he said in an interview with Korea Times. “Sadly, the world has changed in that direction. The series games that participants are crazy about are cryptocurrencies, real estate, stocks, etcetera, are in line with people’s desire to hit big.”

If the individuals aren’t making Scrooge McDuck money, the country might be.

The value of South Korea’s economy has swollen from less than $400 billion gross domestic product in 1998 to $1.6 trillion in 2020, making it the 10th biggest economy in the world.

One estimate suggested Hallyu contributed about $16 billion to the Korean economy in 2019. That was pre-Squid Game, pre-Parasite and arguably before either BTS or Blackpink had peaked.

But when it comes to putting a price on the true value of the Korean Wave, it’s not all about the money.

South Korea’s commitment to becoming a global exporter of culture is just as much about developing its “soft power”, a term popularised by Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye to describe how a country wields power through its culture, values and foreign policy, as opposed to the “hard power” of military or economics.

Associate lecturer at UWA’s Korea Research Centre Caleb Kelso-Marsh said the country’s “nation branding” worked, with a knock-on effect for business and tourism.

“The government incentive was twofold: the first was financial, the second was that soft power branding,” he said. “The Korean government saw the potential for its cultural products to create a positive image for the country.”

He said Australia could learn from South Korea, both in terms of the long-term thinking outside of election cycles that was required for South Korea’s Government to execute a 20-year-plus plan and when it comes to the way Australia’s creative output sells itself to the world. Australia could even team up with South Korea to better leverage its film-friendly environment and expertise in post-production. There was, he said, an opportunity to re-shape the country’s image overseas.

“I think Korea has shown you don’t have to be Hollywood to create a thing and Korea provides a really good example for how to go about doing so,” he said. “Australia abroad is seen just as a place for beaches, mines and maybe a place to learn English.”