Some people call it a “virus”, others an “addiction”. The media frequently portrays it as an unprecedented phenomenon that started in Asia and spread rapidly from continent to continent, even to remote places people had never imagined.
This phenomenon is Hallyu or the Korean Wave.
The term Korean Wave was coined by a Chinese journalist in 1999 to describe the growing popularity of Korea’s pop culture in East and Southeast Asia. It has now captured the hearts and minds of millions of people across the globe.
Many have the mistaken impression that the Korean Wave consists of only two elements: Korean films and K-Pop, which takes its name from Japanese pop or J-Pop.
But, there is more to Korean Wave than that. It is a multifaceted giant differing from country to country. For example, pop music and TV dramas, which earned Korea the moniker the Hollywood of the East, were the main foundations of the Korean Wave in communist China and capitalist Taiwan. In Hong Kong, Korean films are at the core of the “wave” there.
In Japan, it was romantic soap opera Winter Sonata that triggered the Korean Wave. In Southeast Asia, it was a mix of it all that made Korean culture popular.
Now, the Korean Wave is not just confined to TV dramas, films and music, but is assertively expanding to things like dance, sculpture, painting, cuisine, computer games, fashion, plastic surgery, cosmetics, cell phones, electronics, tourism and language, to name a few.
“Hallyu is a quite complex phenomenon, with multiple local trajectories and transforming tendencies,” Park Jung-sun, an associate professor from California State University, wrote in Insight into Korea.
It also has had a domino effect. TV dramas, films and music attract tourists, who in turn bring billions of dollars into the country. According to one estimate, the Korean Wave could generate around US$4 billion in sales this year. And, every year it grows.
Right now Korea is enjoying a double boom in the economic and cultural fields thanks to continuous economic reforms, Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s green growth concept and the Korean Wave.
Like Indonesia, Korea was severely affected by the Asian financial crisis in 1997 and became a patient of the IMF. Korea recovered fast and is enjoying an unprecedented economic boom, with 6.2 percent economic growth in 2010 and more than $305 billion in forex reserves.
Yet during past difficult times, Korean artists and filmmakers worked hard to create a cultural renaissance.
“Korean artists put a lot of energy in creating attractive and qua-lity cultural products. They tried so many times. But in the end they succeeded. You see the Korean Wave, which is spreading all over the world,” Korean Tourism Organization president Charm Lee told The Jakarta Post recently in Seoul.
The signs of a cultural boom within Korea can be seen in most towns and cities. Many cultural events — both international and local — have taken place in recent years.
“It’s a new trend in Korea. In six years Korea has changed a lot in the cultural field. Maybe we are economically well off. That’s why we are now able to show interest in cultural aspects,” Ray Han, marketing manager of the famous Nanta theater, told the Post.
Attempting to capitalize on the growing popularity of Korean culture, the Korean government has organized more than 35 different festivals throughout the year. Among them was the Hi Seoul Festival, which featured 47 teams from 11 countries, including Indonesia. Indonesia’s Ciacia people from Southeast Sulawesi performed a traditional dance at the festival in May.
“There is no shortage of performances in Seoul. We have daily shows of Nanta and Miso [musical dance-dramas] and so many others in Seoul,” said Jongkil Lee, a manager of the International Exchange Promotion Association.
Indonesian talent: Ciacia dancers from Indonesia perform during the Hi Seoul Festival at the Yeouido Hangang Park. JP/Veeramalla Anjaiah
This cultural renaissance is reaping enormous economic benefits for Korea. Its exports to several countries, including Indonesia, have been growing in the double digits. Last year alone, Korea exported more than $10 billion worth of goods just to Iraq and Saudi Arabia. In several Southeast Asian countries, the growth rate of exports was more than 100 percent. In 2010, Korean exports to Southeast Asia’s largest economy, Indonesia, reached $7.7 billion, a huge increase from $4.74 billion in 2009.
Main players — film artists and singers — in the Korean Wave are now the highest paid artists in Asia.
“They are like gods. It is very difficult to meet them,” Jongkil said.
Two recent events encapsulated the magic of the Korean Wave. The first was in Paris on May 1. More than 300 French teenagers staged a demonstration in front of the Louvre demanding a second show in Paris of SM Town Live, a K-Pop concert with famous Korean singers from groups like TVXQ, Super Junior, SHINee and Girls’ Generation.
All 6,000 tickets for the June 10 show were sold out in 15 minutes on April 26.
“For a moment, I was going to cry because I saw that it was full,” a protester told MBC TV.
The popularity of Korean singers has raised the eyebrows of many, even in Korea.
“This is really amazing and surprising. I never imagined that our singers were that popular in Europe,” ASEAN-Korea Center secretary-general Ambassador Young Jai-cho told the Post recently in Seoul.
The organizers bowed to popular demand and agreed to have another show on June 11. Again, the tickets sold out, but this time in 10 minutes through online sales.
Why are some French youth crazy about this distant culture from Asia?
Duty: Members of the Gyeongbokgung guard participate in the changing of the guard in Seoul. The royal palace is a major tourist attraction in Seoul. JP/Veeramalla Anjaiah
“K-Pop singers are complete artists and entertainers. They can sing, they can dance and they look very trendy. This is the main difference with French singers who mainly prefer to focus on the lyrics and almost never dance. Many of them… don’t really care about their looks,” Maxime Paquet, president of a French fan club called Korean Connection, told Korea magazine last month.
The second event was in India’s remote province of Manipur. It is so remote even many Indians do not know much about Manipur and its culture. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the French news agency Agence France-Presse recently reported that the Korean Wave had struck the region. Street vendors sell DVDs of Korean soap operas and films and CDs of K-Pop stars. Hair salons offer “Korean-style” cuts. Manipur’s capital, Imphal, and other towns are even connected to Korean global TV channels Arirang TV and KBS World.