Riding high on the Korean Wave

Korean wave K-pop concert © Travis Wise

When Psy sprung Gangnam Style on an unsuspecting world in 2012, it was as though Korean popular culture had just arrived.  The music video spawned numerous imitators and parodies, including SOAS students’ own London Style, and the original video has been viewed on YouTube almost 3 billion times.  However, the origins of the global popularity of Korea’s Wave date back considerably earlier.


The term Hallyu was coined by Chinese journalists in the late 1990s to describe the rapid rise in popularity of Korean culture, arising from the words han (‘Korean’) and ryu (‘wave’).

The Korean Wave includes a broad spectrum of Korean culture: from film and TV to fashion and food; from music and language to art and animation.

A backlash to the blockbuster

The late 1980s saw the lifting of restrictions in Korea, which had previously limited the number of foreign films, which could be shown in Korean cinemas.  The result was a sudden influx of ‘blockbuster’ Hollywood movies and a corresponding decline in Korean domestic movie production.

To counter this downturn, the Korean government set up the Cultural Industry Bureau with the intention of stimulating the flagging Korean media industry by providing support and encouraging sponsors to invest in the sector.  A subsequent loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF)––to help counter the Asian financial crisis––and support from non-governmental cultural elites and institutions continued the momentum for change.

The initiative saw rapid effects and, by the turn of the century, Korean movies, TV dramas and pop music were all finding new and wider audiences overseas, initially in China, and then in the wider East Asia region.

Prime time drama

K-dramas, such as Autumn in My Heart, were drawing widespread critical acclaim, and the drama Winter Sonata represented a breakthrough for the Korean Wave in Japan.  Little by little, Korean drama shows were beginning to be aired during primetime TV slots.  Korean TV was being seen in every household from Manila to Taipei.

The success of these shows, which had gradually spread to encompass countries across South Asia, such as India, Sri Lanka and Nepal, had secondary influences, too.  They helped to promote Korean music, cuisine, fashions, and Korean tourism, as lovelorn tourists travelled to Korea in the hope of discovering the happiness they saw portrayed by characters in their favourite dramas.


Of all the elements of Korea’s Wave, it is perhaps K-pop, which has achieved the widest notice in the West.

Initially, the preserve of Korean immigrant communities in large western cities, such as New York and Los Angeles, the ability to disseminate music videos via the Internet, primarily on YouTube, meant that the popularity of K-pop bands quickly spread.

Idol bands––typically young boy-bands or girl-bands––found armies of followers among social media savvy teenagers and, as bands and followers both grew up together, a new fusion of this youthful pop with a range of other genres, including rock, hip-hop, techno and even metal, resulted in the development of a more saleable, international style, whilst still maintaining its distinctly Korean origins.  A band such as Big Bang now commands an international following as wider––usually wider––than most Western groups.

Soft power

The continued global influence of the Korean Wave has provided an additional benefit for the Korean government.  Soft power––the ability to persuade people, through the use of cultural influencers––is a very powerful international relations tool in the world today, particularly amongst young people.

With the election of the liberal candidate Moon Jae-in in South Korea’s recent presidential elections it looks as though Cool Korea is set to stay.

Want to learn more?

SOAS University of London offers a module on ‘1990s South Korean cinema’ on its undergraduate degree courses BA Japanese Studies, BA Japanese Studies and…, BA Korean, and BA Korean and…

It is possible to study a wide range of other Global Cinema courses at SOAS, including BA Global Cinemas and Screen Arts; MA in Global Cinemas and the Transcultural; and modules in Post-War Japanese Cinema, Cinema and Society in South Asia, Thailand on Screen, and Vietnam on Screen.


Find out more

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