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Hallyu - A Korean Tsunami

Hallyu - A Korean Tsunami

Three years ago, President Moon of South Korea visited Indonesia on a state visit. The visit just so happened to coincide with the wedding of Indonesia's first daughter, who received a rather thoughtful present from the President, a signed copy of boy band EXO's album, and a special video from Minho of SHINee passing wishing the newlyweds. On first glance, this is a pleasant story about friendship between nations. But a deeper look reveals that it is but one instance of South Korea's increasing soft power in the 21st century. The peninsular nation has seen an explosion of creativity, creating dedicated legions of fans across the world who are hooked on K-pop and K-dramas, reminiscent of the spread of American soft power in the lead up to and aftermath of the Second World War, an era when jazz music was exported to all corners of the world, and Hollywood established itself as the film capital of Earth. And arguably riding at the very top of the Korean Wave, as it has come to be called, is the boy band BTS (or the Bangtan Boys as they are known in English).


BTS Women's T-shirt

Women's K-Pop BTS Love Yourself T-shirts.


But hold on. Let's rewind a bit. In 1990 K-pop as we knew it today did not exist, and Korean pop culture was hardly consumed outside of the peninsula. So how is it that a genre that evolved in the middle of that decade has grown so popular that its flagship representative, BTS, recently became one of only five musical acts in history to grab both top spots on the Billboard hot 100, the only non-Western, and only non-English* speaking group to ever hit that milestone. As if that was not enough, Big Hit Entertainment, BTS' production company, went public last month in one of the most successful IPOs in the history of the Korean stock market. 


 BTS K-pop earring

Unisex K-pop Idol stud chain earrings.


The answer lies, at least to a certain degree, in the Korean government. No, the Korean Wave (or Hallyu) was not created in a government lab in a bid to take over the world, but governmental actions in the backdrop of the Korean cultural explosion were critical to Hallyu's success. South Korea transitioned to full civilian government from military control in 1987, and as Koreans tasted greater freedom, the usual flourishing in creativity and the arts followed. 1992 saw a pivotal moment in K-pop, when Seo Taiji and Boys incorporated several Western contemporary elements to create the first Korean boy band. By 1997, the Korean Wave was beginning to take off in earnest when Kim Dae-jung won the presidency.


BTS ARMY necklace K-pop

BTS ARMY pendant necklace.


Standing at the edge of a transitory moment in Korean society, Kim took a slew of decisions which placed power in the hands of creators without governmental control of their work through policies designed to empower rather than stifle. It is frequently tempting for governments to use financial incentives to guide artists to create products that the government wants to see, fundamentally a form of state-sponsored propaganda. However, as Kim himself said “Intervention kills the arts. Creativity must flow freely. But artists are economically weak, so the government should support them financially. Help them with money, but do not intervene.” So the government promoted freedom and cultural exchange, strengthened its intellectual property rights regime, provided financial subsidies without examining the content created using them, gave out low interest loans, and abolished censorship.


BTS Boys Action Figure

Bring the Bangtan Boys to your bedroom with these acrylic action stand figures.


The strategy employed by Kim had its risks. Many feared, for example, that complete liberalization of the market would lead to superior Japanese cultural products stealing the Korean market. A large chunk of GDP being set aside to promote the arts also had its opportunity cost. Many feared that a completely hands off government approach would dilute Korean culture. So did the strategy work? A 2019 survey by the Korean Culture and Information Service (KOCIS) seems to suggest it has. In terms of popular perception, the average favorability of South Korea was seen at an extremely high 76.7% in the fifteen countries surveyed, with over 90% approval from several major nations such as India, Russia, and Brazil. Rather than Japanese dramas and music dominating Korea, the opposite has taken place. The Culture Industry Promotion Fund which was responsible for giving out low interest loans has enabled the success of giants such as game developer Bluehole, creator of the mind-bogglingly popular PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds (PUBG).


K-Pop Stray Kids Backpack

And looming above it all, of course, is the unprecedented success of BTS, which has become a truly global force, beating out the biggest names in Western music. The sheer scale of the success of Korean soft power was evident last month, when Chinese social media took umbrage at BTS accepting an award named after an American general in the Korean War. It is no secret that China's hard power, founded on the strength of its formidable economy, can bring the biggest companies and artists to their knees, and many may have imagined that BTS would be no exception. Instead, BTS was barely dented, owing to its loyal worldwide fanbase ARMY (Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth). Perhaps this reflects different governmental attitudes to art in China and South Korea. It was not long ago that Hong Kong was film capital of Asia, and Chinese culture has been the bedrock of almost all of East Asia (including Korea). But, as Kim Dae-jung said, intervention stifles the arts. The Soviet Union learned that lesson the hard way, but creativity ultimately flows from freedom. The world would do well to heed the example of Kim Dae-jung and the Bangtan Boys.

*Although they frequently use English, BTS continues to primarily incorporate Korean lyrics in their music.



  1. https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/10/20/china-south-korea-bts-kpop-nationalism-soft-power/
  2. https://medium.com/revolutionaries/the-role-of-k-pop-in-international-relations-44d0b5a1e1ca
  3. https://www.glimpsefromtheglobe.com/regions/asia-and-the-pacific/fandoms-and-foreign-policy-the-impact-of-k-pop-on-global-politics/
  4. https://thediplomat.com/2019/03/bts-and-the-global-spread-of-korean-soft-power/
  5. https://edition.cnn.com/2017/05/22/entertainment/k-pop-bts-billboard-music-awards/index.html
  6. http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20120323001104
  7. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/on-the-charts-bts-become-first-k-pop-act-to-reach-number-one-629174/
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