Crazy about Korea: How it all began
Nowadays, Korean culture is literally everywhere, creeping its way even into the most remote places on the globe. But how did this begin? What made it possible for the K-wave to literally wash through the world and engage people of all ages?
As I love reading and I love K-pop and K-dramas, I was really curious about how this whole craze for Korean contents (shortened as K-anything) came about. I mean, it’s pretty unbelievable that a country with barely 50 million residents could provide entertainment content that appeals to hundreds of millions around the globe – regardless of the language or even the cultural barrier.
While the whole K-wave phenomenon did not happen overnight, it was quite a quickly accelerating process. And believe it or not, it all began with the Jurassic Park…
Toward the end of the 1980s, a series of social-cultural-economic changes started in Korea, which resulted in the almost complete shutdown of the local film industry, with American movies taking nearly 80% share of the market pushed by the US government. This, of course, deeply saddened the local industry and in 1994, a government study was presented to the president of South Korea, pointing out an interesting tidbit: revenue from the Hollywood blockbuster Jurassic Park alone equaled the sales from 1.5 million Hyundai cars… The shocking realization that culture contents were able to generate as much, if not more, money than usual consumer products slowly transformed into an interest in investment into the local entertainment industries. In 1999, Kim Dae-jung, nicknamed ‘the President of Culture’ decided to allocate 148 million USD for the support of cultural ventures.
Besides the changes in the mentality of Korean industry and political leaders, it seems like this change happened at the right time, exactly when the Asian economic crisis hit in 1997. As economy declined, TV stations around Asia started to look for ways of filling their schedules up with content they could afford. The reviving Korean film industry started to produce considerably cheap content that was still of reasonably high quality. Research is not hundred percent sure which drama was the first to air outside of Korea, but it looks like either What Is Love All About? or Star In My Heart was the one to conquer the hearts of Chinese housewives – only the year is sure: 1997. Star In My Heart in particular became extremely popular in China and Taiwan, attributed to the good looks of its male lead, Ahn Jae-wook. Chinese viewers were taken aback. Is this really Korea? As it turns out, Asian countries did not really have a very pleasant opinion of Koreans at the time. Taiwanese even considered them rednecks. Korean dramas – dubbed in Chinese and disguised as Chinese-made at first – showed a different aspect of Korea. Women were pleased and drawn in by the good looks of the actors, the fashion and lifestyle presented. Korea, through the lens of the TV series, appeared to be trendy, wealthy and fashionable.
Ahn Jae-wook in the 1990s. Who wouldn’t fall for him?
Real breakthrough though came in 2002 with the well-known series Winter Sonata, which literally broke down the walls between Korea and Japan and started an unbelievable craze among middle-aged Japanese women. Korean dramas present a dream-like image, a little like an Asian version of Disney tales in modern dressing. Men and women are beautiful and pure, men are real gentlemen, romantic and sophisticated, true Modern Princes. Love is eternal and the evil characters always get punished or repent their sins. A perfect way of escapade from crude reality, especially for women viewers. To top it all, the actors are passionate, the stories are easy to relate to, with numerous hooks to get viewers engaged; quality of production, including cinematography, is superb. Moreover, unlike Mexican soap operas or American television series, most Korean series are short, therefore easy to follow, and because they are short, you literally crave to see more, so once you finished a Korean drama, you are bound to search for the next candidate, thus creating a constant demand that keeps the whole industry at an elevated pace and secures its future. Brilliant marketing, isn’t it?
Statue of the Winter Sonata main leads on Nami Island. (Photo: crunchfort)
Of course, as the popularity of dramas grew around Asia, the music industry was quick to adapt. Though the transformation of Korean pop began in 1992 with the appearance of Seo Taiji & Boys, who sort of invented the hit format of all K-pop songs famous today (let’s not forget YG Entertainment founder Yang Hyun-suk was a member of this band); it was not until the end of the 1990s that the export of pop music began. The flagship was undoubtedly sailed by S.M. Entertainment, the first big agency, but was soon closely followed by others. To me, it seems like Korean pop industry leaders demonstrated what Samsung demonstrates now in electronics: they took the concept of J-pop idol making factories and twisted it around, injected their own brilliance and particular mindset into it and there, you have the next market leader on your hands!
At the end of the 1990s, it was again China that picked things up: Channel V started to air Korean music videos. Just like in the case of dramas, K-pop bands also resonated well with Asian consumers. These guys are Asian, for one, therefore share a common cultural background. They transmit sentiment that is well accepted. As for international fans, K-pop is fresh, new and unprecedented. These singers can not only sing and dance well, they project a pure and approachable image, they are cute and innocent but not in an excessive way like J-pop stars, who literally choke viewers with their kawaii-ness. Fans are treated like diamonds, the concept of fan service as such is something that helps keep the newly gained fandom. Once you are hooked, there is no return.
First generation idol bands started to spread their wings at the end of the 1990s, with H.O.T. claiming the Chinese market and CLON tapping into Taiwan. Then of course came young BoA, with her initial success in Japan, quickly followed by now-superstars like Rain and DBSK, and as the saying goes, the rest is history. Of course the K-wave can be grateful to technology, as from the mid-2000s the incredible spread of social media platforms enabled K-content to literally breeze through the Internet. If you ask any K-pop or K-drama fan how they became interested in the whole craze, I bet that the majority will say something along the lines of “stumbled upon it on the web”. The rest will cite friends as a source of inspiration. This is how K-pop infatuates the whole world: by clicking on the share button and by word of mouth, completely rewriting traditional entertainment marketing strategies.
H.O.T. Performing We Are The Future on MBC.
CLON’s music video Round and Round
The reason why K-pop and not J-pop or C-pop could manage this feat would probably deserve a separate study.