Beyond Netflix’s hit “Squid Game” series, South Korea has a variety of successful cultural exports in recent years.
New albums from K-pop groups like BTS or Blackpink are topping the charts around the world, while South Korea’s intense fandom culture is emerging as a global phenomenon.
In 2019, Bong Joon-ho’s film “Parasite” caused a sensation by winning four Oscars in 2020, including Best Picture.
South Korean literature has also gained international recognition, notably through Han Kang, who won the Man Booker Prize in 2016 for his novel “The Vegetarian”, and Kim Young-ha, who received the Deutscher Krimi Preis (Prize German criminal fiction). in 2020 – the most prestigious German literary award for detective fiction – for “Diary of a murderer”.
However, the current success of South Korean pop culture took a long time to come. The Chinese term “Hallyu”, which literally translates to “Korean Wave” and is now used to describe the popularity and spread of contemporary South Korean culture, was coined in the mid-1990s.
The wave first spread to other Asian countries
“Hallyu quickly conquered the Chinese market, but the industry still has its eyes riveted on the American market, where it has nevertheless faced many failures”, Michael Fuhr, managing director of the Center for World Music and research assistant at the University of Hildesheim’s Institute of Music and Musicology, told DW.
South Korea stood out from other markets early on for its idol-training system, says Fuhr, who is currently working on a doctorate in K-pop and recently contributed to a fan culture research project in K-pop with academics from Liverpool and Seoul.
An exhausting training system
The three biggest companies in the Korean entertainment industry, YG, SM and JYP, are reputable agencies for selecting hundreds of young interns who are drawn into intense training programs, where they can spend 14 hours a day working on their performance skills.
BlackPink girls also went through the casting and training system
At the end of the 2000s, the group Girls’ Generation, formed by SM Entertainment, achieved great success in South Korea and Japan, while the boy band Big Bang, formed by YG in 2006, began to make a name for itself in abroad as well. .
An important step with Psy
But South Korean music’s major breakthrough in the West came in 2012, with rapper Psy’s world hit “Gangnam Style”. His YouTube video has been clicked over a billion times in just a few months, totaling over 4.2 billion views to date.
“Psy was not a classic K-pop representative,” emphasizes Michael Fuhr, “but he demonstrated for the first time that language is no longer a barrier to international success.”
The power of social media
YouTube, along with other rapidly growing streaming and social media platforms, has certainly contributed to the phenomenon. Suddenly, record companies were no longer dependent on broadcasters broadcasting their songs or videos; fans could determine for themselves what they liked.
“K-pop fans are well connected; the fan culture is very participatory and the industry knows how to serve it, ”explains Michael Fuhr.
Agencies forming K-pop groups consciously select group members with different character traits to ensure that as many young people as possible can identify with them.
World-famous group BTS at the 2021 American Music Awards
The bands are also required to have an active online presence, allowing fans to feel like they are part of the lives of their idols, says Michael Fuhr: “It’s a package that is being sold.”
But as soon as the idols appear in public in a way that deviates from their fans’ expectations, they face hateful comments and pressure, which has already driven some stars to suicide.
The high quality of music and video production also contributes to its success. “From a Western point of view, what you see there is sort of new, but at the same time there is something familiar about it,” says Michael Fuhr, noting Michael Jackson’s influence on the sophisticated choreography of boy groups like Take That.
K-pop groups target an audience that may be tired of American pop stars and are looking for something “new and exciting, but at the same time not too strange”.
Images borrowed from video games
“Squid Game” also renews an established visual style. The colorful aesthetic of the series feels familiar to a younger audience accustomed to video games. For example, the symbols worn by the guards in the series -— circle, square and triangle — are similar to those found on PlayStation consoles. Word-of-mouth praise via the global player network is said to have contributed significantly to the success of the series.
Stories with social commentary
The issues addressed in the series, including poverty, the culture of unrest, and the growing gap between rich and poor, are universal, says Michael Fuhr.
Here, too, blockbuster movies and shows offer a new take on long-standing social issues – with “Squid Game” and “Parasite” as the most prominent examples.
Beyond fictional universes, these stories also provide insight into South Korean society, showing how many people in the country live in poverty, cramped conditions, often without electricity or water, or in basements, like the poor family which finds its way into the life of a rich family in “Parasite”.
According to the OECD, around 15% of the 52 million inhabitants have an income below the average income; poverty among the elderly is estimated at 50%; and youth unemployment is just under 10%, almost twice as high as in Germany. Many families go into debt to provide a good education for their children.
At the same time, it is common in South Korea to despise those who have less. “It is a society very shaped by capitalist values”, explains Michael Fuhr. There is “a strong work mentality and in part a neo-Confucianist hierarchy of values.”
Members of the South Korean Confederation of Trade Unions wore “Squid Game” costumes at a rally in October
The protagonists of “Squid Game” are in desperate need of the money. Proof that the fictional universe echoes real-life issues, protesters demonstrating against the South Korean government’s labor market policy last October dressed up in costumes and masks from the show.
This article was originally written in German.