Squid Game, Parasite and BTS… they’re all part of the K-wave. An influx of Korean culture has entered the West, bringing with it Korean cultural norms, thought and soft power. Soon, Korean philosophy will be next. The fruits of this influx of culture will be positive for both Korea and the West, writes Hannah Kim.
In my senior year of high school, Psy’s “Gangnam Style” went viral, eventually becoming the first YouTube video to reach a billion views. Lacrosse Bros and Theater Kids alike learned the dance. As the only Korean in my grade, I was baffled by its popularity. They couldn’t even understand the lyrics!
But clearly the South Korean cultural industry cracked some kind of code. BTS (방탄소년단) is a global phenomenon, accumulating five US #1 singles faster than Michael Jackson did and collecting thirteen Guiness records on the way. Parasite (기생충) won two Academy Awards last year, including Best Picture, and Squid Game (오징어 게임) has been viewed over 313 million times, making it the most popular Netflix show to date. K-dramas have been all the rage since the 90’s, K-beauty products are a staple in global skincare franchises, and Korean cuisine is also gaining popularity.
And there’s no reason to think this wave of enthusiasm for Korean cultural products – “K-wave” or hallyu (한류)– has peaked yet. A survey conducted by Korea Europe Centre reports that 94% of Korean studies experts from nearly twenty countries think K-Wave will only grow more prominent in coming years.
So why is Korean media so popular now? Dr. Dafna Zur, a professor at Stanford, says it’s because Korean shows are relatable; they feature flawed yet likable characters, and the plot often mixes predictability and surprise. Celebrities are also very intentional about cultivating warm relationships with their fans, which rewards devotion.
The desire to decenter the male gaze – and the white gaze – might also explain Korean media’s popularity. Over 90% of Korean TV screen-writers are women, triple the US average.
The desire to decenter the male gaze – and the white gaze – might also explain Korean media’s popularity. Over 90% of Korean TV screen-writers are women, triple the US average. Female screenwriters are naturally more sensitive to the female experience, and their writings provide a chance to “turn the male gaze on men.” For instance, Korean media will linger over male bodies in ways Hollywood lingers over female bodies. Similarly, the fact that K-dramas were popular across Asia since the 90’s suggests a desire for media that go beyond white protagonists. For many viewers, Korean shows provide an alternative to the western aesthetic, and the desire to see Asian diversity and representation– even if East Asian for the most part– might explain their appeal.
In addition to their intrinsic features, there are also contingent factors that helped propel Korean media onto the global stage. One of these factors is the internet, including social media. Up until the early aughts, my grandma rented VHS tapes from a corner store that shelved hundreds of black rectangles containing Korean dramas. She rented them for a dollar each, and a large tote bag filled with VHS tapes– always lighter than it looked– provided two weeks of nightly entertainment.
But the second K-wave coincided with the advent of YouTube, and it became so much easier and cheaper to access Korean shows, movies, and music. The internet also helped fans find each other, forming online communities that produced covers and shared reactions. Social media sites also helped celebrities to connect to their fans. Korean culture’s global popularity benefited from good timing, but it was also adept at transitioning to a new age of media delivery.
Cultural productions, of course, showcase cultural norms and habits. As more Korean media become mainstream in the West, I believe there’ll also be an influx of Korean concepts in Western culture. In some ways, I think this trend is already underway. The Oxford English Dictionary added twenty-six Korean words, and many of the latest additions, including “yangban” (양반 aristocrat), “Juche” (주체 the North Korean state ideology), “gisaeng” (기생 courtesan), and “sijo” (시조 a form of poetry) are words from Korean history. Duolingo, a popular language-learning app, reported Korean as the second fastest growing language on the platform in 2020 and seventh most popular overall. The number of university students in the USA studying Korean doubled from 2006 to 2016.
Han captures the generational suffering brought on by colonialism, and it’s been argued to be at the heart of Squid Game.
Like feng shui, zen, and je ne sais quoi, Korean concepts describing our everyday lives have been introduced to mainstream culture. The word nunchi (눈치) – one’s ability to read the room – received attention as Koreans’ “secret to happiness,” and a book-length treatment of the concept investigates nunchi as an “art of understanding” that is akin to a superpower.
Han (한) – a mix of sorrow, rage, and regret– has also been catching on. Han is what you feel when you’re being treated unfairly yet there’s nothing you can do about it, the unresolved, and perhaps unresolvable, hurt forming the core of the concept. In folktales, han makes ghosts restless, haunting persons and places as a result. Han captures the generational suffering brought on by colonialism, and it’s been argued to be at the heart of Squid Game.
The popularity of Korean media is a means to promote Korean culture, and alongside culture, Korean influence.
Though not as widely known as nunchi or han, another concept that might find wide relevance is the rough and newly coined shibal biyong (씨발 비용), “fuck-it expense.” An angstier version of the more familiar “treat yo self” mentality, shibal biyong is the expensive cab ride, the impulse trip to Bali, or the instagram-worthy designer splurge incurred out of resignation: why be financially prudent now if you’ll never save enough to buy a house or retire? Shibal biyong is financial-distress-meet-yolo-meet-retail-therapy, and I wonder how many people would justify their expenses as such if they knew the word.
There is rising interest in Korean thought within the academy as well. I’m an academic philosopher, and Korean philosophy – a very understudied tradition – has been receiving more attention in the past few years. When I set out to write an article on Korean philosophers’ justification for the arts in 2018, I struggled to find English source materials on Korean aesthetics and resorted to translating primary and secondary resources from Korean. But now The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the authoritative online resource for philosophical topics, has a section on Korean philosophy, and more books on Korean philosophy have been appearing. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism and The Slovak Journal of Aesthetics will publish a symposium and a special issue dedicated to Korean aesthetics in 2022, and the Victoria and Albert Museum will feature a special exhibition on Korean pop culture from Fall 2022 to Summer 2023.
K-waves were in large part made possible by the Korean government’s intentional support. In the past few years, Korea has been aiming to allocate 2% of its national budget—nearly double previous amounts—to support culture-friendly policies. The government organizes the annual K-Pop World Festival to internationally advocate for Korean culture. Cultural popularity is a form of “soft power,” a way for nations to exert their influence without using military or economic tactics, so it’s understandable that the Korean government would invest in its cultural productions. The popularity of Korean media is a means to promote Korean culture, and alongside culture, Korean influence.
And now, the Korean government is turning to support the propagation of Korean studies, especially humanities and social sciences. The Academy of Korean Studies, a research institute founded by the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology, unveiled a new initiative this year to help Korean scholars share their research on the global scale. The initiative will invest 10 billion won, roughly $8.4 million dollars, to create online courses showcasing Korean literature, history, religions, and philosophy, and to produce an Encyclopedia of Korean National Culture. Each of these products will be available in multiple languages, and I’m sure they’ll dovetail nicely with the growing demand for Korean entertainment.
“Korea holds the key to economic, political and cultural puzzles today,” Professor Zur says, “and it is way cool.” I’m biased, but I can’t help but agree. I’m excited to see what the next few K-waves will bring.
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