On May 10, 2020, Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s film Parasite took home three Oscar Awards from the 92nd Academy Awards ceremony. As the first ever nomination and win of a South Korean film at an international film festival, this achievement marked a pivotal point for Korean films, representing hope in the Korean entertainment industry to gain a new hold and influence on global media. In a speech given by producer Kwak Sin-ae, he commented on the night as “a very opportune moment in history”.
South Korea is notably one of the only countries in the world that has a dedicated goal to become the world’s leading export of popular culture. From long ago, one of its government’s focuses has been to centre subsidising and provide support to its creative industries, even funding start-ups. Part of the reason for prioritising South Korean export of pop culture is that the South Korean government wanted to develop its “soft power” throughout the world – the intangible power of a country wielded through its image rather than hard force, ie. military or economic power.
Over the past decades, South Korea’s pop culture has gained an immense presence around the world through increased distribution and consumption of Korean content, via platforms such as YouTube, Netflix and SNS. Whilst back in the days, people had to purchase CDs and DVDs in order to enjoy Korean pop culture, nowadays, on-demand platforms have eliminated the geographical limitations of Korean television and allow much easier cultural consumption for a global audience. With K-dramas becoming a powerful force in modern day streaming, and K-pop idols being increasingly recognised and endorsed by fans all over the world, South Korea’s entertainment industry has truly been blossoming.
In addition to the success of Parasite, another significant example of South Korea’s cultural industry breakthrough is the dominance of K-pop group BTS, a seven-member South Korean boy band in the global music scene that has been breaking records for years. The band’s single “Fake Love” released on May 18, 2018, broke the US market when it won the 2018 Billboard Music Award for “Top Social Artist”. With world tours and appearances at various talk shows and events, BTS paved their way to become an increasingly frequent feature not only in their home country, but also around the world.
The phenomenon termed “the Korean wave” is used to refer to this rapid increase in global popularity surrounding South Korean culture, encompassing a wide range of aspects from television programmes, movies, music, and video games, to South Korean skincare regimes and Mukbang, etc. Statistics released by The Korean Foundation reveal that, as of December 2019, there were 1,799 Hallyu (Korean wave) fan clubs with 99.32 million fans. Fan bases in Asia and Oceania were around 72 million; 15 million in Europe and 12 million in the Americas.
Needless to say, the expansion of South Korea’s cultural industries has played a fundamental role in not only promoting its own entertainment content, but also boosting its domestic economy and stimulating economic growth. As the success of Korean content goes global and the Korean wave continues to prosper, it is exciting to see what K-pop’s future holds in store for its global audience.