Korean business conglomerates gave considerable support to the popular culture industry, and the Korean government helped to promote it as well. Business interests saw popular culture as a major area of export earnings; the government promoted the Korean Wave as a means of improving Korea`s image abroad, especially among its near neighbors, and encouraging tourism and foreign investment.
In other words, the Korean Wave both brings in hard currency and extends Korea`s "soft power." But almost 10 years after the Korean Wave was first recognized, just at the moment when it is at the peak of official hype, it looks to be on the decline. If not crashing, the wave is almost certainly slowing down.
One of the most unexpected developments in Korea`s globalization at the turn of the 21st century has been the success of its popular culture as an export commodity. The term Hallyu, or "Korea Wave," was apparently first used in China around 1999 ("hanliu" in Chinese) to refer to the explosive growth in popularity of Korean films, television programs, pop music, and fashions in that country.
Various K-pop media, and especially certain actors, styles and bands, found fervent and even fanatical followers in the East Asian region and beyond. Housewives from as far away as Honolulu came on group tours to visit sites filmed in their favorite Korean soap operas. Korean actors became household names in Japan.
Korean pop bands outdid the biggest American acts in popularity in China, and when visiting the country received welcomes reminiscent of The Beatles in their heyday. Vietnamese schoolgirls tried to imitate the make-up and hairstyles of their favorite Korean singers and actresses.
Big-business underwriting and government support certainly helped push the Korean Wave, but these alone cannot explain Hallyu`s success. Clearly there was something about Korean popular culture that struck a chord with young people across eastern Asia and the Pacific.
It has often been argued that a combination of up-to-date style and slick production values with "Confucian" or "traditional East Asian" cultural norms resonated within the region. Thus, for example, Korean TV dramas set in contemporary Seoul showed a sophisticated urban lifestyle while focusing on family values and relationships, something to which an aspiring Chinese middle class could relate and wished to emulate.
Similarly, Korean pop acts showed all the latest musical idioms and dance moves borrowed from the United States, but in a more subdued and less provocative package than their American counterparts. In other words, the combination of cutting-edge styles and cultural familiarity, novelty without excessive "foreign-ness," gave K-pop just the right balance to be a success in East Asia.
Another element of K-pop`s success is the fact that Korea is a less problematic source of popular culture than some other countries in the region: China can more easily accept Korean pop culture than Japan, for example, because of long-standing historical and political issues with Japan; Vietnam can embrace K-pop more easily than Chinese pop, for similar reasons.
And for all the countries in the region, Korean pop offers an alternative to the globally dominant American popular culture industry. The very fact that Korean popular culture wasn`t American or Japanese, cultures already well-known in the region, gave it a freshness and novelty that American and J-pop lacked.
The precise reasons the wave arose will be argued and analyzed for a long time to come; whatever its causes, this was the first time Korea had ever been a leader in cultural trends in the region, and it is still not clear how long the Korean Wave can last. Well into the first decade of the 21st century, however, Hallyu could be seen as a key element in the growing cultural integration of the East Asian region.
The Korean Wave in the United States and other non-East Asia regions is a more limited, specialized and less well-known phenomenon. In my own country, the popularity of Korean cultural forms has generally been limited to a few specific genres and constituencies.
Not surprisingly the most important consumers of Korea popular culture are Americans of Korean descent, and outside of that demographic group the "wave" is mostly confined to the large cities, especially Los Angeles and New York, where the highest concentrations of Korean-Americans can be found.
Indeed, in the United States it`s hard to speak of a "Korean Wave" at all, except in the area of film. And here, the popularity of Korean film has been largely (but by no means exclusively) limited to foreign film aficionados.
In that respect the "Korean Wave" fits well with earlier "waves" of Korean film, going back to the genre that originated this metaphor, the French "New Wave" of the late 1950s and 1960.
There is no doubt that certain Korean film genres and directors are quite popular among film buffs, students, and frequenters of "art-house" movies (the latter somewhat of a misnomer, since such films are much more likely to be seen on DVD than in art houses). For example, the films of Park Chan-wook, especially "Oldboy" in his violent "Vengeance Trilogy," have been a hit among American film critics.
The mainstream American film audience is another matter, however, and the Korean film industry`s attempt to achieve mainstream popularity have not met with much success. Im Kwon-taek`s historical drama "Chunhyang," Kim Ki-duk`s Buddhist-themed "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring," Bong Jun-ho`s "The Host," and Shim Hyung-rae`s "D-Wars," were all released in American theaters in recent years, but none came close to the runaway success that some Korean films have achieved in Japan and other East Asian countries.
Becoming recognized by American film critics and establishing a presence on the art-house circuit and at international film festivals is no small achievement in itself, and it`s not as if Japanese and Chinese films have often become mainstream hits in the United States. Here in New York, Korean films have been a regular part of the ImaginAsian film series, and since 2002 there has been an annual New York festival devoted solely to Korean films.
But one cannot compare this kind of specialized success with the truly popular reach of Korean films in Asia. Just as Hong Kong police dramas become a huge success among American film specialists in the 1990s and have since faded from popularity, so one can predict the "art-house" world shifting its gaze away from Korea toward films from some other country or region of the world in the future.
If Korean films are popular only in a few segments of American society, the same can be said of Korean TV drama, which has dedicated followers among non-ethnic Korean-Americans but nothing approaching the mass appeal such dramas have in China, where they far outperform domestic TV dramas.
As for pop music, there is little sign of Korean singers or bands making it big in the United States any time soon. One never knows, of course, which individual act may make a breakthrough to domestic popularity, and some aspiring Korean-American singer from Los Angeles may be the Next Big Thing after he or she wins the American Idol competition, but acts from Korea itself have established relatively little appeal in the United States beyond the ethnic Korean community. When the pop singer "Rain" performed at Madison Square Garden two years ago, he drew in a sell-out audience of 5,000 - but the vast majority of these appeared to be Korean-Americans.
The Korean Wave may simply be experiencing a natural downturn after saturating the markets of popular culture outside of Korea. But other factors suggest a decline as well. One aspect of this is a conscious backlash, which has been seen both in Japan (most notoriously, a harsh and even xenophobic "I Hate Korean Wave" internet campaign) and in China, where the government has expressed concern about Korean popular culture sidelining domestic cultural production.
The Korean Wave is at least partly dependent on good political relations between Korea and its neighbors; although popular culture may facilitate good neighbor relations, as the Korean government seems to believe, culture can also become a victim of a downturn in relations in other areas, whether political or economic. Furthermore, as the cultural industry in China and Southeast Asia develop, audiences there may turn to more home-grown acts that both appeal to local nationalism and come without language barriers.
Finally, piracy of Korean films, TV shows and music recordings - especially in China and Southeast Asia - detract from the profits of Korea-based entertainment companies and may limit the success of these industries.
Like all things, the Korean Wave must pass. The very metaphor of a "wave" suggests a powerful but transitory phenomenon, suddenly arising from the depths and just as suddenly crashing on the shore. And indeed, there are clear signs of declining success, both domestically and abroad, of Korean popular culture forms, especially films.
Domestic box office returns for Korean films in 2007 were well below that of the previous year, and the lowest the industry had seen for some time. The popularity of Korean film has declined internationally as well, despite Jeon Do-yeon`s Best Actress award at Cannes last year, the first time a Korean actress has won the award.
This combination of financial downturn and global acceptance may be precisely the point: Korean popular culture is no longer a "wave," but an established part of the global cultural landscape. The timing of the Korean Wave is perhaps ironic: it emerged just as the electronic media were integrating the world`s populace as never before, undermining the very notion of a nation-specific "wave."
Last November, I organized a symposium on the Korean Wave at Columbia University, one of the first such academic events in the United States devoted exclusively to analyzing and understanding the Korean Wave phenomenon.
Lectures and demonstrations by scholars from Korea, North America and Europe, as well as several Korean cultural practitioners (filmmakers, a TV director, actors, musicians and others), and discussion with a very engaged audience from Columbia and elsewhere in New York City, made for a uniquely diverse and stimulating event. But there was a sense that we were observing a phenomenon reaching its limits.
At the symposium my colleague Richard Pena, who teaches film studies at Columbia and organized the first-ever Korean film festival at Lincoln Center in 2004, argued that the very concept of a cinematic "wave" reflected an earlier period of technology and film spectatorship. In an age of internet downloads, audience fragmentation and complex transnational film production, national "waves" themselves may be a thing of the past.
It is possible that the another wave of popular culture will sweep across the Asia-Pacific; perhaps it will originate in Thailand, or Vietnam, or Mongolia, or Uzbekistan. But it may also be the case that the Korean Wave is the last of this sort of pop culture wave we will see for some time. In the world-ocean of increasingly interconnected media, waves can be too numerous, frequent and diverse to be traced to any specific country.
By Charles K. Armstrong