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Popular TV show stokes Chinese demand for Korean cosmetics

At an upscale department store near the Wangfujing shopping street in Beijing, a 21-year-old university student Zhang Yang was browsing an aisle featuring South Korean cosmetics brands.

"I want to look like Song Hye-kyo from 'Descendants of the Sun,'" Zhang said with a grin, referring to the heroine of the popular Korean TV drama.

To help make her dream at least a temporary reality, the store provides Zhang with free makeup lessons with a wall-sized poster of the Korean TV drama greeting customers.

Korean cosmetics brands have made a splash in the Chinese market in recent years, but they are looking to win a larger market share, helped by the growing popularity of Korean TV dramas and pop culture.

The latest TV soap opera hit, which features the story of a romance between a sharp-looking Army captain and a female doctor in the fictional war-torn country of Uruk, had been aired in China since late February. Inc., the video-streaming website of Baidu, China's top search engine, has exclusively streamed the TV drama in China, and there have been more than 2.8 billion views of the TV show, according to the website. It is more than double the number of views for "My Love from the Star," another hit Korean drama, which garnered 1.3 billion views in China in early 2014.

Chinese women aged between 18 and 24 were the most ardent fans of "Descendants of the Sun," according to the Chinese streaming website. Women accounted for 79 percent of all viewers.

While the 16-episode drama, where the heroine uses lipstick from AmorePacific as a product placement, ended in mid-April, the Korean cosmetics industry is making efforts to further boost the Chinese market's already rosy-cheeked future.

Jung Jin-woo, an official at the Beijing unit of the Korea Trade and Investment Promotion Agency, said sales of products featured in "Descendants of the Sun" nearly doubled in March at a shopping website run by

"Sales of the lipstick used by Song Hye-kyo during the TV drama hit a record in March," Jung said. "After the drama was aired, sales of Korean cosmetics in China are further increasing."

"Such a trend is notable for consumers in major cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou," Jung said.

According to Korea's customs data, China is the biggest buyer of South Korean beauty products, importing $999.5 million last year, accounting for 40.6 percent of the country's entire cosmetics exports.

Hong Kong came in second, buying $606.4 million worth of South Korea cosmetics, followed by the United States with $207.3 million and Japan with $113.7 million.

China set a range of 6.5 to 7 percent for its economic growth target this year as the world's second-largest economy is grappling with a slower expansion, mounting debts and sluggish reforms.

China's economy grew 6.9 percent in 2015, marking the weakest expansion in 25 years.

Although the Chinese economy is rapidly cooling, the country's makeup sector is expected to achieve further growth.

"China's per capita cosmetics consumption is less than 20 percent that of Korea's," said Son Hyo-ju, a researcher at Seoul-based HI Investment & Securities, in a report.

"As China's income levels will rise in the future, its market has become a competitive playing field for global cosmetic companies," Son said.

"Against this backdrop, Japan has already lost its ground to Korea, while Chinese demand for Korea's cosmetics is growing exponentially," Son said.

The popularity of the Korean Wave or "hallyu" is catapulting Korean brands into the spotlight.

"In short, Korea is revolutionizing the Asian beauty scene," Son said.

According to Statistics Korea, South Korea's official statistics agency, sales of cosmetics jumped 12.9 percent on year to 1.73 trillion won ($1.49 billion) in March this year.

The monthly sales growth was the highest since April 2015 and far exceeded the overall retail industry's 4.7 percent rise in the same period.

The healthy sales growth of cosmetics in South Korea was also fueled by Chinese tourists who visit South Korea.

The number of foreign tourists visiting South Korea grew about 17 percent to 1.12 million people in March. The number of Chinese tourists visiting South Korea jumped 29 percent during the month, according to government statistics.

"Retail sales of cosmetics jumped, helped by a growing popularity of Korean dramas, such as 'Descendants of the Sun,'" said an official at Statistics Korea. (Yonhap)