While in the past the export of Korean culture depended on China, today it has proven itself as a global culture.
In 2006, the Korean production company CJ E&M set a goal that “the whole world watches Korean films at least 2-3 times a year, eats Korean once or twice a month, watches 1 or 2 Korean series a year. week and listen to 1 or 2 Korean songs a day ”. At the time, this statement was almost laughable. Today, as Squid Game – the most popular Netflix series in 94 countries – is a huge success worldwide, it seems achievable. Netflix has announced its intention to devote half a billion dollars to the creation of Korean content for this year.
China was affected by the Korean wave (or Hallyu) in 2005 with the release of the programs “Yellow handkerchief” and “Jewel of the palace”. This craze for Korean culture will however be discouraged by the authorities who fear a real brainwashing among Chinese fans. In 2010, a stampede left hundreds injured during the Super Junior concert at the Shanghai World Expo. An excellent pretext to ban Korean imports! South Korea is forced to diversify the export of its culture to other markets. In 2012, the wave turns into a tsunami with the famous song Gangnam Style and its billion views.
It is no wonder that the Chinese have banned the distribution of Squid Game.
The recipe for Korean success lies in the universality of its keen eye on modern society and culture.
After all, Parasite (Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2019 and 4 Oscars including that for best film in 2020) and Squid Game comment on the growing social inequality and the absurdity of the so-called “meritocratic” systems found in capitalist companies around the world. It is no wonder that the Chinese have banned the distribution of Squid Game (although it appears to have been viewed millions of times). It’s too dark, too close to the social anxieties of the country.
The ability to capture the spirit of the day with precision and relevance is hugely lucrative: Parasite grossed $ 259 million, and Netflix proudly claims the Squid Game series made $ 900 million. But the jewel of Korea’s cultural export is a boy band named BTS, which generates an estimated turnover of $ 5 billion a year, or nearly half a percent of South Korea’s total GDP.
The boy band’s exceptional success is based on its original content. The lyrics of their songs reflect the anxieties of the “N-po generation” in Korea. They refer to the dreams that young people have to give up (career, house, marriage…), unemployment, growing precariousness and stifling competitiveness. This situation is very similar to that of the “tang ping generation” in China, which I spoke about previously, or that of American millennials who know full well that they will never be able to reach the standard of living of the Boomers.
But unlike American rappers or influencers, who turn to nihilism, expressing great anger towards society or withdrawing into themselves, the message conveyed by BTS is imbued with benevolence, aspiration and hope. With their slogan “Love Yourself”, they want to promote the mental well-being of their audience. Their video clips are (d) amazing productions, explosions of color, music and dance. Real morale boosters!
The Chinese see Korea as an ally of the United States. They don’t want young people to fraternize with the enemy.
The BTS fan club is called ARMY (Adorable Representative MC for Youth). It officially has over 40 million members worldwide (almost as many as the total population of South Korea). During the COVID pandemic, BTS released a song called “Permission to Dance,” which expressed empathy for its confined fans. The only other artists who to my knowledge have produced a solidarity song are Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande. A year after this release, Hybe, the publicly traded holding behind BTS, announced the acquisition of Ithaca Group, the holding behind the two Western artists. Probably not a coincidence …
Much of the recent Chinese regulatory push against “sissy boys” or “fan club culture” is a rejection of Korean culture.
Why so much hatred?
The first reason is geopolitical: the Chinese consider Korea to be an ally of the United States. They don’t want young people to fraternize with the enemy.
The second is related to the influence that this type of group can have on their fans. With 40 million members, BTS’s fanclub, ARMY (aptly named), is nearly 40 times larger than the U.S. military and 20 times larger than the Chinese military. When geared towards consumerism (there are many merchandise available on the Weverse app), fan dedication can be very lucrative… but it could also prove to be dangerous.
At one point, some voices were raised to denounce the commercial nature of BTS and its incitement to consumption. BTS released the song “Idol” in direct response to this review. We see ARMY as a community that responds to a spiritual need of youth for lack of being able to materialize.
Whereas in the past the exports of Korean culture depended on China, today Korean culture has proven itself as a global culture, and Hallyu can sweep over all shores, without the need of China.
Disclaimer: We stay very long Hybe, the group that owns BTS, Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande.
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Korea’s wave doesn’t need China