Music, cinema, series…. how South Korea became a pop-culture empire

Ophelie Surcouf.


Skiller in South Korea. Mid-June, the seven members of boy band BTS, created in 2013 (40 million fans on Twitter), announced their decision to take a break and hang up the microphones. A choice that has raised concerns even in the political sphere, the group having become the banner of a Korean culture set out to conquer the world: there are countless examples of international success for products made in Seoul. Palme d’or and big public success for “Parasite” by Bong Joon-Ho in 2019 (nearly two million admissions in France), unexpected triumph, on Netflix, of the series “Squid Game”vogue for Korean gastronomy, prize for directing at the last Cannes Film Festival for “Decision to leave”, the great Park Chan-wook (currently in theaters)…

This country of 50 million people has become a master of “soft power”, the art of forging influence through culture and entertainment. How ? The explanations of the journalist Ophélie Surcouf, a passionate, author, in particular, of “Squid Game, the rules of the game to better understand the series” (ed. Out of Collection.)

Can we really speak, today, of a global influence for Korean culture?

Yes. There is even a word for this surge, we talk about the “hallyu” wave. Korean culture, especially the variety, K-pop, has been a big hit in Latin America and the Middle East for several years now, where these groups fill stadiums. This ground swell is arriving in Europe. I don’t think there’s a group on our continent that sells as many records and whose clips are seen as much on the Internet as BTS… And in Asia, it’s the dominant culture, which has dethroned Japanese culture and its manga.

How do you explain this attraction which extends far beyond the country’s borders?

One of the reasons is that you can enter this culture in a thousand ways: through pop, cinema, cooking, series, beauty products, cartoons, webtoons (Editor’s note: online comics ), by K-pop music videos, fascinating with their polished aesthetics and their acid colors… Another reason is political support. A private company creates a cultural product, and if it works, the government does its best to facilitate the production and distribution of this content. Investments in the creative industries have been massive for twenty years. The Korean state has even created an agency, Kocca, Korea Creative Content Agency, responsible for the active promotion throughout the world, through studies, events, of this culture. La Kokka has several agencies in Europe, including one in Paris.

“Through culture, South Korea has found a way to exist between the two giants of China and Japan”

When did this “hallyu” wave take shape?

The process began at the end of the 1990s. K-pop groups broke through at that time by amalgamating the choreographies of Michael Jackson, the rhythms of hip hop, Scandinavian dance… all this with Korean sauce. It’s a characteristic of this pop culture, to mix influences, to be both global and completely Korean.

What is the impact for the country’s economy?

The hallyu wave represents a lot of money, exports, but also a lot of tourism. The Korean peninsula is a small country, which does not have the heritage of China or Japan: the filming locations of series, films and clips have become tourist destinations.

Does Korea hold with its clips and its series a revenge on the former colonizer, Japan?

This is an assumption that we often hear. I would rather say that by asserting itself as a major player on the world map of culture, it has found a way to exist between the two giants of China and Japan. South Korea is today a benchmark for emerging countries like Chile. There is talk of the “Korean dream”: a small country which was poor, which was colonized throughout the first half of the twentieth century, which experienced war, and which becomes, thanks to its “soft power”, thanks to the economy of “entertainment”, a world power.

From music to the army

The temporary halt in the career of the K-pop group BTS could be linked to civic obligations: any South Korean man under the age of 30 must complete two years of military service, in particular because of the threat posed by the North Korea. The prospect of conscription is getting closer for the 24-year-old BTS members. They have already benefited from a reform which, in 2020, pushed back the age for certain artists from 28 to 30 years old.

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Music, cinema, series…. how South Korea became a pop-culture empire