The Hallyu Origin Story

Within the living memory, South Korea has soared like a comet, transforming from a war-torn nation in the mid-1950s to an eminent cultural dynamo by the dawn of the 21st century.

Commencing in the late 1990s, as Korean TV dramas and cinema garnered acclaim across Asia, hallyu – the Korean wave – swelled globally in the mid-2000s, buoyed by the astonishing triumph of the Korean music industry, which coincided with the global ascendancy of the internet, social media, and the birth of Gen Z. Korea’s audacious cultural gamble – recapturing its economic prowess through investment in information and communication technologies (ICT) and cultural industries – propelled its global stature through the ‘soft power’ of culture, backed by the Korean government and financial support from private sectors. Hallyu has become “the world’s biggest, fastest cultural paradigm shift in modern history,” as articulated by author Euny Hong.

Oppan Gangnam Style

On 15 July 2012, Park Jae-Sang, the South Korean singer, songwriter, and producer known as PSY, etched his name in history with the release of the infectious ‘Gangnam Style’ on YouTube. The music video’s virality shattered multiple sales and viewing records, spawning countless parodies and amassing prestigious accolades and international followers. By May 2014, the song had accrued over two billion views on YouTube. PSY marked South Korea on the world map.

From Japanese to American cultural imperialism

In a mere two generations, much of Korea’s rustic landscapes have been supplanted by the towering concrete edifices of technology-driven cities, mirroring the country’s brisk transition from an agricultural, forestry, and fishing-based economy to a digital, service-oriented one. Longstanding values rooted in Neo-Confucian ideology from over 500 years of Joseon dynasty rule (1392 – 1910) were suddenly challenged by a new reality that Korean society had scarce time to assimilate and embrace.

Instead, Korea’s 20th century was punctuated by a rapid sequence of calamitous events, such as Japanese colonial rule (1910 – 45); the Cold War, which arbitrarily divided its territory in 1945, with the North under Soviet Union trusteeship and the South under American trusteeship; and the Korean War (1950 – 53). As no peace treaty has been established, North and South Korea technically remain at war today.

Amid this dramatically shifting landscape, local folk culture that thrived during the Joseon dynasty gradually gave way to alternative entertainment forms, evoking both wonder and disdain. Motion pictures, first introduced from America in the late 19th century, also gained popularity in the 1910s and 1920s with the proliferation of commercial movie theaters, primarily screening imported Euro-American films and propaganda materials produced by Japanese-owned companies.

By the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Western music and films were banned by the colonial government, which reinforced Japan’s status as the primary cultural influence on the peninsula until its liberation in 1945. America assumed the role of South Korea’s principal cultural influencer through performances at its military bases and via its broadcasting service, the American Forces Korea Network (AFKN).

The 1950s also heralded the golden age of Korean cinema. Films provided a much-needed escape and entertainment, and in 1954, domestic studios received government financial incentives to boost production and attendance figures. The strategy proved popular: an increasing number of movies were released, drawing record audiences, and more studios and cinemas were built to sustain demand.

Military rule and cultural protectionism

The Korean War instigated a period of political turmoil and economic instability, fertile ground for Major General Park Chung-hee’s 1961 coup d’état, initiating two decades of dictatorship. Under Park’s rule, South Korea was a Third World country in ruins, even poorer than North Korea.

Park’s military regime prioritized rapid modernization and economic recovery. The government opted for an export-oriented, heavy industry-based economy to compensate for a weak domestic market, while also identifying select companies deemed reliable and sustainable enough to support its ambitions. It was during this era that chaebols – large family-owned conglomerates like Samsung, LG, and Hyundai – rose to prominence. They benefited from fiscal advantages and political ties, attracting foreign capital and expanding their trade.

As modernization surged, Park’s government implemented policies to rebuild Korean identity, free from Japanese colonial influence, and restore pride in Korean culture and history, while simultaneously validating Park’s regime. To suppress dissent, Park hastily announced a series of ethics committees and censorship regulations from 1962 to 1975, aiming to stifle freedom of expression and anti-state behavior.

The 1960s and 1970s witnessed the mass dissemination of radios and TVs in Korea. The ruling regime viewed these technologies as ideal tools to control and propagate their anti-Communist and modernization agenda, while audiences enjoyed them as sources of home entertainment, gathering together to watch state-approved variety shows, American series, and Korean dramas and films.

By the late 1970s, the electronics sector emerged as a dominant export industry, benefiting from government support. The 1980s liberalization of the economy saw a progressive shift towards the production of more refined, technology-intensive goods used in industrial electronic sectors (such as semiconductors). Simultaneously, chaebols like Samsung, Hyundai, and LG, and universities expanded research and development in the field, later helping Korea become one of the leading producers and consumers of cutting-edge technology.

Seoul to the world – on the path to democracy

Park’s military regime ended abruptly with his assassination in October 1979, but was swiftly replaced by another dictatorship led by Major General Chun Doo-hwan. One of the most traumatizing moments of his brutal reign was the infamous Gwangju Uprising of May 1980, better known as the Gwangju Massacre, where pro-democratic demonstrations led by students and labor unions were ruthlessly quashed by Chun’s armed paratroopers.

To salvage his image, Chun’s regime turned to popular culture as a distraction. The government implemented a set of cultural policies branded 3S, referring to Sports, Sex, and Screen. The 1980s witnessed the birth of Professional Sports Leagues in 1982, the hosting of the 10th Asian Games in 1986, and the 24th Summer Olympic Games in 1988 – an event seen as a turning point in Korean modern history, catapulting the nation onto the international stage for the first time as a democratic and economically developed country.

As Chun’s regime was more lenient about sex, erotic films dominated the home video and film industries. However, the liberalization of the foreign film market meant that from 1986, Hollywood companies were allowed to directly distribute an unlimited number of their films in Korea, rather than go through local intermediaries, jeopardizing the livelihood of an already weakened domestic industry.

On the music front, teenagers emerged as the new cultural consumers, wielding power through their vocal, organized fandoms. With the convergence of youth culture, color TV, and the portable cassette player, the 1980s saw the explosion of dance music.

Prelude to Hallyu: oppressed, repressed, expressed

In 1994, the news that Steven Spielberg’s film Jurassic Park had outperformed the profits from the sale of 1.5 million Hyundai cars caught the attention of Kim Young-sam’s administration, the first civilian government in 30 years. It recognized the vast economic potential and export value of cultural industries, the opportunities they offered for raising the country’s profile abroad, and their usefulness as leverage for advancing Korea’s cultural diplomacy.

Around the same time, the previously restricted internet became accessible to all. Eager to embrace the Digital Revolution, Korea invested early in internet and information and communication technology (ICT). When the Asian Financial Crisis shattered the Korean economy in 1997, a new generation of unemployed individuals redirected their efforts and knowledge into IT-based businesses, ultimately leading to rapid recovery from the crisis.

Following the crisis, Kim Dae-jung’s government shifted focus from manufacturing industries to an internet-, knowledge-, and skill-based economy, with an emphasis on cultural industries. The government proactively aimed to “quadruple exports in cultural industries.”

Korea’s tumultuous 20th-century biography reveals a remarkable resilience as the nation rapidly adapted to evolving situations, driven by a desire to survive and thrive. Hallyu emerged from this context, at a time when cultural policies, creative industries, and digital technologies converged, sowing the seeds for its development into a tech-savvy cultural powerhouse leading the field in social media and digital culture by the dawn of the 21st century. Breaking conventions, blending influences, and making its own rules, Korea now spearheads a movement that challenges global currents of popular culture, strengthening its soft power along the way.

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