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Inside Korea’s world-conquering cultural revolution

Opening Ceremony of the XXIV Summer Olympic Games on 17 September 1988 at the Seoul Olympic Stadium in Seoul - Hulton Archive
Opening Ceremony of the XXIV Summer Olympic Games on 17 September 1988 at the Seoul Olympic Stadium in Seoul - Hulton Archive

This weekend, a major exhibition, Hallyu! The Korean Wave, opens at the V&A in London, exploring the explosion of Korean culture across the world. Focusing on Korean cinema, television and music, the exhibition charts what Euny Hong, author of The Birth of Korean Cool, boldly describes as “the world’s biggest, fastest cultural paradigm shift in modern history.”

In the last five years, we’ve seen Korean pop band BTS, Oscar-winning picture Parasite and viral Netflix show Squid Game shatter records, pick up major awards and become international cultural touchstones. In UK cities, Korean supermarkets and restaurants have thrived so much that Korean food items are now commonplace in major supermarket chains; K-Pop is blasted from mainstream radio stations and teenage bedrooms.

Korean film and television, meanwhile, is now distributed in mainstream cinemas and on streaming services like Netflix – where ‘K-Dramas’ and ‘Korean Movies’ have their own dedicated subsections.

It wasn’t always like this. As the exhibition’s lead curator Rosalie Kim describes, “pop culture from before the ‘90s in Korea was virtually non-existent outside of Korea.” If you go a few decades further back to the late ‘50s and ‘60s, Korea was really considered a third world country, she says. “The GDP was lower than that of Ghana, and 40 per cent below that of India. It was virtually non-existent on the global radar.”

So how did a tiny East Asian peninsula become a global pop culture powerhouse?

Parasite was a satire on south Korea's social strata
Parasite was a satire on south Korea's social strata

Korea’s troubled history saw its culture shaped by all sides for much of the 20th century. Colonised by Japan between 1910 and 1945, the Korean language was suppressed in schools and universities, with over 200,000 historical artefacts destroyed in an attempt at cultural assimilation.

The peninsula was arbitrarily split in two upon its liberation in 1945 – with the South put under the trust of the USA as the North was managed by the Soviet Union. The Korean War then ravaged the country between 1950 and 1953, with the volatile political, social and economic fallout eventually leading to a coup d'état in 1961. What followed was 26 years of brutal military rule, rapid industrialisation and modernisation, and widespread state censorship of culture.

It wasn’t until 1987, in anticipation of the Seoul Olympics the following year, that South Korea held its first democratic Presidential elections. The sporting event propelled Korea onto the international scene as a democratic and economically stable country, says Kim, prefacing the relaxation of censorship and explosion of pop culture in the 1990s. “You had this experimental period where creatives were testing what works and what doesn't work, and how to work with new technologies. And then, all of a sudden, that started to mature and to grow.”

Pop phenomenon: BTS at Wembley Stadium - Big Hit
Pop phenomenon: BTS at Wembley Stadium - Big Hit

K-Pop really starts with Seo Taiji and the Boys, Kim explains – pointing to a 1992 television performance on an X-Factor-style talent show (footage is on display at Hallyu! The Korean Wave) that would change the course of Korean pop music forever. Mainstream music of this period was otherwise dominated by the emotional ballads of the ‘trot’ genre – a style that embodied the sorrowful feeling of ‘han’ shared by Koreans who had grown up during the tumultuous decades prior. Seo Taiji and the Boys rejected those tropes.

“This young trio were on TV wearing street-style clothes, dancing, and mixing hip-hop and rock music with Korean lyrics,” says Kim. “The judge gave them the lowest score of the evening, saying they had no career whatsoever in the music industry because they were utterly awful.”

But the performance was inspiring for a new generation, and the band’s first album achieved record sales on release. By 1996, Seo Taiji and the Boys member Yang Hyun-suk had founded YG Entertainment – the powerful talent agency that is today the home of the world’s biggest girl group, Blackpink. And as the music was exported to China to rapturous attention towards the end of the 1990s, the term ‘Hallyu’ (a portmanteau of the words for “Korean” and “wave”) was coined to describe the popularity rippling across Asia for K-pop music and K-drama television.

Bong Joon-ho made Oscars history with his Best Picture win for Parasite - Invision
Bong Joon-ho made Oscars history with his Best Picture win for Parasite - Invision

As ‘Hallyu’ captured attention overseas, filmmaking flourished at home. “The lifting of censorship encouraged many directors in the post-dictatorship period to experiment and revisit their history in a way that was unavailable prior,” says Kim, referring to previous state censorship. Simultaneously, the mass importing of Hollywood films into Korea after 1988 ensured that nascent filmmakers like Bong Joon-ho (Parasite) and Park Chan-wook (Oldboy), along with the rest of the population, were exposed to the blockbuster spectacle of American filmmaking on a wide scale.

These new liberties and influences would result in Korea’s first true blockbuster film events at the end of the decade, by which time the film industry was being generously supported by funding from the government and major corporations like Samsung – who saw cultural exports as a means of recovery from the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997. Bombastic action thriller Shiri (1999) attracted 5.8m people at the Korean box office – over a million more than Titanic – and grossed spectacularly in Japan and Hong Kong.

A year later, Park Chan-wook’s breakthrough JSA, a mystery-drama set on the North-South border, broke all the rules by offering a sympathetic view of North Korean soldiers – and became Korea’s top-grossing film of the year. Then, in 2004, Park found himself at the centre of Korea’s first major international breakthrough when Oldboy won the Grand Prix at Cannes Film Festival.

As the years advanced, social media and YouTube would play a significant role in propagating K-pop music – a hybridization of different pop genres featuring lyrics sung in both Korean and English with polished choreography – around the world. PSY’s 2012 single Gangnam Style was a prime example of this breakout success – the viral hit video now has over 4.5bn views on the platform. More recently, seven-piece boy band BTS – whose dance routines would go viral on TikTok – would make history as the first-ever South Korean group to headline and sell out Wembley Stadium in the UK in 2019.

Tickets for Blackpink’s shows at London’s O2 Arena in 2022 are currently trading hands for up to £500 apiece on Ticketmaster. Collaborations between K-pop bands and major Western artists like Charlie XCX, Coldplay and Dua Lipa have broken down language and geographical barriers even further, multiplying each band’s appeal – Spotify monthly listeners for BTS are now on par with Lady Gaga and Beyoncé at over 44.6m.

This proliferation occurred in conjunction with a watershed moment for Korean cinema, as black comedy Parasite – about two families on opposite ends of South Korea’s social strata – made Oscars history in 2020. In a competition long-criticised for its lack of diversity, the film took home an unprecedented six major prizes – becoming the first non-English language production to win the top prize: Best Picture. Youn Yuh-jung (Minari) became the first Korean to win an acting Oscar a year later, as Chinese-born Chloé Zhao (Nomadland) also became the first woman of colour to win Best Picture and Best Director in 2021.

That same year, five years after launching in South Korea, Netflix pledged to invest $500m in Korean content in a pronounced show of confidence in the country’s potential. Squid Game – about a twisted challenge in which rich people pay to watch poor people compete to the death – was at the top of the Netflix Global viewership charts barely six months later with an estimated audience of more than 140m worldwide.

It inspired viral memes and challenges on TikTok, copycat games on school playgrounds and even references in rap songs at the top of the UK charts. Actor Jung Ho-yeon became the face of Louis Vuitton overnight, while Lee Jung-jae won a Lead Actor Emmy for his performance this September – becoming the first Asian man to win the award, and the first person to do so for a non-English-speaking role. He’s now been cast as the lead in the Disney+ Star Wars series The Acolyte.

Breakout star of Squid Game Ho-yeon Jung is now the face of Louis Vuitton - Netflix
Breakout star of Squid Game Ho-yeon Jung is now the face of Louis Vuitton - Netflix

Though state investment has undoubtedly allowed Korean pop culture to flourish, Kim also offers a straightforward conclusion for the phenomenon on the whole. The country’s complex history, she says, is a foundation for great storytelling – and “K-pop, K-drama, cinema, and even fashion and beauty are all about telling stories in different ways.”

That’s why the emerging popularity of webtoons – a Korean innovation that essentially equates to a digital comic book, read vertically on a mobile phone – may well provide the next chapter in Korea’s ongoing global cultural ascendancy. The industry topped one trillion won (£684.6 million) in sales in 2020, and Netflix even adapted webtoon source material for its hit dark fantasy series Hellbound (which pipped Squid Game to the top of the global viewership charts in November 2021).

The influence is now palpable – K-Pop artists are driving Western audiences back to concert venues in droves, as audiences at home are tuning in to Korean productions en masse. With Hollywood cinema stuck churning out franchise sequels, reboots, and identikit biopics, perhaps webtoons and other forms of Korean storytelling can offer the West some much-needed creativity in years to come. For now, Hallyu! The Korean Wave offers plenty of background reading – and one of the best rags-to-riches stories the world has ever seen.

Hallyu! The Korean Wave opens at the V&A on September 24 and runs until June 2023. Tickets