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The Korean Wave and Korean Dramas

Summary and Keywords

For the past two decades, the Korean Wave has been recognized in many parts of the world, and has articulated dynamic junctures of globalization, regionalization, and localization in the realms of media and popular culture. Due to online media platforms such as streaming services, television content has been diversifying and increasing its transnational circulation. More recently, the outbound scope of K-drama and K-pop has further reached dispersed global audiences, most of whom are not Korean media consumers or fans, thanks to active use of social media, such as YouTube, in transnational media consumption. The Korean Wave can be a meaningful contra-flow in transnational pop culture. Moreover, the Korean Wave is an evolutionary cultural flow, as traced in the history of its growth. The Wave has been experiencing continuities and discontinuities in its stream for years, along with its popularity cycle, and interestingly disjuncture has shaped it differently. A set of studies of the Korean Wave should map out the presence of the Wave in the big picture of cultural globalization, beyond the pre-existing geocultural divisions. The very recent Korean Wave drives not only the flow of various kinds of content and formats but also reciprocal interchanges of diverse levels of human, financial, technological, and cultural elements; this reconstructs implied meanings of the Korean Wave and its globalizing phenomena.

Keywords: K-drama, K-pop, Korean Wave, Hallyu 1.0, Hallyu 2.0, hybridization, transnational fandom, social media, Asian popular culture, Inter-Asian cultural flows, glocalization

The “Korean Wave” (or Hallyu)

The “Korean Wave” is a comprehensive term used to describe the increasing international spread of various South Korean (hereafter Korean) cultural products, including television programs, pop music, films, online games, fashions, and smartphones (Jeong, 2012; Jin, 2016; Ju, 2017; Kim, 2013; Lie, 2012; Madrid-Morales & Lovric, 2015; Ryoo, 2009; Shim, 2006; Sung, 2013), as well as the broader phenomenon of transnational consumption. An alternative term, Hallyu, was originally coined by the Chinese press to denote the unexpected popularity and success of Korean TV dramas (K-dramas) in 1998–1999. Since then, K-drama and K-pop have flowed to many parts of Asia, and more recently Korean pop culture has spread broadly to North America, Europe, and Latin countries.

Based on K-drama export data, China was among the first countries to contribute to its transnational distribution, marking the birth of the Hallyu phenomenon. Japan became another big importer of K-drama after the phenomenal hit Winter Sonata in 2003–2004, along with Taiwan. Beyond these big three importers, some Southeast Asian nations have increased imports of K-drama due its regional popularity and local audiences’ demand (Madrid-Morales & Lovric, 2015). To explain the evolutionary process of the Korean Wave over the past 15 years, scholars have used “Hallyu 1.0” to refer to the initial popularity of Korean pop culture (especially K-drama) within many Asian countries (Jeong et al., 2017; Jin, 2016; Kim, 2015). While K-drama hit its peak in regional popularity, the Korean popular music (K-pop) performed by idol bands became a new epicenter of the hot Korean pop culture by the mid-2000s, while the Korean Wave attracted even broader transnational audience bases, flowing into the Middle East, North and South America, and Europe. K-pop is one of the leading content types for this new current of the Korean Wave, and indeed some scholars and media experts refer this to as Hallyu 2.0 or the New Korean Wave (Hong, 2013; Jin, 2016; Kim, 2015; Lie, 2012). In accordance with the global K-pop boom, the Korean Wave draws special attention to its complex meanings and diverse impacts on transnational media production, distribution, and consumption, led by the Internet and social media environments.

Historically, the emergence of the Korean Wave relates to the bitter consequences of globalization during the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997–1998. The crisis brought a sweeping economic downturn across Asia, and Korea was no exception. This forced the nation to reform its socioeconomic structure in tandem with a knowledge-based society. In line with the national reforms, the government acted to facilitate resources in the cultural industry, considering it a key asset of a knowledge-based society. Television stations, broadcasting associations, telecommunication industries, and government ministries in Korea created proactive commercial conditions for home-produced media content to effectively capitalize on both domestic and overseas markets (Ju, 2014). Since the early 2000s, the Korean media industry has changed from a state-protected system to one featuring free-market competition and private ownership. This made multichannel broadcasting possible, as well as comprehensive commercial initiatives from the private sector of the broadcasting system, which was profoundly affected by market principles and commercialism (Shim & Jin, 2007). Based on the neoliberal government ideology, Korea’s new capitalist order in the 21st century has fostered the Korean Wave as a reboot of its developmental economic system (Ju, 2014).

However, it is important to note that the beginning of the Korean Wave—the phenomenal Chinese attraction to Korean dramas—was not planned by Korean broadcasters or government strategy. On the contrary, the Korean Wave represents a timely matrix of factors, including the multilayered transnational mobility of people, information, and cultural capital across many East and South Asian countries (Hong, 2013; Kim, 2015). Korean dramas have proven especially compelling to other Asian viewers, and John Lie (2012, p. 351) pointed out that the Korean Wave in its initial articulation seemed to be all about Korean soap operas. Similarly, Shim (2008) accounted for the rising popularity of K-dramas throughout Asia in terms of improved quality production, more productive internal domestic competition, and a favorable Asian broadcast market. As noted earlier, the Korean broadcasting industry later focused more actively on capitalizing their media products abroad. In terms of financing media industries, selective programming, promotional planning, and international distribution, the three major TV networks in Korea undertook a vital restructuring of their broadcast systems, with hopes to grow their regional media production and distribution (Ju, 2017).

The bottom line is that the Korean Wave is the foremost popular transnational cultural flow by an Asian media and pop culture. For the past two decades, it has been recognized in many parts of the world, and has articulated dynamic junctures of globalization, regionalization, and localization in the realms of media and popular culture. Within globalization and cultural studies, the Korean Wave calls for mapping out transnational cultural flows from Asia at large over a US- or UK-centered framework. Similarly, Korean Wave studies seek to establish a solid theoretical conceptualization of this phenomenon in light of the continuing global culture’s power dynamics movement away from a center-periphery division, which has been perceived as an old and hegemonic paradigm since the early 21st century. In addition, localizing consumption patterns of Korean pop culture and its various types of content due to the Korean Wave, from Asia to South and North America and Europe, demands special attention to the intertwined relationships between productive audience engagement with K-pop content and different local media’s convergence into that pattern.

Theoretical Discussions About the Korean Wave

Korean Wave phenomena have been studied in various academic disciplines for more than a decade. Before 2009, during the relatively early stage of the Korean Wave, scholarly work focused on recognizing the Korean pop culture’s transnational movement due to its popularity in specific locales, and much research examined why and where K-drama was well received by different foreign audiences. After the YouTube sensation of Gangnam Style in 2012, scholars and experts started paying more attention to K-pop studies and certainly increased the volume of related research. K-pop studies now single out a new discourse about the Korean Wave that analyzes it in terms of transnational culture, people, flow, mobility, and digital culture frameworks. More significantly, the culture and communication scholarship has given serious consideration to the Korean Wave under a cultural globalization framework. In doing so, several micro and/or macro approaches to theorizing it have emerged, which are summarized in the rest of this section.

During the early stage of the Korean Wave, several case studies were built based on the popularity of K-drama, which produced a nation-centric framework to describe its meaning. These studies explored the increasing regional impacts and visible market shares of K-drama exports, primarily in East and Southeast Asia (e.g., Ha & Yang, 2002; Heo, 2002; Kim, 2005; Kim & Kang, 2000; Park, 2001; Yoon, 2006). This body of studies pointed out quantitative growth in Korean media outflow to Asia, and argued that the advanced quality programming of K-drama catered to more Asian viewers. Some research highlighted the Korean media industry’s pride in competing effectively against their other Asian counterparts. They acknowledged the economic benefit of K-drama in neighboring countries, and showed that emphasizing K-drama was necessary to craft a cost-efficient programming schedule across the Asian television market. Researchers within this frame argued that with the rise of K-drama, Hallyu expanded the possibility of distributing Korean cultural commodities more broadly, by surpassing the national border and reconstructing the national image as a cool culture. Doing so enhanced the power of the nation within Asia and even beyond, and scholars conceptualized this as soft power, as compared to the hard power associated with a rich nation and strong military power (e.g., Hirata, 2008; Hayashi & Lee, 2007; Kim, 2015; Lie, 2012; Nye & Kim, 2013). Often the soft power concept connects the Korean Wave simply to the nation’s cultural branding, and it could be appropriate to see the boom of K-drama or K-pop as resulting from proactive institutional strategies by the government and cultural industry under a neoliberal ideology (e.g., Ha, 2006; Kim, 2005; Park, 2001; Yoon, 2006).

However, this overly top-down point of view doesn’t fit with the evolutionary nature of the Korean Wave over the past two decades, which exhibits much more complicated and multifaceted characteristics. Overall, the nation-centric framework contributed to breaking down discussions about asymmetric cultural traffic from Korea to other parts of Asia using empirical, institutional, and industrial data. However, it also pigeonholed the Korean Wave into a narrow national boundary without a larger picture of the globalizing media industry, and generally overlooked transnational conditions, interactions, meaning shifts, and cultural practices, not to mention significant participatory consumption by the emerging fandoms of Korean pop culture based on multilayered local communities. Moreover, K-drama was conceptualized as a commercial brand for the nation’s export economy, which limited further in-depth research to explain the reciprocity of K-drama consumption within the circulation among production, mediation, and reception.

A set of reception studies about the dispersed transnational audiences of K-drama and K-pop produced more detailed qualitative analyses. These studies examined central questions like the identifiable appeal and individualized consumption experiences of K-drama and K-pop with groups of transnational audiences. In particular, many studies suggested that cultural proximity (Straubhaar, 1991) was the key to explain the boom in K-drama reception within Asia (e.g., Heo, 2002; Hirata, 2008; Kim, 2007; Mori, 2008; Yang, 2003; Yoo & Lee, 2001). The popular K-drama was presented as a means of symbolizing an imagined Korea for many Asian viewers, leading them to deeply relate to feelings of enjoying Korean ways of life, values, styles of living, and appearance, even though they had never lived there. In sum, K-drama effectively depicted Asia and Asian people, and worked as a cultural affinity to motivate a preferred appeal. Some scholars contended that K-drama did not precisely bring a sense of Asian affinity but offered enough of an important source of pleasure in feeling Asian. Cultural proximity, to some degree, was adopted later to explain the love of Korean pop culture by many young Asians, and to broaden analytical concepts that engaged their ethnic perceptions of masculinity and femininity (e.g., S. Jung, 2011, 2009; Oh, 2014; Yang, 2008). In this vein, Jung (2009) claimed that Asians and Asian-Americans were particularly fascinated by the lavish production and physical attractiveness of the Korean performers in K-drama and K-pop.

Although reception studies emphasizing cultural proximity (original or extended) make sense of the Korean Wave throughout Asia, they risk presenting it in terms of a cultural reductionism, thereby underestimating the flow as a cyclic iteration of one part of Asian culture within the region (Ju, 2017). Additionally, cultural proximity does not explain the further flows of Korean pop culture to the United States, Canada, Latin America, and even some parts of Europe, or how many Asian fans of K-drama and K-pop were simultaneously consuming so-called western content (Jin, 2016). More interestingly, those reception studies opened up a region-centric approach to the Korean Wave that highlights concerns about the preexisting uneven distribution of transnational media content in global mediascapes. This frame suggests using intra/inter-Asian cultural flows (Cho, 2011; Huat & Iwabuchi, 2008; Iwabuchi, 2008; Lie, 2012) to analyze the Korean Wave, in order to portray the regionalization process of the advanced Asian cultural formats as reinforcing global media ideologies. Scholars argued that the popular K-drama constructed sentimental and acceptable appeals with non-excessive Americanized modernity for Asian audiences, who experienced or were inherently positioned in a postcolonial subjective stance (Chin & Morimoto, 2013; Iwabuchi, 2008; Kim, 2013; Lee & Ju, 2010). An inter-Asian framework highlights recurring trends and active inter- or transnational references between East Asian media. In this respect, the Korean Wave is the consequence of the historic construction of Asian pop culture as an iteration of a part of East Asian pop culture (Cho, 2011). The region-centric inter-Asian framework is useful to analyze the overall Korean Wave phenomena from its beginning to the current shape, and plays an important role in reconstructing the postcolonial cultural concept within East Asia. Regardless of its overall merit, this frame questions what exactly the East Asian or Asian culture is and how it can crystallize to be one conceptual asset. In turn, this frame presents a clear divisional conception of East versus West, and shows how media can define eastern culture only by reflecting the symbolic (or mediated) western culture. Still, this frame conceives a cultural hierarchy coined from hegemonic discourses about western culture set against non-western culture from the past.

A recurring trend in much recent work on the Korean Wave research emphasizes cultural hybridity or hybridization (e.g., Jin, 2016; Jung, 2011; Lie, 2012; Kim, 2013; Kuwahara, 2014; Lee, 2011; Ryoo, 2009; Shim, 2006). Shim (2006) pointed to a hybrid aspect of K-pop, which played especially well in foreign fans’ reception. He presented K-pop music and the related industry system as a vital factor in the success of the Korean Wave. However, Shim’s claim of hybridity fell short in that he didn’t acknowledge the concept as merely used to describe the K-pop system and texts as sites of a cultural and industrial mixture. Moreover, Shim’s analyses of descriptive hybridity did not fit well with the case of K-drama, especially in terms of its production, narrative conventions, and transnational appeal. Later, other scholars researched hybridity issues in the Korean Wave more deeply and cautiously. John Lie (2012) argued that there is a lack of traditional Korean culture represented in K-pop, and that K-pop’s de-emphasis of the impact of specific cultures translates well for global audiences. Similarly, Sun Jung (2011) underscored that K-pop employs methods to make Korean stars Asianized and/or globalized, so that these K-pop stars downplay their specifically Korean identity. Jung said that this implies that the combination of hybridity and non-nationality enables such content to be largely transformable and easily cross national borders. However, hybridity (or hybridization) theory is too complex to apply simply to the Korean Wave overall. According to Jin (2016), in the realm of local culture hybridization can be seen in two different processes: one is the homogenization process, regardless of the mixing of different cultures, as the consequence of Western-driven cultural fusion, and the other may be the creation of transformed indigenization of local cultures (p. 13). In this vein, Kraidy’s notion of hybridity appropriates to catch the dynamics of global cultural flows, including the Korean Wave. Hybridity symbolizes the dialectic relationship between cultural structure and agency, which applies to the Korean Wave as well. The global cultural condition is now characterized by “the dual forces of globalization and localization, cohesion and dispersion, and disjuncture and mixture, that capture transnational and transcultural dialectics” (Kraidy, 2002, p. 327).

More recently, the Korean Wave has been analyzed within a global cultural dynamics framework (e.g., Hong, 2013; Jeong, 2012; Ju & Lee, 2015). Many researchers owe a great debt to Appadurai’s (1996) model of transnational globalizing processes. Appadurai proposed five dimensions of globalizing processes in many parts of the world, and a close look at the sociocultural realm accounts for mediascapes, ethnoscapes, and ideoscapes in the Korean Wave, all important concepts in the operation of global culture. Ju and Lee (2015) studied American youth’s reception of Korean pop culture in the United States, and discussed how their mediated connection to Korean pop culture presented concrete manifestations not only of Korea but also of the coeval territory of East Asia, which had been limited in the imagined communities of the young Asian Americans who were interviewed. The study explained how the Korean Wave in the United States was particularly consumed by Asian Americans, who associated it with the interaction between ethnoscape and mediascape. In another study, Jeong (2012) took into consideration Appadurai’s term “diasporic public spheres” (1996, pp. 21–22), which relates the de-territorialization of many global cultures to media: “where there is [media] consumption there is pleasure, and where there is pleasure there is agency” (p. 7). Jeong’s emphasis on this notion points out that transnational Korean Wave fandoms and related offline/online communities across the world have become a diasporic public sphere by aggregating similar interests in Korean popular culture.

Empirical and Localizing Flows

Based on the annual survey of Korean television program exports and imports, Korean network exports increased by more than 30% annually from 2001 to 2005. Broadcasters’ total export revenues surpassed that of total imports of foreign content—mainly imported from the United States and Japan—by 2001, and in 2006 the total export revenue by Korean network broadcasters was USD $132 million, more than a tenfold increase from revenue in 1999 (Ju, 2014). Although the volume of Korean dramas exported was relatively low in 2007–2008 due to other Asian countries’ import restriction policies, an attempt to resist the Korean Wave (Ryoo, 2009), Korean dramas have dominated all exports of Korean TV programs. The data on annual export ratio by genres show that drama exports dominated all other genres: their share was 96.2% in 2005 and continued in similar proportions until 2011 (94.9%), though in 2012 it dropped to about 85% (Ju, 2017).

There’s no denying that Hallyu 1.0 (the early Korean Wave, 1999–2007) owes a huge debt to K-drama’s sweeping popularity all over Asia. Two dramas, Winter Sonata and Daejangguem (Jewel in the Palace), especially contributed to this phenomenal success outside the nation. China and Japan have become the top importers of K-drama since 2003 thanks to these two dramas, and other Southeast Asian countries (e.g., Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam) were strongly influenced by their actions to start importing K-drama themselves. When annual exports of K-drama dropped off from 2007 to 2008, some scholars suggested that the Korean Wave led by K-drama had completed its peak in the popularity cycle in Asia (Kim, 2007; Ryoo, 2009). However, K-drama exports to Asia showed a rising curve again after 2009, along with increasing demand for diversified genres and content, such as variety shows and documentaries (Park & Kim, 2012).

It seems that K-drama has continued its part in the spread of the Korean Wave, although its huge regional popularity has started to wane. Korean broadcasters have taken action to extend the potency of K-drama and their production capability, along with partners from East Asia and beyond. For instance, Korean drama remakes and Korean-Chinese coproduction revitalized the transnational popularity of K-drama (Jeong, 2012). Chinese versions of Full House and The Wife’s Temptation are good examples of K-drama remakes in China, especially since the remake of The Wife’s Temptation held the highest ratings on Hunan satellite TV in its history, dating back to 2011 (Jeong, 2012). Meanwhile, Korean broadcasters have been interested in K-drama format trade more than selling finished dramas, so the popular K-drama format has become another commodity to sell. Since 2006, more than 17 K-drama titles have been sold for a format trade, including Hotelier (Japan), Coffee Prince (Philippines, Taiwan), and most recently My Love from Another Star (China, United States) (Jin, 2016). K-drama formats have been sold to the United States over the Asian market: Somewhere Between on ABC, airing 10 episodes in July–August 2017, is a remake of God’s Gift: 14 days (which SBS aired in Korea in 2014) (Andreeva, 2016; Goldberg, 2016; Wagmeister, 2016). More recently, The Good Doctor has been airing its first season (as a total of 18 episodes) on ABC since January 2018; this is the second remake of a Korean original TV drama series, having the same meaning as the Korean title, first broadcast by KBS-2 in 2013 (see Figure 1). After two pilot episodes aired on ABC’s fall schedule of 2017, The Good Doctor ranked number one among the most talked-about new TV shows in the United States (Levin, 2017). Alongside such diverse development of K-drama overseas, Korean broadcasters have continued to work with Japanese drama remakes, as Japan is still the top importer of K-drama; Taiwanese TV dramas are also considered, but are rarely adopted for Korean television. This indicates that K-drama’s spread is not only limited to Asia, but also reciprocally flows to other countries.

The Korean Wave and Korean DramasClick to view larger

Figure 1. The Good Doctor: K-drama vs. ABC’s remake.

Source: Main poster images of K-drama, Good Doctor (kbs.co.kr) vs. ABC’s main poster of The Good Doctor (abc.go.com).

Korean popular culture overall is taking advantage of the new active use of social media in transnational media consumption. The outbound scope of K-drama and K-pop reaches dispersed global audiences, most of whom are not Korean media consumers or fans. K-drama has been supplied to various streaming sites, such as Netflix, Hulu.com, Dramafever.com, and Viki.com, as well as to satellite TV services like DirecTV.

According to the White Paper of the Korean Broadcast Industry, in 2015 K-dramas’ broadcast licenses were broadly sold to different non-Asian countries; for instance, the United States was a leading buyer, and a total of 4,291 K-drama titles went to the United States, while Canada purchased 103 dramas. In Europe, the United Kingdom (148 titles), France (134 titles), Romania (299 titles), Belgium (261 titles), Bulgaria (40 titles), Poland (51 titles), and Russia (20 titles) made deals with Korean networks, cables, and comprehensive TV channels (Ministry of Science, ICT, & Future Planning and Korean Communication Commission, 2016).

By the time Hallyu 2.0 was recognized in 2008–2009, K-pop had superseded K-drama’s popularity in the global media for trendy pop content, thanks to YouTube. Certainly, social media platforms excel at spreading the Korean Wave, with a new music genre (K-pop) differentiated from the earlier regional phenomenon. On the whole, the Korean Wave is recognized broadly by culturally less-familiar audiences, and increases transnational accessibility and connectivity to Korean pop content by establishing multinational online fandoms (Choe & Russell, 2012; Chung, 2011; Hübinette, 2012; Ju & Lee, 2015; Madrid-Morales & Lovric, 2015; Otmazgin & Lyan, 2013; Sung, 2013).

When mapping out Korean pop culture consumption within non-Asian countries, Madrid-Morales and Lovric (2015) pointed out that both K-pop and K-drama fandoms in Spanish-speaking countries are on the rise. Popular K-pop idol bands such as Super Junior and Big Bang held concerts, respectively, in Peru and Chile in 2013, attracting over 13,000 fans (Briceno, 2013). In 2011, an analysis of the international viewership of K-pop on YouTube recorded more than 2 billion views, including 125 million from Spanish-speaking countries (Seo, 2012). Trivedi (2013) stated that K-pop group concerts draw crowds in the thousands within Latin America, and a major Colombian broadcaster, Caracol TV, has started airing K-pop talent shows. In addition, K-drama’s ratings in Ecuador and Chile have increased, and some broadcast K-dramas in these countries draw more viewership during prime time than local telenovelas (Madrid-Morales & Lovric, 2015). It is fair to say that Latin America has recently become a hot zone for Korean pop culture, regardless of national differences.

Psy’s Gangnam Style phenomenon on YouTube made a road for the Korean Wave to Europe. Similar to American parody videos responding to Gangnam Style, in 2011 Paris the SM Town Live World Tour was broadcast live on YouTube, due to many K-pop fans in France staging a flash mob video to request a K-pop group concert there. Numerous videos from this SM Town K-pop concert, shot by multinational European fans, were later uploaded to YouTube and other social networks. This event was followed by another flash mob video to request K-pop singers from YG entertainment, another major K-pop music agency, to be brought to London; it later turned out that this was orchestrated by the Korean Cultural Center in London (Lee, 2013). According to Sung (2013), Austrian K-pop fans show close ties to one another through community and local events such as a K-pop talent show, and they even travel to participate in local events in neighboring European countries. Hübinette (2012) analyzed the Korean Wave in Sweden, where Korean influence and culture seem to be minimal. In his analysis, the top four Hallyu phenomena are films, manhwa (Korean comic books), K-drama, and K-pop in terms of resources and activities, although they are not always marketed as Korean (Hübinette, 2012). Interestingly, in Sweden a high number of manhwa have been translated from English and published there since 2005 by the leading Swedish publishers, including Wahlströms and Bonnie. Approximately 100 manhwa titles are available in Swedish, but they are all marketed as Japanese and included in specific book series that are categorized as manga (Hübinette, 2012, p. 515). In line with the term “otaku”—avid fans of Japanese manga and animation, especially from the West—the prominent interest in Korean manhwa within Sweden, as Hübinette pointed out, reasserts a pervasive cultural look of Orientalism toward East Asian culture among the majority people in western countries, who have mainly sought something Asian in favor of feeling exotic senses on a pan-Asian modern culture. In regard to K-drama, only a few European countries have started airing it directly, including Romania, Hungary, and Ukraine. However, some Swedish fans have contributed to blogs about K-drama with links to streaming sites such as Dramacrazy and MySoju (Hübinette, 2012), like other transnational fans of K-drama.

Lately, scholars have studied the Korean Wave in the Middle East (e.g., Han & Lee, 2008; Hemati, 2013; Lyan & Levkowitz, 2015; Noh, 2011; Otmazgin & Lyan, 2013). These studies focus on K-drama reception and the popularity of Hallyu, as well as the issue of Hallyu fandom. Overall, this work has tracked the Korean Wave’s popularity and local fandoms in Egypt, Israel, and Iraq. K-drama arrived in the region around 2006, when the K-drama My Lovely Sam-Soon aired on the Israeli cable TV channel Viva. This drama’s tremendous popularity triggered 30 more K-dramas to be broadcast on the same channel (Lyan & Levkowitz, 2015). About two dozen Israeli Internet forums and Facebook groups are dedicated to K-drama, translating them into Hebrew, uploading them illegally, and distributing discussion questions about the aired K-dramas.

K-pop arrived in the Middle East later, in 2010. It has mainly served to cater to the needs of young females, a group of consumers bolstered by means of social media. More recently, K-pop fans in the Middle East have tended to develop a special interest in Korean culture by studying Korean language, history, and culture in schools or on their own (Otmazgin & Lyan, 2013). These Middle Eastern fans of the Korean Wave seem to form a strong fan community, and this fan-driven phenomenon constructs its own localized symbolic meaning of Korean-ness rather than treating it as solely an aesthetic experience or mere consumption (Lyan & Levkowitz, 2015; Otmazgin & Lyan, 2013).

K-Drama and the Korean Broadcasting Industry

In the Korean television system, three network TV stations (KBS, MBC, and SBS) and independent production companies are the primary television program producers. For a couple of decades, the networks have dominated all genres of TV programs due to their self-feeding channels and scheduling, and this hegemony in the Korean media industry is still extremely pervasive. The first significant turning point in K-drama production occurred in the late 1990s, with multichannel broadcasting via satellite and extended cable services. Due to the availability of more TV channels, the higher demand for dramas in Korean television led to a significant surge in their production; therefore, this genre became the most valuable business entity in the television industry (Ju, 2017).

Starting in the mid-2000s, independent production companies in Korea rapidly expanded the size and scope of their content production. A couple of these companies, however, appeared to be primarily TV drama production houses, having a coproduction system with the three networks. The so-called top five production companies were born: Olive9, KJH Production, PAN Entertainment, SamHwa Production, and Chorokbaem Media. Commonly, those large independent production firms began with former network producers, directors, screenwriters, entertainment agents, and cinematographers, and they often merged with talent agencies. An increase in competition and advertising-based profit making caused an inevitable increase in the average production cost for a K-drama, and joint ventures appeared to provide an alternative funding method. This led the Korean broadcast industry to facilitate a dual production system in K-drama programming (Ju, 2017; Park, 2013).

Most recently, Korean networks (KBS, MBC, and SBS) have faced heavier competition for the domestic TV market share. Their terrestrial broadcast power has been challenged by the emerging high-profile cable and comprehensive TV channels, such as TVN, OCN, and JTBC, which can afford to produce original drama series (Ju, 2017). Not surprisingly, these cable channels and JTBC’s dramas have recently appealed more to many domestic audiences. Dramas such as Signal (2016), along with the Reply 1997, 1994, and 1988 series (2012–2016), broke records for the all-time cable TV drama ratings, and brought TVN onto the stage as a new K-drama powerhouse despite the network stations’ longtime prowess in K-drama production. Nowadays, the three networks have to endure intense competition to obtain audience ratings for their new dramas’ first runs against cable series. In a similar way, in the United States several Netflix original series are more popular than ABC’s or NBC’s new drama series.

By the time of Hallyu 1.0 (1999–2007), Korean network TV stations prominently marketed their stars to increase the impact of their drama series overseas. Promotion of newly released (or soon-to-be-released) K-dramas in the local market coincided with preplanned promotion events from city to city, including the featured casts’ premiere tours, the release of behind-the-scenes stories, guidebooks, and local fan meetings. As a representative example, the extensive success of DaeJangGeum (Jewel in the Palace) (MBC, 2003) fueled its export to more than 80 countries across Asia, the Middle East, South and North America, and Europe. Famous K-drama stars have also been valuable assets for pursuing the Asian television market; for example, dramas such as TaeWangSaSinGi (MBC), Coffee Prince (MBC), Sorry and Love You (SBS), and IRIS (KBS) were preferred by Asian TV buyers because the title roles of these dramas were filled by top-tier K-drama stars who were well-recognized by the regional audiences: Bae Yong-Joon in TaeWangSaSinGi, Gong Yu in Coffee Prince, So Ji-Sub in Sorry and Love You, and Lee Byun-Hun in IRIS (Ju, 2014).

Riding the Korean Wave, KBS, a state TV network, restructured its international sales unit in 2000 to focus on selling produced dramas instead of importing foreign programs. The newly transformed unit belonged separately to KBS Media (its subsidiary company for programming sales) and managed all sales of KBS copyrighted shows to both domestic and foreign markets, actively involving itself in the international program trade. KBS also used diplomatic policy to develop cooperative business relationships with foreign public or state televisions, such as NHK, CCTV, and the BBC. As a result, they could use their broadcast networking to establish new contracts with foreign TV studios. For example, the mega-hit drama Winter Sonata began with NHK’s terrestrial broadcast in 2003–2004. According to a personal interview with KBS Media sales managers in 2008, the former NHK-KBS coproduction relationship for documentary production specified the sale of the exclusive right for this drama to be broadcast through NHK in Japan (Ju, 2017).

All the Korean networks have tried to create new outlets for K-dramas (and even shows in other genres), and have quickly adopted format trade and sales of K-drama broadcast rights to Internet streaming sites in order to broaden their range of international audiences. As the forerunner in this trend, MBC made a deal to send its dramas to DramaFever—a multilingual video streaming service in the United States—in a 2001 agreement allowing a short turn-around or even a simultaneous schedule with the drama’s first domestic run. SBS’s dramas also are distributed to Internet viewers from around the world through DramaFever and contracted streaming services, including Hulu and Netflix (Ju, 2017). In addition, KBS broadcast the drama Descendants of the Sun through their KBS-2 channel and simultaneously streamed it to two Chinese streaming sites, IQiyi and YouKu, in 2016. Both the Korean TV ratings and the Chinese online streaming hits were tremendous, and the drama sold its broadcast rights to 27 countries, including the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany, Romania, Sweden, Spain, and other European as well as Middle Eastern countries, while it was first airing in Korea (Song, 2016). Now the drama is up and running through Netflix for the US audience (see Figure 2).

The Korean Wave and Korean DramasClick to view larger

Figure 2. Descendants of the Sun on Netflix K-drama list.

Source: Screenshot of the ‘Korean TV shows’ page on Netflix.

Since 2012, Korean television program formats, including dramas, variety shows, and animation, have been sold for remake by foreign broadcasters. Chinese broadcasting companies are the major buyer for Korean TV formats these days, because their remakes have also enjoyed enormous popularity among audiences in both China and Southeast Asia. Hollywood production companies have also bought several K-drama formats in the thriller and medical genres, such as The Good Doctor, Nine, God’s Gift: 14 days, and My Love from Another Star. Transnational audiences are increasingly widespread, and the increasing availability of new TV content forces the Korean broadcast industry to reshape its business units and strategies as quickly as possible.

K-pop and the Korean Music Industry

Despite suspicious views by some scholars of the global impact of the Korean Wave, K-pop (Korean pop music) leads the contemporary Korean Wave (Hallyu 2.0), especially among non-Asian or western audiences, and both K-dramas and films are still steadily consumed in Latin America, North America, and Europe (Hübinette, 2012; Mukasa, 2011). In 2011, K-pop music videos on YouTube, based on K-pop singers affiliated with SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment, and JYP Entertainment, were viewed 2.3 million times around the world. Likewise, Japan is the largest K-pop market in Asia, followed by Thailand, Taiwan, Vietnam, and other countries. The United States has become a leading K-pop market outside Asia, and K-pop is also popular in Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Mexico, Brazil, Peru, and Chile (Jung & Li, 2014, p. 2974). Furthermore, Billboard inaugurated a K-Pop Hot 100 chart in August 2011, and K-pop concerts were held in New York, Paris, London, Brazil, Chile, and Peru from 2011 to 2013 (Ju & Lee, 2015). Many say that the recent global success of K-pop is due to its catchy and upbeat songs, well-designed online marketization, and visually attractive dance choreographies (Madrid-Morales & Lovric, 2015).

By the time of Hallyu 2.0 (2008–present), K-pop had made a significant contribution to continuing (and promoting) the Korean Wave, but this didn’t mean that the Wave declined in Asia. On the contrary, Asian importers still need K-dramas to feed TV channels as well as for Internet video streaming services, and K-pop is in high demand by Asian media content agencies as trendy Korean content that can appeal to their audiences and consumers. Indeed, Chinese K-pop fans consume K-pop in real time through Internet sites, and the consumption of K-pop in China has raised its export value from USD $850,000 in 2006 to $3,630,000 in 2010, a fourfold increase in just five years (Jeong, 2012; Park & Kim, 2012). International sales of K-pop began soaring in 2009 with an annual revenue of USD $31.2 million; the following year it rose to $83.2 million, and to $310 million in 2014 (Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, 2015). From 2009 to 2011, Japan took first place in the K-pop foreign sales that constituted 69.1% of the total revenue in 2009, continued the trend with 75.8% of those sales in 2010, and reached 80.7% in 2011 (Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, 2013).

K-pop fills a large demand for those who like US-style pop music—with its fusion of infectious beats, English-mixing lyrics, and skillful dancing—without its excesses. K-pop music tunes have simple, earworm-inducing melodies, usually on the hegemonic pop-music theme of love. Accordingly, K-pop idol singers are appropriate for the age of music videos, extremely photogenic, and exemplify a sort of pop perfectionism, comprehensively presented by mingling catchy tunes, good singing, attractive bodies, cool clothes, mesmerizing movements, and a pleasant overall package. It is worth stressing that as cultural export brand K-pop has high production values, which in part stems from a deep talent pool in the Korean music industry (Lie, 2012). More significantly, the format of K-pop performers composed of boy bands or girl groups has worked well in global marketing. Different members can appeal to different tastes among multinational music consumers and fans. For example, SonyoSidae (SNSD or Girls’ Generation) has nine members of varying shapes and sizes, including members proficient in English, Japanese, and Chinese, who take turns leading when they perform in non-Korean states (Lie, 2012).

During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the first K-pop boom was led by teenage idols: H.O.T., NRG, Baby V.O. X., S.E.S., and Shinhwa were all considered K-pop celebrities. However, these Korean idols’ fame was quite limited among East Asian pop-music fans. SM Entertainment, founded by Su Man Lee, produced the top two idol groups (H.O.T and S.E.S) through the domestic audition and in-house training system. In 1995, Lee initiated more strategic marketing as well as a management system for artists in his agency by changing the company name from SM Studio to SM Entertainment (Russell, 2008; Jin, 2016). Another SM Entertainment artist, BoA, produced its first Japanese album, Listen to my Heart, in March 2002, and it was a million-selling hit in Japan (Russell, 2008). This success in the Japanese music market marked the first international success of SM Entertainment after the agency shifted its operations for the large global music market. Since then, SM has become a leading Korean music conglomerate, and its system for making K-pop artists and marketing them overseas was soon adopted by competing music agencies, especially YG Entertainment and JYP Entertainment.

For years, YouTube and Facebook were K-pop fans’ preferred platforms to share and distribute content (Jin, 2016; Kim, 2013; Madrid-Morales & Lovric, 2015; Noh, 2011; Oh & Park, 2012). Moreover, Facebook plays a constructive role in the worldwide K-pop fandom as an imagined community, providing popular means of communication between fans (Otmazgin & Lyan, 2013) without recognition of their physical distance from Korea. Due to the rapid increase of online K-pop fandoms all over the world, the apparent global presence of K-pop has been explained by strong fan support, including voluntary engagement and creative events. YouTube, in the same way, has been operating as the key channel connecting K-pop to dispersed global fans without time lags. SM and YG, two of the largest K-pop entertainment agencies, recognized this tendency and progressively shifted toward new forms and patterns of K-pop consumption; both agencies partnered with YouTube and opened accounts in 2009 (Jung & Li, 2014).

K-pop has been received as a hybrid music genre that mixes appropriately foreign hegemonic pop music (mainly from US and Japanese pop music) with the Korean style of pop music conventions (Hong, 2013). For example, a variety of music genres, such as hip-hop, rap, electronic, and rhythm and blues, have been blended with Korean music’s major themes, sensibility, rhythmic melodies, lyrics, and Korean-language rap. In addition, K-pop entertainers have been well-managed by major entertainment agencies to be intensively trained (Shim, 2006) in many talent programs, which include foreign language learning and acting in addition to singing and dancing skills (Jung & Li, 2014). In this respect, some say that K-pop is a blend of the global and the local. Based on this kind of hybridity, K-pop has become some of the most significant cultural content within the new Korean Wave.

To Transdisciplinary Studies About the Korean Wave

This article concludes with some decisive implications of the Korean Wave and its scholarly influences on transnational media studies and transdisciplinary culture studies over a center-periphery cultural typology as well as the East-West media landscape. As noted in the history of Korean Wave and relevant theoretical discussions (see the section Theoretical Discussions about the Korean Wave), it is not easy to analyze the Korean Wave with a solid theoretical model, so many studies have adopted different theories to analyze a series of local case studies or to perform overall structural analyses. In particular, three issues in the Korean Wave still need to be illuminated.

Firstly, the Korean Wave is an evolutionary cultural flow, as explained earlier in the sections tracing the history of its growth. The Wave has been experiencing continuities and discontinuities in its stream for years, along with its popularity cycle, and interestingly, disjuncture has shaped it differently. In this sense, the Korean Wave seems to have a unique cultural flow to distinguish it from other former cultural waves, especially those broken away from Asia. The Korean Wave should not be overlooked as an iteration of part of East Asian cultural circulation.

Second, the Korean Wave highlights the impact of fandom in pioneering a path for new cultures and transnational cultural formation. Fandom is essential to the process of incorporating and localizing new cultures, constructing circles of allegiance, and forming organizations made up of people bound by the fandom (Otmazgin & Lyan, 2013, p. 84). As the Korean Wave has evolved its genres, speed of distribution, ways of distribution, and geocultural scope, its fandom has also been reshaped or reformulated by new means of participatory engagement. In this vein, future fan studies of the Korean Wave can delve into the mixed functions of top-down and bottom-up processes surrounding participatory cultural fandom in the digital culture age.

Third, studies of the Korean Wave should map out its presence in the big picture of cultural globalization, beyond the preexisting geocultural divisions. The very recent Korean Wave is driving not only the flow of various content and formats but also the reciprocal interchanges of diverse levels of human, financial, technological, and cultural elements (Cho & Zhu, 2017). This urges a reconstruction of implied meanings surrounding the Korean Wave and its globalizing phenomena, and leads this transnational culture to produce tangible explanations of various levels of sociocultural interactions in the processes of cultural globalization, by encompassing competition, conflict, integration, and glocalization.

Further Reading

These suggested readings will provide a deeper understanding of the Korean Wave, along with related theoretical issues and phenomena. To present a comprehensive view of the Korean Wave and moreover to highlight different local perspectives on it, the following readings offer prolific insights into this currently active cultural phenomenon.

Appadurai, A. (1996). Modernity at large: Cultural dimensions of globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.Find this resource:

    Havens, T. (2006). Global television marketplace. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

      Huat, C. B., & Iwabuchi, K. (2008). East Asian pop culture: Analysing the Korean Wave. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.Find this resource:

        Hong, S. K. (2013) Sekewha what Digital Munwha Sidae-u Hallyu. Seoul, Korea: Hanul.Find this resource:

          Jin, D. Y. (2016). New Korean Wave: Transnational cultural power in the age of social media. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.Find this resource:

            Keane, M., Fung, A. Y. H., & Moran, A. (2007). New television, globalization, and the East Asian cultural imagination. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.Find this resource:

              Kim, D. K., & Kim, M.-S. (2011). Hallyu: Influence of Korean popular culture in Asia and beyond. Seoul, Korea: Seoul National University Press.Find this resource:

                Kraidy, M. M. (2005). Hybridity, or the cultural logic of globalization. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.Find this resource:

                  Kuwahara, Y. (2014). The Korean Wave: Korean popular culture in global context. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

                    Lee, H-K. (2011). Participatory media fandom: A case study of anime fansubbing. Media, Culture & Society, 33(8), 1131–1147.Find this resource:

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