An African’s Perspective on Hallyu — South Korea’s Pop Culture Wave
I have come to love South Korea for many reasons, to the extent that I consider her my adopted country. Asides from the food — which is so good, Korean entertainment really stands out to me. Korea is probably the only country in the world that is deliberate about exporting its culture through entertainment, music, TV drama & movies, food, and cosmetics. The term “Hallyu” is a Chinese word that translates as the “Korean wave.”
Like many others, I have come under the influence of Hallyu as I have been in the business of watching K-Dramas for ten years now and consuming some of its exports as a channel of cultural exploration. For example, I am an avid listener of Korean music with a strong preference for old folk-rock. My love for Samsung gadgets is also a result of this influence.
To better appreciate the economic impact of the Hallyu movement, it’s important to take a look back in time.
BRIEF HISTORY OF MODERN-DAY SOUTH KOREA
For 35 years (1910–1945), the people of Korea lived under the colonial rule of Japan. They were forced to give up their farmlands, adopt Japanese names and religion, conscripted to fight China under the Japanese army, and were discouraged from speaking their language. During Japanese rule, there was remarkable economic growth in Korea. Still, it was of little benefit to the Koreans as most of the industries were Japanese owned. It was apparent that the goal of the colonial masters was the assimilation of Korea. Had they not fought for and gained their independence in 1945, it is uncertain how much of Korean culture and practices would have been preserved.
Shortly after their independence from Japan, North and South Korea fought a war that lasted for three years and a month (a war that never ended). South Korea suffered significant losses and was burdened with the task of rebuilding the country. With no natural resources but the sheer will to thrive, South Koreans sacrificed, planned, and set policies to ensure that they would become among the world’s most developed nations. Today, South Korea is the 12th largest economy in the world. As a Nigerian, I have restated that this sort of phoenix rise from the ashes is what I wish for my country.
THE CONCEPT OF HALLYU
Hallyu began spreading after the 1999 release of various Korean movies and TV dramas. The first one, titled “Swiri,” was highly successful, thus paving the path for more movies. Others include “Autumn in my Heart,” “My Sassy Girl,” and “Winter Sonata.” Two decades later, Hallyu’s export has doubled, successfully gaining roots in East Asia, the Middle East, Europe, North and Latin America, and Africa. Ironically, their former colonial master, Japan, is now the highest consumer of Hallyu such that Korean musical bands often have to re-record their albums in Japanese.
According to the Korea Foundation for International Cultural Exchange, Hallyu not only contributed $9.5 billion to the Korean economy in 2018 but has significantly contributed to Korean tourism as well as the overall image of Korea as an international brand, thus increasing the country’s soft power.
However, it’s is impossible to discuss the evolution of the Korean film industry without mentioning the government’s censorship. Movie producers had to ensure that the content of their work was void of anything the government would find “offensive.” However, after the nationwide pro-democracy movements in 1987 that resulted in political reforms, censorship was largely eliminated. But, according to Kim Soo-Yong, a 90-year old retired director who made more than 100 films, Korean cinema would have advanced further about 30 to 50 years earlier if not for the censorship.
The widespread recognition of the Korean wave was aided by several factors, chief of which was the lifting of the ban placed on international travel for local Koreans. This promoted Western culture’s influence into the local forms of art; birthing new ideas and fresh talents.
Another factor was the focus on popular culture as one of the drivers for building a strong economy. This deliberateness of selling the culture is seen in the fact that K-Pop stars are not born but made through a rigorous and competitive training process. Besides K-Pop, K-Dramas are also one of the main major exports of Korean culture and entertainment abroad.
Something that has fascinated many lovers of K-Drama is their writing style and the quality of the stories. It is interesting to note that K-Dramas are written on demand, with episodes being shot close to their airing dates. The storylines are usually simple, portraying cultural values such as respect and having characters who overcome odds to work their way to the top — a healthy dose of han and jeong.
In contrast to American series that go on forever, K-Dramas are usually shorter. This can be attributed to Koreans’ general hastiness — they are accustomed to living life on the fast lane. Though highly romantic, K-Dramas are not overtly sexual; they leave a lot to the imagination. This is perhaps why they have become prevalent in the conservative societies in the Middle East, especially Iran.
THE FUTURE OF THE HALLYU WAVE
There is no doubt that the “Hallyu” has become an international source of pride in Korea. Hallyu will see better days if creativity is allowed to freely flow, if the government continue s to actively try and promote Korea’s soft power abroad, and if the audience keeps getting the type of content they would like to consume.
Africa, especially Nigeria, has been highly receptive to K-Dramas; some fans have even gone ahead to learn the language to avoid the stress of reading subtitles. It would be interesting to see the future collaborations between Nigeria’s Nollywood — the third-largest film producer in the world, and the Korean movie industry. For this Nigerian, it will be equivalent to eating my kimchi and having it too.
- Korean Wave (Hallyu) — The Rise of Korea’s Cultural Economy & Pop Culture
- What is Hallyu?
- Translating K-pop: Japanese Debuts by Korean Artists
- Korea Under Japanese Rule
- Korean War
- Korean dramas
- Film censorship and political legitimation in South Korea, 1987–1992
- Director says film censorship delayed development of Korean cinema for decades
- Korean language and its influence in Nigeria
- What is Nollywood and How Did it Become the 2nd Largest Film Industry?