This is not a new trend. The world has been gobbling up Korean pop culture for years — and not just music or movies. As early as 2009, a Korean television drama called “Jumong” was so popular in Iran that families supposedly organized their dining and entertaining schedules around it. Korean products have been booming as well. Korean packaged noodles earned $413 million in trade in 2018. During the same year, K-beauty exports totaled more than $6 billion.
What explains this international cultural moment? More than 20 years ago, the Korean Wave, as it came to be known, began as a South Korean government project, much like the 20-year plans put in place by the former Eastern bloc. The Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998, which brought the Korean economy to its knees, made the government realize it had become overly dependent on heavy industries with complicated supply chains.
Then, in May 1994, Korea’s Presidential Advisory Board on Science and Technology published a report suggesting that the film “Jurassic Park” could make as much in a single year as the combined sales of 1.5 million Hyundai automobiles. And so, the Korean government launched one of the world’s biggest soft-power offensives to rebrand and export Korean cultural products.
It curated and financed an ecosystem of entertainment, video games, cosmetics, fashion, food and practically every other image-enhancing product. The agricultural department began to fly in chefs from all over the world for an all-expense paid cooking tour of Korea. The Korean Ministry of Culture created sub-departments devoted entirely to the cause of exporting Korean pop culture. Governmental agencies such as the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency) even financed the translation of Korean dramas into other languages.
The plan worked — almost too well. Now, the South Korean government faces both the dream and nightmare: Its creation is so successful that it no longer needs the government to thrive.
In the early days of this project, most of these industries relied on the government for financial and regulatory support and oversight. For example, Korean authorities instituted a Korean film quota in 1967, requiring all domestic movie theaters to play Korean films for 146 days of the year. Furthermore, the national budget allocated a percentage of ticket receipts to reinvest in Korean film production. More notoriously, the government also censored Korean movies, establishing what messages would be shared via cinema.
But after the government gave filmmakers more license during the presidency of Kim Young-sam in the 1990s, Korean cinema took on a life of its own. Not only did it not need the protection of the government, but government intervention was actually interfering with its success. In 2013, former president Park Geun-hye created a McCarthy-esque secret blacklist of more than 9,000 Korean artists who were thought to be uncooperative with the government and seditious — including “Parasite” director Bong. The list was leaked in 2016, drawing a backlash as artists and citizens alike called for free expression. “Parasite,” a film that is openly critical of Korean society and its wealth disparities, would not have been possible without the subsequent shift to a freer environment.
A similar story can be found with K-pop. The Korean government initially assisted the pop-music industry by building massive performance spaces and occasionally subsidizing overseas concerts. The private sector was quick to take advantage, and entertainment conglomerates created the winning K-pop formula we know today, recruiting and training stars while young, buying tunes by the hundreds — including from Sweden — and hiring the United States’ best dance choreographers.
Yet this manner of K-pop factory is becoming a thing of the past. The members of BTS, for instance, write their own songs, some of which address social issues in Korea and around the world. And neither government intervention nor corporate machinery can fully explain how BTS last year became the first musical act since the Beatles to have three albums at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart within a 12-month period.
The success of Korea’s cultural exports far surpass what the Korean government could ever have imagined. It made Korea a pop-culture juggernaut — and, in doing so, lost its ability to control the narratives conveyed by this art. As history has proved again and again, the lesson from Korea’s soft-power experiment is that artists and creative expression almost always win in the end.