If the Korean wave, (known as Hallyu) began in the mid nineties, then it ended on February 2020, when Parasite became the first foreign film to win the academy for best film. The idea of Korean culture as something new and exciting was fading, but for a while it was the newest cultural force, with Korea leading the way when it came to innovative film, fashion and music.
It was quite different in the eighties. The country that everyone talked about was Japan. Japan was cool. Everyone said so. You didn’t need to have ever been to Japan to have an idea of what Japan was about. Sushi, Geisha, manga cartoons. These were well-known. And they didn’t need the Japanese government to help promote them. With Korea, it wasn’t until after the end of the country’s dictatorship that the country opened up. And by 1995, the government was funding Korean movies. An even bigger revolution was occurring in television. Sandglass was the first major TV drama with mass appeal. not just in Korea, but in other countries. Ministers realised that they could sell Korea (specifically its technology) through TV dramas that were shown across Asia. The spread of Korea had not quite reached beyond the Pacific Rim just yet.
By the 2000s, the music form Korea was catching on too. What was a beguiling me of techno, rap and electronica was being called “k-pop.” And then with Youtube, it was possible for this music to break through the language barrier and start to gain much wider appeal. Certainly, the internet helped to share Korean music to fans all over the world. But it’s likely that it would have taken off anyway, even without Youtube, which gave Psy’s Gangnam Style the most watched Korean music video.
As the likes of Girls Generation, Super Junior and Big Bang were making a lot of noise in Asia, people were realising that Korea was in many ways the new country to discover. Korean restaurants were spreading fast, and kimchi became a new superfood. Again, this was no accident. the government deliberately promoted it. And for a while, it was exciting. You couldn’t move for Korean restaurants in London, even if they were churning out the same familiar food. And yet by 2017, it was starting to look as if Korean culture was losing it’s edge. BTS, Twice, Big Bang. the top Korean k-pop groups were now polished, slick, more professional than ever before, but people were criticising the methods involved in the manufacture of these acts.
Was there any different about BTS that was distinctive from Super Junior? OR Big Bang? Red Velvet were just an updated version of 2NE1. The films were no longer breaking artistic ground. Meanwhile, people were using the prefix ‘K’ to describe anything that was from Korea, in attempt to sell its novelty. There was k-drama. then it was k-bbq. And K-make-up. All of it was beginning to grow tiresome. Was the only thing these products had going for them was that they were Korean? Maybe not, but it felt as though people felt they could make more money if people thought they were buying something Korean.
Meanwhile, Japanese culture was quietly carrying on. It didn’t need an army of fans to sell its culture abroad, or government ministers to prop up its film industry. And however hard the Korean tourist board tries to sell Korean culture abroad, it’s Japan that is the first country non-Asians want to visit when they travel to the continent. No amount of B.T.S. videos are going to change that.