CedarBough T Saeji
It has been 10 years since Psy’s Gangnam Style catapulted to worldwide popularity. This watershed moment has been followed by many more previously inconceivable achievements by hallyu (sometimes called the Korean wave, a catch-all term for the international popularity of South Korean media products). As hallyu has reached around the world and captivated new audiences, a critical narrative implying hallyu is a government creation has emerged.
Although it is true that the cultural industries rece-ive government support, th-ere is a difference between a government supporting a domestic industry and the government creating hallyu or being responsible for its worldwide popularity.
Most national governments aspire to support their cultural industries. Governments own and subsidise cultural facilities and national broadcasters, and create a climate for events because of the tremendous payoff that it offers in branding and selling their country. Once a culturemaker or industry is thriving, the government will get its rewards through commerce, taxes and intangibles such as nation-branding and soft power.
After South Korea democratised in 1987, the government stopped restricting potentially subversive pop culture, and by 1994 under president Kim Young-sam, began instead to promote it. This initially meant incentivising large chaebol (conglomerates) to invest in the film industry.
In 1997, when the Asian financial crisis upended South Korea’s economy, the International Monetary Fund demanded that the chaebol divest, and many new media companies be-came independent. Film s-chool graduates were no lo-nger beholden to corporate executives. While the country was still labouring und-er the malaise of the financial crisis, H.O.T. (the first K-pop idol group) released its Chinese-language album to huge success and What Is Love (a K-drama from 1991) was broadcast on CCTV in China to record-breaking viewership.
In 1999 the Basic Law for Cultural Industries’ Promotion was passed, and the predecessor to what is now called the Korea Creative Content Agency was established to promote and facilitate cultural industries. In the early 2000s hallyu industries grew rapidly. The government subsidised a few international concerts and paid the costs for exporting some television shows, in an effort to open up new markets.
Hallyu experienced commercial success from dramas such as Winter Sonata and Jewel in the Palace, auteur success on the film festival circuit and audience adoration as the music industry became a regional powerhouse first in Northeast Asia, and then Southeast Asia. By 2006 the Korean government was looking to hallyu as an instrument of national diplomacy.
Hallyu industries have been enormously successful at nation branding. Sou-th Korea has become a t-ourist destination based on its new image as a hyperm-odern glistening country full of romance. Still whatever hallyu has done for K-orea, the government sometimes stands in its way. Parasite director Bong Jo-onho, for example, was blacklisted under former president Park Geun-hye and mandatory military ser-vice for men can seriously impact the careers of stars.
The industry is vulnerable to international politics too. Held up as representative of Korea, hallyu lost its Chinese market after 2016 when the Park Geun-hye administration accepted the construction of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system in South Korea, angering China. Hallyu’s success has also seen direct pushback internationally. Governments in China, Russia and Turkey attack the style of masculinity modelled by K-pop stars — in China in 2021 this extended to officially censuring Chinese artists emulating a K-pop aesthetic.
As stars are referenced in speeches and present at diplomatic events — BTS appeared alongside President Moon Jae-in as presidential envoys on a trip to the UN in September 2021 — the government seeks to showcase its values and policies through Korean culture.
Yet, in deploying their draw-power the government leaves itself open to the fallibility of celebrities. Artists’ actions can draw criticism and missteps by Korean celebrities may reflect on a country whose image is built on those same celebrities. The government has even less control over the actions of far-flung and well organised fan networks on international politics and diplomacy, such as K-pop fan involvement in the Trump Tulsa rally in the United States or democracy protests in Thailand.
Today, the international circulation and mediation of K-pop culture is an important element of its production. Audiences are courted through giving television and film roles to K-pop idols and new music groups which tap into the magic of BTS are created by producers.
These safer approaches built on past success exist, but there are visionaries to-o. Nothing about Psy or G-angnam Style followed the conventional 2012 K-pop formula, BTS was created with a fresh approach by a new agency and Squid Ga-me director Hwang Dong-hyuk could not find domestic backing for his show. Staying nimble and open to possibilities has been the source of the biggest hits.
This is no fluke: hallyu’s success ultimately can be traced not to government backing but to the imagination and creativity of individual Koreans.
CedarBough T Saeji is Assistant Professor of Korean and East Asian Studies at Pusan National University.