The Hallyu, South Korea’s secret weapon
Within a few years, South Korea imposed itself as a lead country for culture and trends. Decoding of a worldwide success.
To increase its influence and its importance, a country has two levers, described by the American analyst Joseph Nye since 1990. The hard power which consists in dominating through the raw power of army and economy; and the soft power where you acquire power by massively spreading your culture, your models, your ideology…
For a country like South Korea which counts barely 50 million inhabitants on a surface equivalent to a sixth of France, the use of “hard power” is not an option. Facing China, the United States or Russia, any military or economic competition is unconceivable. So when South Korea began to rise from its ashes after the war, it chose soft power to be on the limelight.
The country is at the heart of the 1990s “Asian miracle”. Starting from an economy based on textile, ships and steel (40% of exports in 1982 for these three fields, see The construction of “soft power”: the example of South Korea, Sciences Po/ Ceri 2013), South Korea mutated for the informatics’ era. The country used the very high demand in electronic components as a first step for its growth (38% of its exports in 1994). The production diversified in high-tech and, only twenty years after the end of the dictatorship, the country stopped being the “workshop of the world” to turn into the twelfth richest economy on the planet.
Audience records in ChinaThe economic boom of South Korea goes along with a cultural boom. Korean series smash audience records in China, an insolent success for which one can thank Korea’s ambitious cultural policy. Korean audiovisual “majors” were supported with millions to maintain a competition in series production and musical bands.
The first Hallyu, or Korean wave, surged on China at the beginning of the 2000s, taking advantage of the weakness of Chinese cultural industry. The series What is love all about made the second biggest audience at the time in China and was followed by uncountable productions. These huge successes are explained the same way Mexican telenovelas are in Africa: they feature families with moral values and lifestyles that are specific to emerging countries, with which viewers identify more easily than with western productions.
After these successes, Korean distributors targeted other countries representing large market where the cultural offer was insufficient: Singapore, the Philippines, Vietnam… Everywhere, Korean audiovisual majors answered an immense demand and created huge profits.
After an off-patch during which the Korean cultural industry only renewed its successful products, 2010 marked the beginning of a second, much more ambitious Hallyu. The series production took a fresh start, targeting new countries like Iran where Korean pop-culture is extremely successful. Almost free of explicit sexual references or scenes showing alcohol consumption, the new series exported by the country are perfect for the Muslim world which happily receives this alternative to a western culture with too many tensions.
Exoticism and ironyBut the second Hallyu is most of all the one of K-Pop and luxury. Korean majors got suddenly motivated to produce hundreds of music bands reminding us of the 1990s boys/girls bands. Sour colors, exotic language and irony often missing from big American productions: K-Pop reuses the musical recipes which worked so well for American RnB by adding Seoul’s mark to it. And it works. No need to introduce the famous Gangnam Style anymore, but following its path, dozens of groups accumulate hundreds of millions of views on Youtube.
K-Pop bands from this second Hallyu are usually formed by young girls with perfect bodies but usually “Desasianized” features. Their hair is often dyed in blond, their complexion is alabaster and the chorus are mostly in English. A few signs that reveal the producers’ will to turn their “idols” into global brands going beyond the Asian market alone.
The bait worked perfectly. Within three years, Seoul welcome the Fashion Week and a big number of luxury brands, including Chanel and Dolce & Gabbana, attracted like night butterflies by the huge markets that South Korea now controls.
Crédits photo : Josselin Rocher