The hallyu origin story

Within living memory, South Korea has experienced a meteoric rise, from a country ravaged by war in the mid-1950s to a leading cultural powerhouse by the dawn of the 21st century.

Beginning in the late 1990s with the increasing popularity of Korean TV dramas and cinema across Asia, hallyu – meaning Korean wave ­– gained worldwide momentum in the mid-2000s through the remarkable success of the Korean music industry, which coincided with the global rise of the internet, social media and the birth of Gen Z. Korea's cultural gamble – to regain its economic confidence by investing in information and communication technologies (ICT) and culture industries – led to the growth of its international standing through the 'soft power' of culture, with the support of the Korean government and finance from the private sectors. Hallyu has become "the world's biggest, fastest cultural paradigm shift in modern history", as noted by writer Euny Hong.

Oppan Gangnam Style

On 15 July 2012 Park Jae-Sang, a South Korean singer, songwriter and producer better known as PSY, made history when his catchy tune 'Gangnam Style' launched on YouTube. His music video went viral overnight, breaking multiple sales and viewing records, inspiring numerous parodies and gathering prestigious awards and global followers in its wake. By May 2014 the song had clocked over two billion views on YouTube. PSY put South Korea on the map for people around the world.

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From Japanese to American cultural imperialism

In the space of two generations, much of Korea's rural land and scenery has been replaced by the concrete high-rise buildings of tech-driven cities, reflecting the country's rapid move from an economy relying on agriculture, forestry and fishery to a digital, service-based economy. The long-established values based on Neo-Confucian ideology inherited from more than 500 years of Joseon dynasty rule (1392 – 1910) were confronted overnight with a new reality that Korean society had little time to digest and embrace.

Gangnam view of Hyundai apartment blocks. Photo Jun Min Cho, courtesy Museum of Contemporary History of Korea

Instead, the 20th century in Korea was marked by a long and rapid succession of disastrous events, including Japanese colonial rule (1910 – 45); the Cold War, which saw its territory arbitrarily divided in 1945, with the North under the trusteeship of the Soviet Union and the South that of the Americans; and the Korean War (1950 – 53). As no peace treaty has yet been reached, North and South Korea remain technically at war today.

Against this dramatically shifting backdrop, the local folk culture that had been enjoyed by the masses during the Joseon dynasty was gradually replaced by alternative forms of entertainment that provoked both fascination and contempt. Motion pictures, first introduced from America in the late 19th century, also gained traction in the 1910s and 1920s with the increase in commercial movie theatres, mainly screening imported Euro-American films and propaganda materials locally produced by Japanese-owned companies.

Seoul Myôngdong in 1930s
View of Myôngdong area in Seoul, South Korea in 1930s. Image courtesy: Korea Media Library, Korea Institute, The Australian National University

By the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, western music and films were prohibited by the colonial government, which reinforced Japan's status as the main sphere of cultural influence on the peninsula until its liberation in 1945. America took over as the main cultural influence in South Korea through performances at its military bases and via its broadcasting service, the American Forces Korea Network (AFKN).

The 1950s also ushered in the golden age of Korean cinema. Films were a source of much-needed escapism and entertainment, and in 1954 domestic studios received financial incentives from the government to boost production and attendance figures. The measure proved to be popular: an increasing number of movies were released, attracting record audiences, and more studios and cinemas were built to sustain demand.

Military rule and cultural protectionism

The Korean War ushered in an era of political unrest and economic instability, which provided fertile ground for the coup d’état orchestrated by Major General Park Chung-hee in 1961, inaugurating two decades of dictatorship. When he took over South Korea it was considered a Third World country in ruin, poorer than its North Korean counterpart.

Park's military regime pressed for the rapid modernisation and economic recovery of South Korea. The government quickly opted for an export-oriented, heavy industry-based economy to compensate for a weak and limited domestic market, while also identifying a select number of companies it deemed reliable and sustainable enough to support its ambition. It was during this period that chaebol – large family-owned conglomerates such as Samsung, LG and Hyundai – rose to prominence. They benefited from fiscal advantages and political ties, which attracted foreign capital and expanded their trade.

Samsung Electronics' TV production line, 1970s. Courtesy of the Samsung Innovation Museum

As modernisation proceeded apace, Park's government implemented policies aimed to rebuild a Korean identity free from Japanese colonial influence and to restore pride in Korean culture and history, while at the same time validating the authority of Park's regime. Seeking to avoid dissent, Park hastily announced a wave of ethics committees and censorship regulations from 1962 to 1975, aiming to stifle freedom of expression and anti-state behaviour.

The 1960s and 1970s saw the mass dissemination of radios and TVs in Korea. The ruling regime saw these technologies as the perfect means to control and propagate their anti-Communist and modernisation agenda, while audiences enjoyed them as a source of home entertainment, gathering together to watch state-approved variety shows, American series and Korean dramas and films.

Middle class South Korean family watching television
Middle class South Korean family watching television. National Archives of Korea

By the end of the 1970s, the field of electronics was emerging as a dominant export industry, which benefited from government support. The 1980s liberalisation of the economy saw a progressive shift towards production of the more refined, technology-intensive goods used in industrial electronic sectors (such as semi-conductors). At the same time, chaebol like Samsung, Hyundai and LG and universities grew the research and development in the field, which later helped make Korea one of the leading producers and consumers of cutting-edge technology.

Seoul to the world – on the path to democracy

Park's military regime ended abruptly with his assassination in October 1979, but was promptly replaced by another dictatorship led by Major General Chun Doo-hwan. One of the most traumatising moments of his brutal reign was the infamous Gwangju Uprising of May 1980, better known as the Gwangju Massacre where pro-democratic demonstrations, led by students and labour unions were viciously suppressed by Chun's armed paratroopers.

Gwangju Uprising
Gwangju Uprising, May 18 Memorial Foundation. Photo: Na Kyung-taek

To recover his image, Chun's regime looked to popular culture as a deflection device. The government implemented a set of cultural policies branded 3S, referring to Sports, Sex and Screen. The 1980s witnessed the birth of Professional Sports Leagues in 1982, the hosting of the 10th Asian Games in 1986, and the 24th Summer Olympic Games in 1988 – an event seen as a turning point in Korean modern history propelling the nation onto the international stage for the first time as a democratic and economically developed country.

Poster featuring 'Hodori' the official emblem of the Seoul 1988 Olympics designed by Kim Hyun. Museum no. E.358-2006. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

As Chun's regime was more lenient about sex, erotic films came to dominate the home video and film industries. However, the liberalisation of the foreign film market meant that from 1986, Hollywood companies were allowed to directly distribute an unlimited number of their films in Korea, rather than go through local intermediaries, risking the livelihood of an already weakened domestic industry.

On the music front, teenagers were the new cultural consumers, wielding power through their vocal, organised fandoms. With the convergence of youth culture, colour TV and the portable cassette player, the 1980s saw the explosion of dance music.

Prelude to Hallyu: oppressed, repressed, expressed

In 1994 the news that the box office from Steven Spielberg's film Jurassic Park had outperformed the profits from the sale of 1.5 million Hyundai cars was not lost on Kim Young-sam's administration, the first civilian government in 30 years. It acknowledged the huge economic potential and export value provided by the cultural industries, the opportunity they offered to raise the country's profile abroad, and their use as leverage in advancing Korea's cultural diplomacy.

Around the same time, the internet, previously reserved for universities and research institutions, became accessible to all. Korea was eager to embrace the Digital Revolution and invested in the internet and information and communication technology (ICT) early on. When the Asian Financial Crisis blew the Korean economy to pieces in 1997, a new generation of unemployed diverted their effort and knowledge into IT-based businesses, leading ultimately to a rapid recovery from the crisis.

Silver MPMan MP3 Player
Silver MPMan MP3 Player by Saehan Electronics, 1988. Museum no. FE.200-2022. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In the wake of the crisis, Kim Dae-jung's government began to move away from manufacturing industries and prioritised instead the internet-, knowledge- and skill-based economy, alongside a focus on cultural industries, with the proactive aim to 'quadruple exports in cultural industries.'

Korea's biographical trajectory charts a tumultuous 20th century that led the country to cultivate its remarkable resilience. It learned to adapt fast to evolving situations, driven by a desire to survive and thrive. Hallyu emerged from this context, at a time when cultural policies, creative industries and digital technologies converged, sowing the seed for its development into a tech-savvy cultural powerhouse that would lead the field in an era of social media and digital culture by the dawn of the 21st century. Breaking conventions, mixing influences and making its own rules, Korea now spearheads a movement that challenges the global currents of popular culture, strengthening along the way its soft power.

This article is an edited extract from Introduction: The Hallyu Origin Story in the exhibition catalogue Hallyu ! The Korean Wave.

Header image: Sunset in Seoul, South Korea. Image: cskkkk, Pixabay