How Korean media became a rising star

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“Crash Landing on You” is one of many popular Korean dramas available to watch on Netflix. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

Sydnie Howard, Deputy Features Editor

This previously ran in our December 2021 print issue.

One of the oldest cultures in the world has risen as the dominant culture worldwide, surpassing Japan. From Squid Game and Parasite to K-pop and the fashion industry, “Hallyu,” or the Korean Wave, refers to South Korea’s global cultural economy exploring pop culture, especially the film industry. 

But, what granted Korean film and media its sudden boom in global popularity? And what made it all so appealing and addictive to American audiences? The first piece of South-Korean media I’ve ever consumed was a romance action drama called Crash Landing On You on Netflix. A conflicted South-Korean businesswoman, Yoon Se-ri, gets caught in a horrible storm while parasailing, crashing right into the North Korean DMZ. Who finds her? None other than a stoic, seemingly emotionless North-Korean soldier, Lee Jeong-hyeok. 

Sounds a bit cliche, right? I’m not even a big fan of romance. However, one week later there I am, halfway through my second box of tissues having not slept in a good day and a half, my life and soul invested in the forbidden love story. What made this Korean drama so much more emotional and addictive to me, as an American non-Korean speaker?

Ji-Yeon Yuh, a professor in Asian-American Studies at Northwestern University, explains in an NBC News interview that “structural factors” and the internet have granted a gateway for Korean dramas to reach global audiences. 

“That is, Korean drama and pop music, but drama especially, offer a version of a society that holds onto traditions and traditional values while moving forward as an economically advanced and developed society,” Yuh said.

With traditional Korean values being very different and new to an American audience, Yuh notes that it’s also the plots, music soundtracks, and attractive cast members that capture foreigners’ attention.

Candace Bacon from ReelRunDown breaks down the main reasons as to what makes Americans so hooked on Korean media. Besides the “eye candy” aspect and most dramas sporting “attractive” characters, there is also a large “cultural appeal” that most watchers are often unaware of.

Watching foreign dramas lets you absorb information about a different culture without the hassle of dreary studying,” Bacon said. “You learn about different societal norms by watching the day-to-day life of the characters. Watch even one Korean drama and you will understand that shoes are taken off at the door without anyone needing to tell you.”

Before Squid Game’s brilliance in suspense and reeling imagery dominated watchers all over the world, especially in the U.S., Korean dramas and movies were already on the rise in their popularity. A 50-year ban of pop-culture exchange between Korea and Japan was lifted in 2000, allowing cultures to once again bleed into one another. This granted South Korea room to send delegates to promote television programs and Korean content in Japan, thus boosting its popularity in several other countries.

“Audiences around the world are falling in love with Korean stories, artists, and culture,” said Minyoung Kim, a Netflix vice president of content for Korea, Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Zealand in a blog post about investment.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Netflix invested over $500 million in South Korean content in 2021. Between 2015 and 2020, Netflix put in over $700 million. Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s co-chief executive officer, expands on their investments.

“Our commitment towards Korea is strong. We will continue to invest and collaborate with Korean storytellers across a wealth of genres and formats,” Sarandos said.

Korean content is being advertised more on streaming platforms in the U.S, reeling in more and more viewers. Meanwhile, the South-Korean film Parasite won six Oscars in 2020, exhibiting the impact Korean culture has had and will continue to have on the entertainment industry around the world.