Opportunity binge

The Korean Invasion

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Squid Game, the South Korean television show in which deeply indebted people compete with one another in a deadly tournament, has become Netflix’s top offering in 90 countries, including the United States, and is already the streaming service’s most popular original program ever. I am one of the millions of viewers who binge-watched all nine episodes as soon as they came out. Not only is the series well plotted, but it also captures deep-seated concerns among many people in prosperous societies about ever-widening income inequality.

The show is only the latest cultural export from South Korea to take the world by storm. From pop music acts such as the boy band BTS to movies such as Parasite (which became the first foreign-language film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2020), Hallyu, or the Korean “wave,” is enjoying unprecedented global success. Historically more worried about fending off Chinese and Japanese cultural domination than spreading its own culture abroad, South Korea has now become a global soft-power juggernaut.

Although millions of people around the world now regularly engage with South Korean culture, few know how it became so successful. The country’s cultural growth was not simply the work of a handful of inspired creators. It was the result of a long-term government effort to expand specific creative industries, a strategy that has paid hard-power dividends in the form of economic growth and greater global influence. With this newfound clout, Seoul has a chance to take on a more active role in contemporary international politics—spreading its democratic ideals alongside its increasingly ubiquitous popular culture.

A STAR IS BORN

South Korea’s cultural renaissance was born out of adversity. President Kim Dae-jung, who had come to power in 1998 when South Korea was still reeling from the Asian financial crisis, targeted media and popular culture as a major source of economic growth. Under the aegis of the “Hallyu Industry Support Development Plan,” his administration set a goal of increasing the value of South Korea’s cultural industry (“music, soaps, movies, animations, games, and characters”) to $290 billion in two years, larger than the country’s semiconductor sector, which was then worth $280 billion. The government also expanded the cultural industry budget from $14 million in 1998 to $84 million in 2001.

To boost the production of Korean popular culture, the South Korean government used the same public-private partnership template that Seoul originally developed to grow its electronics, shipbuilding, automaking, and other export industries. In conjunction with public relations firms, technology companies, and other parts of the private sector, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism began developing detailed business plans designed to grow overseas markets for Korean TV dramas, movies, and popular songs and offered loans to entrepreneurs and training for aspiring artists.

The 2002 television drama Winter Sonata marked the first big success of this initiative. The show—a tearjerker about two young lovers—became a global hit partly as a result of deals the Korean government struck with foreign broadcasters and quickly attracted a cult following worldwide. Sales of Winter Sonata merchandise surpassed $3.5 million in Japan alone, and when the show’s lead actor visited Tokyo in 2004, thousands of middle-aged women came out to the airport to greet him. Meanwhile, the number of foreign tourists traveling to South Korea grew by nearly 75 percent from 2003 to 2004. The bulk of the growth, according to South Korean tourism officials, stemmed from the allure of Korean popular culture.

Subsequent South Korean governments have sought to capitalize on these early successes. Roh Moo-hyun, who assumed the presidency in 2003, coined the phrase “Creative Korea” and increased subsidies for cultural startups. His conservative successor, Lee Myung-bak, prioritized cultural exports as a means of enhancing South Korea’s national image and fostering economic growth. Lee was particularly keen on promoting Korean food, such as kimchi.

The next president, Park Geun-hye, promised in her inaugural speech that “cultural enrichment” would be one of her administration’s main objectives. Park’s term in office also coincided with the release of pop singer Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” which quickly exploded in popularity; the video has since been viewed more than four billion times on YouTube. Park took advantage of the song’s global reach by showcasing K-pop in her visits abroad. Psy’s success also helped justify the government’s plans to pour millions of dollars into the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism for projects that included a series of giant auditoriums and cultural centers.

With its newfound clout, Seoul has a chance to take on a more active role in contemporary international politics.

President Moon Jae-in, a progressive who took power in 2017, has continued to support cultural production with tax incentives and subsidies. Moon’s government has also sought to use soft power to enhance South Korea’s international standing. His signature foreign policy initiative—the New Southern Policy, designed to expand Seoul’s ties with India and countries across Southeast Asia—has helped turn the broader region into one of the largest markets for Korean pop culture. Moon also arranged for K-pop acts such as Red Velvet and Baek Ji-young to perform in Pyongyang during his 2018 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and his government appointed the singers of boy band BTS as “special presidential envoys” to the United Nations “for future generations and culture.” More than one million people around the world tuned in to watch the band’s speech at the UN General Assembly.

The economic payoff of these policies has been immense. In 2019, South Korea exported $12.3 billion in pop culture (up from a mere $189 million in 1998), including computer games, musical tours, and cosmetics. By one estimate, the number of South Koreans employed in cultural fields grew to 644,847 in 2017—three percent of the entire workforce. BTS alone is an economic powerhouse. According to the Hyundai Research Institute, the band generates an estimated $3.5 billion per year in economic activity. In 2017, around 800,000 tourists—about seven percent of all arrivals in South Korea—visited because of their interest in the group.

Some of the other economic benefits of Korean soft power are subtler but no less important. Many people around the world perceive South Korea as small, unthreatening, and increasingly “cool.” Korean exports and investment have sparked little backlash among Americans, even though South Korea runs a trade surplus with the United States. Korean companies such as Samsung, LG, Kia, and Hyundai have become uncontroversial parts of everyday American life—in sharp contrast to Japanese companies such as Toyota, Sony, and Honda in the 1980s and Chinese firms such as Huawei today. A Gallup poll found that 77 percent of Americans have a positive view of South Korea, up from only 46 percent in 2003. That is far more positive than American views of traditional allies such as Australia, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom—to say nothing of other Asian countries.

Soft power also strengthens the long-standing military alliance between the United States and South Korea, which withstood former President Donald Trump’s accusations that Seoul was a military freeloader seeking to take advantage of U.S. largess. Such claims failed to resonate in the United States not only because of a shared history of sacrifice dating back to the Korean War but also because of the positive attitude toward South Korea held by many Americans, a view largely fostered by cultural exports.

Beyond these economic and political benefits, soft power is changing the very nature of…

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