Riding The K-Wave

South Korea is a small country located in eastern Asia, with a population of 51 million people. The international cultural clout surrounding this country is as real as it gets, with the popular boy band BTS smashing several global records and Squid Games on its way to becoming the biggest show ever on Netflix.

How did a nation as small as South Korea achieve this massive feat?
To understand this, we need to travel back to the 90s when Seo Taiji and Boys first appeared on television, creating most of what is recognized as Kpop today. Their success gave rise to hundreds of boy/girl bands that tried to replicate the music formula of Seo Taiji and Boys. Although the entertainment industry was evolving rapidly in Korea, it wasn’t global, that is, until 2013 when Psy dropped Gangnam style, and the rest is history. The international recognition of Gangnam Style proved that for a song to be successful, it doesn’t necessarily have to be in English.

Even after Gangnam Style’s success, the Kpop music industry found it difficult to penetrate the US market. This is because the US market has historically been averse to non-English music, and then BTS happened. BTS achieved this by leveraging social media, which gave them a platform to connect with their fans worldwide and improve their visibility. BTS speaks directly with a generation that feels enormous pressure through their music by advocating issues such as mental health and LGBTQ+ inclusivity.

South Korea is one of the few countries with a dedicated goal to become the leading exporter of popular culture. The government is very involved in leveraging its soft resources and converting them into “soft power.” Soft power refers to the intangible power a country wields through its image rather than through hard force. For example, Hollywood often presents the United States as a powerful and incredible nation, which led to the rise in demand for American goods worldwide.

Music is now Korea’s one of biggest exports. The government of South Korea has a ministry of culture, and a division of this ministry focuses on Korean pop music, fashion, mass entertainment, comic books, cartoons, and other vital products. The division, along with three other divisions, is referred to as the Cultural Content Office. It has a mind-boggling budget, with the aim to boost economic growth, mainly through growing the country’s cultural industry export industry. It is estimated that BTS alone is worth USD 3.6 billion per year to the economy of South Korea, with an additional USD 1 billion in consumer exports.

This enormous success of Kpop, Kdramas, and movies has given Korea an opportunity to promote and expand its tourism industry. BTS partnered with visit Seoul on a tourism campaign and featured several destinations in their music videos which soon became hot spots for tourists. In 2019, Korea earned USD 21.5 billion from tourism, attracting a total of 17.5 million tourists. There is also an increased demand for Korean beauty products and fashion brands, which in turn adds to the economy.

In 2021, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in has named BTS as his diplomatic envoys. They will be representing South Korea in the forthcoming international conferences. Before this, BTS was invited several times to the UN to speak about issues faced by today’s youth. The government is keen on organizing various activities to promote international cooperation in solving challenges such as climate change. According to a statement by the Blue House, the band will be part of South Korea’s efforts to publicize what the country is doing regarding sustainable development and youth-related issues. The appointment of BTS as special presidential envoys proves that the government of South Korea is leveraging the worldwide popularity of the boy band to reposition its global image.

To conclude, the country exports a high volume of copyright-protected content, and Kpop as a whole contributes significantly towards South Korea’s GDP. The clout surrounding Kpop and Kdramas is only bound to go higher with today’s world being more open to change and inclusivity.

Can’t wait to see how big this gets in the future!

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