How Seoul Engineered the Korean Wave
From Squid Game to Parasite to BLACKPINK, no matter where in the world you live, the popularity of Korean entertainment is impossible to miss. What is less well-known, however, is that the Korean entertainment industry didn’t get this successful all by itself – its success is in large part due to a meticulous, long-term plan under the direction of successive South Korean governments. South Korea wanted foreigners to like it, so it invested heavily in its entertainment industry, and that investment has yielded enormous returns.
The rise of South Korea’s entertainment industry really began with the administration of Kim Young-sam. When Kim took power in 1993, he found himself at the helm of a country that had only recently emerged from dictatorship, one that was regarded as a cultural backwater, if it was regarded at all, and which had few attractions and little soft power.
In the 1990s, South Korea was regarded as a cultural backwater, if it was regarded at all, and which had few attractions and little soft power.
That same year, the Hollywood blockbuster Jurassic Park was released, and went on to make $850 million by the end of the year. When Kim Young-sam’s presidential advisory committee told him of this figure, which was equivalent to the profit made from selling a million cars, he was astonished, and realized the importance of the entertainment industry. His government went on to remove censorship restrictions on the film industry and create tax incentives for companies investing in filmmakers.
His successor, Kim Dae-Jung, who took power in 1998, dubbed himself “the President of Culture” and continued this policy of supporting South Korea’s entertainment industry. Under his leadership, the country passed the Basic Law for Cultural Industry Promotion, which enabled the government to help market Korean pop culture and disseminate it to foreign markets, and allocated $148.5 million to this end. To foster development, in 2009, various institutions involved in media and entertainment were merged into a government structure attached to the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism: the Creative Content Agency. In 2012, more than a quarter of all venture capital money in South Korea came from public funds, and one third of that was spent on the entertainment industry. Next year, the budget of South Korea’s Ministry of Culture will be over $6 billion. (By comparison, Germany spends $2.2 billion, Sweden $3.87 billion, and France $4.55 billion.)
The budget of South Korea’s Ministry of Culture will be over $6 billion next year.
These initiatives have led to the rise of large entertainment conglomerates, including YG Entertainment, JYP (whose band, Wonder Girls, were the first Koreans to break into the American Billboard Hot 100 in 2009 with their song “Nobody”), and Big Hit Entertainment (whose band, BTS, was the first Korean band to top the Billboard 200 in 2018 with their album Love Yourself: Tear). In the Routledge Handbook of Soft Power, Hun Shik Kim, an Associate Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, wrote that state support for these companies came through subsidies, investment, and tax breaks, as well as loans and credit guarantees.
Of course, South Korea is hardly the only country to invest heavily in its entertainment industry, and many other countries have devoted considerable resources to protecting or developing their local culture industries. What is unique, though, is that South Korea set its sights on becoming an exporter of pop culture from the start – its aim was not limited to keeping its cultural landscape from foreign dominance. The best a country like, say, France, hoped for was for its local productions to be leaders domestically, with perhaps a couple of them seeing modest success abroad. South Korea’s plan, however, has always been to conquer the world on a Jurassic Park scale – which is what it has done. Today, Korean music and films are some of the most popular in the world. South Korean President Moon Jae-in noted that “In each and every country I’ve visited, I encountered young people who sing Korean songs and enjoy Korean webtoons, characters, dramas, and movies. Enthusiasm to study the Korean language is also rapidly spreading.”
Scene from Squid Game
This has translated into considerable economic gains. In 2016, South Korea’s Creative Content Agency reported that the country exported $5.66 billion worth of cultural content, whilst importing $1.18 billion worth of cultural content, giving it a surplus of over $4 billion. By 2018, South Korea’s cultural content exports rose to $10 billion, making it the country’s second biggest export after semiconductors. And this doesn’t even include the benefits to related industries, like fashion, tourism, and language study. Moon estimated that “every $100 worth of content products exported leads to $248 in exports of related consumer goods and services” and credited it with drawing 1.4 million tourists to South Korea in 2018.
The biggest benefit South Korea gleans from the popularity of its cultural exports, however, cannot be measured in dollars. It’s the fact that Korea is now dear to the hearts of many foreigners: if misfortune were to befall the country, the rest of the world would care, which is more than you can say for most other states. In a region that’s growing more and more dangerous, with an increasingly aggressive China looking across the East China Sea and an increasingly belligerent North Korea eyeing it across the 38th Parallel, that soft power may someday mean the difference between life and death.