The Korean Wave (한류; Hallyu)

Five Key Terms and Concepts

  1. Media Liberalization
  2. North ↔ South vs. South ↔ South
  3. Glocalization
    [We've seen this before.]
  4. Cultural Proximity
  5. Hybridity
    [This is the key term in Shim's analysis.]

Media Liberalization

In most countries, media industries are tightly regulated and often owned outright by the government. The closest thing we have to this in the United States is the Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio.

In recent years, the trend worldwide has been away from government control and regulation and toward corporate ownership, which has always been the U.S. model. The term that names this trend is media liberalization.

As Shim writes, South Korea was under pressure from the U.S. to reduce restrictions on foreign media, and in the late 1980s it began to do so. The result, at first, was an explosion of foreign-owned movies, television shows, and music. This lay the ground work for a major push by the Korean government and private companies (like Samsung and LG) to create a new kind of media industry (385-86).

North ↔ South vs. South ↔ South

For centuries, international trade has moved largely between the global "North" (i.e. Western Europe and North America) and the "South" (i.e. South America, Southern Asia, and Africa).

More specifically, raw materials flowed South → North, and manufactured goods flowed North → South. This model is also known as Core ↔ Periphery, and it is the source of these terms in the Nike article. As Korzeniewicz suggests, the economic benefits from this pattern flow mainly to the Core (185).

Today, new trade patterns are growing with extraordinary speed, and they are challenging the dominance of the old model. Moreover, this is just as true for cultural products like music and movies as for "hardware" like cars and mobile phones. As Daya Kisha Thussu notes, "Non-Western countries such as China, Japan, South Korea, Brazil and India have become increasingly important in the circulation of cultural products (Globalization Reader 379). The Korean Wave is just one prominent example of this new, South ↔ South trade.


Like the McDonald's commercials we discussed earlier, a film discussed by Shim, A Tale of Two Sisters (Jee-woon Kim, 2003, YouTube), is a good example of glocalization (359).

DreamWorks SKG paid $2 million for the remake rights, and the U.S. version was released in 2009 as The Uninvited (Guard Brothers, YouTube).

Cultural Proximity

Globalization theorists often cite cultural proximity to explain the preferences of audiences for international media akin to their own cultural backgrounds. For example, many Americans appreciate British TV comedies because the common language and similar values make the jokes more-or-less intelligible.

But cultural proximity does little to explain Korean media's popularity in China, Japan, or other Asian countries, since their languages, ethnicities, and histories are all quite distinct (Shim 362). Nor does it explain Seo Taiji's popularity in Russia (see below).


Instead, Shim cites a Chinese fan to support a different, two-part explanation:

Korean popular culture skillfully blends Western and Asian values to create its own, and the country itself is viewed as a prominent model to follow or catch up, both culturally and economically (362).

Hybridity in Film

For example, the international hit Shiri (Kang Je-Gyu, 1999) mixes styles drawn from Hollywood action thrillers as well as Hong Kong filmmakers like John Woo and Tsui Hark. [YouTube: trailer and clip]

Hybridity in Music, 1: Seo Taiji and the Boys

South Korean popular music combines many different forms. Seo Taiji and the Boys, for example, "creatively mixed genres like rap, soul, rock and roll, techno, punk, hardcore, and even ppongjjak, and invented a unique musical form...." (362).

Seo Taiji and the Boys
This video illustrates the dance and musical styles that made Seo Taiji and the Boys popular at the beginning of the wave. The influence of U.S. hip-hop is apparent.
Seo Taiji live in Vladivostok
This later video demonstrates some of the other musical styles that Seo Taiji has experimented with since the trio broke up. Set in Russia, it also underscores his transnational appeal.

Hybridity in Music, 2: Girl and Boy Bands

Girls` Generation (소녀시대) Gee MusicVideo
The band Girls Generation represents the music and visual style most often associated with the Korean wave. Their debts to Japanese popular music are clear, though Girls Generation—like K-pop more generally—projects a more innocent, less sexualized image than is typical of J-pop.
SE7EN - Passion (열정) M/V
Boy bands like Se7en are also major players in K-pop. This video illustrates Se7en's obvious debts to Michael Jackson's costuming and choreography.

Hybridity in Music, 3: ppongjjak, or Korean (Fox)Trot

Jang Yoon Jung Live Performance
Jang Yoon Jung is one of a group of artists reviving ppongjjak, aka "trot music." This style is based on dance music originally imported from the United States. For older generations, however, the style now evokes nostalgia for a uniquely Korean cultural moment. Additional examples abound on YouTube.

Hybridity in Music, 4: G-Dragon and the new Korean Wave

G-Dragon demonstrates that K-pop's hybridity can take many forms.

More from G-Dragon, Taeyang, and their band, Big Bang

BTS, "Fake Love"