Korean Wave: The Global Rise of Culture in Seoul

Korean Wave: The Global Rise of Culture in Seoul

Korean Wave: The Global Rise of Culture in Seoul
18th February 2022

The Korean Wave (K Wave), or Hallyu refers to the phenomenal expansion of South Korean culture since the 1990s. It is a collective term that comprises everything from music and drama to cuisine and fashion. The 21st century saw South Korea emerge as a major exporter of popular culture and tourism, being one of only a few in the world to establish a goal of being a globally leading cultural exporter. The popularity of Korean culture was driven by the South Korean government supporting its creative industries. They offered incentives for start-ups and in 2014 raised a $1billion cultural fund. Korean Wave benefitted from social networking sites and the ability to share content immediately. Korean culture has been adapted in multiple languages and has been incredibly successful in reaching a global audience.

Korean Wave in Seoul, South Korea


K-Pop, or Korean pop music, is one of the most rapidly growing areas of South Korean culture and is globally renowned. In 2012, Psy released ‘Gangnam Style’ which launched K-Pop on the international scene. The single racked up over four billion views and earned $8million on YouTube alone, reached number one in the U.K. and maintained its second position on the Billboard Hot 100 for seven consecutive weeks. The worldwide success of Psy was followed by K-Pop group BTS whose songs ‘Dynamite’ and ‘Butter’ stormed the charts, with the band beating Taylor Swift and Drake to become the best-selling global artist of 2020. The group became the first non-Western act to win, and the first to not sing predominantly in English. K-Pop has an increasing influence on the global music scene, with MTV launching a new category at the 2019 MTV Music Video Music Awards to honour artists from this genre. BLACKPINK, TWICE, EXO, Red Velvet, ITZY and MONSTA X are some of several successful K-Pop artists. K-Pop is arguably the biggest contributor to Korean Wave, with artists popular around the world. Being the capital, K-Pop culture in Seoul is enormous with bands performing at multiple city venues.

BTS K-Pop Group
K-Pop Group, BTS

TV Dramas

Moving beyond the realm of K-Pop, Korean TV Dramas have become a major part of Hallyu, or the Korean Wave. Dramas such as Descendants of the Sun, Vincenzo and most recently Squid Game have accomplished success on the international stage. Squid Game became the most watched Netflix series by hours watched, with the Korean drama recording 1.65 billion hours in its first 28 days. In 2019, Netflix launched its first original Korean drama, Kingdom, which gained notable international traction. Korean cinematography also gained recognition based upon its script writing and directing ability. K-Drama became a symbol of culture in South Korea, with many productions expanding their fan base abroad. The COVID-19 lockdown instigated the rise of the Over-The-Top (OTT) market, a streaming platform provided via a high-speed internet connection as opposed to satellite. In 2020, an award-winning drama Crash Landing On You was premiered in 190 nations through Netflix. The global influence of Hallyu and recognition of the Korean Wave in the western world has raised the demand for Korean actors and actresses and made them more desirable for Hollywood.

Squid Game on Netflix
Squid Game: The Netflix Phenomenon


In addition to K-Drama, the Korean Wave has seen the cinema of South Korea become globally renowned. According to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the South Korean film industry was valued at $1.6billion, making it the fifth largest in the world after America, China, Japan, and the U.K. South Korea has the highest attendance frequency per capita in the world, with K-Movies representing 51% of the local box office. In 2019, Bong Joon-Ho made history by becoming the first Korean director to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for the critically acclaimed Parasite. The film grossed over $263million globally and claimed the most awards at the 2020 Oscars by winning four Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Directing, Writing and International Film Feature. The success of Parasite on the global stage prompted world media to begin reporting about Korean films, with the likes of The Guardian and Rotten Tomatoes recommending previous K-Movies. Like K-Dramas, movies have become a vital part of South Korean culture, having benefitted from the OTT market. In 2020, Alive, a Korean zombie film streamed on Netflix topped the charts in 35 countries.

Bong Joon-Ho at Cannes Film Festival
Korean Director Bong Joon-Ho at Cannes Film Festival

Korean Wave: The Global Impact

Korean Wave has not only achieved a global impact through the production of K-Pop, K-Dramas and K-Movies, the success of South Korean creative industries has triggered a rise in Korean culture as an entity. K-Dramas have gained attention for their unique fashion, style, and culture all around the world, with the Korean Wave transforming Seoul into an emerging hub of global fashion like Paris or Milan. Furthermore, Hallyu has impacted culture in several other ways, with classical music, theatre, art, literature, dance, and manhwa (Korean comics) all reaching western markets as South Korean culture expanded. Even ‘Baby Shark’ the children’s song and dance was produced by Korean entertainment company, Pinkfong. In 2022, it became the first YouTube video to reach 10 billion views. The Korean Wave has also influenced the global culinary scene, with a number of restaurants serving traditional Korean cuisine opening up in major western cities including Paris, London, and New York.

Korean Fashion
Fashion in South Korea

Evidently, culture in South Korea is on a monumental scale and in no sign of slowing down! Being the capital, Seoul has become a hotbed for the Korean Wave and is also a thriving business hub. Discover our insightful guide which outlines five reasons Seoul is a key business destination for business travellers. Ahead of visiting South Korea, check out our five best serviced apartments in Seoul.

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