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Hallyu (The Korean Wave) is a phenomenon which means “Korean flow”. Hallyu is the global spread of South Korean culture. The term was first coined by Chinese journalists during the mid-1990s to describe the growing popularity of Korean entertainment and culture. It originally started in Asia through the success of Korean dramas, which resulted in South Korean television dramas garnering more audiences than American entertainment. Chung Kwangyong, counsellor at the Embassy of the Republic of Korea, said part of this success came from viewers enjoying relatable content that showed “common values such as Confucianism and family loyalty such that the audience could easily access and understand Korean dramas”.
In their Korean Culture book series, the Korean Culture and Information Service (KOCIS), which “aims to introduce Korean culture to the world and to raise Korea’s national profile”, have explained how the successes of Korean dramas “paved the way for many Korean singers to debut in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan”. Korean literature is now receiving more global attention because of increasing cultural fascination. The dramas have also prompted the exposure of South Korean culture, like food and fashion choices, that have since become things of interest. Chung expanded on this aspect: “The Korean Wave is a mix of many genres that is not confined, and a synergy is created that boosts one another.”
This dissemination of culture expanded into a global reach. The Korean culture has already had a presence internationally in Korean immigrant communities, but through internet access it has become more accessible and visible. South Korean music is collectively referred to as “K-Pop” by the international community and spans multiple genres. The growth in K-Pop’s international interest coincides with a rise in online piracy, which has prompted entertainment companies to produce high-quality content that is affordable in efforts to combat this.
South Africa is a participant in the Korean Wave. On 3 December 2016, the Korean Embassy in South Africa hosted the Korean Culture Festival at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town where food, music, cinema, cosmetics and both K-pop and traditional dances were showcased. A UP student was a prize winner at this festival. The Embassy has received inquiries into learning Korean, and is running a survey on preferred teaching methods and is assessing the possibility of establishing a language institute. Korean pop has also recently made its way onto South African airwaves after “Blood, Sweat & Tears” by Korean boy group, BTS, featured on Highveld Radio’s Breakfast Xpress show on Friday 10 March.
Jung Jaeeun, who has been covering cultural and public diplomacy for several years, has noticed the rapid growth in South Africa. Chung, who has been stationed in South Africa for a year and a half now, “feels the difference every month” in cultural engagement during events like the Embassy’s film showcases. Chung emphasised the phenomenon as a “benign expansion of the culture”, stating that “This is not a phenomenon originally planned by the government. It’s a grassroot movement. Sometimes the people of the outside world have concerns about cultural imperialism. The Korean Wave is far from cultural imperialism.” Kwangyong spoke about the country’s history under foreign imperial rule and explained that South Korea used to be known as the “Hermit Kingdom” due to its isolation resulting from the cultural suppression it faced during Japanese imperialism, which included the banning of the Korean language.
The nature of the South Korean entertainment industry is subject to a level of controversy. Actors perform their own stunts under the pressure of production time and this has led to on-set injuries. Three members of S.M. Entertainment’s then-12 member Korean-Mandarin boy group, EXO, filed lawsuits to terminate their contracts. The members formed part of the Mandarin subunit and cited their reasons as violation of basic human rights, health issues, and discrimination in favour of the Korean members. S.M. Entertainment is one of the big three agencies in South Korea, alongside YG Entertainment and JYP Entertainment. Its YouTube Channel gets 1 000 views per second. The lack of regulations in the strenuous Korean industry prompted the creation of legislation to protect their young pop idols. The Hollywood Reporter wrote on the legislation being made in order to help underage performers ensure that they are not overworked and to combat being sexualised. Idols are frequently unable to escape public attention, to the point where a member of K-pop group Big Bang, Choi Seung-hyun, has had the personal details of his mandatory military conscription made public knowledge.
Racism and cultural appropriation are concerning aspects of the entertainment industry. Korean girl group, Mamamoo, recently apologised after a video of them covering Bruno Mars’s “Uptown Funk”, featuring the members in blackface, received backlash. NCT 127, a boy group under the management of SM Entertainment, debuted cornrows and braided hairstyles in their album Limitless. The Korean Wave is not going to wane anytime soon. With Korean boy groups performing sold-out concerts in Central and South America and music-and-fashion icon, G Dragon, hosting what Vogue called a “couture-level party” at the exhibit for his arthouse Peaceminusone during Paris Fashion Week, Korean culture has very much gone global. Chung advises UP students on the importance of incorporating other cultures into their everyday lives, as it can only make it more abundant: “Our culture will flourish, but only with exchanges and interactions with other cultures”.
The Embassy is planning to host the 2017 K-Pop World Festival in Pretoria this July. The 2017 Korean Essay Contest has just kicked off and prizes are available for winners. Visit the Facebook page for the Korean Embassy in South Africa for more information.
Image: Rebecca Woodrow and Samuel Sherwood