Korean popular culture

Over the past few years, Korean popular culture, such as K-pop, television dramas, movies, online games, fashion, and Korean stars, has increased its popularity and been widely embraced among people in neighboring Asian countries (Shim, 2006; Han & Lee, 2008). Korea government and their television stations have greatly put a lot of effort into the promotion of Korean popular culture all over the world. In addition, cultural policy plays an important role in the trend toward Korean Wave since cultural policy promotes the construction of this wave as an attractive image of the whole country (Kim, 2013). This effort contributes to “Korean Wave” (朱筱微, 2011), it is also called “hallyu” (Han & Lee, 2008). This Korean Wave made Korean popular culture go global. Take Gangnam Style for example. This Psy’s music video – Gangnam Style was released in July 2012 and already hit more than 1.5 million views on YouTube in April 2013. This interesting music video has caused many people around the world to look for information about South Korea. The Korean Wave has been enhancing Korea’s “soft power” (Kim, 2013).

In the Korean Wave, Korean television dramas are specifically important for this trend. The television dramas which are characterized as directing styles, formats, and narratives have become the most popular media content and are widely shared by television viewers. As a result, the Korean television dramas have reached out to a lot of Asian audiences and become a regional media form in neighboring Asian countries (Ju, 2010). Especially in 2004, the KBS TV drama “Winter Sonata” was released and the drama caused the Korean fever in Japan (朱筱微, 2011). Since then, Korean Wave has exploded to form a sweeping cultural influence in Asia (Han & Lee, 2008). The number of tourists visiting Korea has steadily increased in Asia since the drama Winter Sonata. More and more people from neighboring countries in Asia tend to visit the shooting locations that showed up in Korean television dramas after they watch the dramas (Huang & Lin, 2006). For the Korean Wave across Asian countries, Korean television dramas are definitely worth having more attention. Thus, this research paper is concerned about what factors and strategies made Korean dramas become popular among people in neighboring Asian countries after 2004, and what the influences of the rise of Korean dramas are.

What Is The Korean Wave?

Korean Wave, or Hallyu (韓流), refers to a phenomenon of Korean popular culture, such as K-pop, TV dramas, movies, fashion, and Korean stars being greatly welcomed and embraced among people in China, Taiwan, Japan, and other neighboring Asian countries. The word that was first used by Chinese mass media in 1999 originally meant cold wave in Chinese. Now the derived word represents that the Korean popular culture has deeply been shared across Asia and even gone global (Han & Lee, 2008).

The outbreak of Korean Wave originated from the drama What Is Love All About released in 1997 in China, which caused a big hit. The trend can be seen as the start of Korean Wave and it led to “Hallyru syndrome”. Since then, Korean cultural products, such as popular music, television dramas, and movies, are greatly welcomed by audiences in Asia, like China, Taiwan, Japan, and so on (Kim, 2007). Also, Korean popular culture has gone global at the same time. Psy’s music video – Gangnam Style is an example of Korean Wave being spread worldwide (views more than 1.5 million on YouTube) (Kim, 2013).

Thus, the Korean Wave stands for spreading Korean popular culture, especially movies, pop music, and television dramas, across Asia and other countries, and enhancing Korea’s images as an Asian cultural industries (Kim, 2007). Furthermore, this big trend can turn the fans of Korean Wave into potential consumers of Korean cultural products and services (Shim, 2006).

Korean Movies

According to Tuk (2012), the turning point for Korean film industry is the release of movie – Sopyonie in 1993. This movie that demonstrated traditional Korean culture (folk music) was the first film that had more than a million moviegoers in Korean history. Because of the success of the movie, Korea’s government realized that their film industry could potentially boost Korean economy. So, in 1995, the government passed the Motion Picture Law that could promote the film industry and allow more money to be invested in the industry. At the same time, some big business groups – chaebols (a form of business conglomeration in Korean), such as Hyundai and Samsung, started to get involved in media industry and changed the industry by marketing and research. Since then, Korean films became more professional and popular (Jin, 2005). The process of making movies, such as scriptwriting to editing process, reflected to audiences’ taste and more and more young talents contributed to the success of Korean movie industry.

Korean films also succeed in overseas markets and the exports of Korean movies kept rising between 1995 to 2004 (Tuk, 2012). Shiri was the first Korean movie that opened the market in Japan in 2000, racking in 15 million dollars. Other movies, such as Joint Security Area, Friend , Silmonddo, and Brotherhood of War were also popular in other markets because of the reversion of Motion Picture Promotion Law that allowed individual investment in movie industry. Korean movies also sold the rights of their movies to Hollywood and Hollywood remade Korean films, such as A Tale of Two Sisters and the Priest. Hollywood producers’ interest in Korean movies explains the improvement of quality Korean films (Shim, 2008).


According to Shim (2006), before 1990s, Korean pop music market was not energetic since the music market was dominated by Korean ballads and ppongjjak that were influenced by American folk music and Japanese musical styles. Moreover, their youth liked American pop songs, there were not many live concerts, two public television networks (KBS and MBC) controlled the distribution of music and direction of music consumption, and musicians were asked to perform with in-house bands and dancers of the television networks. All the factors led to lack different ingredients of pop music.

However, democratic reforms, installment of satellite dishes, and lifting of restrictions on foreign travel in 1988 started to change the music market (Shim, 2006). Korean music market had more chances to reach out to the world and fans of Korean music got to catch up with the world music hit. Also, more local musicians started to put exotic music styles in their music work. The hybridization of Korean pop music, expansion of scope of K-pop and music market, and songs that reflected youth’s emotions and thoughts, all led to the rise of Korean pop music in local music market. Also, by having their own music studio, musicians did not need to rely on the public television networks too much, which enabled them to choose members of bands based on their singing and dancing skills. This step also allowed record companies and talent agencies to grow. Due to the growth of record companies and talent agencies, there are a lot of boy and girl bands. After some years of training in dancing, singing, and others (such as languages), Korean pop music stars are produced (Howard, 2002; Macintyre, 2002).

In K-pop music industry, visual aspect plays an important role, including K-pop stars’ images, looks, and performances (Tuk, 2012). So, the pop music stars only make their debut on national televisions. Meanwhile, music videos help promote the pop music. Now, Korean pop music has even aimed at global markets (i.e., Japan, China, Thailand) by those members of boy and girl bands (such as Girls Generation, KARA, Wonder Girls, and Super Junior) who are trained well in singing and dancing skills and speaking the languages of overseas markets (Tuk, 2012; Shim, 2006). In addition, YouTube helps K-pop get international attention since people get to watch the interesting K-pop music videos on YouTube, like Gangnam Style (Kim, 2013; Tuk, 2012).

Korean Dramas

The “Korean Wave” was first introduced by Chinese media since the drama – What Is Love All About was released and became a huge hit in China. The following dramas, Winter Sonata and Autumn in My Heart, were also big hits among Chinese viewers. Even though Chinese government put the regulation on the number of Korean dramas on television, the audiences still downloaded or watched the dramas online (Tuk, 2012). When Winter Sonata was first broadcasted in Japan, it caused a hit among middle-aged women. The leading actor – Bae Yong Joon visited Japan in 2004 and this visit caused a turmoil at the airport so polices were sent to maintain the order (丁力, 2005). Daejanggeum is another successful example of export of Korean drama. This drama is about traditional Korean culture and has been broadcasted in more than 87 countries. Other than neighboring Asian countries, this drama also got audiences from Middle East, such as Turkey, Israel, and Iran. Viewers in Americas use the Internet to watch Korean dramas online (Tuk, 2012).

Most of Korean dramas are about love stories, families and friends, which can deeply connect to people’s emotions. Also, both fast-paced storyline and complicated relationship between the characters make Korean dramas become popular among audiences across countries. Korean dramas have also contributed to the increase in tourism in Korea since many viewers from neighboring countries tend to visit the shooting locations after watching the dramas. (丁力, 2005; Huang & Lin, 2006). Thus, the popularity of Korean dramas does play a key role in the rise of Korean Wave in Asia (Ju, 2010).

What Made The Korean Wave Possible?

Theoretical Framework: The Theory of Cultural Proximity

What made the Korean Wave possible? What made Korean pop culture be widely embraced and shared among people in neighboring Asian countries? The theory of cultural proximity can be applied to explain the rise of Korean pop culture and the phenomenon of the Korean Wave in Asian countries. According to Straubhaar (1991, 1996), cultural proximity explains why certain local media content can be exported and distributed to a wide range of regional and transnational markets.

Cultural proximity explicates how transnational media content from a nearby region can deeply influence the audiences who live in the particular area, i.e., Asia. According to the theory, when the audiences watch imported TV shows, they tend to choose the shows which are more geographically and culturally related to them than those are less geographically and culturally related. As Straubhaar (1991) explained, “The audiences tend to prefer and select local or national cultural content that is more proximate and relevant to them.” In addition, Iwabuchi (2001) indicated that cultural proximity shows the viewers’ identification of themselves and capability of looking for cultural similarities via certain TV programs. Besides languages, other cultural elements, like dress, nonverbal code, humor, religion, music, narrative style, and ethnic can affect audiences’ acceptance of TV programs (Straubhaar 1996; Iwabuchi, 2001). So, because of these cultural common elements, local audiences can easily recognize and understand the culture element in imported TV shows.

In East Asia, such as China, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea, the people in these countries have the common in that they are the same ethnic and race, but they do not have emotional ties with each other. However, there are certain close feelings between them since they have similar historical experiences in the region in the past decades (Ju, 2010). When local audiences in this region are exposed to Korean pop culture, such as TV dramas, it would make the people from neighboring countries recall of past and present similar life experiences/history they have, which shows the similarities of social and historical connections between regional and local media markets, such Korea and other nearby Asian countries. So, as the most remarkable Korean popular culture in the Korean Wave, Korean TV dramas mostly depict stories that happen in modern and urban Korea, which causes sympathetic feelings to local audiences from nearby areas because they can easily understand the stories described in the shows based on their similar societies and histories. Therefore, cultural proximity explains why the Korean Wave, especially Korean TV dramas, is a big hit and is widely accepted by people in the nearby Asian countries.

Korean Government’s Cultural Policy

As 朱筱微 (2011) mentioned in her news article, Korean government and their media play an important role in the formation of the Korean Wave across Asia, and even the world. According to Tuk (2012), there are two reasons for Korean government to maintain the Korean Wave as their top target. First, Korean Wave is seen as a tool that can produce tons of money for the country so the government wants to exercise this Korean hit to boost and benefit Korean economy. That means the government sees Korean TV dramas, K-pop, and K-movies of the Korean Wave as “cultural products” that can bring a lot of money to Korea. So there are many institutions and policies that help maintain the Korean Wave, and promote traditional Korean culture to other countries across the world, such as the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sports, Korean Culture and Content Agency, and Korean Broadcasting Commission with Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to promote dramas in Africa, South America, and Middle East. The government also provides budgets to fund media industry and plans of promotion.

The other reason is that Korean Wave also can enhance positive images of Korea to other countries. Korean Wave can promote the country as a brand (Tuk, 2012). Korean Wave, such as TV dramas, can change audiences’ views about Korea via portrays in TV dramas and make them think the country is affluent and developed nation (Hanaki et al., 2008). So, these cultural products produced by the Korean Wave become another tool that is used to create positive images of the country.


The paper will talk about Korean TV dramas industry before 2004. It will also examine what factors or strategies made Korean TV dramas become popular among people from other Asian countries.

The Korean TV dramas have become a hit in many neighboring Asian countries since 2004. This paper will discuss the phenomenon in different Asian countries, such as Taiwan, Japan, and China, and compare and contract the phenomenon in these Asian countries.

This paper will also examine the influences of the rise of Korean television dramas, such as tourism in Korea. According to Huang’s article (2009), plenty of audiences tend to visit the shooting locations of Korean TV dramas after they watch the shows. So Korean dramas would play an important role in boosting tourism of Korea.

Before The Rise of Korean Television Dramas

In 1990s, Korean television dramas did not have the high quality. They were unable to produce high quality television dramas that could attract more audiences. Korea tended to import television dramas from Hong Kong or Japan before they could produce their own dramas. At the same time, Japanese dramas dominated the whole industry and were so popular in Asia. So later on, Korea started to emulate the neighboring country Japan to produce high quality TV dramas. Since then, their government and television stations greatly promoted Korean dramas that had high ratings in Korea to other Asian countries, even to some western countries (朱筱微, 2011).

It made a change to broadcasting networks in Korea in 1990s. Since both MBC and KBS television stations had to compete with other new networks, such as SBS, these new TV networks caused competition between existing networks. So, the existing TV networks had to invest more money in making quality dramas in order to keep up with the competition. The competition between networks made the quality of Korean TV dramas heavily get improved. For example, MBC spent much money and time on preproduction of the drama Eye of Dawn that was first time using overseas location for a TV drama and it was a huge hit in Korea (Tuk, 2012).

Since the quality of dramas got improved and became popular in Korea, the government and TV stations started to promote and export the dramas to other Asian countries. For the government, cultural policy and institutions were organized to promote Korean dramas, such as The Korean Broadcasting Commission. This institution went to other Asian countries, South America, Middle East, and Africa to promote Korean dramas and had Korean dramas exported to those areas.

For television stations, they used specific marketing strategies to promote the dramas. First, they customized the shows appropriate for other local TV systems. “Early adopters of Korean dramas in China, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam considered more the quality of content itself rather than the potential for local business using the imported content.” (Ju, 2010). Second, the star marketing allowed them to promote dramas with the stars in those shows. The drama Winter Sonata released in other Asian countries was a turning point of the Korean Wave in 2004. Since then, the leading actor Bae Yong Joon raised his stardom outside Korea, especially in Japan, and there were a variety of products and businesses related to Winter Sonata and the actor, such as the show’s related products and tourism to Korea (Han & Lee, 2010; 朱筱微, 2011; 丁力, 2005).

The Rise of Korean Dramas In Other Asian Countries After 2004


Since Japan has strict policies to manage imported foreign TV shows on its cable and satellite channels, more than 95 percent of TV shows are provided domestically in Japan (Ju, 2010). However, Winter Sonata was an exception. It was first time aired on NHK channel in 2001. This Korean drama was broadcasted four times on Japanese TV between 2001 and 2004 (on NHK BS1 and BS2 in late December 2004) in response to Japanese audiences’ demand. This drama reminded Japanese middle-aged women of pure and forgotten love stories and feelings of nostalgia and romance that were hard to find in Japanese dramas anymore. When the leading actor Bae Yong-Joon from Winter Sonata visited Japan in 2004, more than 3500 middle-aged women were waiting at the airport to welcome him (朱筱微, 2011; 丁力, 2005). A lot of products, activities, and events related to the drama and the leading actor were required and held by Japanese fans of the actor. Because of the drama and the actor, it was an estimated $2.3 billion rise in economic activities between Japan and Korea and benefited both Korean broadcast company and Japanese TV station NHK (Onishi, The New York Times, 2004).

Since then, the success of Winter Sonata made other Korean dramas possible to enter Japanese TV markets. Other genres of Korean TV dramas, such as historical dramas and daily family dramas, started to increase its popularity in Japan. A famous Korean historical drama Dae Jang Geum was another successful Korean drama in Japan. It was also broadcasted four times on NHK between 2004 and 2007 (Ju, 2010). In October 2005, there were 43 Japanese satellite channels broadcasting 23 Korean dramas on daily basis (Kim, 2006). Yet, the increase in popularity of Korean dramas in Japan triggered some opposite actions and demonstrations (朱筱微, 2011) since Korean dramas were frequently aired on Japanese TV, which greatly limited their own Japanese dramas to broadcast TV, some Japanese audiences started to be against Korean Wave and Korean dramas by holding or taking part in anti-TV stations demonstrations.


According to Ju (2010), before the Korean Wave became popular in Taiwan, Taiwanese TV stations usually imported Japanese TV series to fill airtime, or produced dramas and shows that were similar to Japanese style. However, Asian economy crisis changed the tendency. High-cost Japanese TV shows became too unaffordable to import or produce. At the same time, the popularity of Japanese shows decreased for Taiwanese viewers. So Taiwanese TV stations, such as GTV, tended to look for cheaper shows to fill airtime, i.e., low-cost Korean TV dramas. Korean dramas had good-looking actors and actresses. Also, they usually depicted romantic love stories. All the factors were new and entertaining to Taiwanese audiences. In 2000, GTV aired Korean drama Sparks, which conveyed new images of Korean dramas to Taiwanese people. This drama started the Korean Wave and became a turning point of Korean Wave in Taiwan. Korean dramas brought increased revenues and high ratings to Taiwanese TV stations. For example, between 2003 and 2005, Korean dramas – Mermaid Lady, Dae Jang Geum, and Full House had the highest ratings among top imported TV shows in Taiwan. As Taiwanese audiences became more interested in Korean TV dramas and the dramas usually benefited Taiwan TV stations with high revenues and high ratings, Korean dramas were imported more than before by Taiwan TV stations since 2001.

However, since the popularity of Korean dramas increased, the cost of importing the dramas climbed. Importing Korean dramas was not low-cost anymore. Taiwan TV stations still kept broadcasting Korean dramas because the dramas had high ratings. Yet, in October 2016, Taiwanese governmental department – National Communications Commission passed the law that Taiwanese domestic TV shows have to take up 50% percent of the amount of broadcast during prime time (8 p.m. to 10 p.m.), which indirectly restricts the amount of airtime to imported foreign TV shows (許逸群, 2016; 黃驛淵, 2016). Korean dramas would be the target since plenty of the dramas have been aired during the prime time by Taiwan TV stations.


As the first version of the Korean Wave, the term was first used by Chinese mass media in 1999. China has imported plenty of Korean dramas since the Korean cultural phenomenon influenced across Asia. For example, in 2004, the total revenues of Korean dramas export to China was $5.1 million and this number took up 94 percent of Korean shows revenues produced from exports to Asian countries (Lee & Won, 2005). China imported more than 1300 episodes of Korean dramas each year before. According to Ju (2010), in China, Korean dramas are seen as the shows that clearly depict universal human feelings and Confucian sensibility that are similar to and better fit Chinese culture than other foreign imported shows, so the similar narrative in Korean dramas allow the shows to be aired on Chinese TV networks without undergoing censorship of imported foreign TV shows by Chinese government. What’s more, Korean and Chinese people have the similar standard of beauty, so those good-looking actors and actresses in Korean dramas better reflect Chinese audiences’ interests. Chinese audiences tend to imitate those Korean stars and see them as role models of fashion, including the way they dress themselves and the way they wear makeups.

Influences of The Rise of Korean TV Dramas

As the Korean Wave has been so popular across Asian countries, more and more people are interested in Korea. Especially Korean dramas play the key role in promotion of Korean culture. According to Huang (2009), after viewing Korean dramas, some audiences of the dramas will take further action to visit Korea. Sightseeing shooting locations of certain Korean dramas become the norm for fans of the shows.

Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) even developed a series of tour programs that provided international tourists/fans of Korean dramas with detailed information about shooting locations of recent broadcast dramas. Especially after Winter Sonata was aired in Asian countries in 2004, Japanese tourism to Korea increased 35.5 percent and there were more than three hundred thousand Taiwanese visitors who went to Korea in 2004. KTO’s data (2005) showed that an estimated 3.86 million tourists from China, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and Thailand visited Korea in 2004 when Korean dramas started to become a hit across Asian countries, taking up 63 percent of the total number of the entire international tourists (5.81 million) in Korea (Kim, Long, & Robinson, 2009). Korean dramas greatly increased and influenced screen-tourism to Korea for Asian audiences.

Moreover, after watching certain Korean dramas, many fans tried to connect with stars and Korean culture through the TV dramas, so different active and voluntary charity events and fan clubs were held by the fans of the dramas, such as Japanese fans of Winter Sonata and Bae Yong-Joon, in order to exchange information about the shows or the stars (Ju, 2010).

Product placement in Korean dramas also put Korean brands and products, such as beauty industry (cosmetics), electronics, and food services, in high demand among viewers of the dramas (Tyrimou, 2015). Especially Korean dramas contributed to the rise of Korean beauty industry (cosmetics) in China. Korea’s customs data indicated that China was the biggest buyer of Korean cosmetics products in 2015, representing the total amount of $999.5 million, which was 40.6 percent of Korea’s entire beauty products’ exports.

Discussion and Conclusion

Korean Wave has been so popular in Asia since K-pop, K-dramas and K-movies were introduced to neighboring countries. When the term “Korean Wave” or “Hallyu” (韓流) was first time introduced to Asian audiences by Chinese media in 1999, the Korean Wave syndrome has already influenced its fans and viewers. Korean television dramas that usually have high ratings in other Asian countries and play an important role in promoting Korean culture, brands, and products can be used to account for the rise of Korean Wave. It is worth paying more attention to analysis of why Korean dramas are successful in promotion of Korean culture and Korean Wave.

Since Korea and other Asian countries have similar cultures, values, and historical backgrounds, the stories and plots depicted in Korean television dramas can better match other Asian audiences’ interests and cultural values, and be easily accepted by them. Also, Korean government initiated a series of cultural policies and institutions that are responsible for promotion of Korean dramas to other countries, such as The Korean Broadcasting Commission and Korean Tourism Organization. Those institutions and policies made the dramas be viewed by more audiences from other countries and made more people interested in the country – Korea. In addition, Korean TV stations know how to use good stories and plots that can cause nostalgic and romantic feelings to audiences and good-looking actors and actresses starring in the dramas, which can easily make audiences from other Asian countries accept the imported foreign shows.

Korean dramas have widely been welcomed and embraced by many Asian countries, such Japan, Taiwan, and China. Those countries import many episodes of K-dramas per year. Because of audiences’ high demand for K-dramas, TV networks of those countries keep buying and broadcasting K-dramas, which limits the amount of airtime of domestic shows. As Korean dramas have occupied shows markets in other Asian countries for a long time, there were some demonstrations held by people who were against the invasion of Korean dramas and there were laws enacting to target and limit the airtime of K-dramas.

The rise of Korean dramas also influenced tourism of Korea, fans’ activities, and Korea’s beauty industry. After watching the shows, many audiences of Korean dramas tend to visit filming sites of certain dramas, which increased tourism to Korea. Also, fans might organize fan clubs and events in order to have more connection to the shows and stars. Meanwhile, product placement is usually utilized in Korean dramas. This marketing strategy can greatly promote Korean brands and products and make certain viewers purchase the products after watching the shows. Korea’s beauty industry (cosmetics) has deeply benefited from the marketing strategy. Loyal audiences tend to buy those makeups that are worn by actors/actresses in the shows in order to imitate the stars’ style. Thus, behind the success of Korean Wave in other Asian countries, Korean dramas are the key role.

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