How Korean Culture Became a Global Phenomenon

In a small storefront in downtown Manhattan, New York, lives a skincare lover’s paradise called oo35mm. The store is the size of a hallway, filled floor to ceiling with South Korean lotions and potions. Manager Winnie Zhong said her favorites include Dr. Ceuracle Vegan Kombucha tea essence (with real kombucha tea), snail mucin (real snail slime) and Angel Shark (which is shark free).

When the store opened ten years ago, most of the customers were of Asian descent. Now buyers from all walks of life are stopping.

Cate Urena was looking for cleanser and sheet masks. She got into Korean skin care after watching K-Dramas. “This sort of thing has sparked interest, hasn’t it?” So like, once you get a glimpse of, I think, the culture, you can develop yourself in so many ways, ”she said.

Winnie Zhong, director of oo35mm, is among thousands of Asian skin care products, mostly Korean brands. (Kristin Schwab / Market)

The world has gone a little crazy about Korean culture. The Netflix drama “Squid Game” has skyrocketed in popularity. Its creator, moreover, said there will be a season two. Last year, “Parasite” became the first non-English film to win the Oscar for Best Picture. There’s also K-pop (think bands like BTS) and kimchi. Korean culture has made such an impression that 26 Korean words have recently been added to the Oxford English dictionary. One of those words, “hallyu,” translates to “Korean wave” – ​​coined to describe global interest in the country.

South Korea’s growing cultural power did not happen overnight. It has been preparing for decades.

“Starting in the mid-1990s, the Korean government made efforts to integrate cultural industries into the national economy,” said Dal yong jin, the author of “Transnational Hallyu. “

The South Korean economy at the time was mainly based on conglomerates like Samsung and Hyundai, brands the government helped create. So the government is reaching out to these companies and asking them to help fund the entertainment industry. Part of the talk is that Samsung and Hyundai will benefit as well.

“The overflow of popular culture is everything,” said Jin. “Because of popular culture, they like Korea, they like Korean products, like their smartphones, like their semiconductors. The influence is great.

This cultural influence can help Korea sell makeup, fashion, and food like the US sells Coca-Cola and Levi’s jeans.

Thus, Samsung and Hyundai create their own film and television companies. Initially, the objective is to hook East Asia. And it works, leading to more investment in entertainment, especially K-pop. Music labels are opening boarding schools to prepare teenage superstars. The government creates a Ministry of Culture and ends censorship laws that prohibit Korean artists from singing in English. K-pop is growing as social media explodes. And in 2012, Psy’s “Gangnam Style” becomes the first video to exceed one billion views on Youtube.

K-pop “just has the right balance of local and global elements, something familiar and something strange. And I think the mix of that is very appealing, ”said Suk-Young Kim, professor in the School of Theater, Film & Television at the University of California at Los Angeles.

She said that Korean youth’s eccentric and chewing gum take on K-pop has sparked a worldwide curiosity for Korean culture. And it has helped prepare people’s palates for more complex portrayals of Korean life: think dystopian dramas like “Parasite” and “Squid Game”. These stories explore a growing wealth gap in a country that rebuilt itself after war and military dictatorship.

This story is one of the main reasons other cultures have been so receptive to Korean entertainment, Kim said.

“Korea being a kind of middle power has its own advantages,” she said. “You know, he’s not small, so he has no resources to support soft power, nor a superpower to create that emotional and cultural resistance.”

South Korea appears to be on the way to becoming a superpower, at least culturally. Today, entertainment is one of the country’s fastest growing exports. It is worth $ 10 billion, or only a tenth of its semiconductor exports.

But the growing influence of Korean culture? It is priceless.

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