Hallyu, written in Hangeul as 한류, translates as “The Korean Wave”. This term is used to describe the export of Korean TV, movies, music, cosmetics, and fashion, which began flowing over all of Asia during the 1990’s and took to large parts of the Western world in the beginning of this century. However, in order to truly appreciate Hallyu, it is important to first understand the historical backdrop against which this phenomenon would arise.
There can be no doubt that Korea is indeed a remarkable country. After decades under Japanese ruling, followed by the Korean war dividing what used to be one suppressed nation into two poor fragments, splitting up families and causing many lost lives in the process, Korea was indeed a poor country for many years. However, a strong focus on exports, industrialization, education, and reconstruction laid the ground for what is colloquially referred to as “The Miracle on the Han River” (한강의 기적). Through hard work, wise investments, and remarkable collaboration, Korea was able to beat all odds and rise as one of the worlds richest nations, successfully hosting both the 1988 Olympics and the 2002 FIFA World Cup.
Korean TV dramas
Suddenly the world’s eyes were on Korea, and Korean culture soon gained a huge number of followers, making Korea a significant exporter of popular culture. Classic TV drama series such as “Autumn in my Heart” (가을동화) from 2000 and “Winter Sonata” (겨울연가) from 2002 are from the early generation of Korean dramas gaining a huge fanbase overseas.
Since then, Korea has continued to make high-quality drama series centered around topics such as first love, historical characters, family, revenge, schools, and recently there has been an increase in medical dramas as well with titles such as “Good Doctor”, “Time slip Dr. Jin”, “Doctor Stranger”, and the most recent “Yong Pal”. Since explicit content such as kissing and bed scenes used to be a rare sight in Korean dramas, more conservative nations embraced them as a safe alternative to more explicit Western content. Historical dramas are also an excellent way for Korea to depict its rich culture. 사극 as they are called in Korean, are extremely popular due to their captivating story lines, their beautiful hanbok costumes, and their fairytale-like universes with kings and queens. Among the many popular Korean historical dramas is “The Moon that Embraces the Sun” from 2012, which caused the popularity of young actor Kim Soo Hyun to skyrocket. Most recently, Korean reality shows such as “Running Man” and “We got Married” have also attracted a lot of foreign interest.
Korean pop music
With the interest for Korean entertainment, the appetite for Korean music has also surged around the world, and even though few are able to sing along, Korean singer Psy has become a household name with his “Gangnam Style”. Long before Psy conquered YouTube with more than 2 billion views, Korean pop artists such as Rain, Wondergirls, Big Bang, Girls Generation, and more recently Super Junior, EXO, IU, and CNBLUE are just a few of the endless list of names coming fresh from the construction belt of the Korean music production industry.
Korean beauty and fashion
With the soaring popularity of Korean entertainment follows the popularity of Korean cosmetics and fashion. By using popular stars in their commercials, Korean firms have successfully managed to ride the Korean wave as well. Actually, it often happens that the road to stardom begins with a modelling carreer, as it has happened for Daniel Henney, Kim Tae Hee, Song Seung Heon, So Ji Sub, and Won Bin.
As for Korean fashion, several brands are gaining international popularity. Among the well-known high street brands in Korea are 8Seconds, Mixxo, Style Nanda, and Beyond Closet.
A crucial part of the Korean Wave is certainly also the Korean cuisine. While the Western palates have been accustomed to (westernized) Chinese and Japanese food for quite some time, a lot of Korean restaurants are starting to bloom. The same holds for Korean snacks and beverages, particularly soju which can now be bought in most Asian markets around the worlds. Even the American grocery chain Whole Foods Market now reportedly has Kimchi in their stores.
Want to know more? Here are some excellent Hallyu sources
Kpop: Kpop radio
Fashion and beauty: YesStyle
Korean cooking: Korean cooking with Maangchi