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(Yonhap Feature) Scholars tell why 'hallyu' no longer a Korean phenomenon

All Headlines 09:00 March 10, 2016

(Editor's note: On March 10, we begin a series of feature stories exploring the global boom of Korean pop culture, known as "hallyu" in Korean. This series will run once a week and address all fields of culture, such as K-pop, TV series, films, food, cosmetics, fashion and literature, as well as medical tourists from foreign countries. We will also hear from experts on the present and future of hallyu.)

By Park Sojung

SEOUL, March 10 (Yonhap) -- When the Asiawide popularity of Korean pop culture known here as "hallyu" started in the late 1990s, few people could say with any certainty whether it would be around for long. In fact, the academic community took little interest in the phenomenon, which wasn't even recognized as such. Many in South Korea remember wondering when this "hallyu" thing would peter out.

Fast forward to 2016 and "hallyu" is alive and strong. Its influence has transcended even more boundaries, with teenage girls from all over the Americas, Europe and the Middle East listening to BigBang. KCON, a festival about all things K-pop, has become an annual fixture in the U.S. and is branching out to other countries, like the United Arab Emirates.

Now, scholars have noticed another interesting change in "hallyu": that its identity has evolved from just something made in Korea to something bigger.

"'Hallyu' is now an old term," writes Jang Soo-hyun, professor of Northeast Asia Cultural Industries at Kwangwoon University in Seoul, in a contributing article to the book "After Hallyu: Influences and Challenges." "Today many phenomena don't fit into the old definition of 'hallyu' and are defined rather by their cultural hybridity and transnationality."

It's true an explosive number of South Korean and Chinese entertainers have been partnering up in the past few years, with partnerships ranging from multinational groups -- EXO, f(x) and miss A come to mind -- to full-blown investment flowing from China to South Korea. South Korea's Small and Medium Business Administration says Chinese investors have put down 3 trillion won (US$2.4 billion) into South Korean games, movies and entertainment over the past five years.

Even more confusing are the identities of a venture co-founded by South Korea's Yedang Company and China's Banana Project or music produced by American DJ Skrillex and sung by South Korean girl group 4minute.

"The kind of K-pop culture created by S.M., JYP and YG Entertainments has obscure national identity," Jang stresses. "All of them without fail mix members of different nationalities, command fans from all over the world or have musical styles of ambiguous origins."

S.M., JYP and YG are South Korea's top three management agencies that have been at the forefront of K-pop's evolution.

So what does this all mean to the future of hallyu?

On one hand, critics have voiced concerns that any further expansion of Korean pop influence across the world would expose South Korean expertise and trade secrets accumulated over decades.

"Chinese capital is a boon to K-pop's expansion in the short term," an official at the overseas marketing department of a South Korean music label said, asking not to be named. "In the long run, though, it would give Chinese investors the authority to do whatever they want with Korean content."

But Jang, along with an increasing number of proponents of hallyu's expansion, say that's a non-issue.

"Today's hallyu is like a water current that has left its origin and has combined with others from the rest of the world," he writes. "It's now part of a larger body of water where such a thing as nationality doesn't exist."

Entertainment producer Kim Young-hee, who left a South Korean terrestrial network last year to produce shows in China, has said much of the same.

"A lot of people are worried about Korean producers leaving the country, but if you think about it, it means we get to create content that could not only sell in China but also globally," Kim told Yonhap News Agency by phone on Monday. "The content market is not like the World Cup. I encourage you to look at the big picture, and we'll do our best to create a win-win situation for Korea and China."

Five other producers from top South Korean networks and production companies will join Kim in realizing his "Chinese dream."

Professor Lee Sang-hoon, who led the publication of "After Hallyu," also says the reason K-pop has had such a wide-reaching success is precisely because it is global.

"One of the reasons why Korean pop music and dramas have been successful is because people of all ages, genders and nationalities have been able to relate," he told Yonhap News Agency in an interview on Monday.

"Had 'hallyu' been about the Korean nationality only, it wouldn't have drawn such a wide audience," Lee stressed. "It transcends boundaries. People around the world have been able to relate to what we used to think was 'Korean sentiment.'"

sojungpark@yna.co.kr
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