The Korean Wave, also known as Hallyu (Korean 한류), is a phenomenon that describes the international popularity of South Korean popular culture. The phenomenon began in the 1990's and shows no signs of stopping in the 2010's. Korean media such as K-Pop and Korean Dramas have had international impact, both throughout Asia and in the Anglosphere.
The early 1990's was a time of political upheaval in South Korea. The transition to democracy at the time was accompanied by an increase in artistic freedom and access to foreign media, things that had been limited under the dictatorship of the 70's-80's. This sparked a renaissance in music and film in particular that were eventually exported to the world.
K-Pop began with the debut of Seo Taeji and Boys in 1992, a Boy Band that fused Hip-Hop with some Heavy Metal elements. Imitators quickly sprouted, creating the first crop of Idol Singer and Boy Band musical groups. The 1997 Asian Financial Crisis prompted the Chaebol that owned the entertainment companies to expand their market beyond Korea, promoting these groups in China.
In the early 2000s, a second wave of K-Pop bands came onto the scene, such as Dong Bang Shin Ki (2003), which was widely popular in Asia. Other acts, such as Girls' Generation, Big Bang, and BoA soon followed, all of whom made it big internationally, with some inroads in the US. The multicultural Hip-Hop based pop sound of K-Pop and use of Gratuitous English made Kpop attractive to an international audience. International appeal was often by design; many groups created regional-specific translations of songs, and many K-Pop artists are trained to speak three or four languages. The big entertainment companies also recruited internationally; several famous K-Pop stars, such as Sunny from Girls' Generation or Jay Park, are Korean-American.
Another Korean-origin genre that received international popularity was the Korean Drama. Due to their melodrama and relatively conservative nature, these are wildly popular in the Middle East and the Philippines, where many shows receive dubs. These shows are also popular in Japan, where dramas such as Winter Sonata have had mainstream success and received adaptations. Korean dramas have their fandom in the US, often among young women for whom the prevalence of Bishōnen is appealing note , but not the same level of mainstream success.
The Korean genre with the most success in the United States is Korean New Wave Cinema, a genre of stylish, highly violent cinema inspired by American styles such as Film Noir. Park Chan Wook's Oldboy was highly successful in the Anglosphere, receiving a remake by Spike Lee. Bong Joon-ho's films The Host and Parasite received equally raving American releases; the former allowed the international production of Snowpiercer and the latter won the first foreign Academy Award for Best Picture. The extreme sex and violence and stylistic heritage in American cinema all endeared these Thriller and Horror films to US audiences. Endorsement from Quentin Tarantino, whose works these films somewhat resemble, didn't hurt either.
In The New '10s, the Korean Wave became mainstream worldwide beyond specific genres. The viral success of Psy's "Gangnam Style" in 2012, which at one time was the most-viewed video on Youtube, is considered a high-water mark for the phenomenon, and while it didn't cause immediate success for K-Pop in the USnote , it planted the seeds for groups like BTS to sweep the nation (and, arguably, the world) later in the decade. Korean Food, Korean makeup, and Korean culture in general have drummed up increasing international interest. This also actually led to an increase of visitors, with 15 million people visiting the nation in 2018. 11 million of those tourists visited Seoul, the epicenter of the phenomenon.
The internet has been key to the propagation of the Korean Wave. Music Videos on Youtube are an important in to K-Pop for international fans. Illegal streams and Fan Subs dominated the early days of Korean Drama fandom, later giving way to legal streaming sites. Korea's early adoption of streaming and online distribution models (as opposed to Japan, which remains very invested in disc media) allowed it a leg up in this way as well. Additionally, Korean gamers have made it big in the arena of Professional Gaming, to the point that StarCraft is commonly referred to as the country's de facto national sport. K-Pop fans are noted for their avid use of social media sites like Twitter, and have proven adept at creating trending hashtags to promote their preferred stars. In 2020, K-Pop fans began mobilizing these skills to affect American politics by disrupting political hashtags with "fancam" dance clips, and claimed credit for low attendance at one of Donald Trump's campaign rallies.
The South Korean government has also financially supported Korean Wave, which it sees as a source of soft power. The Korean Wave coincides with unprecedented economic growth in South Korea. Along with pop culture, other Korean industries have shed their reputation for poor quality, with LG and Samsung becoming major players in the consumer electronics market, and Hyundai shedding its reputation as a maker of The Alleged Car to beat out struggling American car companies in the low-end car market. Add to the fact that Hyundai has made waves in the World Rally Championship, with its current rally team having a mostly-successful run since they returned to the scene in 2012 with the i20 World Rally Car, piloted by the likes of Belgian driver Thierry Neuville amongst others.
Compare The Japanese Invasion.
There is a ghostly echo of this phenomenon with regard to those works and cultural artefacts that make it out of North Korea. These can be so bizarre and so other-worldly that they make it to a sort of underground cult status on outlets like YouTube - animations like Pencil Cannonball, a propaganda epic aimed at children, is an example of a more dystopian Korean take on the Widget Series. North Korean media is also prized by fringe groups in the West who really do believe North Korea is a workers' paradise and that the country is blessed in having a Great Leader. Generally, this is a wavelet compared to a tsunami.