Starting with the Korean dramas and K-pop and following with the Korean food, fashion, and lifestyle in general, as shown in the popular culture, South Korea became an ideal country for the consumerist society, making the Hallyu wave or the Korean wave embrace the whole world. Today the “Korea tribes”, the fans of the Korean popular culture, come to Korea to listen to K-pop concerts or visit “the shooting locations of their favorite dramas”. Why the world is so obsessed with the Korean popular culture, what historical and commercial events laid the groundwork for Hallyu phenomenon, and if the modern Korean culture preserves the traditions and values of the past are some of the most frequently asked questions today. There are several historical events that shaped Korean culture and can explain why it became available for so many people of diverse nationalities to “follow the trend” it offers.
It may be surprising, but the secret of popularity is rather simple. The “hybridity” of the modern Korean culture, meaning all of its products are “culturally odorless” or less cultural specific helped K-pop artists gain popularity in different countries. The lack of the national cultural identity in K-pop can be explained by the aims of the government to benefit from the popular culture and peculiarly the success of Hallyu. However, the positive soft image created by the Korean modern mass culture can also be a defensive wall between the world and the country itself. The positive nature of the Korean wave shows how Korean nation survived and well adapted to the contemporary world despite the long period of oppression by the others; and despite those others violently imposed their cultural values, country succeeded to preserve or recreate its cultural identity. However, Korea does not want to be alike its oppressors and directly show or impose its culture (except for some films). That is why the “global” polished image was created that became the great “weapon” of soft power, meaning getting what you want without using pressure or violence.
The beginning of the Korean Wave is indicated with the popularity of the Korean dramas, so it is important to know how the Korean cinematography developed throughout the country’s history. Cinematography has always been a power that could help to suppress and control people, that is why both the oppressing Japanese government and Korean government itself used this power to create propaganda films. The Korean filmmakers in their turn have seen cinematography as a way to convey hidden messages of resistance to the nation. However, no matter what government headed the country, until the liberalization of media in 1990-s such film makers were arrested or punished for disobedience. The most striking is how a country oppressed and being silent for such a long period, can today be “the world third largest film exporter after the U.S. and France”.
The cinematography in Korea developed from the beginning of the 20th century; however, “with the strict censorship of the colonial government, the first rise of national cinema was doomed to fail”. Under the cultural imperialism of Japan which lasted for 35 years from 1910 to 1945, Koreans were harshly oppressed. Japan imposed its culture, its calendar up to enforcing lifestyle reforms concerning eating habits, dressing and living. Finally, Korean language was banned, so when it came to producing sound films, and the first Korean sound movie was made in 1935, it was banned. Korean radio broadcasting was also prohibited.
After WWII Korea was divided in two which grew into the Korean War that lasted from 1950 to 1953. “The Korean War devastated the country”. The nation was in decay and people were tired of wars and oppression. The war “destroyed the equipment and facilities for film making”, and the industry began to revive only in 1955. In order to recover the film industry, the first president, Syngman Rhee, decided to exempt taxes from Korean films. TV broadcasting in 1960-s fluently spread along with the cinematography. Michell calls 1960-s golden age for Korean film industry. However, the happiness of the film makers and the audience did not last long. With the political changes and General Park Chung Hee becoming the head of the state, country fell under military regime. During this period, the film industry was in decay, although the country had a rapid economic growth. Import quota system and screen quota system enacted in 1965. It said that for three Korean films only one foreign could be imported. The systems were initially aimed at encouraging Korean film makers to develop national product. However, the systems were a fiasco and instead of getting high quality films, Korea produced a big number of useless movies that were made only in order to import one foreign film.
1972-1986 was no better period for media and cinematography. With Broadcasting Law and Martial law decree in 1972, the censorship tightened and the current government aimed at promoting the economic growth investing in heavy industries. Propaganda films were subsidized by the government in order to stop the protests in 1980-s. However, the changes were inevitable, Koreans have been silent for too long.
Since 1980-s Korea was under pressure (majorly by U.S , but by the other countries as well) to open its markets. From 1987 reform to 1990, when finally a new broadcasting law passed, with the media liberalization, Korea got free press. The transformation of GATT into WTO meaning “opening markets for media communication and culture in 1995” helped Korea to develop its entertainment industry and thanks to opening global market in 1990-s promoted the export of Korean cultural products. K-pop agencies made up internationally recognized celebrities, such as Rain and BoA.
When Korean people were given a freedom to make anything they could thanks to democratization, they finally unleashed their imagination and tried to say everything they could not during the “silent period” (the period of oppression and censorship). They finally got freedom of expression, which made the Korean films unique.
In 1995 Korean government makes another effort to support the growing popularity of the national film industry. The Motion picture promotion law attracts corporate capital from the Korean chaebols (such as Samsung, Daewoo, Hyundai) to sponsor film production. Since 1990-s Korean film industry becomes “engaged in structural reforms”. K-pop artists and famous Korean actors/actresses advertise Korean brands and lifestyle and raise world sales of Korean products. Korean press supports the idea of nationalism and the spread of Hallyu in the world.
The Asian financial crisis of 1997 After the popularity of Winter Sonata, Korea “earned a positive image and became fashionable”. Films, soap, sitcoms show Korea “from the best side” However, during the Asian financial crisis of 1997 China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Hong Kong chose Korean soaps not only for the affinity to their cultural values, but mostly for the Korean products were much cheaper than the native. Along with the dramas K-pop musicians came to these regions and gained popularity. H.O.T., Park Jin-young, Baby Vox, and Kim Min-jong had tours in China and Vietnam.
In 2000-s new popular Korean films were welcomed by the international society and promoted the success of the Korean wave.
Hallyu helped tourism development, and economy promotion in general. It proved what a great power media has over people. The reason of commercialization of the Korean wave is that the government understood this power and decided to use it for the good of the country supporting and subsidizing in Korean culture.