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What does South Korean pop culture do to be so successful?

The current success of South Korean pop culture dates back to 1999.

The South Korean series “The Squid Game” It has quickly become one of the biggest recent hits for the Netflix streaming service. The basic plot has long been known and has caused a worldwide stir that has been widely discussed, both in the form of praise and extreme criticism, due to its explicit scenes of violence. However, the success of the South Korean series is not unique: it is rather the high point of a series of successful pop cultural exports from that Asian country.

The most listened to, literary awards or film of the year

New albums by K-pop groups – or South Korean popular music – like BTS or Blackpink top the charts around the world. South Korean literature has also been recognized internationally: writer Han Kang won the Man Booker Prize for her novel “The Vegetarian” in 2016, while her colleague, Kim Young-ha, won the German Crime Novel Award in 2020 for “ Records of a Serial Killer ”. In 2019, Bong Joon-ho’s feature film “Parasites” caused a sensation and won four Oscars in 2020, including Best Picture of the Year.

The current success of South Korean pop culture goes back. Already in the mid-1990s the term was coined hallyu to describe the popularity and spread of contemporary South Korean culture, also known as the Korean Wave, which first spread to other Asian countries.

“The hallyu It quickly conquered the Chinese market, but the industry always looked to the United States, where it suffered many failures, ”explained Michael Fuhr, research associate at the Institute of Music and Musicology at the University of Hildesheim and an expert on K-pop.

Military training for success

For years, the big entertainment companies YG, SM, and JYP put kids and teens through a tough training program, with 14-hour days of military training and hoping to land one of the coveted spots in a group at the end. At the end of the nineties, groups like Girls’ Generation, created by SM, or Big Bang, created by YG in 2006, managed to reap great success in South Korea and Japan, but did not manage to make the expected international leap.

An important milestone for the emergence of South Korean music in the West occurred in 2012: the song “Gangnam Style” by rapper Psy became a worldwide hit. In just a few months, users clicked on the video more than a billion times on YouTube, and to date it has had more than 4.2 billion views on the platform.

“Psy was not a classic representative of K-pop, but with his success it was seen for the first time that the language was no longer an obstacle to an international success,” added Fuhr.

The industry strategy

When forming the groups, the aim is to present the members of the band with different character traits so that as many young people as possible can identify with them. Bands have to be present on social media so that fans have the feeling of being part of their idols’ lives: “It’s a package that sells,” adds Fuhr.

BTS’s success in the US hides a strategy to manipulate the measurement system

“K-Pop fans are well connected, the fan culture is very participatory and the industry knows how to serve it,” said the expert. However, if idols present themselves in public in a different way than what fans expect, the pendulum swings the other way. Hateful comments and pressure have already driven some stars to suicide.

Visual language with video game aesthetics and inequality

Visual language is also the key to the success of “The Squid Game.” The series’ colorful aesthetic is especially familiar to younger audiences, video game fans or so-called gamers. For example, the symbols worn by the guards of the series – circle, square and triangle – are also found on the controls of the game consoles.

However, behind the colorful world hide the real problems. Many South Koreans live in poverty, in overcrowded conditions, often without electricity or water, or in basements, like the poor family making their way into the life of a rich family in “Parasite.” The group of players hoping to make millions in “The Squid Game” has also been driven to despair over lack of money.

According to the OECD, about 15% of the 52 million inhabitants have incomes below the average, poverty among the elderly is 50%, youth unemployment is almost 10%, about double that of Germany. Many families go into debt in order to give their children a good education.

How close at least the initial situation is to reality was demonstrated last October with protests against the government’s labor market policy, to which protesters in Seoul turned out wearing masks and clothing in the style of the “Squid Game. ”. (E)

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