The Hallyu Wave

By Jane Lee

The Korean Wave has engulfed global entertainment culture and is likely here to stay.

Illustration by  Jane Lee

Illustration by Jane Lee

After a phone-less summer camp in a rainy Michigan forest in 2012, I returned to discover the “Gangnam Style” craze that had taken the Internet by storm. My Facebook feed had become plastered with the infamous dance reminiscent of the trailblazing horse riders of ancient Korea. Suddenly, it wasn’t just a few K-BBQ joints and outdated posters of boy bands reminding me of home in Seoul, South Korea — the culture had become a juggernaut of media, technological and beauty innovation.

“The Korean Wave,” or “Hallyu,” describes the global popularity of South Korean culture and entertainment. While no one knows its origins, Hallyu’s phonetic flexibility in Chinese made for a perfect leeway into audiences throughout East Asia. Pockets of China, Japan and Thailand were singing along to Korean beats and tuning into Korean drama long before PSY’s explosion. “Nobody” by Wonder Girls was the first K-pop song to land the Hot 100 List on Billboard in 2007; the song was performed in five languages all across Asia before its popularity surged in the West.

Before 1992, there were only two state-owned broadcast stations in South Korea. Post-war censorship controlled everything from news, music, radio and television in a political effort to increase nationalistic pride. Realizing
its economic isolation, South Korea reformed to increase the country’s use of “soft power” — a term to describe the intangible power of a country through brands and languages, rather than “hard power,” through military and economic strength. By stripping away restrictions and diversifying their creative strategies, the democratic appeal allowed for an international audience.

With few natural resources like oil and landmass, South Korea hedged its bets and won large with its global entry strategy: cultural exportation.

Illustration by  Jane Lee

Illustration by Jane Lee


The global popularity of Korean music connects the country and its people with the rest of the world. Though PSY broke world records and kick-started the recognized globalization of K-pop, idol groups have always been perceived as mascots of the nation. Celebrities in Korea are the branded aspects of a modern Korean identity. This national support allowed BTS, a Korean boy band, to become the face of UNICEF’s “Love Myself ” campaign and set an unprecedented bar in the U.S. market by appearing on major talk shows like the Ellen DeGeneres Show.

Illustration by  Jane Lee

Illustration by Jane Lee


A new generation of fandoms is expo- nentially filling the world’s stadiums with competitive multiplayer video gaming. In 2014, Robert Morris University in Chicago granted over $500,000 in athletic scholarships to gamers and as of October 2017, The International Olympic Committee officially recognized esports as part of the Olympic Summit. In South Korea, this movement for recognition began in 2000 with the launch of OnGameNet, a special broadcast station for gaming.

The prominence of PC bangs (internet cafes) coupled with the boom of telecommunications moved gaming teens into the professional world of tournaments, well-financed training and a cult following. With more than 70 million eyes worldwide tuning into broadcasted games, video-gaming is no longer a pastime reserved for male teenagers in the East.


A conversation about the expansion of Korean culture is incomplete without discussing the beauty industry. A quick internet search will help you find five, ten, or eighteen step Korean skincare routines, a global market Mintel estimated to be worth about $7.2 billion in 2017. The idea of Korean beauty can be dated back to the 14th century when women used lard on their skin to prevent frostbite, resulting in a dewy and softened look. As Sephora and Ulta shelves are filling with gentle, pleasing packages, the promise of “natural,” “luminous,” and “youthful” look, backed by scientific language, serves to increase K-beauty’s appeal and global acceptance.


Whether Korean pop-culture deserves a stage with Ariana Grande and Tame Impala or not will be determined by how ready we are to accept a bigger wave breaking into the international scene. The true answer to discovering the impact of Korean culture in the global entertainment scene lies in our ability to expect and celebrate the convergence of culture.

President Jane Lee is a junior studying public relations at Syracuse University.