How South Korea Took Over World Entertainment Under Constant Threat of War

How South Korea Took Over World Entertainment Under Constant Threat of War

South Korea’s top official tasked with promoting the seemingly miraculous campaign of exporting entertainment to international audiences has revealed to Newsweek the secret recipe to success in the hands of a nation still divided after nearly eight decades.

The phenomenon, known as the “K-Wave,” or Hallyu in Korean, first began to rise across East Asia in the late 1990s, amid an explosion of cultural expression as the country emerged from a regional financial crisis and rigid military leadership. Today, a vibrant and democratic South Korea has become synonymous in households around the world with some of the most popular music, television series and cinema, producing megastar performers like BTS, binge-worthy shows like Squid Game and universally acclaimed movies like Parasite, the only foreign film to ever win the Academy Award for Best Picture.

The outsized impact for the emerging soft power giant comes despite the nuclear-charged threats of neighboring North Korea that loom from a yet unresolved conflict now intensifying over inflamed geopolitical frictions.

“The war is not over yet. It is in a state of rest,” South Korean Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Yu In-Chon told Newsweek in an exclusive interview at the grand opening of the eight-story Korea Center New York. “So, you may say, ‘Well does that mean it’s dangerous?'”

“Well, it is true that you always have to be aware that there is tension,” the famous actor-turned-politician said. “But as artists, people will sort of rise over that and use that for another way to express their creativity.”

How South Korea Took Over World Entertainment Under Constant Threat of War
South Korean Culture, Sports and Tourism Minister Yu In-chon spoke exclusively with Newsweek about the indomitable “K-Wave” sweeping the globe.

Photo-illustration by Newsweek/Canva

Turning Crisis into Opportunity

In fact, the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that has split the Korean Peninsula since a post-World War II agreement reached between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1945 is one of the nation’s most popular tourist spots. South Korea’s side of the frontier boasts restaurants, carnival rides and even an annual film festival showcasing themes of peace at one of the most heavily garrisoned borders on Earth.

“While I understand that tensions have gone up in recent times because of nuclear issues and things like that, I don’t think tourists really feel that,” Yu said. “If anything, the number of tourists has gone up in the last couple of years.”

“And it’s the same thing with the art and cultural field,” he added. “In order to overcome the division, they have tried a lot of things, and, through those, they have also made progress to rebuff it.”

The conflict has served as inspiration for some of South Korea’s most iconic works such as award-winning thriller films Joint Security Area in 2000 and Steel Rain in 2017, as well as the hit 2019 romantic comedy series Crash Landing on You, which not only became the highest rated program of the country’s tvN network but also overwhelmingly won over audiences abroad in nations like China, Japan and the U.S.

When it comes to sports, the 2018 Winter Olympics hosted in South Korea’s Pyeongchang country served as the basis for ambitious peace talks between the rival Koreas who even marched under a united flag at the opening ceremony. With tensions returning to the peninsula in recent years, South Korean activists are now including K-pop-laden USB drives in balloons to be sent across the border in hopes of influencing North Korea from within.

But for most South Koreans, particularly as hopes for peace have faded in recent years, the conflict at their doorstep is far from the most immediate concern, nor is it seen as the most key factor for their success.

What Really Sets South Korea Apart

Yu spoke to some of the more distinct aspects of his country’s culture that he believes give it a major leg up in competition with far larger neighbors China and Japan, whose entertainment industries long dwarfed that of South Korea, a nation of 52 million people.

“Koreans have a diverse thinking with the artists, and we acknowledge the diversity,” Yu said. “You don’t keep repeating the same thing over and over. It is constantly being varied. It’s not repeated, but it’s not repeated, but it’s becoming more and more. It has a certain characteristic that is different from the rest of the world.”

“So, it’s a bit dynamic,” he added.

While Yu acknowledged that South Korea’s artistic culture bears similarities to that of other Asian nations that have invested in worldwide entertainment, he felt the country had a distinctive manner of handling the influx of influence.

“For me, one of the biggest and most unique things to the Korean cultural industry is that we take in foreign cultural influences and instead of just spinning it back, we kind of mix that with our own culture and kind of maybe ferment it and sort of recreate that, giving it a different feel,” Yu said.

Just as Korea has for centuries excelled in a wealth of fermented foods and wines now also gaining greater international traction as part of the “K-Wave,” South Koreans today have managed to absorb a variety of outside ingredients to produce even more palatable products.

For example, Yu notes how a number of artists have taken to performing traditional Korean music using Western instruments. Yu, who spoke to Newsweek while sporting a centuries-old style of dress known as hanbok along with modern sneakers, also pointed to a nearby patchwork sewn in a classic Korean method but depicting a colorful rendition of a horse in a manner not reminiscent of customary Korean artwork.

“I believe the Korean culture is really the result of the old traditional elements meshing with the modern elements,” Yi said. “So, the current art is based on tradition, but then it’s now being fused with modern elements, and now we’re finding out new ways to express ourselves artistically.”

Korea, Center, New, York, in, Manhattan
The Korea Center New York at 122 East 32nd Street in Manhattan is seen hours before its grand opening on June 27.

Newsweek

How Much Influence Is Too Much?

The unprecedented deluge of South Korean entertainment to billions of people across the globe has also brought extraordinary exposure to a nation whose isolationist dynastic legacy once earned it the nickname “the Hermit Kingdom” among Westerners in the 19th century.

The process is only accelerated by a nationwide fixation on the latest technology. South Korea ranks among the highest in the world in terms of percentage of internet users, smartphone owners and social media penetration.

If tradition is a crucial element in South Korea’s winning strategy, then the inundation of access to outside cultures could prove a risk.

“There is a lot of appreciation of outside cultures in Korea, the young generation especially,” Yu said. “There’s a lot of them going to, let’s say, American culture as much as Jazz, Coca-Cola, Hollywood, video games, that type of content, and different cultures are mutually communicating and influencing.”

“But then these mutually influencing and influenced cultures also evolve or change,” he added. “And so, in Korea, there have been a lot of changes in sort of the way of day-to-day living.”

Yet Yu was confident that some things would remain the same, particularly what he described as core cultural values that South Koreans continue to hold dear.

“At the same time, some fundamental Korean cultural concepts such as filial piety, righteousness, that kind of stuff, have stayed the same because Korea is family-centric,” Yu said. “So, it is expected of parents to sacrifice for their children, and, in turn, the children will have piety towards their parents. So, the flow of the fundament of culture is the same, except that, nowadays, it is expressed in more varied ways.”

“Some might worry that Korea may lose or may weaken its traditional culture, but I think it has always been that way,” he added. “People have always worried, and you get used to it, you adjust to it and then you also protect it that way.”

Addressing the Gaps at Home

As South Korean culture evolves with the lightning pace of modern development and cross-cultural exchange, however, major gaps have emerged within the country’s society. Rifts on key issues have widened on serious issues between men and women, young and old, conservatives and progressives and other groups.

But here too Yu saw an opportunity for his “hot” country to seize on disadvantages and co-opt them into the broader march forward.

“Externally if you look at it, there’s always something that’s going on, that’s an issue,” Yu said. “But as you go through these conflicts, rather than being affected by them and getting down, you sort of step up and use them as a steppingstone for advancement and progress.”

Yu pointed out that “there are very few countries that have gone through as many changes as Korea has.” The onset of the Cold War not only divided the peninsula but brought a devastating war that killed millions and destroyed cities, including Seoul, which is now unrecognizable from that era with its bustling life, towering skyscrapers and frequent ranking as one of the world’s safest capitals.

Whether it’s North Korean missiles flying overhead or protests erupting on the streets, Yu said that “life is going on” regardless.

“In fact, the country is developing in the midst of countless conflicts, regardless of whether it is on the one side or the other,” Yu said. “It is the fundamental power and driving force of Korean culture.”

The freedom and even enthusiasm to disagree, often passionately, is a cornerstone of what Yu identified to be the dynamism of South Korean culture.

“It may look unstable, it may look confusing, disorganized,” Yu said, “but that is what is enabling the country and the culture to progress.”

BTS, member, Jin, leaves, mandatory, military, service
K-pop boy band BTS member Jin salutes after being discharged from his mandatory military service in front of a military base in Yeoncheon on June 12.

JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images

What’s Next?

Today, South Korea has the world’s attention. But few, not even Yu, know what tomorrow will bring.

In the face of such uncertainty, Yu has assembled a team tasked specifically with preparing for the future in order to ensure the “K-Wave” continues to prevail.

“We have a board that is working on getting ready for these changes, but changes are so fast that we don’t even know how to predict the future,” Yu said. “But what we want to do is, as policymakers, provide creators the stage so they can actually realize what they’re envisioning.”

The initiative involves both government and private sector support and takes a page from parallel campaigns being pursued by the scientific and technology sectors.

In line with South Korea’s eagerness to accept and refine a variety of outside influences, however, Yu also emphasized that the country was focusing on diversifying its entertainment portfolio to produce new kinds of art blending domestic and foreign source material.

“We are no longer insisting that we only disseminate Korean culture to the world,” Yu said. “We want to take the leading position in this kind of new global cultural advancement, where from the melting pot we can take what works and, using our creativity, we can generate something and present that to the world.”