Diving into the hallyu wave: South Korean cultural fervor


photoillustration by Katherine Wilson

The Korean entertainment wave, known as “hallyu” has been immersed into international culture, culminating in popularity peaks that include K-drama “Squid Game,” and K-pop groups, Blackpink and BTS.

Over two thirds of Netflix’s 213 million customers have seen at least two minutes of the chilling K-drama,“Squid Game.” Yet its success may only be a temporary peak as the Korean cultural wave (known as “hallyu”) further sweeps over the world. 

Popularity of South Korean pop culture may be recently spiking amongst American consumers, but experts say hallyu is more of a lengthy evolution.

“BTS is not really coming out of the blue,” said June Hee Kwon, a cultural anthropologist and assistant professor of  the Asian Studies Program at Sacramento State.

“30 years ago (in the 1990s) was kind of the beginning stage of Korean culture,” Kwon said. “The cultural seeds were planted during that time.”

In these beginning stages, Kwon says Korean pop culture gained in “quality” as it began to accumulate its own “identity and pride,”— and as South Korea made the political transition to a democracy in the late 1980s

(South Korea’s) democratization brought forth the cultural urgency for (Koreans) to express their emotion and thoughts in different ways.

— June Hee Kwon, assistant professor of the Asian Studies Program at Sacramento State

“(South Korea’s) democratization brought forth the cultural urgency for (Koreans) to express their emotion and thoughts in different ways,” Kwon said. 

The K-pop culture that flourished in South Korea even before 2000 and the K-pop culture flourishing worldwide today are both the product of time and preparation. 

Experts say the increase in the accessibility and awareness of K-pop culture has been heightened by the growth in social media and worldwide streaming platforms like Netflix.

This new online dynamic is important in integrating foreign culture into everyday life. 

 “People still hear the foreignness….(in the) ethnic name attached—Korean culture, Chinese culture,” Kwon said. “But at the same time, because (people) can easily access (Korean entertainment) on a regular basis, there is a lot more familiarity with (K-pop culture.)”

“People have gained a lot more sympathy and empathy,” Kwon said.

Even as K-pop culture grows, stereotypes and the enduring stain of xenophobia and the stigma of showing appreciation for K-pop culture  in America persist.

Sophomore Celia Do, who grew up in Korea before immigrating to the U.S. noted her observations between the countries’ fandom cultures. 

“In Korea, (the fandoms) are a bit more reserved,” Do said. “In America, people will walk around wearing a whole lot of fancy clothing or show off a lot of items, and (tell) others that they enjoy South Korean media. In Korea it’s just kind of like a casual ‘oh yeah I listened to this, I watched that,’ kind of how people in America would casually say they’ve watched an American movie or drama.”

Koreaboos are the culmination of the differences between the two fandom cultures— and of the toxic K-pop fandom culture many perceive. 

The term is commonly used to depict cringy K-pop fans who are so obsessed with K-pop culture they attempt to be Korean themselves.

Yet GBHS’ K-pop club vice president Savanah Van Hoten says the majority of the community is not and should not be defined by this stereotype. 

“I definitely have been called these terminologies multiple times,” Van Hoten said. “Honestly it really hurts my feelings because I care so much about the idols and do not want to come off that way.”

Oddly, rising hype from hit shows like “Squid Game,” and other successful forms of Korean entertainment have birthed a  “bandwagon” culture amongst the public, even amongst those who shunned its foreignness prior.

“A couple years ago if you said you liked K-pop…everyone would be like ‘how could you like that genre of music?” Taylor said.  “People (would question) how (I) could listen to something that’s not English (even as) they listened to Shakira speaking Spanish.”

“But (as BTS’ popularity spiked) in my sophomore year…and now especially with Squid Game,’ everyone’s hopping on the bandwagon,” Taylor said. 

Compared to last year, there have been two and half as many signups for K-pop club, according to Taylor. 

While this “bandwagon” of culture has increased awareness, understanding of Korean culture beyond the surface of BTS, Youtube and Netflix may be restricted. 

“Korean Culture is not BTS,” Kwon emphasized.  “When (Korean Culture) travels to other countries, then it becomes a representation of that country’s Korean culture.”

Korean culture is not BTS.

— June Hee Kwon, assistant professor of the Asian Studies Program at Sacramento State

This merge of cultures is crucial to the development of Korean culture in America but some Koreans question the long term impacts the crossover of cultures and their audiences will have.

Many K-pop’s lyrics are now in English, some say in an attempt to cater to wider, Western audiences. 

 “I think Korea also is starting to try to stay in America, in Hollywood’s America and on Billboard,” Do said. “And if…this makes K-pop (and) the Korean industry become more Americanized, I personally wouldn’t like that.”

“I hope that the entertainment and media will start to also incorporate American themes, and American audiences won’t lose that main goal of reaching out to the Korean audiences,” Do said.

Cultural awareness does not always translate to cultural appreciation. 

Do encourage Americans to submerge themselves beyond the surface of the presentation of K-pop culture in America.

“It makes me proud as a Korean to know that people are being more immersed in the Korean culture (but) sometimes I wish, instead of just looking all the way to BTS and Black Pink, people would take one step further, and learn about the actual Korean culture and start to respect it,” Do said.

“If K-pop culture continues to attract more people that really try to understand Korean culture, instead of trying to Americanize it, this could be one of the first few steps in helping Asian and Americans start to grow together.”