Hallyu Report IV – The cause

One of the primary causes for Hallyu outbreak was the adoption of media liberation in many Asian countries in the 1990s, which resulted in a favorable environment fostering the cultural exchange of media products, which in turn benefited the spread of Hallyu.

Hallyu was initially stimulated in 1997 by the screening of Korean drama “What Is Love All About” by Chinese major state broadcaster CCTV (China Central Television). The drama aired with a bang, got re-aired in 1998 in prime time hour of CCTV and obtained the second-highest ratings ever recorded in Chinese television history. The popularity of Korean entertainment products quickly spread from mainland China to Taiwan, where in 1999 Korean drama “Stars in My Heart” turned out to be a big success. Korean culture continued to influence the Chinese communities residing in various Asian countries, gradually making a big impact on nearby nations across Central and South East Asia.

The boom of Hallyu in the late 1990s can be attributed to the ability of Korean entertainment producers to adopt and convert the popular content of Western media in a way that matches the taste of Asians, upholds Asian traditional values, and is familiar enough for Asians to understand and relate to. The close cultural proximity with Asian audience gives Korean dramas an edge over Western competitors. Additionally, with regards to other Asian competitors, the more affordable price of Korean cultural products works to their advantage. At the beginning of the Wave, before the 2000s, Korean dramas were modestly priced at a quarter of Japanese counterparts, and a tenth of Hong Kong counterparts. That said, as part of an advanced economy, Korean entertainment companies could afford a decent production process, creating entertainment products with high values, hence their ability to maintain their customer base.

A closer look at several Korean hit dramas can give further explanations for their exceptional popularity. In particular, many entertainment reviewers and society scholars have attempted to figure out the reasons behind “Winter Sonata”’s explosive popularity in Japan starting from 2003, despite its common genre. “Winter Sonata” is a romantic serial, with a storyline spanning over 10 years, surrounding the love, separation, and reunion of two former high-school sweethearts. Overall, it is believed that the drama’s success is largely credited to the characterization of the male hero and the convincing portrayal by lead actor Bae Young Joon. From the views of Japanese fans, most of whom are middle-aged women, the male hero – the character portrayed by Bae – is a classic example of an old-fashioned honorable man, who is intellectual and successful, yet very sensitive and caring, and loves his woman unconditionally. This is the ideal soul mate, unfortunately considered a very rare-to-find figure, in the minds of many Japanese females.

Another case of a Korean drama turning into an international sensation is “Dae Jang Geum”, a historical drama that draws attention for its powerful message about a young woman’s determined struggle to rise above society prejudice and expectations of a woman’s role. “Dae Jang Geum” is noted for addressing a compelling social issue concerned with the ability of a person to overcome a poor and disadvantaged personal background in order to realize their goals in life. The character “Dae Jang Geum” is loved by audience worldwide, for she has a kind heart with the noble dream to learn medicines and save people’s lives, as well as a strong will and unwavering belief in herself to be able to defy both the de facto law of royal hierarchies and the gender bias. This meaningful storyline is aided by a suitable cast and a highly detailed and authentic presentation of Korean history, cuisine, and traditions, leaving the audience at awe.

The success of Korean dramas was one of the original factors that raised overseas interest in Korean pop music. In the late 1990s, Channel V, an Asia music television network, started to feature Korean pop music video clips. Korean pop music, which specifically targets the youth, quickly captured the attention of audience in the young demographic. That, combined with Internet advancements and the rise of media-sharing websites and programs, created easier access to Korean pop music and related Korean variety shows, which may not be as available on the traditional television as Korean dramas are.

Kpop idols were seen as a breath of fresh air – a change from the conventional musical artists who primarily focus on singing. “Idols” – often regarded as “entertainers” rather than “artists” – tend to get actively involved in a wide range of entertainment activities in various non-music variety shows, creating for themselves a public persona and maintaining a polished appearance under various circumstances. This pop idol industry caters to the needs and interests of the youth who are after something other than music, especially young audience who seek to have their own role models or those who pay attention to the continuously changing trends and styles. Indeed, it has been noted that, towards the later 2000s, the attention of younger generations of Asian audience have gradually shifted from traditional Korean dramas to Korean pop music. As a result, overseas demand for Korean idol dramas – the new genre that features popular entertainment idols regardless of acting experience – has increased, explaining the popularity of idol dramas in recent years.

Binh Nguyen,
a Vietnamese intern

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