It’s not the violence that make it surprising that the Netflix series Squid Game has surpassed Bridgerton as the streaming service’s most popular show. It’s the fact that it’s a Korean-language drama, subtitled or dodgily dubbed into English (and with barely a sex scene). Or at least it would be surprising if you hadn’t been paying attention to the world’s growing obsession with all things South Korean. K-pop, K-drama, K-film, K-beauty: a K-wave is sweeping the globe.
The boom in Korean culture has its roots in CGI dinosaurs, or so the story goes. When the South Korean government calculated that Steven Spielberg’s 1993 epic Jurassic Park raked in more cash for Universal Pictures than the return on a year’s worth of Hyundai cars, a stalwart of the Korean economy at the time, it began concocting a plan to build and then export the country’s entertainment industry. Twenty-eight years later, we’re consuming Korean culture like it’s bibimbap (a delicious rice dish — try it).
Squid Game isn’t the only K-drama in Netflix’s top ten: Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha (admittedly, the names could use some work), a slightly less disturbing show — it’s a romance about a dentist — has climbed to No 8. Both follow the 2019 film Parasite, directed by Bong Joon-ho, which broke the record in the UK for the highest-grossing foreign-language film and was the first such to win best picture at the Oscars.
We’re now spelling music with a K, too. The shiny, garish, seven-member boy band BTS, short for Bangtan Sonyeondan — or “bulletproof boy scouts” — racked up 108.2 million views on YouTube in 24 hours for their hit, “Butter.” South Korea has a population of just 51 million.
Even global mega-acts such as Coldplay are piggybacking on BTS’s fame, after the boy scouts knocked them off the top of the Spotify charts. Now they’ve paired up to make a track, “My Universe,” catchy enough to rival “Gangnam Style,” the Korean earworm by Psy that went viral in 2012.
Korean fried chicken burgers are on seemingly every British pub menu. The cultish K-beauty industry, which features snail slime and starfish extract, is projected to be worth $13.9 billion by 2027. Members of the second hottest K-pop act, the girl band Blackpink, recently dotted the front rows of the Chanel and Dior shows at Paris Fashion Week.
The boom in Korean culture has its roots in CGI dinosaurs.
Recently hanbok, traditional Korean dress, was added to the Oxford English Dictionary. It was one of 25 Korean entries, including kimbap (similar to sushi), manhwa (a cartoon genre akin to Japanese manga) and, most appropriately, hallyu, the boom in the international consumption of Korean culture.
The government program that began in the 1990s has helped the South Korean economy rise to become the tenth biggest in the world, according to Dr Irina Lyan, head of the Korean studies program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “The government thought: we can also make money from our cultural industries. One of the slogans of that time was ‘we can beat Hollywood’,” she said.
The state gave grants to entertainment companies, built cinemas and theaters, and founded the Busan international film festival in Korea’s second-largest city.
Korean soaps were the first big export, born from a well-funded and competitive TV industry. They were high quality but cheap to buy, compared to their Japanese rivals. Many reflected South Korea’s divided and hierarchical social landscape — a great canvas for operatic storylines. Want a melodrama about a love triangle that bridges a poor family and a snobbish rich one? Korea can deliver. The shows were hoovered up in East Asia, the Middle East and India.
The cultish K-beauty industry, which features snail slime and starfish extract, is projected to be worth $13.9 billion by 2027.
Eventually, entertainment companies began targeting Western audiences. Collaborations with the likes of Netflix paved the way for well-made stories that benefited hugely from the years of investment and competition. “Take Squid Game,” says Lyan. “They cast famous Korean actors in the series. It’s like putting Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise in one show.”
One of the stars, Jung Ho-yeon, 27, labeled by Vogue as Korea’s next top model in 2015, is a global ambassador for Louis Vuitton and has 17 million followers on Instagram. The male lead, Lee Jung-jae, 48, soared to fame in South Korea for his part in the 1995 K-drama Sandglass.
Korean conglomerates played a big part in developing K-pop and packaging it for a global audience. Samsung and Hyundai are sponsors of BTS, with their made-for-TikTok dance routines and viral hits. It has paid off in spades. BTS alone are estimated to contribute $5 billion to the Korean economy annually.
Not all exports are winners. Take mukbang, one of the OED’s new additions: it means watching a person consume a vast amount of food on video. Some might say it makes even more uncomfortable viewing than an episode of Squid Game.
Madeleine Spence is a writer for both the foreign and home news desks at The Sunday Times of London