K-Culture Is Here to Stay

Netflix’s recent announcement of a $2.5 billion investment to increase its production of South Korean movies and television shows is only the latest data point to suggest that Asia is a rising content giant—and Seoul sits at the center of it all.

The Netflix outlay—twice what it has plowed into the Korean market since 2016—came just before Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, which kicked off May 1. Asian content and entertainers of Asian descent are enjoying their highest profile in the United States since the month was first celebrated in 1992.

The historic showing at the Academy Awards in March—seven wins for Everything Everywhere All at Once, including actors Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan, and two Oscars for Indian films—represent a breakthrough moment. This builds on the cultural phenomenon of the South Korean show Squid Game that took Halloween costume parties last year, as well as the Parasite, which won several Oscarsin 2020.

Entertainment is a trend-driven industry, and it’s easy to write off the success of Korean content as a potent but passing fad. Other foreign-produced content has had its moment in the American sun, then faded. What sets South Korea apart from many other countries its size, and its neighbors in Asia, has been its relentless focus on foreign markets and its ability to produce multiple types of successful entertainment content—music, film, television shows, and games—for those markets. Only South Korean literature has yet to join the party, and that may be coming. South Korean novels that have been translated into English, such as Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 and Please Look After Mom, a Man Asian Literary Prize winner, have started to focus global attention on Korean authors.

There are some specific reasons the South Korean entertainment industry has prospered overseas. First, it is a tough crucible. If Korean audiences don’t like a new film, TV show, or song, it will die a quick and merciless death. The domestic competition among entertainment companies is intense.

Korean audiences demand high-quality content, high production values, and a constant stream of fresh product. Unlike in the United States, where successful TV shows span multiple seasons and spawn franchises, it is rare for even hit shows in South Korea to last for more than one season. Writers are restless and want to move on to new projects, and so do audiences.

South Korea’s size has something to do with its constant cycle of creation and improvement. With just 52 million people in the Korean market, entertainment companies’ growth depends on creating movies, TV shows, and music that will fare well internationally. As a wealthy country that has prioritized content creation as an economic engine, in some ways the Korean entertainment industry has become too big to be contained within national borders. At the same time, the Korean domestic market acts like a shark tank as companies battle for a limited number of entertainment dollars. These factors combine to create high-quality, ready-to-export content.

This constant pressure guarantees a pipeline of high-quality shows and movies at a pace most other countries haven’t matched. For example, four of the eight most-watched non-English Netflix series of all time are South Korean. South Korea is a perpetual content engine tuned to the latest societal issues of our times. It’s also worth noting that South Korea has made the entertainment industry a national priority, in terms of seed funding, establishing numerous international film festivals and teaching filmmaking in schools, and the industry treats behind-the-scenes production staff as importantly as stars.

Culturally, Korea is like a petri dish of innovation for many industries. The cycle of consumer trial, adoption, and failure or success is accelerated to warp speed because of the country’s dense population, global orientation, and fast internet. (Korea was the first nation to roll out wide-scale commercial 5G service.)

There is a relentless appetite for something new that has led South Korea to be a preferred testbed for technology companies, luxury brands, and coworking with robots. “If any trend is going to move from overseas to the U.S., I would put South Korea at the front of the line in terms of who is likeliest to be that springboard,” Andrew Wallenstein, president of Variety Intelligence Platform, told the New York Times.

Second, despite what American audiences may understandably think, K-content did not come out of nowhere. The United States is only the most recent market to embrace it. One of Korea’s first big entertainment exports was the TV series Winter Sonata, which became a hit in Japan and the Philippines in the early 2000s, generating a wave across Asia that Korean dramas and films rode.

K-pop expanded its footprint beginning in the mid-2000s from Asia to Latin America and Europe, propelled by social media. According to Twitter data, the top five countries of origin of K-pop tweets are Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and the United States. In fact, research by the AMPD group showed Korean content ranking first or second in every Southeast Asian country as measured by premium content by country of origin in 2022, besting Hollywood and even local-language content.

Much has been said about the diversity of American K-pop fans. Indeed, last year’s KCON, the annual K-culture festival sponsored by my firm, CJ ENM, in Los Angeles, drew about 100,000 fans—and only about 20 percent of them were ethnically Korean. In 2022, 60 percent of Netflix’s 221 million subscribers watched Korean content, and even this week, the Korean series Black Knight features on Netflix’s list of most-watched non-English shows (with South Korea’s Dr. Cha in second place). The streaming services’ algorithms that curate shows don’t think in terms of geographic boundaries, so they surface high-quality, popular content regardless of country of origin.

By their increasing size, audiences have demonstrated that the storylines of K-dramas are universal. Even a Korean film that looked inaccessible to Western audiences—set in the hidden neighborhoods of Seoul and featuring a cast largely unknown to English-language moviegoers—hit on universal themes of class struggle, greed, and justice, all with a dash of caper and horror. This is why Parasite grossed $260 million worldwide. Korean content creators—much like Korean automakers and smartphone producers—are outwardly focused on global trends and the social zeitgeist. Director Bong Joon-ho tapped into the brewing cross-cultural anxiety over wealth inequality that drove the film’s core connection with global audiences. And, as CJ Group Vice Chairwoman Miky Lee said during her Oscar acceptance speech, “I really, really, really want to thank our Korean film audience … [who] never hesitated to give us straightforward opinions.”

Action movies look different today than they did 20 years ago. But their popularity endures. Likewise, K-content—with a strong international base and a constant cycle of creation and improvement—will continue to resonate with global audiences. It takes time and money to establish a high-quality entertainment industry, but digital technology and social media have lowered some key barriers to entry for production and distribution. Every country has distinct cultural forces at work within it, but South Korea’s success at creating broadly appealing music, movies, and television series and engaging online with fans around the world could well be a template for other countries seeking to make their mark on the global stage.

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