Influence that K-not be denied

A look at how Korean culture has influenced the world.

Source - Oprah Daily

Source - Oprah Daily

Nearly every parent in the nation has heard Korean music one way or another. They may have seen their children emulating choreographies, singing along, or maybe heard Korean music tracks used as ringtones in their children’s phones. While it is easy to disregard something so outlandish given the globalised world one lives in, the influence of South Korean Culture was not just happenstance.

This was a concentrated effort made by the South Korean administration since the 1990s, with an approach best described as leading in ‘soft-power,’ building an ideal image of luxury of the Korean lifestyle. A means of ‘Nation-Branding’, Korean cultural outreach is heavily invested in by the government, as they understood the power of diplomacy held in the crucible of cultural influence. Thus, the ‘Hallyu’, or ‘flow/wave’ of Korea, broke upon international shores.

The pebble was dropped, and carried on the ripples were two main components of Korean cultural influence; K-Drama and K-Pop. Music and television content invited unwary consumers to learn more about the Korean culture of food, language, and lifestyle, creating a sense of opulence of the nation that grew deep roots amongst these newly borne fans. 

The authorities were smart in capitalising the use of free and revenue-holding websites such as YouTube, weaving into the fabric of the internet in an age when free access was becoming all the rage. Given human nature of emulating each other and fitting into niches, this created a global trend that sustained and grew itself, allowing the creation of different factions of fans, known as fandoms (a pun on the word), and thus created an entirely new face of the internet. 

Recent history

While the major breakthrough for the musical industry came in 2012, with the release of rap artist Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’, the growth of K-Pop influence has not abated. Blackpink became the first Korean group to get to perform at the predominantly caucasian music festival Coachella, raking in awards for chart-topping alongside the wildly famous BTS boy band as well. 

They were preceded by Girls Generation and Big Bang, a girl and boy group respectively, who had laid the foundations for Korean music influence in the early 2000s. They also created the idol ‘idolising,’ as singular members generated their own followers and influence in culture, leading to successes of members such as G-Dragon and Taeyung. The same format is being followed now, with Blackpink’s Lalisa and BTS’s Kim Namjoon.

In the movie industry, another groundbreaking award was achieved by Bong Joon-ho with his movie, Parasite, in 2019, being the first Asian movie to win four Oscars, including best picture. This allowed a very large number of consumers to be exposed to Korean moviemaking and drama, making Netflix one of the largest distributors of Korean media to the world. Netflix had even regained their own steep climbing subscriber numbers with the release of ‘Squid Game’, a cultural game-changer, topping the charts and breaking records in its wake.

Turning up the music

The government mainly focused on K-Pop, or Korean music, as this was seen to be what generated both the most following and the most content easily consumable across the board. Since the branding needed standards to be met to achieve this global goal, artists or, as they are known as in the industry, idols, undergo an intense and gruelling training period that last on average of four years before they can debut as a group. This includes 14-hour days, working on developing their skills in dance and whatever other talents the industry wants to sell them for.

When creating these groups, the agents and companies (subsidised by the government) aims at involving as much diversity within the idol’s characteristics to ensure that they are relatable to as many young people around the world as possible. To increase this interaction involves an almost super-human amount of internet presence and interaction, which leads to even more intense fan-following and dedication, and also leads to the creation of the fandoms mentioned above.

Infectious cultures and product placements

Reality shows in which these idols are involved in shot the popularity of such shows through the roof. The way they lived, their consumption habits, and their advertisements invaded ad spaces and attentions of followers all over the world. On top of this, K-Drama brought with it a lot more cultural curiosity as well.

K-Drama increased the public’s interest in Korean lifestyles, both of opulence and common living, and is generally regarded as the most culturally influential component of South Korea’s ‘soft power’. In the beauty industry, luxury, apparel, consumer electronics, and even consumer foodstuffs like snacks and Korean meals, being featured in these programs has generated global demand. Beauty products have taken the cosmetic industry by storm, which could be associated with the fact that beauty standards are nominally high in Korean media portrayal.

Tourism has also been affected, as many visitors are flying over specifically for the need to try both the culture and the food as they have seen on TV. Product placements in shows including those from luxury brands such as Cartier, Chanel, Goyard, Christian Dior, Paul Smith, DKNY and Céline have helped boost demand for the particular items worn and used by protagonists in South Korea itself as well as in China.

Dangerous fan cultures

As mentioned above, Korean media has created multiple factions of admirers known as fandoms, and this is no different from Western media as well, yet the similarities cease when this following becomes a shared obsession verging on cultish characteristics. The influence first hits the idols themselves, as ‘rival’ groups are attacked with personal mails and threats, and then even the idols that they follow and support are subject to their cyberbullying as well.

It is simply the result of such an idol deviating from the rigid structure or personality that the fans have either created or hold expectations of, resulting in some of these artists being pressured to the point of suicide. Their lives are hijacked, their privacy non-existent, and their autonomy traded by these obsessive followers who build their entire persona around the idol and their lifestyle. 

These fandoms also instigate rivalries between each other, going to extreme lengths of threats of bodily harm upon followers of other groups as well. In some instances around the world, such activities have had legal consequences, but the toxicity is mostly pervasive within the borders of South Korea.

The dangers then seem to be aimed inwards, as fanatic fans have been reported to self-harm, constantly psychologically assault themselves and depend on these idols they idolise to save them from their lives. When any stories of idols getting hurt props up, even Maldivian youth in the multitudes have been seen to hurt themselves, requiring psychological support while they adamantly believe their salvation comes directly from the people they are idolising over the internet.

The Mukbanging craze

What was initially thought of as a subculture of Korean media, the rise of Mukbang in Youtube has heralded another turn in internet culture. This is a term coined from eating and broadcasting, and is as simple as it sounds.

These channels feature creators simply eating, mostly copious amounts of food, with as much mess and indulgence, with sensitive microphones to pick up every crunch, slurp, and chew, while the audience watches. Continuously. This craze began in 2010, with the concept of enjoying food with others, but the intent has diverged and created an entire, self-destructive culture, that is celebrated by the niche markets in the millions.

This binge-eating, live-streaming craze has gone beyond the control of even the Korean government, who when trying to crackdown on creators for the obvious dangers to health, were told that they were infringing on the rights of expression of these creators. Of course, the viewers were left to their own discretion. 

The craze has swept through influential nations like America, racking up millions of views of people recording themselves eating. This has been accused on influencing poor eating habits and an utter disregard for the state of the world; famine and starvation in many parts of the world which are not getting the deserved attention as the public simply veers towards the other extreme end of the spectrum.

The reality of K-culture’s unreality

The Maldives is not so far removed to not feel the effects of this cultural insurrection. While enjoying the media of different nations promotes globalisation and humanity, the unhealthy obsession that is both perpetuated and promoted by the South Korean media giants and outlets has had slightly invisible yet detrimental effects. Changes to consumerism is normal, yet when emergency rooms seem to report more victims of self-harm or poor eating habits stemming directly from the influence of these cultures, attention needs to be rekindled.

Blocking off or banning such influences is never the way, as it forces the influenced to seek other methods of access to stave their addictions. Proper awareness of the dangers of extreme cultural indulgence, including that of even Indian media, the extreme religious fervour of some nations, as well as the perpetuation western and European extremes, needs to be addressed from a grassroots approach to ensure that the viewers and consumers are aware of what they’re consuming. 

Yet, the lesson here is also on how influential and effective the internet has been in making even the most far-fetched ideas a household name and topic of conversation. Control is not an answer, but education could salvage what is left of the generations being influenced heavily by the highly consumeristic external forces.

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