How did the Korean wave start?

Written by on January 27, 2014 in Special Report

It seems a little unbelievable but everyone’s favourite Korean wave of K-dramas, K-pop, K-fashion and K-tagged popular items all began with Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. Not literally but it did have an influence.

 US film industry sets Korea on fire

Seopyeonje, 1993. Image from

After the Korean war, a rapid development process took place in South Korea which made the country one of the Asian Tigers – countries that miraculously outgrew themselves in mere decades. How South Korea was able to do that deserves a separate post, but part of this process was the development of the movie industry. Up until 1987 local studios had the right to decide which foreign films they wanted to buy for screening and could thus control the inland market. That year, however, the government eased its regulations on import entertainment, largely due to American pressure. By 1994 US movies dominated 80% of the Korean market and many local film studios simply had to throw up the sponge and went bankrupt. At the same time, TV stations also faced the issue of a rapid flow of American productions, spending as much as 43 million dollars in 1995 alone on import.

It was not easy to revive the fading scene but slowly Koreans started to wake up. In 1993 the movie Seopyeonje (서편제), about traditional pansori singers drew an audience of more than 1 million in Seoul only, first time in the history of Korean cinema. This alone showed how much Koreans were longing to see their own creations on the big screen. The movie became a symbol of Korean arts suffering under Western influx. A year later a government report stressed the fact that the revenue from Spielberg’s Jurassic Park equaled the sales of 1.5 million Hyundai cars. For the first time, people started to notice that cultural products may be as profitable as semi-conductors or cars. In 1999 president Kim Dae-jung allocated a budget of 148 million dollars to support culture.

Bad things may brighten up your future

For the Korean wave to form something really bad had to happen. This was the 1997 Asian financial crisis which forced TV stations around most of Asia to consider cheaper products. Popular Japanese TV series, as well as Americans, became really expensive. This is when Korean dramas came into the picture: they were a lot cheaper but still of good quality. Debate is on about which drama actually became the first one to air outside of Korea, but chances are it was Star in My Heart (별은 내가슴에), starring Ahn Jae-wook, bought by a Chinese channel, Phoenix TV. Taiwan also bought the series and it started a frenzy among women, charmed by Ahn’s handsomeness, the plot and the surroundings. Chinese housewives were actually surprised and thrilled to see a modern and fashionable Korea depicted in the series.

The real breakthrough for the Korean Wave came in 2003, when Winter Sonata, starring Choi Ji-woo and Bae Yong-joon aired in Japan. The dorama was part of a themed series about love and virtually broke down the walls between Japan and Korea. It became so immensely popular with Japanese women, that even Junichiro Koizumi prime minister talked about how the male lead was more popular with people than himself. The drama defined winter clothing trends in Asia (even in tropical regions!) and multiplied the tourist traffic of Namiseom, the island where some scenes were shot at.

Winter Sonata. Photo source:

K-pop on the wings of K-dramas

The popularity of K-dramas opened the market up to music as well. As early as the late 1990s, a few years after Seo Taiji revolutionized the format of pop songs in Korea, the first bands started venturing out of their comfort zones. H.O.T became popular in China, while Taiwan was seized by CLON. In the early 2000s S.M. Entertainment artists flagshipped the K-pop movement to Japan, with young BoA conquering the charts, as well as JYP trained Rain filling arenas in China and elsewhere. Others were soon to follow and K-pop truly began to expand Asia-wide.


H. O. T. performing We Are the Future. Source: MBC

But why Korea?

One might easily put the question: OK, but why exactly Korea? Well, Japanese women claimed that Bae’s character in Winter Sonata reminded them of male leads in bishonen mangas, which are marketed towards women and are considered the base foundation for ‘flower boys’ by some. Korean dramas also provided intriguing plots, characters people could easily relate to, as well as a dreamworld that offered an escape from harsh reality and everyday chores. It is also noted that Korean dramas (and generally, the image in K-wave culture products) put an emphasis on values other Asian nations also consider important, like filial piety, respect for the elderly or family orientedness as opposed to violence and overflowing sexuality portrayed in Western mainstream media products. Simply: Korean dramas are tailored to suit the taste of fellow Asians. Of course, the appeal that enabled its spread outside of Asia is that many people in the West feel tired of existing television programmes and music styles. People looking for fresh entertainment and novelty find Korean entertainment extremely likeable.

How did your K-journey start?

Sources: Asia Research Institute, The Korea Herald, UNIORB,


About the Author

Timea Baksa

I'm from Hungary. I got attracted to Korea through music and movies. I'm a blogger on Asian culture, an editorial writer at Hellokpop magazine and a contributor to Wikipedia. I love learning languages, currently trying to make my way through Korean.