The Korean Embassy in Sri Lanka recently held a webinar titled “Let’s talk about Hallyu: Now and Future in Sri Lanka”, as part of the series of events the Embassy is hosting in celebration of Korea Week, which kicked off on 14 December.
Korean Ambassador to Sri Lanka Santhush Woonjin JEONG gave an introduction to the “Korea Wave” aka. “K-Wave”, stating that “it is an integral extension of contemporary Korean culture, which has been embraced by the global community”.
The webinar discussed how, despite the initial barrier of language, K-pop and K-dramas are thoroughly enjoyed by those who do not know the Korean language. They have been able to transcend language and cultural barriers to become wildly popular amongst fans around the world – even in Sri Lanka – and this has led to these fans making an effort to learn the culture, the language, to read song lyrics, and read subtitles, in a concentrated determination to understand this other culture.
The webinar took to introducing what Hallyu really is: Essentially Korea’s cultural exports to the world, it includes K-music, K-drama, K-food, and most recently to great popularity, K-beauty. Hallyu is a catalyst for cultivating the value of co-operation and relations between Korea and other countries.
Korean Wave (Hallyu), which is a Chinese term, is the rise of Korea’s cultural economy and pop culture, and this Korean Wave has been made South Korea’s top priority by its Government. South Korea is one of the only countries in the world, if not the only one, with a dedicated goal to becoming the world’s leading exporter of popular culture that is developing this “soft power”.
Power gained from winning hearts
Soft power was a term coined by Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye in 1990, and it refers to the intangible power a country wields through its image, rather than through hard force like military or economic power.
An example of soft power in play from the US can be seen in the popularity and wide acceptance of products like Apple iPhones, Coca-Cola soft drinks, and Hollywood movies, which have contributed to America leveraging on a desirable image in the eyes of the world. This has allowed the country to control their own narrative, and present to the world exactly what they wished to be seen.
For South Korea, Hallyu has been an absolute blessing – since early 1999, Hallyu has become one of the biggest cultural phenomena across Asia. Its contribution to the country is insurmountable: In 2019, the Hallyu wave’s effects led to an estimated $ 12.3 billion boost in the Korean economy, and South Korea – whose gross domestic product (GDP) per capita was once less than that of Ghana – has become the world’s 12th largest economy.
Helping K-Wave ride its potential to foreign shores
There are a number of factors attributed to having contributed to the Korean Wave; the Government’s decision in the early 1990s to lift the ban on foreign travel for local Koreans resulted in a large number of young Koreans venturing out to explore the world and returning to explore opportunities in Korea with their newfound qualifications.
There’s also the restructuring of chaebols, which are large family-owned industrial conglomerates. During the Asian financial crisis in 1997, the Korean Government made these chaebols restructure their business models by divesting many of their business units. This in turn opened up the market internally, giving other smaller players an immense opportunity to venture into varied businesses, and therefore more entrepreneurs emerged.
Samsung is one of the more prominent chaebols that have benefitted from this increased interest in the South Korea brand, especially since the country doubled down on pushing for information technology (IT) and popular culture as the two key drivers for the future of South Korea.
Other decisions that greatly influenced the Korean Wave include their banning of censorship laws. Recognising that its censorship laws curbed their artists’ creative independence, Korea’s constitutional court banned these laws, and opened up a barrage of topics for artists to explore. Many globally recognised young filmmakers rose during this period.
Korea also exercises an increased emphasis on branding by leading Korean companies. For example, Samsung and LG have an amplified emphasis on quality, design, and marketing and branding on a global scale; these priorities have rubbed off to various other sectors of the economy as well, giving Korean products an image of having overall quality and being superior goods in the world market.
Korea has also invested in an augmented focus on infrastructure, with the Government spending significant funds to develop high-tech internet infrastructure. Most importantly, South Korea is one of the few countries worldwide that invests its funds into the nation’s start-ups – in 2012, 25% of government funds were returns on investment in venture capital. It is also important to note that nearly one-third of all venture capital in Korea is spent on the entertainment industry.
Can we learn from Korea?
Korea has flourished immensely as a result of this collective mindset they have portrayed to the world. South Korea has gradually become associated with Samsung and Hyundai instead of the Korean War, and this has benefitted Korea’s future endeavors, as we can see most recently in the Oscar win by Korean director Bong Joon-ho for his film Parasite; and Korean idol group BTS earning a nomination at the Grammys, alongside their repeated success in global charts, coming in at number one on Spotify streams multiple times in 2020.
Dilan Anthony, an economics lecturer at Mind-hub, also shared his thoughts on what Sri Lanka can adopt from the path taken by South Korea, and how it could positively affect Sri Lanka’s economy. He pointed out how Korea once was where Sri Lanka is today – being labelled as a war-torn nation and in need of a rebranding so the world can recognise what it has to offer.
If we can take a page from their book, he noted, we too can invest in the promotion of the right industries and persons to better our image as a country that has much to offer, especially our culture and heritage – something Sri Lankan people take great pride in and have a great emotional attachment to. For a more specific example, he pointed to Hela Vedakama, or Ayurvedic medicine, as a potential starting point. However, Sri Lanka is yet to make a concentrated effort in identifying the right cultural exports to be promoted, and needs to streamline these promotion efforts to be more measured and targeted, he explained.
He said: “As you can see, the Korean Government has invested greatly in promoting their culture, having identified the areas that would be attractive to the global audience; and we too can grow by taking pointers from their format.”