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What is K-Culture?

This article provides a definition and overview of culture
Korean culture

K-Culture is a short-historied term referring to South Korean popular culture.

The term was first coined in the late 1990s,1 when various elements of Korean pop culture – from music, to films, dramas, and fashion, food, comics and novels – began to spread overseas, first into neighbouring Asian countries, then further afield.

The feverish fondness that Korean pop culture attracted in overseas media soon gave rise to a host of terms such terms as the “Korean Wave” (a.k.a. Hallyu), K-Culture, and so on. In fact, the term K-Culture was quickly reimported back into South Korea, where it has been used readily to describe South Korean pop culture.

What is the secret to the ongoing popularity of K-Culture, though? Part of the reason for its success may be found in relation to the institutional, financial and policy support the South Korean government has provided for the movement, continuously and relentlessly working to keep the Korean Wave going and stopping it from becoming a transient phenomenon, all in the hope of enhancing the nation’s soft power.

Although the political leadership of the country has seen several changes, from Liberal to Conservative, and back to Liberal again, support for K-Culture has remained constant. The government has also expanded and diversified its support into digital domains as the country’s cutting-edge IT companies have grown, seeking to foster stronger industrial digital content clusters, thereby propelling the production and consumption of cultural content online, beyond South Korea’s national boundaries.

Despite these efforts, it actually took several decades for K-Culture to become truly widespread, reaching beyond East and Southeast Asia (areas which share a similar cultural background, with cultural exchanges and Asian pop culture media including Japanese songs and Hong Kong cinema ongoing around the region).

Overall, South Korea is still relatively a small country, with a population of 51 million, occupying only the half the Korean peninsula, and still remaining in a state of Cold War with its neighbour to the North. Moreover, its main language, Korean, is used exclusively by Koreans, meaning that attempts to expand its cultural influence in the international markets have often been circumscribed by language barriers. At the same time, and even though digital technologies may have made cultural consumption and sharing on a global level more straightforward, cultural competition against other non-English countries remains fierce.

So what is the historical and cultural context in which K-Culture began to be consumed more widely? Psy’s “Gangnam Style”, a worldwide hit in 2012, is widely regarded a tipping point for K-Culture in the global marketplace. While it may be true that this song had a huge influence, however, and despite the language barriers, several Korean TV dramas, films and pop songs had already been gaining a strong reputation within the Asia region prior to this time, thanks in part to the extensive efforts of diverse Korean talent. This course will therefore seek to touch upon other examples that helped to drive the evolution of K-Culture and its spread to a wider audience, even before the emergence of the so-called “K-Pop” phenomenon.

Meanwhile, these days we can see a large fraction of contemporary K-Culture is indebted to rising public participation in new digital culture genres, for example Mukbang and Webtoons. These are genres unique to Korean Web culture, and managed to become successful, or even viable, not just thanks to the creative ideas or initiatives of pioneering individuals, but also because the public as a whole was interested in participating in such digitally-driven production formats. Moreover, a significant proportion of K-Culture content today is available free-of-charge, contributing to its easy dissemination across the Internet.

References:

● Lee, S. (2012). Hallyu in Europe as a phenomenon of cultural hybridization-with the analysis on K-pop Craze [유럽의 ‘ 한류’를 통해 본 문화혼종화: K-pop 열풍을 중심으로]. Korean-isch-Deutsche Gesellschaft für Sozialwissenschaften, 22, pp.117-146. See also KOCIS (2012). Korean Wave: From K-Pop to K-Culture [한류: K-Pop에서 K-Culture로]. KOCIS (Korean Culture and Information Service).

● KOFICE (2019). A Study on the Impact of the Korean Wave in 2018 [2018 한류 파급효과 연구]. KOFICE (Korean Culture and Information Service).

● KIET (2015). Policy measures to strengthen the competitiveness of K-Pop [K-Pop의 경쟁력 강화를 위한 정책방안]. KIET (Korean Institute for Industrial Economics & Trade). See also Lee, S. (2012).

● Kim, J. H., Yu, J., Sya, K., & Son, S. H. (2021). K-Culture Glossary: 100 Terms to Get You Started with Korean Popular Culture. Jikim Publishing Limited.

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The Rise of K-Culture: Discover the Korean Wave (Hallyu)

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