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The Rising Popularity of South Korean Media

Tabitha Kaye explores the rapidly developing western fascination with South Korean media

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Image Credit: Netflix

“This is where it all starts: Squid Game.”A perfectly reasonable comment made by regular telly-watcher Marcus during Squid Game’s Gogglebox debut. Gi-hun(portrayed by Lee Jung-jae), the down-on-his-luck protagonist of the show, had just agreed to a violating punishment during a particularly bad run of ddjaki: a traditional yet simple Korean game where players compete to turn each other's folded paper tile with a forceful blow - something Gi-hun himself was getting acquainted with following each defeat.

Indeed, Marcus’ comment was very fitting in this sense: the innocence of the game, juxtaposed with the harsh lighting of the subway station and Gi-hun’s perfectly contused cheek provided the perfect exposition for the sacrifice yet to come. However, in terms of the unprecedented hysteria which ensued the show’s September Netflix release, the phrase has become particularly poignant. Amongst the numerous edits of fans on the ‘red light, green light’ playing arena, or the seas of golden copy-cat honey-comb shapes on TikTok, it is more than easy to fall into the pitfall of seeing the show itself as a sole catalyst - something the exponential viewing figures are only too happy to reinforce.

Although, in viewing 2021 retrospectively, it takes but one moment to identify a larger trend in our consumption of South Korean media. Mere months after BTS’ record-breaking YouTube debut of 'Butter' captivated the world, households were once again filled with familiar uplifting tones as their newest single, 'Permission to Dance', was used for the opening group dance of the Strictly Come Dancing launch show. Cast our minds even further back to 2019 and the world was introduced to Bong Joon-ho’s six-time Oscar nominated Parasite: a masterful, yet chilling, commentary on the socio-economic status of families in South Korea. In this light, it seems no coincidence that our appreciation of South Korean talent has extended to Netflix’s latest offerings.

Nevertheless, 2021 remains a poignant year for South Korean media and prompts us to reflect: what is it that we enjoy so much about these products, and where does 2021 stand in the longer trajectory of our love affair with South Korea?It is not unheard of for non-English speaking shows to pique the interest of English viewers. Notably, the French thriller Lupin, which debuted as a Netflix original in January 2021, reached mass popularity beyond the language barrier; a similar case can be made for Spanish series Money Heist, which has captivated audiences since its 2017 release. Assisted by a plethora of dubbing options and subtitles, the rising popularity of non-English speaking shows appears to be on a stable upward trend.

Nevertheless, it is pertinent to acknowledge that this is based upon a eurocentric framework. With this in mind, our ability to relate to a language which is far removed from this model, such as Korean, is called into question. Korean-speaking TikTok star, Youngmi Mayer, took to Twitter earlier this month to address this issue directly.

In her analysis, Mayer called upon the non-alignment of dialogue for a lower-class character, Han Mi-nyeo (portrayed by Kim Joo-ryung). In the English subtitling of a scene (as translated by Mayer) the line ‘I am very smart, I just never got a chance to study,’ is misinterpreted as ‘I am not a genius, but I still got it to work out’ – a decision which diminished the character's authority significantly. While this comes at no detriment to the wider plot, this instance raises serious questions of what representations a non-Korean speaking audience are forced to engage with, as well as how this compromises an understanding of class dynamics and culture in South Korea.

With this in mind, how is it that South Korean shows, such as Squid Game, sustain their popularity? The answer lies in the universalist appeal of the concept, which subverts the intricacies of literal translation. When asked about his inspiration for Squid Game, creator Hwang Dong-hyuk responded that he drew upon a question at the very centre of the human condition: ‘would I join in [the Squid Game] to make money for my family?’ Caught in the relentless fall out of the 2008 financial crisis, Hwang was among many who faced this predicament first-hand in a time of scarcity. As such, Squid Game carries a universalist view of modern capitalism which requires little translation in 2021. “The overall global economic order is unequal,” stated Hwang in conversation with The Guardian. “During the pandemic, poorer countries [couldn’t] get their people vaccinated. They’re contracting viruses on the streets and dying. So I did try to convey a message about modern capitalism.”

Interestingly, an astute recognition of in-equality in South Korea and the wider world has permeated the K-Pop industry. During BTS’ role as envoys for the President of the Republic of Korea, Moon Jae-in, earlier this year, the issue of an emphasised class disparity in South Korea as a result of the pandemic was highlighted. The group rallied in support of the Sustainable Development Goals in hope of aiding the poverty and climate crisis. In a familiar vein, South Korean group, Red Velvet, made headlines in their call for unification at a concert before North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in 2018. The vocal role of K-Pop artists in both domestic and international politics has added a new and respectable currency to the industry in a post-Covid landscape.

Even though many K-Pop artists have chosen to pick up the political gauntlet in the wake of the pandemic, one of their most important roles cannot be overlooked: promoting the unique sense of joy and excitement of the K-Pop genre. In 2018, non-Korean attendees of a K-Pop themed nightclub in London reached a unanimous verdict when asked why they liked the music: K-Pop is there to be enjoyed, and most of all - it’s fun!

Indeed, it has long been documented that the allure of K-Pop in the western world can be attributed to its unique blend of energetic R&B rhythms and rap, ensured to create an up-tempo mood. While the musicality of K-Pop extends beyond this arbitrary analysis, the feel-good factor has never been lost - especially in response to the pandemic. Tomorrow x Together’s music video for 'We Lost the Summer' laments time spent on video calls in a surprisingly upbeat tune, while girl group Mamamoo sing of the relatable hardships of lockdown loneliness in ‘Dingga’. However, it was BTS’ cheery single 'Dynamite' which had everyone dancing in August 2020, earning it the status of the biggest 24-hour debut on YouTube.

After conquering the US charts in 2017, BTS enjoyed phenomenal international success. At the same time, the group collaborated with Line Friends to create BT21: a cute collective of aliens, animals and a cookie. The novelty of the range extended beyond the domestic and international fanbase, as well as making the group accessible to a younger audience through animated videos and collectable plushies – each character offering insight into a certain BTS member. Following a successful trial run on K-Pop stock, music retailer HMV made a firm investment in BTS merchandise including the brand, helping to cement their legacy in the UK and bring multiple generations of fans together.

With this in mind, it is only natural that many K-Pop fans have taken to committing themselves to the Korean language in order to understand cultural nuances in greater depth. South Korean media – especially K-Pop – is often branded as a fickle motivation for learning the language, particularly in comparison with the growing importance of Korea as a global exporter. However, it is undeniable that this surge in interest helped many through the monotony of lockdown, aided by a steady stream of free educational resources on platforms such as YouTube. This exposure has allowed initiatives, such as the increased need for Korean literature visibility in the Western world, to flourish, and has even been adopted by the United Nations’ Aid Agency. The topic of K-Pop has opened such a universal dialogue that it is used as conversation starters between Western students and Middle Eastern refugees over Skype. Thus, while K-Pop remains a beacon in our relationship with South Korea and the Korean language, its value cannot be disputed easily.

In this light, 2020 added a new currency to existing K-Dramas on Netflix, using them to help educate as well as entertain. Period K-Dramas found prominence on Netflix – the success of Kingdom (2020) can be traced back to forerunners such as Hwarang (2016). A stylised introduction to the history of the Three Kingdoms period provides the backdrop for a few familiar faces: Park Hyung-sik, formerly of ZE:A, Kim Tae-hyung of BTS, and a veteran ‘prince of K-Pop’ – Choi Min-ho of eminent group SHINee. Sharing the spotlight with 2017’s Strong Girl Bong-soon, these early K-Dramas have enjoyed a rejuvenation in recent years with a growing knowledge of K-Pop in the west.

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