South Korea's K-pop takes off in the west

Tiffany (on left), Seohyun and Sunny of Girls' Generation arrive at a Red Cross and UNICEF event on August 12, 2011 in Seoul, South Korea.

Story highlights

  • Korean films, soap operas and "K-Pop" music idols have taken Asia by storm
  • Cultural exports -- including films, comics and computer games -- hit a record $4.2B
  • Korea's cultural playbook modeled on Japan's own sugary "J-Pop"
When pop sensation Girls' Generation recently provided the grand finale to the Late Show with David Letterman, a top slot on US television, it signalled that South Korea's entertainment industry had broken out of Asia and is now looking to make it big in the west.
Just days after making their first appearance on US network television with their hit single "The Boys", the band of nine telegenic women this week returned to France -- where tickets for a 2011 concert sold out in 15 minutes -- to sing on prime time television.
Korean films, soap operas and "K-Pop" music idols, many of which were modelled on Japan's own sugary "J-Pop", have taken Asia by storm over the past decade. But the hallyu -- or "Korean wave" as the phenomenon is known in Asia -- is now spreading to Europe and the US, and spurring South Korea's export earnings.
Cultural exports -- including films, comics and computer games -- hit a record $4.2bn last year, up from $2.6bn in 2009, causing the share prices of leading entertainment studios to soar. Even Korea's favourite cartoon character, the penguin Pororo, has appeared on television in 120 countries.
Cho Hyun-jin, a government representative who coined the phrase K-Pop for Korean bands in a previous incarnation as a journalist, said the spread of Korean music had surpassed his highest hopes.
"It was my old heroes like Led Zeppelin who famously played Madison Square Garden. Now to see Girls' Generation there is amazing," he said.
While Korea has been an export powerhouse for decades in electronics, ships and cars, manufacturing companies have rarely played up their Korean brand identity, fearing until recently they would be seen as inferior in quality to Japanese rivals.
Cultural exports are, however, giving the once reclusive country a global cachet for the first time, shaking off the war-torn images of the US comedy M*A*S*H.
Broadcasting exports such as television dramas hit $252m last year, up from $185m in 2009, according to government statistics. Music earned $177m, soaring from only $31m in 2009. Film exports earned $26m, up from $14m in 2009.
Until recently, hallyu was seen as an Asian phenomenon. A 2003 drama called "Jewel in the Palace" about a female doctor at a 16th-century royal court proved a huge hit from Taiwan to Iran, and has more recently come to eastern Europe.
Asia is still crucial and the most effective managers continue to target export markets there. Park Jin-young, the impresario who runs JYP Entertainment, created the band Miss A with two Korean and two Chinese singers, so they can record their hits in both Korean and Mandarin. Girls' Generation sing in Korean, English and Japanese.
"The next phase is for the music industry to introduce western singers to globalise the boy and girl bands further," said Han Koo-hyun, president of the Korean Wave Research Institute.
Koreans have been surprised by the enthusiasm for K-Pop in the west, where Korean culture receives scant attention in mainstream media. Korean newspapers splash photographs of packed French concert halls or British fans greeting Girls' Generation with signs in Korean.
These European fans have largely discovered K-Pop through social networking sites, Facebook and YouTube.
Many commentators have also observed that K-Pop's novelty to outsiders comes from the years of training -- sometimes in tough quasi-boot camps -- that stars endure to ensure their songs are accompanied by immaculate group choreography that is rare in other pop music.
While cultural exports are a source of national pride, Koreans are also calling for improved regulation of the industry. The suicide of Jang Ja-yeon, a soap starlet, in 2009, focused attention on hallyu's dark underworld where some performers are locked into slave contracts and are told to sleep with managers to win roles.