K-pop, K-drama: Korean ‘soft power’ in pandemic

What are the elements that have popularized Korean drama and pop culture in the Philippines, especially during the pandemic?

Refreshing content and aggressive promotions were two factors cited by the University of the Philippines Korea Research Center (KRC) in a webinar late last year.

Mental health among males, a topic not openly discussed, was the theme of It’s Okay Not to Be Okay, a 16-episode serial drama that was shown twice weekly.  Crash Landing on You explored the nuances of the relationship between the two Koreas through the two lead characters.  While paragliding, an heiress to a South Korean conglomerate makes an emergency landing in North Korea and wins the heart of a North Korean army officer.  The hour-long drama is easy to fit even into a busy schedule; during a lockdown, even those working at home could conveniently schedule it.

Korean Broadcasting System (KBS) has several YouTube Channels carrying well-designed content aimed at specific audiences.  By tapping into huge fan bases of popular stars, Korean entertainment companies are assured of ever-increasing revenues.

According to a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) report, the big push began after the election in 1998 of President Kim Dae-jung, who called himself the “President of Culture.” On the heels of the Asian financial crisis that seriously impaired the Korean economy, the export of popular media culture was promoted “as a new economic initiative, one of the major sources of foreign revenue vital for the country’s economic survival and advancement.” A Basic Law for Cultural Promotion was enacted with a budget of nearly $150 million.

Enter the chaebol, the large family-controlled business conglomerates that are closely linked with government agencies and high elective officials.  Through planning and execution, these firms engineered the globalization of K-pop.  World-class production standards were adopted to ensure competitiveness.  In the United States and Europe, leading K-pop groups have attracted diverse audiences and filled to capacity famous venues such as the Madison Square Garden and the Hollywood Bowl.

In 2012, Psy’s Gangnam Style claimed the distinction of being the first YouTube video to achieve one billion views.  The Federation of Phonographic Industry cited the South Korean boy-band BTS as the second best-selling artists of 2018 and the only non-English speaking artists to break into the Global Artist Chart.  In 2019, BTS reportedly accounted for $4.65 billion of South Korea’s GDP; they also became the first Asian band to register more than 5 million streams on Spotify.

In the 2020 Oscars, the South Korean film Parasite made history by winning the awards for best picture, best director, best foreign language film and best original screenplay.

The term “soft power” coined by Joseph Nye denotes a situation “when one country gets other countries to want what it wants” without deploying “the hard or command power of ordering others to do what it wants.”  Put simply, it is about “winning hearts and minds.” K-drama and K-pop are doing just that for South Korea.