“Hallyu Part Two”: Yale students speak on the rise of the Korean entertainment industry in the U.S.
Netflix U.S. has seen a rise in popularity of Korean media and film, especially with recent successes such as Squid Game and Hellbound.
Those who have logged onto Netflix anytime in the past few months have seen “Squid Game” take the number one position in most-watched shows, spending a nonconsecutive 46 days at the top since its September release. Shortly thereafter, South Korean dystopian drama “Hellbound” reached the number one position, surpassing Squid Game in less than 24 hours of its release.
In 2021, Netflix pledged to spend $500 million on films and shows produced in South Korea, which may have led to the increase in the number of South Korean shows featured on the platform. But while the quick popularity and consumption of these shows by American viewers was seen by many as unprecedented, a number of Yale students told the News that they have seen the rise coming.
“Squid Game went to three major broadcasting companies of Korean television and was denied every time,” Haze Yi ’23, who grew up in South Korea, explained. “And it was when Netflix went in and the investment happened that they were able to make the show. I think a part of it is with these platforms, there is an international market growing. As that trend continues, there’s more freedom for artistic expression about Korean artists and screenwriters.”
“Hallyu” is a Chinese term meaning “Korean wave,” in reference to the global rise in popularity of K-culture from the 1990s to the 2000s. Eugene Kwon GRD ’24, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in Yale’s combined program in Film and Media Studies and East Asian Studies said that the current phenomenon can be considered “Hallyu 2.0.”
Grace Kao, professor of sociology and ethnicity, race, and migration at Yale, explained that Hallyu has had an impact for a while, specifically in the music industry. From the first K-pop song to chart in the United States in 2009 — “Nobody” by The Wonder Girls — to BTS having the highest-earning online concerts by any musical act, it seems as if this rise has been long-coming, Kao said.
Kwon echoed these sentiments, telling the News that this new rise of K-drama popularity is “the culmination of a very long process of domestic efforts in Korea to make their products sell well overseas.”
He added that platforms such as Netflix have helped to spread this success.
Kwon cited Korean media conglomerate CJ as an example, as they have been making efforts since the 1990s to target the global market and audience. CJ is the company behind “Parasite” and “Snowpiercer,” and is the Korean distributor for Paramount Pictures. Kwon emphasized that such Korean media companies look to cater to the masses, and that they are aware that it is crucial to be audience-focused and consumer-based in their delivery.
“The makers and producers of these shows really now understand what makes the global viewers and audience tick,” Kwon said.
The rise of Korean entertainment also partially has to do with economic growth in South Korea. In the 1950s, South Korea was largely an agricultural economy dependent on foreign aid. But through rapid industrialization and urbanization, South Korea’s per capita income has increased more than a hundredfold since. In the interim, the Ministry of Culture was formed to help boost Korean tourism and support domestic entertainment industries.
These efforts have only been furthered with the rise in streaming services. Since 2016, Netflix has added $4.7 billion into the South Korean economy, creating 16,000 jobs.
Kao spoke to how certain shows and movies, such as “Squid Game,” have been able to overcome a language barrier to gain popularity internationally.
“I think Squid Game appealed to a lot of people because of its simplicity,” Kao said. “Children’s games are universal, and the desperation of people in poverty is also felt by people all over the world … The pace is faster than most K-dramas, and it’s engaging so that you want to see the next episode.”
For Yi, one possible explanation for the popularity of “Squid Game” has to do with the evident themes of wealth and inequality. Yi said that there is a fairly drastic gap between the rich and the poor in South Korea, made evident by the small size of the country. There is a huge gap in the United States as well, Yi noted, but it is one “where the poor can’t really imagine how the rich live because they live in such different areas.” As the wealth gap in the United States increases, Americans relate more to Korean movies and shows about these issues, she said.
“Squid Game” is currently the most-watched show in Netflix’s history, with 2.1 billion hours watched around the world. Director Hwang Dong-hyuk has announced that a second season is in the works.
Correction, Nov. 30: This article has been updated to more accurately reflect Professor Kao’s statements to the News on BTS’ success.