The Korean Wave does not really exist

The Korean music scene has changed vastly in the past decade. What was once a playground for idol stars and ballad singers has now become a more unique and open playing field filled to the brim with complex artists taking on an array of genres and riding the so-called ‘Korean Wave’. But what is the Korean wave and does it really exist? The field of debate is wide open with this one.

Here’s me telling you there is no Korean Wave and it’s right here.

Some will exclaim that no in fact ‘There is no Korean Wave’, whilst others will go all out to protect it and the artists who are considered to be a huge part of what makes it so appealing to international fans. Admittedly I would put myself into the first group is people, there is no Korean wave. But my reason for stating this are entirely different from those stated in the article linked above and the writers’ follow-up to this discussion as featured his own blog. You see, there is no Korean wave but not for the reasons many have stated.

If you look at the way in which the term has been used, it could very easily be mistaken (and it has been countless times by international press) that many Korean stars have only become popular because of the apparent wave. This seems to insinuate that the careers of the idols, artists and actors that fans so closely follow could well come to an end as soon as the wave has passed (or the next big thing has come along). It is fairly shocking in a way as it completely disregards the careers they have built up in Korea as trivial and less important than one outside of their own country.

Culture and K-pop hand in hand. Certainly not a marketing ploy right?

But this is not the only issue that comes along with the constant use of the term Korean Wave. It becomes apparent, when reading many articles about K-pop, that some journalists feel that this wave entitles them to proclaim the artist’s careers as only worthwhile whilst they have a western fan base closely following their work. This demeans everything they work for and begs the question of whether the wider population feels that without international response to their careers they should be deemed worthless.

But I do not put the blame for this misunderstanding onto the fans. No, they have simply bought into what is being sold to them by the record companies of the very artists they have come to love and idolise. Companies have highlighted their groups, from the rookies to the older ones, as key elements of what makes this so-called wave so appealing to the fan population and this is where they make their money internationally.

The Korean wave is simply a marketing tool that ensures the government is able to pass a message internationally without doing a lot of work. After all, who could turn down a bunch of pretty girls and boys dancing about and singing fantastically catchy songs? They show the very best of what Korea has to offer… don’t they? Even I have found myself having a hard time differentiating between what is real and what is just nationalism that the government is attempting to sell to me. If we went by what we were being sold with this so-called wave we would think that each and every idol group to debut during the highest point of this influx of international acclaim are all examples of just what it is to be the perfect Korean. Meanwhile the government and record companies continue to sell this idea.


International face of the ‘wave’…whether he likes it or not (my guesses are he does)

However it’s all overhype. And this overhype could be the very thing that is holding K-pop back internationally. Take Psy, for example. It would be hard to deny the fact that Psy only became a hit because of the hilarity of his MVs and the catchiness of Gangnam Style (helped along by the fact that he portrays a stereotypical viewpoint of how the western world views 50% of Asian men). But if you were to ask many if they saw him as the face of this so-called wave they would deny it.

But why? He holds the very key to the international acclaim it seems many of these K-pop companies are striving for and yet at points they work as hard as possible to distance themselves from the very basis for western fame they continuously fight to break into (Yes…I’m looking at you JYP).

But regardless of everything, including my own opinion on whether the wave exists or not, the big question in all of this is why the discussion of its existence has started up to begin with. Could it have something to do with the fact that it is starting to look like the actual companies are shying away from their self-created wave and attempting to better distinguish between K-pop and Korean culture? Because whilst to most K-pop and Korean culture go hand in hand I do hope at some point that companies stop relying on it to sell their artists. It would appear that’s not bound to happen anytime soon but it feels like 2014 will be a year for big changes in the world of K-pop. Hopefully it will begin with them dropping the use of the term Korean Wave and allowing their artists to just be.

So what’s your view? Does the Korean Wave exist or not? Leave your comments below! (Please remember that the opinion shared is that of the writers and that it is just that, an opinion.)

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Co-founder and Editor at Beyond Hallyu
Lover of Korean hip-hop and indie music...and Unicorns.
  • Ethlenn

    This is actually a complex and twisted problem. 10 years ago no one heard of Hallyu or even term “K-pop”. We used “Korean music” same as “British music” or “American music”. “Hallyu” is a crafty, neat word that embodies everything that have to be promoted regardless of the genre. “Hallyu” implies fickle, momentarily passing flick of the light, and, as you pointed out, is somewhat derogatory term regarding artists who worked for years (I almost wrote “slaved” *ekhu, ekhu*) to be recognized.
    When I asked my students what is “Hallyu” for them, they said – “Korean culture” (I kid you not). This way, Goryeo celadon made its way to being Hallyu as well.
    Some predict Hallyu will end. Of course it will, as every craze does. Its purpose lies somewhere else – to awaken people that East Asia culture is not solely Japan and China. Who knows, maybe in next 10 years we will witness Taiwan Wave?
    Hallyu was a spark few years ago. Then it became a handy marketing tool. Now it turned into ouroboros having the face of PSY.

    And funny thing with the first small pic: having Hokusai woodprint (slightly changed) with huge Korean flag would cause some uproar in Japan rightists circles. And since it depicts tsunami, it implies that Hallyu leaves nothing but destruction when it hits.

    • sasha_BH

      Having been a long time listener of Korean music I know it’s been through the works when it comes to people attempting to establish the correct way to label it and majority of the time people are always left annoyed at how that is handled. But the use of Korean Wave and what has come along with that title doesn’t leave the best image possible. Maybe it’s the fact that a wave sweeps through and that is not what Korean music (and in turn drama and the arts) can do. Because even if they are not present internationally, they are still present within Korea.

      Then again perhaps it is a wave. It does keep coming and going every few years, picking up more ‘victims’ along its way. The craze will end, the victims will find their peace and some will remain, caught in the tide.

      Actually I noted that it was simply ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ print changed to highlight the Korean Wave, something which left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth but also left me asking myself a question “do some of the people who make these pictures actually note what they are using?”. I imagine they do not.

      Thank you for reading this and leaving your comment ^^

      • Ethlenn

        “… people attempting to establish the correct way to label it…” This is exactly the problem with Hallyu. It’s the labelling. people feel the need to put a name tag on everything, to classify, to insert into a basket with a specific genre/name. What is going on on main musical scene in Korea encompasses few genres, hence the handy “hallyu” term.
        And you are right, it leaves few people annoyed.

        • sasha_BH

          Very true. This constant need to label things is what causes so many issues in the first place.

      • Jin Lee

        I agree with that K-pop collects their lovers among their overseas influx. People know this nation through their shows and dramas. When the influx ends or other big waves appear, some lovers may change their mind, while the others may still caught in the tide. However, this does not mean Korean wave would vanish overseas.

        The ebb and flow is common as the same thing happens to Japanese wave in Taiwan. Japanese culture was once the mainstream of foreign culture. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that Korean culture is the mainstream at present in Taiwan, but fans of Japanese culture still exist. Beside, Japanese drama Hanzawa Naoki just cause a craze few months ago.

    • LoveTheLeast8

      Korean music’s popularity isn’t going away. American music has been popular for decades. No reason for Korean music to fade as it only gets better.

      Chinese music will never be big internationally. The language is not conducive to modern music styles. Same reason why we don’t see many Russian, German, Arabic, or Hebrew international hits. The Korean language is perfect for mainstream singing with its balance of hard and soft sounds and pacing flow.

      Seoul has become the Nashville of Asia and this will continue to grow as there is not good competitor in sight. Case and point is all the artists from southeast Asia that go to Korea to shoot their music videos.

      • Ethlenn

        I never said Korean music will fade, personally think it would be hardly possible. I said “Korean Wave”.

        Hmm, “all the artists from southeast Asia that go to Korea to shoot their music videos.” Really? Buddha Bless. ie. didn’t.

      • soratothamax

        According to the Global marketing industry, you’re wrong about who is at the top. America is first and Japan is second.

        Korea is rising though, but they can fall too if they don’t plan their steps right.

  • Chae

    Are you just referring to music within the Hallyu Wave? Or everything included in the Hallyu Wave (for example film). From what I remember at at seminar I attended the word Hallyu existed 10 years ago, it supposedly came about in the late 1990s. I thought it was the film Shiri and Korean dramas that became popular in China that kicked it all off. Your article reminds me of the late 90s journalists who also thought the Hallyu Wave didn’t exist.

    • sasha_BH

      I think you are misunderstanding the point I am attempting to make. What I am saying is there is no Korean Wave, but the music and movies and the artists who make them of course are all present. I simply hate the use of the term Korean Wave because of the way it is being used and misused by journalists.

      Many international journalists, whilst reporting the rise of interest in Korean culture and thus music, film and the arts, have claimed that this ‘wave’ means that it will sweep through, collecting people along the way but ultimately dying down, along with the careers and prospects of those involved. This is the reason I say there is no Korean Wave. International journalists have failed to understand that the artists present in hallyu have successful careers in Korea. Meaning it is not a sweeping success for them, as even if international interest dies, they still have interest within their own country. I simply wish the use of words when describing it was put across in a better way.

      Thank you for your comment ^^

      • yuki kokoro

        I think it depends of whom you would put in the “wave” and how you quantify a successful career in Korea. Depending on the person you ask, you could surely find at least one hallyu act that is not that successful in Korea.

        • sasha_BH

          Oh yes of course you are bound to find in any aspect of the industry people who will simply not make an ‘impact’ but to me that doesn’t mean their career was any less worthwhile. However many would have people believe that this is the case which is an awful thing.

      • soratothamax

        Their popularity won’t die down in their countries, but if they want to compete in a Global industry, then yes, it could affect their status GLOBALLY. The music industry isn’t just nationwide. It has global statuses too. The two leading industries are the USA and Japan. This is because not only do they buy into their own products but outside countries do too, giving them more money. This means they have the power to influence music in other countries too. This helps them spread their own “ideas”, often political and social. It also boosts their economies as nations. This giving them more power, even military power. Tourism will increase, also giving money to the land. You have to look at this from a broad business perspective.

        Korea wants to compete successfully in the global industry and rise themselves up as a modernized and progressive nation. They want to be in the lead in technology and entertainment. Their tactics have been successful based on stats. They were 28th (even 29th) on the world global stats. Now they are 8th!

        Korean Wave may not be likable, but it’s catchy and best describes the current situation.

        Just influencing music in one’s own country creates a weak industry in totality and gives the country no global “soft” power. Just look at Kpop. It is heavily influenced by American and Japanese styles. Most are inspired from artists in America. The songwriters and choreographers are often from America. This is because America sales its music to everyone around the world. This gives America “soft” power. It is the same with Japan.

        Korea is seeing itself rise in the global ranks as international attention is drawn to the music and films. This means more money for all idols involved. Sure, if international attention goes, they still will make money, but not what they could make with global attention, too.

        Careers like music and film are dependent on an audience. Everything is dependent on a consumer. It’s unrealistic to think that international interest have no influence on the success of an artist, no matter what nation.

  • Draven Chiam

    I think you are the one that does not understand what the term “wave” means.

    It does not take into account the artistes’ popularity in their own countries.
    It is all about how a certain country’s culture sweep across the continent

    Have you not heard of the J-Wave, which came before the K-Wave?

    that was back in the mid 90s when Japanese dramas and music swept across asia, it and now it is basically gone, replaced by Korean dramas and music

    the Japanese artistes like Amuro Namie are still enjoying success in Japan and still ahve fans outside of Japan but their influence and the number of people that actually gives a crap about Japanese Dramas and music have fallen drastically

    the K-Wave will eventually be replaced and the popularity of Korean dramas and music will fall.

    that is how the entertainment industry works, even prior to the J-Wave there was a HK-wave, where HK dramas and Canto-Pop was all the rage across Asia although that term was not used or invented back then but it too died down.

    • soratothamax

      Most of the earlier Kdramas were popular because they were adopted by Japanese mangas, like Boys over Flowers and To the Beautiful You. Winter Love was the break through.

      Much of Kpop was recognized because Korean labels began debuting their artists in Japan.

      Don’t be fooled. Look at who still have the largest music industries in the world: USA and Japan (Japan beat America in 2010). Neither have fallen from that place.

      South Korea has seen tremendous growth, coming from spot #28 to spot #8! But they still can’t beat Japan’s music industry and global influence because much of their popularity is owed to Japan. BoA’s success, one of SM’s first solo artists, came largely from Japan. That revenue helped spawn many big artists from the SM brand.

  • Taruni Tarun

    Yes Hallyu or the korean wave has definitely faded.They had tried to create a fanatasy image that south korea is perfect and the bubble had burst..
    Based on the google articles and some you tube videos/heir comments making fun of africans ..etc …South korea has come to be known as a racist country .which dislikes(do not wish to use the word *hate*) many other ethnic races..especially the ones where the peoples skin colour is black..
    …….Thus the good image that their asian counterparts had about south korea has clearly been burst…
    South koreans seem to prefer whites (westerners and Americans etc )and worst is they think of other people as inferior….They seem to be too proud of themselves

    ..I am not generalising all south koreans..There are broad minded and good natured people too!.. but wish to say that there are south korean people who are small minded and serious racists..

    Apart from this some other main reasons are lack of real creativity /lack of originality a copy cat culture imitating western and Americans just to name a few…

    Korean dramas which were highly successful once especially in Asian countries are not so popular now a days..because often the themes are unreal / situations are over the board and clearly not in line with todays world /reptitive scenes and so predictable story line not to forget that the men and women characters are most of the times similar..and clearly unrealistic ..and thus are not so much interesting..
    having said all this wish to say that everything is time bound and nothing can go on for ever that applies to hallyu or korean wave too.

    • Kim Juhyun

      I heard many japanese held hate speech against south korea in many times. Last year , it held over 300 times . If you want to know you can find it easily on the internet. They said” we have to rape all Korean women” ” Koreans are cockroach .All korean go out in Japan ” and “if Kimtaehee( she is the one of popular actress in korea) come out in Japanese TV, we are going to blow up the explosion” at least Korean don’t have such savage hate speech. How could you said to us we are racist? And I understood. You guys got angry. Japanese ignore korean so much but now K pop is getting popular than before even if it’s not that huge. Some japanese spread rumor about Korea , fake information like Korean insist Gongz is korean. That’s totally fake informaton. We learn he is chinese in school and try to play both sides against the middle korea and another country . don’t you think is it too sneaky? Actually usually korean don’t hate japanese . We usually think as a positive way like another country do. We Think saperately . Political thing and people. I don’t want want to argue but I can’t let them go. Even if there are some problem about politics . I wanna peace. Please stop it

  • mikedo2007

    I know this article is old, but a lot of thing has changed and now the Hallyu wave is more well-known outside of Asia. I mean watch this feature from Arirang TV just recently: