History & Mythology

From K-Pop to Squid Games 🦑 How Korean Culture Conquered the World 🇰🇷

Even if you are not a fan of Junkook, kimchi, Hanbok, or a 10-step skincare routine, we bet there is someone around you who is. This is not an accident: Hallyu, also known as the Korean Wave, is the spread of South Korean culture all across the world. It all started with little steps in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But with the internet, social media, and streaming services, it became a global phenomenon that is still thriving to this day. Buckle and get ready to dive into the Korean Wave that has reached every single corner of the world!

🎵 Music

Korean pop music, commonly known as K-pop, has been spreading like wildfire in recent years. The growing popularity stems from the combination of several key elements, including addictive tunes, synched choreography, catchy lyrics, and highly-produced music videos. One such example of that is Gangnam Style by Psy, which is still one of the most-watched YouTube videos in history.

Many K-pop bands like BTS and BLACKPINK have attained worldwide fame and have legions of fans in nearly every country on Earth. This wouldn’t be possible without strategic planning from certain entertainment companies, such as SM, YG, and JYP. These mammoths of the industry have developed the music and image of K-pop in a way that would appeal to international audiences while still promoting Korean culture.

For example, the lyrics of K-pop songs are written by a large group of local and international songwriters. At times, they mix multiple languages to appeal to the widest audience possible. The themes in these songs range from upbeat and playful to more serious and emotional, often addressing socio-political or environmental issues like consumerism, mental health, bullying, and violence.

These songs are performed by highly accomplished artists who go through a strict training system for years before debuting. And their reach goes beyond just entertainment. They often use their influence to promote positive global change and take on cultural or ambassadorial roles. However, being a K-pop idol comes with a cost. Because of rigorous work demands and control of their public image and behavior, stars sometimes face physical and mental exhaustion. Sadly, suicides are common in this industry due to intense stress and pressure the young icons face.

But with the immense hardships also come life-changing positives. For example, each K-pop artist has a dedicated and loyal fanbase, many of which have become significant cultural phenomenons in their own right. These fandoms play a vital role in promoting K-pop music across the world. And this process strengthens Korea’s soft power because K-pop is not just music but a cultural phenomenon that extends to fashion, beauty, and lifestyle elements. Speaking of which, it’s time we touch upon one of the biggest aspects of K-pop: the fashion!

👒 Fashion

Seoul has long been one of the world's most influential fashion capitals. Because of it, Korean fashion has become a global trendsetter in the clothing and beauty industries.

K-fashion is characterized by its diverse and dynamic appeal. For example, the Korean street style is centered on youth culture and urban fashion with comfortable, oversized, and casual clothes. Meanwhile, Idol Fashion is heavily influenced by K-pop idols and K-drama actors and is known for its bright colors, bold patterns, and mismatched clothing items.

K-fashion’s reach goes far beyond Korea’s borders. So, how did South Korea achieve unprecedented influence on the fashion world?

To build its national brand image, Korea has invested heavily in fashion. The South Korean government actually provides financial support for major fashion events.

On top of that, these fashion events typically feature K-pop singers and K-Drama actors who perform or walk the runways. Also, the increasing popularity of Korean dramas allows local brands to reach millions of screens in every corner of the globe.

If you want to fully understand the Korean Wave, you need to learn a thing or two about K-Cinema

🎥 K-Cinema & K-dramas

The South Korean film industry gained unprecedented international attention in 2019 with the success of Boon Joon-ho's drama Parasite. Hugely successful all over the world, the film served as a gateway to discovering more South Korean cinema. The movie addressed socio-political issues such as poverty, wealth inequality, and class struggle, and was met with critical acclaimed. In fact, Parasite earned various accolades, including the Academy Award for Best Picture, a first for a foreign film.

Parasite’s stark contrast between rich and poor inspired many poster designs, including "Upstairs and Downstairs: Parasite" by Andrew Bannister. We can see that the reversed staircase highlights economic inequalities between the impoverished Kim family and the privileged Park household.

Did you know that Parasite predicted reality in a sense? If you remember, the Kim family lives in Banjiha, a semi-underground building that gets flooded after heavy rainfall. Unfortunately, in August 2022, large-scale floods hit Seoul, and as a result, 2,800 buildings were damaged and dozens of people died or were made homeless. After the tragedy, Banjiha was banned as a living space.

K-Cinema has seen an explosion in popularity during the last couple of decades. Fi rectors like Bong Joon-Ho, Hong Sang-soo (Hotel by the River), and Park Chan-wook, (Oldboy) and others have played a significant role in revitalizing South Korea's cinema. Through their skills and unique worldview they have introduced a distinctive mixture of genres which has gradually gained recognition in the Western world.

Beyond that, K-dramas play a crucial role in Hallyu. They have a huge influence on consumer purchasing decisions in fashion, beauty, electronics, and food. As a result, the featured items instantly become top sellers. For example, The Yves Saint Laurent lipstick used by the main actress in K-drama You Who Came From The Stars was soon sold out in South Korea, China, Singapore, and other countries. Meanwhile, many online retailers use the names of popular dramas as the title of their products to boost sales.

💆🏻‍♀️ Beauty

Did you know that the majority of Koreans do not follow the 10-step skincare routine? This is just a myth popularized by American beauty magazines.

Yet, beauty standards are in fact an integral part of Korean culture. The practice of using cosmetics dates back centuries when specific beauty ideals were established, with an emphasis on attaining flawless skin. Nowadays, K-beauty combines ancient formulas with cutting-edge technology to create innovative products that help people achieve the famous “glass skin” look.

The impact of K-beauty on society is immense. There even exists K-beauty fashion! Inspired by Korean skincare and makeup trends, it includes pastel colors, minimalistic cuts, and light fabrics.

We should also mention Korean cosmetic surgeons who have gained a reputation for their expertise. As a result, medical tourism has flourished in Korea, with many people traveling there to undergo surgical cosmetic procedures from the most skilled surgeons in the field.

However, a backlash to all of this has recently occurred. Since 2018, some activists have rejected these strict Korean beauty standards on social media. Using the hashtag #EscapetheCorset, they uploaded videos and photos where they destroy cosmetic products or cut their hair short. Will this movement grow? Or maybe it is impossible to redefine current attitudes towards beauty? Only time will tell!

Moving on from K-beauty and some of the controversies it brings, let’s dig into something that everyone can agree on: food!

🥗 Food

K-food has become increasingly popular all over the world in recent years, largely due to the growth of K-media. But what are its essential elements?

Let's start with side dishes, also known as banchan - the heart of Korean cuisine. Since food sharing is an crucial and unique part of Korean culture, you will find lots of little side dishes spread across the table. The most popular banchan is, of course, kimchi. Made of cabbage, radish, or cucumber, kimchi is served with almost every meal.

Another staple food is rice. It provides a basis for a wide variety of dishes, including bibimbap, which is one of the most revered dishes around the world. Bibimbap is a rice bowl that comes loaded with delicious marinated meat, sautéed vegetables, fried eggs, and a one-of-a-kind sweet-spicy sauce.

We should also mention that soup is an important element of a Korean meal and is often served as a companion to the rice. Last but not least is Gochujang, a specially made fermented chili pepper paste that will leave you obsessed with its indescribable umami taste.

Although Korean cuisine kept its authenticity in the west for a long time, it still could not escape westernization. Korean Barbecue, Kimchi Tacos, bulgogi burgers, or Korean pizza are popular fusion food examples, which are not only popular in the western world but now all across the globe.


So, what’s next? Will K-food become completely assimilated with its new environments? No one really knows for sure. The same is true for K-pop, K-fashion, and K-dramas. However, even with the uncertainty of the future, one thing is clear: with its ever-evolving and experimenting nature, Korean Wave will not cease to surprise and entertain and impact us all for a long time to come.

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