Korea discovers global reach of culture

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Korea discovers global reach of culture


Forty-three Korean singers represented by SM Entertainment, a major Korean entertainment company, sing together during the finale of their concert at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Sept. 4. Provided by SM Entertainment

Spaghetti, pizza and gelato are instantly identifiable as Italian. Swatch and Swiss Army knives often represent Switzerland as much as its reputation for neutrality.


But when it comes to Korea, cultural exports are the trailblazers.

Although the country has become famous for its speedy rise up the economic ladder, it is the country’s growing influence in industries from movies and music to food and gaming that are capturing the world’s attention.


Revenge films by Korean filmmakers, including “Bedeviled,” above, by Jang Cheol-soo, are sparking renewed interest in the Korean film industry. Provided by Sponge Entertainment

Korea has long been described as one of the most wired countries in the world, with a strong foothold in information technology. The country is the No. 1 semiconductor maker in the world, the top maker of cell phones and is hot on the track of Japan when it comes to cameras.


Taeyang became the first Korean singer to top the charts in North America when his album hit No. 1 on the iTunes’ R&B sales chart in Canada and No. 2 in the U.S. in July. Provided by YG Entertainment

But it was the hallyu, or the Korean wave, that sparked interest in the country, and it will likely keep Korea in the spotlight for years to come.

Hard-core revenge flicks

Cinema is one area in which Korea has received considerable props.

Rejected by the state-run rating board at home, hard-core revenge movies such as “I Saw the Devil” (2010) and “Bedeviled” (2010) have appealed to moviegoers overseas.

Most recently, Bedeviled, directed by novice filmmaker Jang Cheol-soo with budget of 700 million won ($636,363), earned the Audience Award and Best Actress Award from U.S.-based genre film festival Fantastic Fest on Sept. 29. The movie was invited by the Cannes Film Festival in May and sold out all four of its screenings.

I Saw the Devil, directed by Kim Jee-woon, was sold to five distribution companies in Turkey, Taiwan, France, Britain and the United States.

For Jang, violence in recent films is a natural expression of the country’s history of invasion and conflict.

“This nation has been exposed to a variety of violent situations,” Jang said, citing Japan’s annexation of Korea, the Korean War and the military regimes of the 1970s and 1980s.

“These violent situations have caused people to hold their feelings in, which has created a feeling of han. Many people say han is a common Korean sentiment.”

Han is roughly interpreted as a feeling of resentment and lament.

Korean revenge films started stealing the spotlight overseas when Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy” (2003), the second film in the director’s revenge trilogy, received a string of awards including the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004.

Last month, the director’s revenge trilogy, which also includes “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” (2002) and “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” (2005), was listed at No. 18 in U.K.-based movie magazine Empire’s list of best film trilogies.

Chicken wave

For many people around the world, a bucket of fried chicken conjures images of a bearded grandpa with horn-rimmed glasses and an apron. But Korean chicken makers are challenging that idea with their own products.

Genesis BBQ, a local fried-chicken franchise, opened its first overseas branch in Shanghai in 2003. It now has 354 chicken restaurants in 56 countries including Mongolia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Spain, Ecuador and Saudi Arabia. The firm is also planning to open restaurants in Norway, Switzerland, Bulgaria and Poland.

The secret to its success is the batter, said Park Yeol-ha, executive director of Genesis BBQ’s public relations team. But the company also had a winning strategy.

“We see fried chicken as a snack, but people in Southeast Asian countries eat it as a meal. After realizing that, we put rice on the menu,” Park said.

Another fried-chicken success story is Kyochon Chicken. The chain’s expansion into the North American and Chinese markets has not only raised its profit margin, but has also helped Asian flavors gain a foothold among foreigners unaccustomed to the strong taste of garlic and soy sauce.

Unlike fried chicken from Genesis BBQ, which is similar to Kentucky Fried Chicken in the way it is battered and fried, Kyochon uses a large amount of crunchy garlic and soy sauce in its seasoning. That original recipe is used in Kyochon’s seven restaurants in the United States including one in Manhattan.

“We don’t lower the amount of garlic and soy sauce in those restaurants. People love our chicken as it is,” said Lee Hee-jeong, an official at Kyochon.

K-pop shines

After K-pop singer Taeyang, a member of the boy band Big Bang, released his solo album “Solar” on July 1, the record instantly hit No. 1 on iTunes’ R&B sales chart in Canada and was No. 2 in the U.S. without any promotion outside Korea.

It was the first time in the 40-year history of K-pop that a Korean singer made it to the top of North American charts.

Taeyang’s success was a surprise given that other famous Korean singers have failed in the North American market. BoA and Se7en even hired top producers and choreographers prior to making their debut in North America, though their ambitious plans ultimately fell short.

“It was just unbelievable that so many people around the world would buy my albums,” the 22-year-old singer, whose stage name means “sun” in Korean, told the Korea JoongAng Daily via e-mail.

“I hope I can meet more people around the world with my music,” Taeyang added.

YG Entertainment, one of Korea’s major entertainment companies, was also stunned by the figures from iTunes’ music sales charts.

“I think YouTube and other video-sharing Web sites helped Taeyang gain fame in the North American market without a marketing campaign,” said Hwang Min-hee, head of the public relations team at YG Entertainment.

After seeing his potential, YG Entertainment released a new Taeyang album in August with a couple of English tracks.

Following its release on Aug. 25, one of the music videos from the album was an instant hit in Korea on YouTube, earning the highest ratings on the Korean edition of the video-sharing site from Aug. 18-25. But the video received the next highest ratings in the United States, where it earned 78.5 points; in Canada, earning 72.8 points; and Australia, where it received 70 points. The closer the figure is to 100, the more popular the video is, according to YouTube.

Similarly, Korean girl group Wonder Girls first gained fame overseas with the aid of YouTube and started becoming popular in North America last year.

With more K-pop musicians gaining worldwide recognition through YouTube before going on to broader commercial success, other entertainment companies are becoming more aggressive about promoting their acts overseas.

SM Entertainment, another major entertainment company, went to the United States last month to promote its idol groups, including Super Junior and Girls’ Generation.

Netting a winner

Russian fishermen net more than just seafood on their trips to Korea.

Thanks to their excursions, Kotgerang, a crab-flavored snack shaped like the crustacean from which it gets its name, can now be found in major cities along the Trans-Siberian Railway from Vladivostok to Yekaterinburg.

In Russia, many snacks are made from potatoes, which are abundant there, and seafood is expensive and hard to come by. That made Kotgerang all the more popular in the largely landlocked country.

Binggrae, the major Korean food company that produces Kotgerang, recently reported that sales of the snack rose to 20 billion won last year.

“It is now a must-have snack with beer for young people in Russia,” said Jo Young-kug, Binggrae public-relations team manager.

Another Binggrae snack has also had success overseas. According to the company, sales of its ice pop Melona have risen about 40 percent each year since 2008. It had 3.5 billion won in sales in 2008 and 5 billion won in 2009, and it is expected to see 10 billion won in sales this year.

According to Jo, Melona made waves in Brazil and Hawaii, and has now become popular in Asian countries including Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Games score big

Before the release of a game called Lineage, Korea was on the second tier of the global gaming industry. But a year after the game was released, Lineage’s ability to build a gaming community gave Korea a reputation as a major player in the global gaming market.

Since the game’s release in 1998, its producer NCSoft has seen the game’s sales soar from 200 million won in 1998 to just less than 150 billion won in 2009, according to Kyung Kwang-ho, NCSoft’s public relations director.

The company also set up its first overseas branch in Taiwan in 2000.

“Taiwan’s network was even frozen for a while because of the flood of people trying to play Lineage,” Kyung said.

And it’s not just NCSoft getting all the love.

In 1999, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism created the Gaming Support Center, now part of the Korea Creative Content Agency, to help companies export cultural products abroad.

NCSoft scored again when it released Guild Wars in 2005. Since then, the game has sold 6.5 million copies in the United States and Europe.

“The company’s mission is to keep people everywhere entertained,” said Kyung.

Birthplace of the MP3

Once upon a time, people had to carry Walkmans or CD players to listen to music when they were out and about. But music lovers everywhere were liberated from bulky bags littered with tapes and CDs when the MP3 player made its debut in 1997.

Most people will remember the freedom of owning their first MP3 player, but not as many will know that the company that developed the now ubiquitous device was Korean.

Saehan Information Systems changed the music industry when it produced its MPMan, a 32-megabyte device that was the world’s first MP3 player.

The small enterprise grabbed the attention of the music and technology industries, prompting companies to devise music players of their own.

Although the company created a place for itself in history as the creator of the first MP3 player, its path has changed drastically since then.

The company did not have enough funds to keep the business going. On top of that, Saehan did not secure enough patents for its new invention, which later sparked a patent war among other companies in the industry.

Saehan ultimately sold its MP3 player division to the Korean company iriver in 2003. Today the company keeps a low profile creating software and applications for Web design.

Even though the company is no longer in the MP3 market, it led other MP3-player manufacturers by expanding memory size and diversifying the size and design of the players before bowing out altogether.

By Sung So-young, Lee Sun-min [estyle@joongang.co.kr]
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