For one high-ranking Communist Party official in remote Shangri-La in China's Yunnan Province, Korean women are the object of envy. When asked why, she replied, "They have fine skin".
The people of Shangri-La, in the Tibetan highlands, are exposed to the bright sun and harsh winds which dry out their skin. The party official, who in her 40s, is an avid fan of Korean TV dramas. She is particularly fond of the 2003 hit TV drama "Dae Jang Geum". She still talks about the expensive Korean cosmetics she bought during her trip to Seoul.
In China, Korean Wave or "Hallyu" rapidly spread as soon as Korean TV soaps began airing in the late 1990s. But pop cultures of other Asian nations also gained popularity, being referred as "Honglyu" for Hong Kong, "Tailyu" for Taiwan and "Hwalyu" for China. Korean pop culture has competed fiercely with these to sweep across Asia.
In 1962, Korea's per-capita gross national income was only US$87, and its exports amounted to only $54.81 million. That year, a 17-year-old female singer named Yun Bok-hee formed a girl group called Korean Kittens and went on a Southeast Asian tour. That is probably the first instance of Korean pop culture exports.
Last year, exports of Korean movies, TV soaps and music albums reached a record $794 million. Contents and products related to Korean pop culture generated a mere $5 million from exports in 1997, and before that nothing at all. That means cultural exports have grown 160 times over the last 14 years.
As the Korean Wave spread, the number of tourists visiting Korea surged, eventually benefiting the country's fashion and beauty industries and demonstrating that the effects are far greater than the financial figures.
At one time, Koreans used to say that the reason Korea was able to become the world's No. 1 in semiconductor production, female pro golfers and the board game baduk or "go" was because they were not managed by the government. In other words, government support leads to excessive meddling, and it is better to let different industries become more competitive by developing on their own. The same principle probably applies to pop culture.
By Chosun Ilbo columnist Kim Tae-ick
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