- Korean culture and the “sunshine policy”
- Hallyu – the Korean Wave in the UK
- 3 important Korean concepts
- Squid Game – Korean media mania
From K-pop to mukbang, Korean culture has been the southern peninsular’s most successful export for the last few decades. How and when did the Korean Wave start and what impact is it having on the UK cultural scene? Let’s take a look at how the legacy of South Korea’s “sunshine policy” has done more than just introduce kimchi to our diets and Squid Game to our screens.
Korean culture and the “sunshine policy”
With a vast history spanning ages, eras, dynasties and kingdoms since Neolithic times, Korea has a long association with making valued contributions to world culture including celadon ceramics, hanji (the most prized paper in the world) and the oldest astronomical observatory in Asia to name a few. 💫
South Korea as we know it today came into existence in 1945, at the end of World War II. The unconditional surrender of Japan led to the division of Korea into two occupation zones, with the United States administering the southern half of the peninsula and the Soviet Union administering the north – what was intended as a temporary partition still holds strong today.
South Korea's subsequent history is marked by alternating periods of democratic and autocratic rule. Most notably in recent history was that of president Kim Dae-jung, a pro-democracy activist, Nobel laureate and architect of the “sunshine policy” – implemented in the early noughties with the aim of softening North Korea's attitude towards South Korea.
With this thawing of relations came an economic upturn for the southern country making room for the creation of some extraordinary cultural collateral. ☀️
Kim Dae-jung deliberately exported his country’s cultural wares to the world stage in a bid to outrun its perceived inferiority when compared to neighbours China and Japan – no longer “a shrimp between whales” – Korean culture is being consumed by millions across the globe with Netflix’s Squid Game standing in line as the latest catch. 🐋 🦐🐋
Hallyu – the Korean Wave in the UK
Hallyu is the Korean word for the Korean Wave phenomenon – that is, the growing popularity of all things Korean among the global consumer community, from football and film to music, cuisine and of course, Squid Game.
First driven by the spread of K-dramas and K-pop among Korea’s geographic neighbours in Asia, thanks to Korea’s willing acceptance of westernised platforms including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, the Korean Wave evolved into a global phenomenon carried by the Internet and social media. 🌊
With an estimated 40,770 Koreans living in the UK, we have the largest community of Koreans in Europe, of whom almost half are international students. New Malden in Surrey has earned itself the nickname “Korea Town” due to its 20,000 strong community and the Oxford English Dictionary has added more than 20 new words of Korean origin to its latest edition.
The UK’s wholehearted embrace of South Korean culture can be seen and enjoyed right across the board. Korean cuisine was the first to make an impact with celebrity chefs such as Judy Joo leading the charge, Korean restaurants cropping up in all major cities and almost all supermarkets stocking Korean ingredients or foods. 🥟🥢
Perhaps the most prolific consumption of K-culture comes via music and media. Who can forget the major 2012 hit, Gangnam Style, by Korean rapper Psy – now boasting over 4 billion views on YouTube. K-pop sensation BTS and their female counterparts, Blackpink followed up topping the national charts and selling out Wembley stadium shows within minutes. 🎤
No sector left behind, Premier League football welcomed Son Heung-min – widely regarded as one of the best wingers in the world and also one of the best three Asian players in European football history – to Tottenham Hotspur in 2015. ⚽
3 important Korean concepts
Anyone who’s spent time learning another language will know that sometimes, the most exciting words are the ones that can’t be directly translated – a lacuna, or lexical gap – instead, these words speak of something intangible, unfamiliar, new and wonderfully foreign. The Korean language is no different, in fact, here are 3 important Korean concepts central to their cultural identity.
Kibun is an important concept that affects every facet of Korean life and can be described in terms of pride, face, mood, feelings or state of mind. It is important to know how to judge the state of someone else's kibun, how to avoid damaging it and how to keep your own kibun through respectful communication at all times.
Nunchi, literally translated as "eye-measure" is a concept signifying the high social sensitivity and ability of Koreans to listen and gauge others' moods or kibun. Nunchi could be compared to the westernised concept of emotional intelligence.
Inhwa signifies the Korean approach to harmony – a central pillar of Korean society. To avoid disturbing inhwa, Koreans are often reluctant to say no or directly refuse a request, preferring to reply with a positive answer instead if possible.
Squid Game – Korean media mania 🦑
Korean film and TV has enjoyed a cult following since the turn of the century. Highlights include Oldboy, featuring the consumption of live octopus and a brutal single-take fight-scene in 2003, Okja, the story of a Korean girl protecting her gentle giant friend which enjoyed landmark success in 2017, and Parasite, a darkly comedic thriller which was the first non-English language film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2019. 🏆
We have come to expect a certain matter-of-fact approach to violence, a dollop of sinister humour and a highly stylized aesthetic when it comes to South Korean cinema – so, does the latest highly-dystopian, Korean Netflix offering, Squid Game, deliver on all things weird, wonderful, intense and bizarre? Given that it has taken the number one spot in 90 countries within 10 days of its release, we’d say that is a resounding yes. 🙌