Twenty-six new words of Korean origin have been added this month to that venerable institution, the Oxford English Dictionary, along with revisions to 11 existing entries, and there’s simply no denying it now: The whole world has been swept by Hallyu (the Korean wave). K-pop sensations BTS and Blackpink are on every playlist from Seoul to Santiago, while the Korean thriller Squid Game, released only two weeks ago, is about to become Netflix’s most watched show ever.
Since 1987, when it took a democratic turn after decades of authoritarianism, South Korea has made culture one of its two claims to international recognition (technology is the other). For a tiny nation, scarred by war and invasions, and sandwiched between more geopolitically powerful states such as China, Russia and Japan, perhaps there was no other way. Whatever the reason, South Korea now packs a soft power punch that has few parallels, especially for a non-Western nation. Consider how efficiently the global K-pop fandom has leveraged social media for political ends, including drumming up support for the Black Lives Matter movement and disrupting a Donald Trump rally last year. South Korea’s pop cultural influence has allegedly even led to official condemnation of “sissy men” (a reference to many male K-pop artists’ use of makeup and jewellery) in China.
While it’s been over a decade since South Korea’s Asian neighbours (including parts of India) succumbed to the breezy charms of K-dramas, the hip hop-influenced energy of K-pop and the promises held out by the wildly successful K-beauty industry, the rest of the world took some time to catch on. With Parasite sweeping the Oscars last year, the Korean cultural invasion officially entered its global phase and it was only a matter of time before the OED bowed before the juggernaut. As K-everything fans around the world would exclaim, daebak (fantastic)!
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on October 8, 2021 under the title ‘Hello, Hallyu’.