In October 2019, the South Korean boy band “BTS” performed a solo concert in Saudi Arabia, a very conservative Muslim country and they did that in front of a crowd of 30,000 roaring female fans. Even a year prior to that nobody thought something like that would be possible. Yet, somehow BTS became the first solo artist to successfully hold a concert in that country. They were invited by the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman because of their growing popularity around the world and even in a conservative country like Saudi Arabia. This indicates the power that South Korean culture holds today and it can be best describes as “Soft Power”.
South Korea is one of the few countries, if not the only one who wishes to become a lead exporter of popular cultural programs. This initiative is what drives South Korea’s growth of “Soft Power” over the world. Soft power is a popular term coined in 1990 by Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye. Its defining feature is that it is non-coercive; its power is based on culture, political values, and foreign policies. Through soft power, a country or culture can have a certain amount of respect and influence around the world. Bands like BTS and Oscar-winning movies like “Parasite” are allowing South Korea to have that power over other countries.
Because of the recent explosion of various K-pop band’s popularity and Kdrama fandoms, modern Korean culture is known throughout the world. This Korean cultural wave is not only representing South Korea but also the greater East Asian culture. Various artists from China and Japan are working with Korean artists and in Korean industries. Another very popular K-pop band called Exo had four Chinese members in it; all of who are hugely popular in their native country and beyond because of K-pop.
Now, K-pop isn’t just a Korean only thing anymore, it has become “a thing” for all. There are also newer K-pop bands that are including members from other south-east Asian countries. Other ethnicities like White, black, Indians are included in K-pop bands, there are more than enough willing participants going for it. Fans of K-pop and Kdramas are so loyal that they work on their own to promote their favorite bands and shows in their communities. Now, we can find various K-pop and Kdrama communities in nearly every country.
This cultural wave has made South Korea a tourist destination. In 2019, Korea earned USD 21.5 billion by attracting a total of 17.5 million tourists. South Korea’s international tourist growth is predicted to get an annualized rate of 3.3% to hit around 1.8 billion by 2030. Not only that, Korean cosmetics are now most sought after and Korean gift shops are present in nearly every country. Various Korean branded items are gaining a massive foothold in the international market. And, it has been possible because of K-pop idols and Kdrama show’s growing popularity.
South Korean government is aware of this power and they are willing to show it even on the international stage. In 2019, when US President Donald Trump visited South Korea for the G20 summit, he was greeted by members of the K-pop band Exo. Trump’s family was also gifted copies of Exo’s latest album Love Shot. In 2017, another K-pop band called BTS joined with the Korean Committee for UNICEF to help them with the #ENDviolence campaign targeted against youth violence. In 2018, they even delivered a speech in the UN in front of international leaders. This proves the amount of trust the South Korean government has on its superstars. Even at the highest level, South Korea will promote its culture in front of the whole world. By doing this, they can not only benefit from the already growing popularity of Korean culture but also increase that popularity ever so much.
In near future, Parasite may not be the only Oscar-winning Korean movie and BTS may not be the only K-pop band at top of the billboard list. South Korean industries are working tirelessly to create more innovative and captivating shows, movies, and music. How far the Korean cultural wave will go remains to be seen. One thing is for sure, K-pop and Kdramas are not just a Korean thing anymore; they are now part of an international phenomenon that can attract people from varied races, gender, religion, and nations. This is a true example of what “Soft Power” can truly be.