By Hwan Kang
“Hallyu (한류)” or The Korean Wave, found success in foreign markets, especially in the Asian region, because of its unique Korean characteristics. Viewers in China, Vietnam or Malaysia recognized and identified with some of the storylines that played out in Korean TV shows, and fell for k-pop heartthrobs. But while Hallyu may have worked smoothly in markets that are geographically near South Korea, including North Korea where its people risk their lives to get their hands on southern contents, for many years it had not received as much enthusiasm in the U.S. market.
However, Korean companies are now successfully penetrating the American market by taking a different approach. Instead of solely working within Korean boundaries or emphasizing the Korean culture upfront, they are taking a step back and trying to produce something that looks familiar to the western consumers based on originally Korean platforms or ideas. Such a strategy seems to be yielding good results in different parts of the entertainment industry, since Korean producers are quickly grabbing attention as rising competitors in the U.S. gaming, TV and comic markets.
One of the notable developments in this endeavor is Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, which is garnering massive popularity in online gaming market. At first glance, it is hard to figure out if the game has any affiliation with Korean companies. After all, its unique “battle royale” style gameplay was initially developed by someone who is not Korean, Brendan Greene (a.k.a. PLAYERUNKNOWN). Bluehole, a Korean game company which has experience in making high quality online multiplayer games, then teamed up with him to develop the idea into a proper online game. With the help of experienced Korean game producers and technology, Battlegrounds has successfully debuted as an early access product on Steam, a major gaming platform. The game has several impressive achievements, the most noteworthy being its record of over two million concurrent players, and setting the stage as a leader in what some people predict is a new genre of online multiplayer game. Moreover, the player base is mostly constituted of players from outside Korea (6.79 percent), with 11.50 percent of total players presuming to be from U.S., which has the 2nd most players after China.
Another example is the new TV show, “The Good Doctor.” The show was originally a Korean medical drama about a genius pediatric surgeon with autism that aired back in 2013. Actors Joo Won and Moon Chae-won played the leading roles, and the show received positive reviews domestically. It touched on the complicated matters of having a mentally disabled person as a co-worker and a doctor in Korea’s not so handicap-friendly work environment. David Shore, the creator of House M.D., picked up the idea and developed it as an episodic TV series. The premise remains pretty much the same, except for some minor tweaks to fit the show more naturally into the American context. The show is the biggest new show of the year with 18.2 million viewers for a recent episode in an era when many shows have less than 10 million viewers. That is more than the popular sitcom “Big Bang Theory,” which had just 17.9 million viewers the same evening. The writer of the original show, Park Jae-bom, commented that the important part of his show is how it tells a story that is relatable to general people rather than trying to focus on Korean aspects. This comment underscores how Koreans sometimes became too obsessed with Korean culture when it came to exporting Hallyu.
Hallyu is also attempting to disrupt the U.S. comic industry with the “Webtoon” platform led by LINE. Koreans have long stopped reading comics through books as the industry has successfully transitioned into the digital medium, or what Koreans call Webtoon. LINE Webtoon decided to get into the U.S. comic market with the know-how they compiled back in Korea. It seems to be settling into the market quite successfully, with 10 million daily readers and 35 million monthly readers in North America. The key to such growth seems to be not only the high-quality Korean comics, but wide accessibility for both creators and readers in the United States. The system works the same as Korea, providing free daily comics for the consumers and holding contests for amateur cartoonists to show off their work. Instead of putting a wedge between the U.S. consumers and cartoonists by forcing them to read Korean comics in the process, LINE made sure that these two meet each other easily. It is evident that this was the driving force for the company, in that the bestseller list in the U.S. market is mostly dominated by comics that are created domestically which appeal more to U.S. readers. Conventional cartoonists in the U.S. are trying to secure a spot on the digital platform as well, the most notable case being LINE’s collaboration with Legendary Comics.
What these three examples have in common is that they showed how “Hallyu” may no longer be the sole domain of South Koreans anymore. To constantly expand abroad, Hallyu needs to transcend geographic boundaries and collaborate with people who can develop “Hallyu” ideas or platforms innovatively. The end result may be totally alien to Koreans themselves, but it will still retain parts of Korean DNA that will provide an enjoyable experience to foreign consumers
These examples also signal that Koreans are securing a reputation as major developers in the global entertainment market, as opposed to being passive consumers of Western content as in the past. This shows that there is a possibility for South Korea to formidably compete in intangible areas aside from traditional heavy industries such as automotive or electronics, which may face difficulty in the near future if the ongoing KORUS FTA renegotiation results in more barriers for those products. In short, there is still hope for South Korea to diversify its exports with the United States.
There is still long way to go, as this new wave of content is still in development and the companies are suffering roadblocks while penetrating the Western market. However, it will still be interesting to keep track of where these endeavors might spin off in the future, and whether they will become a new form of Hallyu.
Hwan Kang is currently an Intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America as part of the Asan Academy Fellowship Program. He is also a student of Seoul National University in South Korea. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Disney | ABC Television Group’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.