The Relentless & Powerful South Korean Hallyu

On the fateful day of 2nd September 1945, the mighty Korean Peninsula bifurcated along the 38th parallel line. The north was under Soviet occupation, and the south was under US occupation supported by other allied states. Consequently, North Korea, a Soviet-style socialist republic in the north, and South Korea, a Western-style regime in the south, were established. 

South Korea chose education of the masses and human resource development as the way forward. North Korea chose cult leader worship and ideological indoctrination as the way forward. Consequently, today South Korea is renowned as the authority on soft power in the world and a champion of liberal democracy. On the contrary, North Korea is known for gut-wrenching poverty and gross violation of human rights.

 South Korean Hallyu
 Korean leaders Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-In shakes each other’s hands during the 2018 inter-Korean summit

Here is a case study on what South Korea did right to become the Global Leader in Soft Power.

Hallyu means “Korean Wave”. It is a collective term used to refer to the unprecedented expansion of Korean culture and popular culture encompassing everything from music, movies, dramas, online games, and Korean cuisines and cookery.

Following are the major pillars of the Soft power diplomacy of South Korea:

Korean Music or the K-pop

PSY. “Gangnam Style” hit the 1 billion views milestone in December 2012, 159 days after the video premiered on the platform. Gangnam Style was Hallyu in Korean Music that is still fresh in the memories of the people. From the global rage of PSY “Gangnam Style” to the global icons of BTS and Blackpink, Korean Music and K-pop have come a long way.

The BTS

The BTS Hallyu

The BTS, or the Bangtan Boys, is a South Korean band formed in 2010. It has taken the world by storm. Be it the West, the Middle East, the far North, Asia, or Oceania, BTS is sought after, admired, and celebrated everywhere. The band members of BTS are Jin, Suga, J-Hope, RM, Jimin, V, and Jungkook. They co-write and co-produce much of their material.

Their presence in the soft power push of South Korea is consequential. Following are some of their momentous accomplishments.

BTS Address the United Nations
  • The BTS members were invited to address the United Nations General Assembly in September 2018. They delivered a speech about their “Love Myself” campaign, in partnership with UNICEF, aimed at ending violence against children and teenagers.
  • They performed at the 2018 Korea-France Friendship Concert in Paris, a summit celebrating the friendly relations between France and South Korea.
  • In 2018, BTS became the youngest recipients of the Order of Cultural Merit. Moon Jae-in the 12th president of South Korea (2017 -2022) recognized the group, five years into their career, for their contributions in spreading Korean culture and language worldwide.
  • In 2020, BTS members were given the James A. Van Fleet Award in recognition to their outstanding contributions to the promotion of US-Korea relations.
  • In July 2021, the BTS members were appointed Special Presidential Envoy for Future Generations and Culture by President Moon. In their role as envoys, they help to “raise awareness on global agendas, such as sustainable development, to our future generations and to strengthen the nation’s diplomatic power across the world”.
  • In 2021, the BTS  members attended the 76th United Nations General Assembly and performed their latest hit, “Permission to Dance,”.
US President Joe Biden at the White House 
  • On May 31, 2022, BTS members visited US President Joe Biden at the White House to discuss the recent rise in anti-Asian hate crimes and discrimination.

“BTS- Diplomacy was much more effective than the UN Secretary General or myself delivering hundreds of speeches.”

Ex. President Moon

The Blackpink 

Blackpink  Hallyu

Blackpink  is a South Korean group formed by YG Entertainment. The members of Blackpink are Jisoo, Jennie, Rosé, and Lisa. 

Blackpink was appointed in 2021 as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Advocates. In the same year, they were also appointed as advocates for the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), promoting the importance of climate action to global youth.

Korean Movies and Dramas

On February 10, 2020, Parasite (2019) from South Korea became the first non-English language movie to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards (Oscars), marking a significant cultural industry breakthrough for South Korea. The film’s sensational victory reflects a substantial transnational expansion of the country’s budding cultural industries. 

Parasite Hallyu

Not only movies but South Korean Drama and Movies have also boosted its soft power credentials. They have been loved by people of all ages, around the globe. Some of the prominent ones are:

K-drama South Korean Hallyu
The Korean Dramas Hallyu

Korean Cuisines

South Korea exported the highest amount of packaged food since 1948 in 2020. Excluding livestock and marine products, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, South Korea in the year 2020 exported roughly $4.3 billion worth of food to the globe. Despite the global pandemic, the 2020 export figure increased by 14.7% from about $3.7 billion in 2019.

Due to Korean Hallyu, craze for K-pop and K-Dramas, revenues from Korean food, popularly known as K-Food sale in key markets are expected to cross US$10 billion annually by 2023, according to a report by Morgan Stanley – the global investment bank.

Korean food is now one of the top ten cuisines in the world in terms of popularity, but ranks higher in terms of health and nutrition value. 

Through timely investments in Food Processing Sector, feisty marketing through Social media, and video streaming services like YouTube, and providing quality cultural cookeries, South Korea made K-Food one more pillar of its soft power.

K-Food  South Korean Hallyu
South Korean delicacies

Korean Tourism

Hallyu, especially in the form of K-dramas and K-pop, has immensely boosted the desire of the foreign public to voyage to South Korea and tour various natural and man-made tourist attractions. A poll conducted by the Korea Tourism Organization revealed that more than half of foreigners coming to South Korea on private trips chose their destination after experiencing ‘Hallyu’. The survey, which extracted data from people from eight countries (China, Japan, the United States, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore) revealed the primary reasons for choosing South Korea were: 

Korean Tourism Hallyu
Primary reasons for travelling to South Korea

A country ripe with cultural, historical, and natural tourist allures, South Korea has a ample of intriguing vistas. Aside from the obvious tourist attractions, including mega-city Seoul, the country offers wide open spaces boasting startling natural beauty characterized by rock formations, green pastures, and dense forests. Some of the most well-known locations are Ganghwado Island, Pocheon Art Valley, Bulguksa Temple, Jeonju Hanok Village, Hallasan National Park, Namiseom Island, Gyeongbokgung Palace, and Huwon Secret Garden. In 2019, Seoul was thus ranked 23rd among the world’s most popular cities with 9.11 million tourists.

 South Korean Hallyu Gyeongbokgung Palace
The magnificent Gyeongbokgung Palace

Japan, China, Hong Kong and Taiwan together account for roughly 75% of the total number of international tourists to South Korea. In addition, the Korean Hallyu has brought increasing numbers of tourists from Southeast Asia especially India and the North American nations especially the USA.


South Korean Hallyu Exports driven by Hallyu
Exports driven by Hallyu

South Korean soft power push has been a case study for the rest of the world. South Korea is home to giants like Samsung and Hyundai. However, the new wave of Korean Hallyu is though K-Pop, K-Dramas, and K-Food. This has boosted the image of Korea in the world and boosted its tourism industry. This model can be emulated in the world hungry of power and pursuing hard power diplomacy. 


Dr. Jenny Kin Jacobs compiled and curated this case study.
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