With Parasite winning Best Picture at the 92nd Academy Awards and BTS breaking music records around the world, the wave of Korean pop culture known as the Hallyu has become a global sea swell.
As well as influencing international pop culture, Korean content is also shaping academia, with the Hallyu becoming the topic of a growing number of academic papers and dissertations. Sage Journal lists at least 100 research papers on aspects of the Hallyu, while academia.edu has over 1,600 and JSTOR has 276. Such works discuss the Hallyu from socio-cultural as well as economic perspectives, touching on topics that range from foreign policy to the finer aspects of fandom.
The proliferation of Hallyu-inspired academia is no surprise to Dal Yong Jin, a professor at the School of Communication, Simon Fraser University, British Columbia. The author of numerous research papers and books, he began writing about the Korean wave when the waves it made were primarily in Asia.
“I started to publish a piece of work on the Hallyu in 2003, and my paper was kind of the first paper on Hallyu written in English,” said Jin. “From the beginning of the Korean Wave phenomenon, I have thought that it would be one of the most important non-Western cultures and have continued to develop my understanding and analysis.”
Rather than focus on any particular cultural form, such as k-pop or films, he chose a more systematic approach focusing on aspects such as the digital Hallyu—digital games, smartphone technologies and webtoons—in books such as Communication, Digital Media and Popular Culture in Korea. He wrote about the Hallyu’s media significance in research papers such as The Social Mediascape of Transnational Korean Pop Culture: Hallyu 2.0 as Spreadable Media Practice.
“Over the past two decades, American cultural content has continued to dominate the global cultural markets; while a handful of local cultures, from Mexico and Brazil (telenovelas), Japan (animation and J-pop) and India (Bollywood movies) have challenged American power,” said Jin. “However, the Korean Wave has been unique as it is the only local cultural industry to penetrate both regional and global spheres with a variety of cultural content, not only film and dramas, but also popular music and digital games, which is unprecedented. This certainly teaches people to rethink their perception of cultural flows, and therefore, the role of local culture.”
Irina Lyan, a Lady Davis Fellow in the department of Asian Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has encountered fellow academics who have not taken the subject of the Hallyu seriously. As a sociologist, she wrote her dissertation on Cross-cultural Encounters in Israeli-Korean Technological Collaborations, but since 2012 she has also written multiple papers about the international fandom of Korean popular culture.
“I wrote my dissertation on a ‘serious and respected’ subject of international and cross-cultural management focusing on Israeli-Korean R&D collaborations,” said Lyan. “Yet I couldn’t stay indifferent to Hallyu success, which started in Israel in the late 2000s. During my PhD I wrote five co-authored papers on Hallyu, so I always call them my unofficial dissertations.”
At the time some academics considered the pop culture topic to be superficial, focused on possibly transient aspects of culture.
“Actually, today I’m glad I did both of them,” said Lyan. “I also got positive feedback as it is a fascinating theme through which we can learn about globalization (or regionalization), soft power, fan communities, country-of-origin image, creative industries and much more,” said Lyan.
She has written about the Hallyu in co-authored papers such as Fan Entrepreneurship: Fandom, Agency and the Marketing of the Hallyu in Israel as well as From Holy Land to Hallyu Land: The Symbolic Journey Following The Korean Wave in Israel.
Academics don’t need to be a Hallyu fan to write about it, but writing a paper could inspire eventual fandom.
“I came to know about the Hallyu in 2010 when I was approached by the dean of the faculty of languages and translation (where I worked as a lecturer from 2009-2013), who asked me if I was willing to write a paper on Korean culture in the Middle East,” said Mohamed Elaskary, who teaches Arabic at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, a research university in Seoul. “I agreed and the outcome was a presentation on the reception of Korean culture in the Middle East, which I presented in a conference in Seoul in 2010. But my love for Hallyu actually started later, after 2013 when I watched Winter Sonata.”
During his research for The Korean Wave in the Middle East: Past and Present, he encountered fellow researchers who at the time considered the influence of the Hallyu to be exaggerated. That can no longer be said. Today, no one can deny an expanding international interest in the Hallyu.
“All over the Middle East, where I originally came from, many people, especially younger generations, know about k-culture whether in the form of k-pop, k-drama, k-beauty or even Korean medicinal services,“ said Elaskary. “I noted that the number of Arab patients who come to seek treatment at Korean hospitals increased so much that some of my students now work as interpreters for hospitals.”
According to Lyan, there are other reasons, the Hallyu may not previously have been considered a serious academic topic.
“It’s mainly a female fandom and male fandoms like video gaming or sports suffer less from stigmatization,” said Lyan. ‘It’s popular culture which includes TV dramas/series and pop-music, again sports fandoms enjoy more acceptance. I know that Western TV series enjoy mainstream success today, but in the case of Korean TV series many think about ‘soap operas’ and housewives.”
Kirstin Koeltzsch would not describe herself as a Hallyu fan. While she knew about k-pop and watched some k-dramas, her research was born out of a general interest in Asia, Japanese culture, and her own past.
“My interest for Korea derives from my personal past and the political situation,” said Koeltzch, who lives in Argentina. “I was born in Eastern Germany during the Cold War. Part of my family is from Eastern Europe and we experienced a similar situation during the division of Germany, as it is in Korea.”
As an anthropologist with a masters degree in social science, she is about to finish her doctoral thesis at the Centro de Investigación Social – CISOR (CONICET) on one specific influence of the Hallyu.
“I started doing research on the Hallyu because my research interest lies in bodily expressions and dance in popular cultures,” said Koeltzsch. “I have always been in contact with popular cultures and people from the working-class sector, so I found out that k-pop, Hallyu and Korean culture is very popular among adolescents and the young population in my environment. Dance plays an important role for them.”
As the author of Korean Popular Culture in Argentina, Koeltzsch wanted to research popular dance practice.
“As I live in Argentina, my research is about our society within Latin America, as it is important to know about social practice here in relation to the global world,” said Koeltzsch. “I wondered why Latin American teenagers focus on an Asian culture which would not be the most obvious reaction, but there are reasons for that, which I try to show with my research.”
Her fieldwork has taken her to Brazil and she hopes to go to different parts of Latin America where there is a significant Hallyu practice.
“When I presented my first research on k-pop, most other researchers had no idea at all that it existed,” said Koeltzsch. “In 2018 I invited some of the young dancers I work with to an academic event to do a performance during a congress, which was the first time many academics had seen that.”
In his classes at Simon Fraser University, Jin has five graduate students who study the Hallyu, with term paper subjects that range from cultural policy to k-pop.
“They are very active, both academically and practically,” said Jin. “They always participate in k-pop concerts and present their papers on k-pop, while publishing their papers in scholarly journals and books.”
He sees the success of Parasite as a milestone in the Hallyu and compares the film’s Oscar wins to BTS’ success in the global music markets.
“Seemingly different, they share common characteristics. Both focus on personal and local specificities,” said Jin. “Instead of mixing local and global cultures, they primarily focus on local scenes. For example, when the seven members of BTS always attempt to make lyrics, in general their music is based on their personal experience, which resonates to global youth as well in that they feel and share similar hardships. Likewise, director Bong Joon-ho always writes and records so that he develops his movies from his personal experience rooted in local scenes. Having said that, the Korean Wave from now on will reshape its own strategies, which emphasize local actors, local cultures, and local mentalities in tandem with global trends. Parasite will certainly transform the Korean cultural industries, and therefore, the Korean Wave in the near future.”
However the Korean wave changes in the future, it is likely to influence academia too.
This article was originally published on forbes.com.