From BTS to ‘Squid Game’: How South Korea Became a Cultural Juggernaut (2023)

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The country was once largely known for cars and smartphones, but a global audience has become mesmerized by its entertainment, and creators say success didn’t happen overnight.

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From BTS to ‘Squid Game’: How South Korea Became a Cultural Juggernaut (1)

(Video) [FULL] THE DAILY REPORT : S. Korean health authorities to secure more hospital beds for severely ...

By Choe Sang-Hun

PAJU, South Korea — In a new Korean drama being filmed inside a cavernous studio building outside of Seoul, a detective chases down a man cursed to live for 600 years. Pistol shots crack. A hush follows. Then, a woman pierces the silence, screaming: “I told you not to shoot him in ​the heart!”

The scene was filmed several times for more than an hour as part of “Bulgasal: Immortal Souls,” a new show scheduled to be released on Netflix in December. Jang Young-woo, the director, hopes it will be the latest South Korean phenomenon to captivate an international audience.

South Korea has long chafed at its lack of groundbreaking cultural exports. For decades the country’s reputation was defined by its cars and cellphones from companies like Hyundai and LG, while its movies, TV shows and music were mostly consumed by a regional audience. Now K-pop stars like Blackpink, the dystopian drama “Squid Game” and award-winning films such as “Parasite” appear as ubiquitous as any Samsung smartphone.

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In the same way South Korea borrowed from Japan and the United States to develop its manufacturing prowess, the country’s directors and producers say they have been studying Hollywood and other entertainment hubs for years, adopting and refining formulas by adding distinctly Korean touches. Once streaming services like Netflix tore down geographical barriers, the creators say, the country transformed from a consumer of Western culture into an entertainment juggernaut and major cultural exporter in its own right.

In the last few years alone, South Korea shocked the world with “Parasite,” the first foreign language film to win best picture at the Academy Awards. It has one of the biggest, if not the biggest, band in the world with BTS. Netflix has introduced 80 Korean movies and TV shows in the last few years, far more than it had imagined when it started its service in South Korea in 2016, according to the company. Three of the 10 most popular TV shows on Netflix as of Monday were South Korean.

“When we made ‘Mr. Sunshine,’Crash Landing on You’ and ‘Sweet Home,’ we didn’t have a global reaction in mind,” said Mr. Jang, who worked as co-producer or co-director on all three hit Korean Netflix shows. “We just tried to make them as interesting and meaningful as possible. It’s the world that has started understanding and identifying with the emotional experiences we have been creating all along.”

(Video) ECONOMIC IMPACT OF K-CONTENT

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The growing demand for Korean entertainment has inspired independent creators like Seo Jea-won, who wrote the script for “Bulgasal” with his wife. Mr. Seo said his generation devoured American TV hits like “The Six Million Dollar Man” and “Miami Vice,” learning “the basics” and experimenting with the form by adding Korean colors. “When over-the-top streaming services like Netflix arrived with a revolution in distributing TV shows, we were ready to compete,” he said.

South Korea’s cultural output is still tiny compared with key exports like semiconductors, but it has given the country the sort of influence that can be hard to measure. In September, the Oxford English Dictionary added 26 new words of Korean origin, including “hallyu,” or Korean wave. North Korea has called the K-pop invasion a “vicious cancer.” China has suspended dozens of K-pop fan accounts on social media for their “unhealthy” behavior.

The country’s ability to punch above its weight as a cultural powerhouse contrasts with Beijing’s ineffective state-led campaigns to achieve the same kind of sway. South Korean officials who have attempted to censor the country’s artists have not been very successful. Instead, politicians have begun promoting South Korean pop culture, enacting a law to allow some male pop artists to postpone conscription. This month, officials allowed Netflix to install a giant “Squid Game” statue in Seoul’s Olympic Park.

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The explosive success didn’t happen overnight. Long before “Squid Game” became the most watched TV show on Netflix or BTS performed at the United Nations, Korean TV shows like “Winter Sonata” and bands like Bigbang and Girls’ Generation had conquered markets in Asia and beyond. But they were unable to achieve the global reach associated with the current wave. Psy’s “Gangnam Style” was a one-hit wonder.

“We love to tell stories and have good stories to tell,” said Kim Young-kyu, CEO of Studio Dragon, South Korea’s largest studio, which makes dozens of TV shows a year. “But our domestic market is too small, too crowded. We needed to go global.”

It wasn’t until last year when “Parasite,” a film highlighting the yawning gap between rich and poor, won the Oscar that international audiences truly began to pay attention, even though South Korea had been producing similar work for years.

(Video) How Korean Pop Culture has Actually Been Decades in the Making

“The world just didn’t know about them until streaming platforms like Netflix and YouTube helped it discover them at a time when people watch more entertainment online,” said Kang Yu-jung, a professor at Kangnam University, in Seoul.

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Before Netflix, a select number of national broadcasters controlled South Korea’s television industry. Those broadcasters have since been eclipsed by streaming platforms and independent studios like Studio Dragon, which provide the financing and artistic freedom needed to target international markets.

South Korean censors screen media for content deemed violent or sexually explicit, but Netflix shows are subject to less stringent restrictions than those broadcast on local TV networks. Creators also say that domestic censorship laws have forced ​them to dig deeper into their imagination, crafting characters and plots that are much more compelling than most.

Scenes often overflow with emotionally rich interactions, or “sinpa.” Heroes are usually deeply flawed, ordinary people trapped in impossible situations, clinging to shared values such as love, family and caring for others. Directors and producers say they deliberately want all of their characters to “smell like humans.”

As South Korea emerged from the vortex of war, dictatorship, democratization and rapid economic growth, its creators developed a keen nose for what people wanted to watch and hear, and it often had to do with social change. Most national blockbusters have story lines based on issues that speak to common people, such as income inequality and the despair and class conflict it has spawned.

“Squid Game” director Hwang Dong-hyuk first made a name for himself with “Dogani,” a 2011 movie based on a real-life sexual abuse scandal in a school for the hearing-impaired. The widespread anger the film incited forced the government to ferret out teachers who had records of sexual abuse​ from schools for disabled minors​.

Although K-pop artists rarely speak about politics, their music has loomed large in South Korea’s lively protest culture. When students in Ewha Womans University in Seoul started campus rallies that led to a nationwide anti-government uprising in 2016, they sang Girls’ Generation’s “Into the New World.” The boy band g.o.d.’s “One Candle” became an unofficial anthem for the “Candlelight Revolution” that toppled President Park Geun-hye.

(Video) How did Korean Culture Get so Popular?

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“One dominating feature of Korean content is its combativeness,” said Lim Myeong-mook, author of a book about Korean youth culture. “It channels the people’s frustrated desire for upward mobility, their anger and their motivation for mass activism.” And with many people now stuck at home trying to manage the enormous angst caused by the pandemic, global audiences may be more receptive to those themes than ever before.

“Korean creators are adept at quickly copying what’s interesting from abroad and making it their own by making it more interesting and better,” said Lee Hark-joon, a professor of Kyungil University who co-authored “K-pop Idols.”

On the set of “Bulgasal,” dozens of staffers scurried around to get every detail of the scene just right — the smog filling the air, the water drops falling on the damp floor and the “sad and pitiable​”​ look of the gunned-down man. The show’s supernatural plot recalls American TV favorites like “X-Files” and “Stranger Things,” yet Mr. Jang has created a uniquely Korean tragedy centered on “eopbo,” a belief among Koreans that both good and bad deeds affect a person in the afterlife.

Based on the recent success of Korean shows abroad, Mr. Jang said he hopes viewers will flock to the new series. “The takeaway is: what sells in South Korea sells globally.”

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FAQs

What does squid tell us about Korean culture? ›

Squid Game reflects a deeper anxiety about South Korea's place in the world and what it took to rise from a poor Third World country to one of the top global economies. In a strange way, the show is about globalization but has cleverly concealed its critical message to reach a global audience.

Is BTS North or South Korean? ›

SEOUL — Members of South Korean boy band BTS will do their mandatory military service, and it will be about three years for the fantastically popular septet to return as a group, their agency said on Monday.

How did BTS impact the world? ›

SEOUL – Aside from being a superstar with many chart-topping hits and a global fandom, BTS has strongly influenced the world with its heartfelt messages of consolation and hope for youth and those against Asian hate crimes.

What is the culture in South Korea? ›

Korean culture is profoundly influenced by Confucian principles and this pervades not only personal lives, but also business. Confucianism supports group harmony, respect for elders and authority, the importance of family, friendship and ancestors, and also, tradition.

How does Korea feel about Squid Game? ›

Netflix's 'Squid Game': South Koreans say class conflict on the show is real : NPR. Netflix's 'Squid Game': South Koreans say class conflict on the show is real The ultraviolent scenario is made up, but there are economic themes in the hit Netflix survival drama that are all too real in South Korea.

Why is Squid Game not allowed in Korea? ›

The source explained Squid Game's storyline parallels North Korea's society. The players pitted against one another in childhood games for a cash prize “resonates with North Koreans in risky occupations and insecure positions.”

What is BTS religion? ›

RM of BTS said he is an atheist

He ended by stating he doesn't believe in God and identifies as an atheist. However, RM has also worn a crucifix pendant around his neck, a common symbol in Christianity. Since that interview, he hasn't publicly confirmed his religious views.

Who is married in BTS? ›

BTS' V continues to surprise his fans as the K-Pop singer is not afraid to show his romantic side on screen. Despite the alleged rumors, the idol revealed “being married and even having a child” in a recent video.

Who controls BTS? ›

He struck gold after forming one of K-pop's most lucrative idol groups, BTS.

Why is BTS so important to Korea? ›

In 2018, researchers estimated BTS' contribution to the South Korean economy to be equivalent to that of 26 mid-sized companies combined – a whopping $3.6 billion a year.

How do I write a BTS essay? ›

Their music, their popularity, how they came together, their influences, how they influence the current pop music scene, their fandom, etc. Certainly you could explain who they are, what they do and why they've taken such hold. Or you could look at them as another in a long line of “boy bands” that have caught on.

What does BTS stand for in English? ›

Name. The septet's name, BTS, stands for the Korean phrase Bangtan Sonyeondan (Korean: 방탄소년단; Hanja: 防彈少年團), literally meaning "Bulletproof Boy Scouts".

Is South Korea famous for BTS? ›

BTS is of course, “VERY” famous, and popular in South Korea. Unarguably, they are one of the top idols in South Korea, their fandom is strong at least as much as EXO, or even more now.

What is the most popular Korean culture? ›

No other country in the world is as dedicated to making their pop culture one of their leading exports as Korea is, making Hallyu its “soft power.” They want Hallyu to be the leading popular culture export globally.

What are the main cultural influences on Korea provide 3 examples? ›

The spiritual ground and beliefs of Koreans are built mainly around the religions of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Christianity. Of these, especially Confucianism has a long record of influence in Korea, and its political and social philosophies can still clearly be seen in today's Korea.

Are squid games real? ›

Squid, also known as ojingŏ (Korean: 오징어), is a children's game in South Korea. The game is named as such because the shape of the game board drawn on the ground resembles that of a squid.

Did BTS watch Squid Game? ›

The ARMY was all for it though, since, after J-Hope's reply, the fan commented that they would let him hit them for free. So it is safe to say that it has been confirmed. J-Hope has actually seen the smashing hit show and seems to be looking for a ddakji partner.

Is Squid Game based on a true story in Korea? ›

You'll be relieved to know that the series isn't inspired by any real-life similar events, as there's been no game show in which contestants have been forced to compete in a series of deadly games.

Is Korea mad about squid games? ›

North Korea is criticizing Netflix's worldwide hit show "Squid Game," slamming it for highlighting the negative aspects of South Korean culture, including consumerism and inequality. CNN's Brian Todd reports.

What happens if you watch Squid Game in Korea? ›

Last year North Korea's government passed an "anti-reactionary thought" law that imposed drastic punishment for people found to have distributed or consumed foreign media, meaning spreading or watching Squid Game risks incurring a death penalty.

How successful is Squid Game in Korea? ›

'New History in K-Drama': South Korea Hails Emmy Success for 'Squid Game' After the dystopian Netflix drama picked up multiple wins, Koreans celebrated the awards as the latest example of their country's rise as a cultural powerhouse.

Who is cutest boy in BTS? ›

Speaking of Jungkook, he is unarguably the cutest member of the K-pop band. He is also the youngest member of the band and all the members adore him.

Do BTS members smoke? ›

However, this time, their viral images have left the netizens divided. The images show one of the band members smoking. Kim Taehyung, who goes by V, was captured smoking outside the Grammys 2022 venue.

Are BTS allowed to marry? ›

Most members of BTS choose their marriage-age in their early to mid-thirties, but J-Hope is fine with waiting many years for that right someone as long as he's married by the time he's 100. marriage Age: 35–36. Jimin wrote, “15 years later,” rather than a specific age.

Is BTS V left handed? ›

While V was born left-handed, the BTS member has trained his right hand so that he is equally dominant in both hands aka use both hands with ease. Not only has he repeatedly admitted to being born a lefty, but the other members of the Korean boy band have also said the same thing about him.

Can BTS have girlfriends? ›

While it is common practice in the South Korean pop music industry for labels to enforce rules which keep idols from dating publicly, the only thing that's preventing BTS from dating is their busy schedules, according to the band.

Is there a girl in BTS? ›

Whereas other K-pop groups are entirely made up of women, BTS is made up of seven males. Three of the seven members (RM, J-Hope, and Suga) serve as the group's rappers, delivering solo songs for BTS on occasion. The group's vocalists are Jimin, V, Jin, and Jungkook.

Who is destroying in BTS? ›

BTS' RM, also known as Namjoon, has earned the nickname of 'God of Destruction' because of his power to practically break anything and everything.

Who is the king boss of BTS? ›

Agust D (also known as BTS's Suga) once said in his song “Daechwita,” “I'm a king, I'm a boss.” If anyone were ever to question it, he's now once and for all proved it!

Who is the face of K-pop? ›

Kim Taehyung received the perfect triple kiII from the biggest Korean Medias as they named BTS V “The Face of Kpop”.

What does BTS mean in Korean? ›

BTS, in full Bangtan Sonyeondan (Korean: “Bulletproof Boy Scouts” or “Bangtan Boys”), also called Beyond the Scene, South Korean K-pop (Korean pop music) band that shot to international stardom in the late 2010s.

Which BTS song is most popular India? ›

BTS: Jungkook's 'Stay Alive' Creates History by Entering Top 3 on India's IMI International Top 20 Singles Chart.

What is BTS salary? ›

BTS' Net worth in 2022 explored

The Bangtan boys have had a rocky start, but undoubtedly, they have been taking over the world for a couple of years. Through all the brand deals, sold-out stadiums, and charting albums, BTS' net worth is speculated to be between a whopping $120 million to $150 million.

Why do I love BTS? ›

The personalities of the BTS members are interesting and adorable, and they have different sides to them that they're not afraid to show.

Why are BTS fans called ARMY? ›

The term ARMY was called by BTS themselves, and it stands for “Adorable Representative MC for Youth”. The meaning of a military army is also implied, which ties in with the concept of BTS as a bulletproof armour.

What is the meaning of 69 in BTS? ›

69 is slang for when two partners arrange their bodies to perform oral sex on one another at the same time in a way said to look like the number 69.

Who is the 8th member of BTS? ›

BTS: In his message to ARMY, RM tagged them as 'eighth member' of group. Here's what Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V and Jungkook said.

Why is BTS famous? ›

Since their debut in 2013, BTS has become the epitome of pop music phenomenon. They've been nominated for two GRAMMYs, they've charted four number 1 albums faster than any group since the Beatles, and have broken 25 Guinness World Records.

Who BTS favorite country? ›

Japan. Apart from their home country, South Korea, the 7 boys also love Japan and have sung several songs in the Japanese language for their Japanese ARMYs. What's more exciting, the Japanese compilation album of BTS songs has already crossed the 1 million sales figure.

Who was BTS first fan? ›

BTS 1st Fan Meeting: Muster was BTS's 1st Muster fan club event. It took place on March 29, 2014.

Which country sees BTS most? ›

Although no official surveys have been carried out by the Army worldwide, the majority of sources disclose that the Philippines has the most Army. Unexpectedly, South Korea, the boy band's homeland, ranks second.

Who is the most famous person in South Korea 2022? ›

2022
RankNameProfession
1BTSBoy band
2BlackpinkGirl group
3Son Heung-minFootball player
4Hyun-jin RyuBaseball player
5 more rows

Which country has the most Kdrama fans? ›

With its legion of passionate and active fans, Indonesia tops the list for most number of K-pop Tweets for the second consecutive year. Meanwhile, the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, the United States, Mexico, Malaysia, Brazil, India, and Japan made it into the top 10.

What is Korea famous for in the world? ›

Since the 21st century, South Korea has been renowned for its globally influential pop culture, particularly in music (K-pop), TV dramas (K-dramas) and cinema, a phenomenon referred to as the Korean wave.

What culture had the greatest influence on Korea? ›

Korea and China:

The Korean kingdoms were influenced by Chinese trade goods and culture. Korean writing systems (4th century a.d.), architecture, political systems, religions, and even musical instruments came from China. Koreans adapted these Chinese things and made them their own.

What culture had the biggest influence on Korea and Japan? ›

Both Korea and Japan have since ancient times been influenced by Chinese civilization, including the culture of Chinese characters and Con- fucianism.

What is Korean culture and values? ›

Korean values include obedience to family, hard work, protection of the family, and proper decorum among family members and is still important, even in the modern world. Social Organization. It is important to wait to be introduced at social gatherings. Bowing is a traditional way of greeting.

What does the squid symbolize? ›

A squid most often symbolizes uncertainty, feeling threatened, or general uneasiness. What is this? Despite its generally negative connotation, a squid may also be a symbol of your determination to find inner peace and stability.

What does squid mean in South Korea? ›

Squid, also known as ojingŏ (Korean: 오징어), is a children's game in South Korea. The game is named as such because the shape of the game board drawn on the ground resembles that of a squid.

What is Squid Game supposed to symbolize? ›

That might be somewhat ironic given that Squid Game is all about socioeconomic divides, the exploitation of the poor by the rich, and the desperation of Korea's financially destitute class of laid-off workers.

Does Squid Game represent South Korea? ›

Beyond their global appeal, the iconic outfits from “Squid Game” reveal a link to the history and culture of South Korea.

What is the moral of the story squid? ›

Revenge ALWAYS hits back. Never believe that you had outsmart anyone in life; you never know when life gives them a chance to come back and hit you harder. If you have hurt someone or cheated on someone, the karma hits back, always, and at the time you would not want.

Why do squid wear masks? ›

Over 400 contestants sign up to play Squid Game, but only one is meant to remain alive by the end of the games (and that person receives a huge sum of prize money). Squid Game is obviously illegal, so the people running it wear masks to simply protect their anonymity and avoid legal consequences to their actions.

Why is squid so famous? ›

Another reason why Squid Game has gained so much popularity is the easy access to audiences. The series has been filmed in Korean, but Netflix has dubbed the show in 34 languages, and even provides subtitles in 37 languages.

Is Squid Game based on a true story? ›

You'll be relieved to know that the series isn't inspired by any real-life similar events, as there's been no game show in which contestants have been forced to compete in a series of deadly games.

Who won the Squid Game? ›

Sang-woo, who came this far, sacrificing his sense of decency and humanity in order to win, plunges the knife into his own neck, doing the deed for Gi-hun. His dying wish is for Gi-hun to take care of his mother, and, unwillingly, Gi-hun becomes the winner of the games, though his triumph is hollow.

Can squid games be real? ›

While the life-and-death competition shown in the show is not real, Squid Game is a real game played by children in South Korea. It was most popular in the 1970s and 1980s, when the show's creator was young.

Who was 001 in Squid Game? ›

Player 001's real name is Oh Il-nam, which he tells Gi-hun before his faked death. He confirms this again in the final episode. The character's name literally translates to "first man" in English: "Il" (일) means one, and "nam" (남) means man.

Who is the black mask in squid? ›

Hwang In-ho (Korean: 황인호), better known as the Front Man, is the secondary antagonist of the first season of the 2021 South Korean Netflix drama Squid Game and is set to return in the second season. He is the leader of the Masked Men and the enigmatic overseer of the Squid Game.

Who is the highest rank in Squid Game? ›

Squid Game: The Staff Characters, Ranked By Power
  • 7/7 The Salesman.
  • 6/7 The Circles.
  • 5/7 The VIPs' Waiters.
  • 4/7 The Triangles.
  • 3/7 The Squares.
  • 2/7 The Front Man.
  • 1/7 The Host.
8 Oct 2021

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