The Korean Wave: Soft Power, Cultural Ascendancy, and the Growth of Korean Studies


This blog was co-written by Jiyeon Wood – Japan and Korea Librarian and Access & Discovery Team Leader – and Hassan Fiaz – Social Sciences Librarian (International Studies and Diplomacy; Economics; Finance & Management; IFCELS).

South Korean film Parasite made history at the 92nd annual Oscars awards ceremony earlier this month, becoming the first ever non-English language film to be awarded the coveted title of Best Picture. Parasite’s ground-breaking achievement delivered a timely pinnacle to mark the 100th year of Korean Cinema’s official founding – long considered a central facet of South Korea’s thriving and increasingly assertive cultural and creative arts industry.

Bong Joon-Ho’s masterpiece, which tells a twisting and bitingly satirical tale of class warfare, social mobility, and the limitations of the human condition through a riveting blend of suspense and dark humour, should thus be understood as much more than an isolated success story, representing the latest in a long-line of cultural exports from South Korea to have achieved worldwide popularity and commercial success.

South Korea’s meteoric rise to the status of ‘cultural superpower’ has enabled the distinctiveness of the global ‘K’ brand to extend far beyond the meticulously manufactured pantheons of K-pop and K-drama, with global analysts intrigued by the extent and ways in which numerous products of Korea’s modern culture – music, drama, cinema, variety shows, art, literature and cuisine – have penetrated regions as culturally diverse as South East Asia, South America, the Middle East, and North America in an impressively short time-span.

This global phenomenon of commercial success and cultural dissemination describes a process that has been referred to as the Hallyu, or ‘Korean Wave’, the significance of which in socio-political terms relates mainly to the concept of ‘soft power’, coined by political scientist Joseph Nye to describe the “power of attraction” and the capability of convincing others to “want the outcomes you want” [1]. The benefits of this in material terms are often complex and multifaceted, generally pertaining to economic benefits such as increased tourism or global investment and collaboration, major events hosting including global sporting competitions, and an increase in national confidence and civic cultural participation.

Aside from these, it is an overall boost in national image and clout on the world stage that is particularly crucial in the Korean context, given the perpetual sensitivity of relations between North and South as part of which the competition for supremacy of ideological values and global standing has long been fundamental. 

Academia’s Role in Balancing The Korean Wave

Despite this attention, comparatively little has been discussed about the impact of this wave and the ‘power of attraction’ for interest and growth within the field of Korean Studies.

It would be logical to assume that Korea’s increased exposure in the mainstream sphere of globalised popular culture would serve as a parallel force to an increased interest in Korea overall, spanning aspects of language, history, politics, society and culture. Indeed, despite enrolment on language courses being in overall decline throughout the United States, it was reported that between 2013 and 2016, uptake of Korean in American universities rose by 14%.

A long-term comparison paints an even starker contrast, with 14,000 students in the US studying Korean as of 2018, compared to just 163 students in 1998. Professors of Korean Studies from the University of Toronto have reported similar levels of increased interest for both Korean language and Korean history in recent years. [2]

Why does this matter? To refer back to the success of Parasite, it is worth quoting Bong Joon-Ho’s description of the Oscars as a ‘very local’ ceremony, in reference to the overwhelming dominance of Hollywood and English-language productions throughout its history. The sustained success of Korean cultural soft power serves not only as an inspiration to non-English creative producers, but also as a valuable diplomatic entity providing alternative avenues and perspectives to the long-standing hegemony of US soft power and its associated values and interests.

British sculptor Sir Antony Gormley recently praised K-pop group BTS for bringing a ‘new audience’ to the “self-serving art world” via their global project BTS Connect, which encompasses sponsorship of art spaces and projects spanning five major cities in four continents [3]. Further examples of this form of ‘K-Culture Diplomacy’ include the use of K-pop as a conversation starter between Palestinian refugees and British students by a UN aid agency seeking to form transnational linkages [4], and an invitation from Kim Jong-Un for South Korean pop-group Red Velvet to perform in North Korea as part of a gradual process of thawing relations between the two neighbours [5].

However, the increased worldwide popularity of Korean culture cannot in of itself fulfil the potential that is provided in terms of transnational enrichment and diplomatic exchanges. Academic institutions have an important role to play in framing the discourse and narratives of Korea on the world stage, through a process of utilising the heightened interest in Korea and bridging it together with the value of insight, nuance, discussion, and resources.  

The SOAS Ko-nnection: Past, Present and Future

SOAS is one such institution which exemplifies this housing of expertise and resources with its specialised Centre of Korean Studies, dedicated to producing research and teaching in various aspects of Korean studies.

Exemplifying the aforementioned contribution to transnational and cross-cultural exchange, Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian (DK813.7 /744730) was awarded the Man Booker International Prize in 2016 after being translated into English by SOAS alumnus and research fellow Deborah Smith, nine years after it was originally published in Korean. As SOAS hosts one of the largest concentrations of Korean Studies scholars in Europe, its Library holds approximately 80,000 monographs for Korean studies, including publications from the DPRK and official reports produced by the Governor-General of Korea during the Japanese Occupation.

In addition, there are around 400 Korean language periodicals, 300 western language periodicals and over 400 audio-visual materials to support teaching, learning, and research in Korean Studies. Those with an interest in Pansoru, Samulnori, or K-pop can browse stack 48 on the Library’s ground floor, while stack 49 is home to a number of acclaimed Korean documentaries and films, including previous works by Oscar winner Bong Joon-Ho – Memories of Murder (MDVD25 /5098), Snowpiercer (MDVD40 /9992), Mother (MDVD25 /8051), and The Host (MDVD25 /9306). 

With e-resources now integral to modern research and study, SOAS has the largest subscription of Korean e-resources amongst all UK libraries, facilitated with grant support from the Korea Foundation. The Library’s Special Collection holds a variety of very notable Korean rare works, ranging from an early nineteenth-century book “Oryun haengsilto” (Pictures of the Five Relationships in Practice), to artworks including “The Moonlight” by Kim Kich’ang (1913-2001), and four coloured woodblock prints by Scottish-born artist Elizabeth Keith (1887-1956). 

One of the most historically significant objects is a 12-metre handscroll painting named “Chosen shisetsu gyoretsu zukan (Procession of Korean Ambassadors), considered to be among the finest of its type and featured on BBC TV’s Antiques Roadshow in October 2017. Furthermore, the collection possesses a painting album titled Kyŏmjae hwach’ŏp’, attributed to the famous Chosŏn dynasty artist Chŏng Sŏn, the significance of which as an artefact relates to the influence of Chŏng Sŏn on later painters, offering valuable insights into the emerging Korean arts market in the late 19th century [6]. 

It is improbable that artists from those eras could have imagined the kind of modern society that Parasite so excellently critiques, or the development in technology and art-forms that made Parasite’s Oscar victory possible, or the fact that Korean cultural exports of various kinds would one day come to be revered in far-flung corners of the earth. As the world and Korea’s place within it continues to evolve, institutions such as SOAS must continue to play a formative role in making knowledge, interactions, and resources as accessible as they are meaningful.

As to the question of what its Korean collection will accumulate over the next hundred years, the possibilities are endless. 


[1] Nye, Joseph S. “Public Diplomacy and Soft Power.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 616, 2008, pp. 94–109.

[2] Pickles, Matt. “K-Pop Drives Boom In Korean Language Lessons”. BBC News, 2018, Accessed 18 Feb 2020.

[3] Bryant, Miranda. “Sir Antony Gormley: BTS Are Bringing Art To A Whole New Audience”. Evening Standard, 2020, Accessed 18 Feb 2020.

[4] Taylor, Lin. “Love Of Korean Pop Links UK Teenagers With Palestinian Refugees”. U.S., 2018, Accessed 18 Feb 2020.

[5] Rich, Motoko, and Su-Hyun Lee. “Can North Korea Handle A K-Pop Invasion?”. The New York Times, 2018, Accessed 18 Feb 2020.

[6] 박정애. (2016). 런던대 소아즈도서관 소장 정선의 전칭 화첩에 관한 고찰미술사와 문화유산, 5(), 135-160.

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