“Squid Game”, “Parasite”, K-Pop… South Korean soft-power at its peak?

Interview

22 October 2021

The current success of the series Squid Game highlights South Korea on the world cultural scene, an influence that the country has maintained for years. Yet this series, just like the multi-award winning film Parasite are very critical of South Korean society. What do they tell us? Can we nevertheless speak of the success of South Korean soft power? Analysis by Barthélémy Courmont, research director at IRIS.

If the film Parasite and the series Squid Game have met with great popular success, they are also very critical of South Korean society. What do they tell us?

These two productions, which are also the greatest planetary successes of Korean film production (Parasite received the Palme d’Or at Cannes and several Oscars including that of best film; Squid Game broke the audience record when it was released on Netflix), have in common that they take a critical look at South Korean society. It develops an acid look at the race for social success, the consumer society and the capitalist system. These are the hallmarks of this Korean society, which experienced a true economic miracle and made social success a large-scale goal and a source of national pride. We find moreover, in the great majority of the productions of the phenomenon Hallyu (the wave in Korean), both drama and cinema or Kpop, highlighting this pride. It depicts a modern and dynamic society, but also proud of its past and what it has accomplished.

In this setting, Parasite and Squid Game can be assimilated to counter-culture products, which cast a critical and acidic outlook on this society. Their large-scale success is a testament to the evolution of soft power Korean, which was initially part of a dynamic of Nation branding, and now offers a wider range. We can see it as a form of maturity, especially since these are not isolated cases, but a trend that is also found in the music industry or the arts. And this maturity is that of Korean society, which while remaining proud of what it has accomplished now allows itself to take a critical look at a sometimes rigid and conformist system, and a capitalism supported by Chaebols that Koreans no longer hesitate to point the finger at.

Music, cinema, series… Why is South Korean culture exported so well? With what repercussions?

the soft power Korean, often referred to as Hallyu (a derogatory term at the base, used for the first time by a Chinese journalist at the end of the 1990s), has known several periods. In the early 1990s, a few years after democratization, it resulted in the production of popular culture for a national audience, with some success in China (justifying the criticism and the designation of “wave”). After the Asian crisis of 1997, which strongly affected Korea, this soft power has resulted in a real industry driven by large groups, and aimed at exporting to the rest of Asia, especially South-East Asia. It was in this context that K-Pop began to be exported, and that dramas like Winter sonata (2002) were very successful in ASEAN countries. The third wave, in the early 2010s, targeted a larger audience, including the first K-Pop concerts in the Western world or the phenomenal success of Psy’s “Gangnam Style”. The spinoffs are primarily commercial, with not only the proceeds from the sale of this industry, but also the countless product placements. It is also the promotion of a model of society that can be found in the productions of the soft power Korean, which explains why the authorities have chosen to get involved, with the creation of several agencies responsible for the promotion of Hallyu. The image of South Korea in several Asian countries, especially in Southeast Asia, was considerably strengthened by this cultural industry.

The Korean government seems to benefit greatly from this cultural influence. To what extent does he take advantage of this to develop his soft power ? How can we analyze this policy, which seems to go against the grain of other countries in the region?

South Korea is a small country surrounded by two great powers, Japan and China, and a neighbor who is also an enemy and a security threat. the soft power is seen as a great opportunity to strengthen the visibility of this country and its development model. It is therefore a political strategy that the vitality of the civil, democratic society of South Korea accentuates. The other Asian countries also have strategies of soft power, in addition to betting on their military tool or their economy. But South Korea is a remarkable success.

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“Squid Game”, “Parasite”, K-Pop… South Korean soft-power at its peak?

Hank Gilbert