Dal Yong Jin
Simon Fraser University
Since the early 21st century, Korea has emerged as one of the largest non-Western cultural hubs for the production of popular culture and digital technologies. The Korean cultural industries have created cultural content and circulated pop music (K-pop), film, animation, television programmes, webtoons, and digital games in the global cultural markets. The Korean Wave, symbolising the rapid growth of local cultural industries and the penetration of Korean culture around the globe, has become a global cultural phenomenon far beyond Asia since the late 2000s (Lee and Nornes 2015; Jin 2016; Jin et al. 2021). The rise and consolidation of Korea as a hub for the production and circulation of popular culture is part of the transnational cultural phenomenon called Hallyu (Meimaridis et al. 2021). While Asia has been the most significant cultural market for Korean popular culture, other regions, including North America, Latin America, Europe, and the Middle East, have also increasingly admitted Korean cultural content. For example, K-pop’s popularity has been observed in various overseas locations, as evidenced by Psy’s Gangnam Style in 2012 and BTS’s ongoing global stardom since 2017. Korea has expanded its export of cultural products from $188.9 million in 1998 to $9,396 million in 2020—a 49.7 times increase (Korea Creative Content Agency 2021).
The export of Korean cultural content, as part of the transnationalisation of the Korean Wave, starting in the mid-1990s in East Asia already proved the increasing role of transnationality. Korean cultural industries have recently developed various transnational norms, including television formats, co-production, and joint ventures with both Western and non-Western countries. The global over-the-top (OTT) platform’s involvement in the Korean cultural market has especially changed the direction of Hallyu as it implies the increasing role of transnational capitalists in the local cultural industries. The latest popularity of several cultural products, including Kingdom (2019), Squid Game (2021), Hellbound (2021), and All of Us are Dead (2022) on Netflix, shows not only the continuous success of Korean cultural content in the global sphere but also the rapid penetration of transnational capital in the local cultural industries. What is significant in this latest development is the involvement of a global OTT platform in cultural production in the Hallyu context.
The Korean Wave provides one of the most powerful illustrations of how national cultural production has transformed into transnational cultural production. As Harris (2019: 183) points out, “transnational capitalism is a global system of accumulation, cross-border financial investments, and world-spanning networks of production,” and therefore, it is closely related to globalisation, which has been “a powerful force of transformation, sweeping across the world and changing people’s lives. Globalization has connected the world in a vast array of networks” (Harris 2019: 183). In this sense, the Korean Wave has radically changed under globalisation.
By employing transnational capitalism (Kreps 2011) as an analytical framework in tandem with the Korean Wave, I discuss the ways in which capitalism has become globalised through the Korean Wave as a key player in the cultural industries. I map out the Korean Wave in relation to transnational capitalism while attempting to explore global capitals’ influence in the Korean Wave, which has shifted the contours of the local cultural industries. Finally, I interrogate the influence of transnational capitals in the production of cultural content, meaning whether newly developed OTT platforms have changed the cultural texts.
Transnational Capitalists in the Hallyu 1.0 Era
The Korean Wave is transnational, and the major characteristics of transnationalisation have fundamentally changed over the past two decades as Hallyu evolves. The transnationalisation of Korean popular culture started with the export of a few television programmes and films, while a handful of K-pop musicians, both individual artists and idol groups, gained popularity in East Asia in the mid-1990s. Korean television dramas pioneered the transnationalisation of the Korean Wave as they were the first cultural products to be tangibly exported in East Asia. Korean cultural content and K-pop musicians began to cross national boundaries to attract East Asian audiences and later global audiences. During this period until the late 2000s, known as the Hallyu 1.0 era (see Lee and Nornes 2015; Yoon and Jin 2017), the transnationality of Hallyu has mainly actualised the export of television dramas and films, although the collaboration between local cultural corporations and Western-based cultural firms already worked together on a few occasions.
The transnationalisation of local popular culture, in this case from Korea, has significantly changed the old norm of cultural imperialism, referring to the flows of popular culture from Western countries, in particular, the U.S., to the rest of the world. In the 1970s and 1980s, the U.S. reigned supreme in the global cultural markets, and American hegemony in the realm of popular culture was not surmountable (Schiller 1976). Since Western cultural corporations expanded their dominant power through the export of popular culture, cultural flows were transnational from the inception of the phenomenon. However, starting in the early 1990s, several countries have created their own popular culture and later exported them to neighbouring countries. Telenovelas in Mexico and Brazil, Bollywood movies in India, and anime in Japan are cultural products that are advanced in non-Western countries. The Korean Wave immediately followed in the mid-1990s to become one of the significant cultural centres in the global cultural sphere. During this transition, several actors, including cultural industries firms, the government, and cultural producers, played vital roles. As these local-based cultural contents emerged, the major characteristic of the globalisation of popular culture changed. While nation-states were the primary actors during the 1970s and 1980s, other actors, particularly transnational media corporations and international agencies, played pivotal roles in the early 21st century.
With the growth of transnationality, several theoreticians discussed the decreasing role of nation-states while emphasising the increasing role of transnational corporations. Hardt and Negri (2000: xi–xii) especially argued that nation-states had significantly lost their sovereignty, as sovereignty took a new form “composed of a series of national and supranational organisms united under a single logic of rule”. Hardt and Negri called this new global form of sovereignty as “Empire”, which is to be understood differently from imperialism:
The earlier “imperialist” form was centred, while the current “Empire” is decentred. The earlier focused upon the boundaries of the nation-state, making those within superior to those without, controlling the flow of goods and people across those boundaries to maintain that relationship. The current form focuses upon the boundaryless flow of goods and people and is thus “a decentred and deterritorialising apparatus of rule that progressively incorporates the entire global realm within its open, expanding frontiers (Hardt and Negri 2000: xii).
Although it is a far cry to argue that nation-states, in particular a few Western countries, are totally losing their hegemony, Hardt and Negri’s assertation, at least, added another critical voice to cultural practices as they emphasised the emergence of new forces, not replacing nation-states, but working with nation-states as influential forces.
In the case of the Korean cultural industries, transnational forces are increasing their power. While the export of local films played a primary role, financial investment in the local cultural market increased. For example, transnational forces attempted to work with local cultural firms in the film industry. In 1994, DreamWorks approached Miky Lee, the granddaughter of Lee Byung-chul, Samsung’s former CEO, and proposed an investment deal. At that time, Steven Spielberg, David Geffen, and Jeffrey Katzenberg were building a studio and wanted to check whether Samsung was interested. As Samsung did not show its interest, DreamWorks approached Lee again in 1995, and she brought the proposal to CJ1, which decided to invest $300 million to launch DreamWorks and take a 10.8% stake and distribution rights to its films in Asia, excluding Japan (Firstpost 2020). In 2000, HBO invested $12.5 million to form a joint venture with On Media owned by the DongYang group, which began airing HBO’s films in October of the same year (Cho 2002). MTV also established a music channel, MTV Korea, in the form of another joint venture with On Media in July 2001 (Jin 2011). With the emergence of Korean popular culture, these transnational capitals believed that they could expand their capital gains in Korea.
As these transnational activities prove, transnational media corporations jumped into a Hallyu bandwagon, and transnational capitalists have utilised the Korean Wave for capital accumulation and world-spanning cultural production. Transnational media firms contracted with producers in Korea and then later shipped cultural products to be sold in the global markets, as well as the local cultural market (Harris 2019: 183). Even more important than cultural exports, transnational cultural firms locate their facilities directly in foreign markets or invest in the local cultural industries, as HBO, DreamWorks, and MTV conducted in the Korean cultural market. Korea has gradually become a major centre in value-added cultural production. Contemporary cultural content on a global scale “arises from the structured relations of alliances and joint ventures among global transnationals and local media firms from Asia, the Americas, and Europe” (Artz 2015: 94). The Korean cultural market has become a battleground among transnational capitalists seeking a new venue to maximise their capital gains. Korea just emerged as a potential cultural hub in the 1990s and the 2000s, and therefore, many transnational media corporations paid attention to the Korean cultural market.
Although it is not necessary to claim that transnational forces fundamentally changed cultural content during this early stage of the Korean Wave, their influences also gradually increased, as domestic films and dramas reflected global characteristics that transnational media corporations attempt to infuse. For example, in the Korean entertainment sector, dramas, in particular, melodramas were the most significant cultural genre; however, local cultural creators started to expand their interests in adventure, musical, Western, comedy, and action that mainly characterised Western cultural content (Jin 2016). Transnational capitals, both domestic and foreign, gradually participated in the Korean cultural market to become some of the most significant players in the cultural systems and texts.
Transnational Capitalists in the Hallyu 2.0 Era
Since the late 2010s, the Korean Wave has witnessed the diversification of the transnationalisation of cultural production. During this Hallyu 2.0 era, also known as the New Korean Wave era, local cultural creators and transnational media corporations have advanced three major transnational strategies while expanding the penetration of local popular culture in the global cultural markets, i.e., co-productions between Korean cultural creators and foreign cultural corporations, capital investment from other countries, including China, and creations of original series by global OTT platforms.
To begin with, Korea has developed co-production with other countries’ cultural firms, which can be identified as transnational capitalists in both Western and non-Western countries. East Asian countries, including China and Japan, attempted to work with Korea for co-production due to the Korean Wave phenomenon in Asia. As Otmazgin (2016: 1) argues, Hallyu constitutes a significant part of this new development. He points out, “confluences of Korean, Japanese and popular cultures, in particular, have not only intensified in recent decades, reaching consumers of different national and linguistic boundaries, but have also inspired a variety of transnational popular culture collaborations and co-productions involving creative personnel from different parts of Asia”.
More specifically, China has developed its soft power policy (see Nye 2004) since the early 21st century, and the Chinese government utilises international relations to enhance the national image with cultural resources. As the Korean Wave has affected many parts of Asia, China attempts to advance its popular culture as part of its cultural diplomacy strategies (Keane 2003). China started to rely on Korean cultural creators to enhance its cultural capacity, and Korea-China co-productions expedited the involvement of Korean directors and actors in Chinese movies. Consequently, these collaborations have developed several co-production movies between these two countries, such as A Good Rain Knows (2009), Dangerous Liaisons (2012), The Mysterious Family (2016), and Passion Heaven (2006) (Yecies 2016).
Korea and Japan also have advanced co-production movies. Due to the Japanese colonial legacy, Korea blocked Japanese popular culture until the late 1990s. After a long-standing block, Korea opened its own cultural market to Japanese popular culture. Loosening cultural barriers have become a fundamental dimension for the penetration of Japanese culture in the Korean cultural market (Chan 2008), which eventually helps cultural collaboration between Japan and Korea. 2009: Lost Memories (2002) was a co-production movie between Korea and Japan, coinciding with the 2002 FIFA World Cup, held jointly in Japan and Korea. Asako in Ruby Shoes (2000), another co-production movie between Korea and Japan, features a Korean man infatuated with a Japanese girl he meets over the Internet (Alford and Herskovitz 2001). Japan and Korea have developed several co-production movies, such as Like a Dragon (2007), Tokyo Taxi (2009), Café Seoul (2009), Saying Good-bye Oneday (2010), and Miss Granny (2016).
In addition to co-production, the direct investment from Chinese capitals has increased. Several Chinese companies have begun direct investments in Korean dramas to promote their products over the last few years. In 2020, Tencent’s We TV invested 100 billion won ($91.1 million) in JTBC Studio, which produced a new television series The World of the Married (2020) (Park 2021). Baidu’s video-streaming affiliate iQiyi.com also bought the exclusive right to stream Descendants of the Sun (2016), a romantic TV drama in China, for $250,000 per episode, which, in total, is equivalent to about 40% of the show’s production costs. The popularity of the TV show quickly paid off its 13 billion won ($11 million) production cost, which was helped funded by Chinese companies. The show was released simultaneously in Korea and China, the first Korean drama to do so, and was viewed more than 1 billion times on the platform (Kang 2016).
More importantly, transnational capital’s involvement in the New Korean Wave (Jin 2016) can be identified with OTT platforms, notably Netflix, which has been a formidable force in the local cultural industries. Netflix entered Korea in 2016 and invested in several programmes, followed by its own original series.
Netflix has helped fuel and is fuelled by the global popularity of the pop culture machine of Korea. Since 2015, Netflix has invested nearly $700 million in financing partnerships and co-productions. Since late 2019, it has ramped up investments and landed multi-year content partnerships with Korea’s major studios, including CJ ENM/Studio Dragon and JTBC, for access to their Korean shows. More than 70 Korean-made shows from local creators have been released as Netflix-branded originals worldwide and are available in 31 subtitled languages and more than 20 dubbed languages (Li and Yang 2021).
Buoyed by the incredible success of TV series such as Kingdom, D.P. (2021), Squid Game, and Hellbound, Netflix plans to double down on Korean content in 2022. Squid Game became Netflix’s most-watched series ever, with 95% of its viewership coming from outside Korea. Netflix stated that it would release 25 Korean films and series in 2022, its most extensive annual slate from the country (Brzeski 2022).
As Netflix’s involvement in the Korean cultural sphere proves, Hallyu is deeply integrated into the social and digital mediascape (Jin and Yoon 2016), and therefore, the scope and speed of the transnationalisation of its cultural production are far beyond that of the early stage of Hallyu. Starting in the late 2000s, the New Korean Wave has become an example of the transnational circulation of digital media forms and practices. The recent rise of Korean popular culture—the once-peripheral site in the realm of global cultural industries and markets—has been a captivating illustration that signals multiple routes in cultural globalisation.
Critical Understanding of the Transnational Capitalism in Hallyu
Transnational media corporations, particularly OTT platforms, have greatly influenced the structure and cultural content. As Artz (2015: 95) aptly points out, “all of the most successful cultural contents have similarly integrated capitalist production structures, resulting in identifiable consumerist themes in content. Transnational capitalist hegemony emerges as local, national, and regional media firms actively consent to the leadership of [transnational media corporations]”.
While global OTT platforms like Disney + and Apple hesitated to invest in Korea, Netflix has deeply influenced Korean cultural content. Up until now, most Korean dramas known overseas belong to the romantic comedy genre. However, as Netflix has invested and is interested in various genres, including thriller (e.g., Stranger, Squid Game), zombie (e.g., Kingdom, Hellbound), and stand-up comedy (e.g., Yoo Byung Jae: Discomfort Zone), local cultural creators has also developed these new genres. For cultural creators, the global reach of their content is the new norm, and they hope that Netflix can help them take off in the global cultural markets (Jin 2021). While Korean cultural creators attempt to transnationalise their practices, Netflix’s aspirations to build a transnational monopoly via the internet-distributed videos reflect the tendencies of platform imperialism through vertical integration and supra-national expansion. As Netflix’s transnational development unfolds, its aspirations make tangible achievements in the global cultural markets, including the Korean cultural industry (Davis 2021: 12).
Netflix’s influence is more systemic and extensive than expected as it wields intellectual properties as a significant tool to garner profits. Netflix’s copyright practices are troublesome for the local cultural industries. The co-commission of a Korean drama, “Crash Landing on You, had great success in Japan. However, the K-drama’s producers did not receive any financial returns other than their initial payout. Production companies are supposed to make more money if a TV series sells a lot, but that doesn’t happen under Netflix” (Suh and Nam 2020). According to the president of the Producers Guild of Korea, Choe Jeong-hwa, “Netflix keeps trying to exploit its position as the dominant player to lower production companies’ rates” (Suh and Nam 2020).
More evidently, Netflix spent $21 million on Squid Game but enjoyed an estimated $900 million in profit from an increase in subscribers and a rise in stock prices. Director Hwang Dong-hyuk and crew members, who had reportedly agreed to a fixed 10% margin to the total production cost, have had no additional incentives in accordance with the programme’s global success (Yonhap News Agency 2021). Netflix plays a role as a mediator for the Hallyu flows globally; however, the streamer profoundly disrupts this Korean market locally (Meimaridis et al. 2021). Due to these unbalanced business practices, media critics are concerned that the Korean content industry will eventually be subordinated to Netflix, both structurally and culturally.
The transnationalisation of local popular culture, in this case, the Korean Wave, has brought two major caveats. On the one hand, structurally, most businesses, including cultural business, is transnational, and as can be seen in the cases of YouTube and Netflix, “the technological monopoly of transnational corporations concentrates resources and excludes from the benefits to those without the skills to join the processes of scientific and technological revolution” (Dietererich 2002, as cited in Vargas-Hernández 2016: 244). Several U.S. media corporations increased their reliance on international subsidiaries to capture profits through export strategies;
they are the primary stakeholders in promoting the adoption of the principles of the free market and neoliberal economics. Global corporations are motivated by establishing branches in all corners of the world where the rules of origin are applied to local content to meet the requirements of free trade and its major customers (Dietererich 2002, as cited in Vargas-Hernández 2016: 244).
Transnational capitals have attempted to invest in Korea as popular culture becomes central as an economic and ideological apparatus. Transnational media corporations, such as Netflix and YouTube, provide a powerful means for reaching millions of global audiences through entertaining local stories with hegemonic appeals that also reinforce transnational capitalist social relations. Various local commercial media and transnational media corporations seek partnerships as they commonly adopt the production structures and the entertainment content necessary for improved commercialisation (Artz 2015).
On the other hand, local cultural firms have culturally relied on transnational media corporations, which consequently changes the major characteristics of local popular culture. As Arts (2015: 95) points out, “transnational media and their local partners narrate in chorus culturally specific content mixed with global capitalist themes of consumerism and individual gratification without undue regard for national identity or influence”. Cultural activity is no longer centred on national circuits of production and consumption. Unlike the old international communication system where a nation-state was centred on national markets, transnational media and cultural corporations are now playing a major role in the local cultural market, including the Korean Wave phenomenon (Harris 2019). As more and more large transnational media corporations emerged, “attention began to shift decisively from international to transnational capitalism and from the developmental state to capitalist globalisation” (Sklair 2011: 1477).
In recent years, the global cultural sphere has changed fundamentally, and power relationships between transnational media corporations, in particular, global digital platforms and local cultural creators, have led to imbalances. Globalisation, which connects the globe in a vast array of networks, including culture, media, diaspora, economics, politics, and digital technology, does not mean that global media relations are now much less about U.S. dominance. Although various transnational media corporations invest in Korea, the major transnational capitals are still American corporations. Most of all, the Korean cultural industries are rapidly working with digital platforms, both social media and OTT platforms, and American hegemony has increased as YouTube, Facebook, Netflix, and Disney + are all American platforms.
The Korean cultural market has become a frontline among transnational capitals, in particular OTT platforms, starting in the late 2010s. Working with these American platforms implies that commercialisation and marketisation will continue. While the Korean Wave has become a current symbol of non-Western popular culture, they are still under American influence through American digital platforms. In the early 21st century, digital platforms as some of the most influential and most prominent actors in cultural production have changed the Korean cultural market and cultural content. In the transnationalised Korean cultural scene, the nation-state cannot execute its dominant power, and cultural creators enjoy a somewhat flexible media milieu; however, their reliance on global digital platforms restricts their creativity and cultural liberty.
The Korean Wave has been transnationalised over the past two decades. An initial stage is seemingly a form of outbound transnationalisation as the export of local popular culture is the primary means to spread local cultural content. Korean cultural creators have attracted many global audiences and enjoyed the surge of local popular culture in the global cultural markets. The incredible growth of the Korean cultural economy in terms of foreign exports would not be achieved without its global audiences and fan bases. Global audiences are becoming a primary part of the transnationalisation of Korean popular culture.
The export-driven transnationalisation of local popular culture has triggered the involvement of transnational media corporations in the Korean cultural market. As the Korean Wave has increased its global presence and fanbase, transnational media corporations have expanded their investment in the Korean cultural industries. Transnational capitals seek to find new revenue sources from cultural commodities in Korea. Hallyu has attracted an unprecedented level of investment, and therefore, fulfilled a high level of transnationalisation. As Sklair (2011: 1477) pointed out, “interest in the rise of transnational capitalism—more or less synonymous with an increasingly globalising capitalism dominated by TNCs—grew perceptibly”, and this new trend has been actualised in the Korean cultural market.
The Korean cultural industries have eventually changed in their ownership structures and financial sources with the entrance of transnational media corporations. Starting in the mid-1990s, Korea has fully opened the cultural market with neoliberal cultural policies, while transnational capitalists have played a crucial role in reshaping the cultural industries, which led to shifts in cultural production. Transnational media corporations push Korea to change its cultural system toward the market-oriented competitive structure and commercialise domestic media because they believe Korea has become a more lucrative market (Jin 2011). In the Korean Wave context, transnational capitalists have played a key role in shifting the contours of Hallyu’s direction by transforming the ownership structure of cultural corporations and the text of popular culture. Transnational capitals accumulate their profit and influence. The influence of transnational capitalism on Hallyu has, sometimes, helped the growth of the local cultural industries, and at other times, exacerbated the creativity and financial profits of Korean cultural industries as local cultural creators’ reliance on transnational capital has increased.
This work was supported by the Ministry of Education of the Republic of Korea and the National Research Foundation of Korea (NRF-2019S1A3A2099973).
1 A Korean conglomerate holding company that comprises numerous businesses in various industries i.e. food, pharmaceutics and biotechnology, and entertainment and media.
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