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Unpacking the allure of South Korean pop culture

For reasons ranging from shared values to unconventional concepts, K-dramas such as 'Squid Game' have taken the world by storm.

Danisyah Dalily
4 minute read
A girl poses for a picture with cosplayers dressed up as characters from Netflix show 'Squid Game' at a shopping mall in Subang Jaya, Selangor.
A girl poses for a picture with cosplayers dressed up as characters from Netflix show 'Squid Game' at a shopping mall in Subang Jaya, Selangor.

Once upon a time, popular film industries like Bollywood were Malaysia’s first external sources of Asian entertainment.

But while Hindi cinema still holds strong sway in the country, another wave has been rapidly making its way across Malaysia and, for that matter, everywhere else.

South Korean pop culture has been taking the world by storm since the early 2000s, starting with television drama “Winter Sonata” – its first global success which attracted a cult following throughout Asia.

The so-called Korean wave or Hallyu is now enjoying even greater success on the world stage thanks to Netflix hit “Squid Game”, which has become the streaming service’s most popular original programme yet.

Speaking to MalaysiaNow, industry experts give a variety of reasons for the stunning popularity that Hallyu is enjoying.

“K-dramas are an easy route for escapism – a boost of serotonin through romance-based plots and attractive actors,” Arifah Husna Badlishah, a digital engagement officer at Edinburgh University in Scotland, said.

“It’s a short escape from the problems of real life.”

Given the Covid-19 pandemic that will soon mark its second anniversary since washing over the world in late 2019, this is likely something that many appreciate.

But in Asia, especially, the allure of K-drama might also be traced to its culture resonance.

Here, Arifah perhaps gives voice to the feelings of many.

“I like K-dramas because I think the storylines are more interesting than local dramas, but they still retain our Eastern aspects such as family and cultural values,” she said.

K-dramas are also family-friendly, for the most part, and can be enjoyed without fear of having to deal with awkward scenes, she added.

There are also tangible benefits to South Korea’s efforts over the years to expand its creative industry, first and foremost to its economy and tourism sector.

“I don’t think South Korea was a popular destination for Malaysian holidaymakers 15 years ago, but now many people want to go there because they want to see the filming locations of their favourite K-dramas, or locations that are connected to their idols,” Arifah said.

“When I think of South Korea, the first thing that comes to mind is their entertainment industry.”

Such popularity also puts South Korea in a better light globally. Arifah said many Hallyu fans in the West are now hugely interested in South Korea and Asia in general thanks to its pop culture.


Director Eoon Suhaimi meanwhile cited the unconventional concepts and ideas in K-drama.

Giving the example of “Squid Game”, he said the show captures the deep-seated concerns of many about the income gap and economic disparity around the world, making it highly relevant to real life.

Noting the show’s long incubation period – 10 years – he said this shows South Korea’s determination to defend its arts and expand its cultural exports.

Security and political analyst Noor Nirwandy said South Korea had been utilising the elements of diplomacy included in the list of so-called feel-food factors such as attractive physical attributes and song composition.

“This is the reason the cultural invasion will likely be adopted by the younger generation,” he said.

He also cited geopolitical issues such as the desire to demonstrate support for democratic values over those associated with North Korea which is seen as more restricted and authoritative.

With millions of people throughout the world in connection with South Korean culture on a regular basis, the country is now a global soft power behemoth, he said.

Nirwandy said South Korea deploys “soft power propaganda” by touching minds and hearts, promoting its perspectives and culture until this becomes part of a trend in societies all over the world.

“South Korea’s branding of its pop culture to a certain standard receives recognition from global politics and also boosts global economic growth,” Nirwandy added.

He likewise referred to the link between the physical attractiveness associated with K-drama and the country’s hugely influential fashion and cosmetics industry.

He said cosmetics exports alone have skyrocketed, making South Korea the world’s third-largest source in this regard.

Whither Malaysia?

When asked about comparisons with Malaysia’s film industry, Eoon said the main factor behind the country’s entertainment struggles is budget.

“We have ideas but a very limited budget that has stunted the growth of our creativity,” he said.

He also spoke of the way in which cultural exports limit the space of local artistes to produce their own content.

“When we produce something more alike, people will say that we are not being original. But when we want to produce our own concepts, we are not given the space to be creative.

“People don’t look up to the local creative industry anymore as more and more K-dramas are being aired.”

In order for Malaysia’s creative industry to grow, he said the target market must be on a global scale and not just for locals.

“South Korea sets a target that their entertainment products are for global views. This is the mindset that has led to their success,” he said.

Setting such a high bar makes South Korea more likely to invest in producing high quality films or dramas, he added.

Eoon said also said that the South Korean government had invested in long-term efforts to expand specialised creative industries.

“If our government provided us with more support, I believe we too would advance,” he said.

This is a vision that Arifah, too, shares.

“I can only hope that Malaysia will one day achieve such a level,” she said.