In​ 2012 a taxi driver in Seoul told me that Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ had reached number two on the American Billboard chart. I didn’t believe him. I had lived in Seoul since the early 2000s and knew that accounts of Korean culture’s overseas success were sometimes inflated. Music, film and fashion were a source of insecurity as well as inspiring an occasionally belligerent patriotism. Ten years on, no one doubts the importance of K-style.

Korean popular culture’s ‘meteoric rise’, as it’s described in the exhibition catalogue for Hallyu! The Korean Wave (at the V&A until 25 June), was decades in the making. President Kim Dae-jung, who first used the term hallyu (a neologism meaning ‘Korean wave’) in a speech in 1998, made developing the ‘culture industry’ one of his goals while in office. His successors have continued the policy. In 2009, Lee Myung-bak established the Presidential Council on Nation Branding. Moon Jae-in promised in 2017 to ‘increase the number of global hallyu fans to 100 million’. Successive governments have invested in Korean studies, Korean language programmes and organisations including the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. Non-citizens have benefited from cultural initiatives – such as free lessons on the kayagum, a traditional stringed instrument, at the National Gugak Centre.

More important than all these efforts, however, was the Korea Information Infrastructure project, launched in 1995 to bring broadband to every household. Korea was among the first countries to have a lively online community, dominated by the social media platform Cyworld, which launched in 1999, several years before MySpace or Facebook. Pop stars and entertainment moguls were quick to see the possibilities afforded by this new technology, and quickest of all was Lee Soo-man, the founder of SM Entertainment and a former singer and TV show host. Lee studied computer engineering in the US in the 1980s, where his encounter with MTV, then in its infancy, convinced him that the future of pop music lay not in the music itself, but in images. He coined the term ‘cultural technology’ to describe the ‘full cycle’ of auditioning, training, producing and managing a K-pop group – a version of the Japanese aidoru (‘idol’) system. He kept up with more concrete forms of technology, too: SM has an R&D centre at its headquarters and pioneered the shooting of 3D music videos; the real-life members of the band Aespa perform alongside their virtual reality avatars. K-pop choreographers were among the first to adapt to TikTok by developing dance routines that worked with the app’s thirty-second limit.

Lee’s international success – and that of K-pop more widely – is due in large part to the way social media platforms ‘boost interactions and intimacy between idols and fans’, as the V&A catalogue puts it. K-pop fans now work together to promote their favourite artists. Sim Se-na, the head of public relations at Hanteo chart, which tracks K-pop sales around the world, wrote in 2021 that while ‘album sales have been on the decline in most countries, including the US … K-pop fans are buying more and more CDs. Promptly after an album’s release, fans unite to set a new sales record.’ Collective action goes beyond boosting album sales. In her catalogue essay, Mariam Elba writes that K-pop fans have collaborated on everything from disaster relief funds to reserving tickets to Donald Trump’s campaign rallies with no intention of showing up to distributing meal boxes to the homeless in Cairo. In 2020, fans raised more than a million dollars in 24 hours for the Black Lives Matter movement and disrupted the Dallas police department’s request for help cracking down on ‘illegal activity after the protests’ by spamming police surveillance apps. In December 2019, the Chilean government listed K-pop and its global fanbase as a ‘leading influence’ on domestic political protests against inequality and human rights abuses.

It’s commercially savvy, of course, for stars to respond to the progressive leanings of their young fans. The BTS song ‘Not Today’ (571 million views on YouTube) takes on police brutality; ‘Go Go’ and ‘Silver Spoon’ are concerned with income inequality. The group is the face of Unicef’s campaign against violence towards children (though BTS claim ‘we are not political figures’); BlackPink were appointed cultural ambassadors for COP26 in Glasgow. In an interview with Rolling Stone India, j-hope of BTS said that the group’s music ‘talks about the stories that made us who we are today and our true feelings in a candid manner’. The story South Korea likes to tell about itself is ‘The Miracle on the Han River’, in which a country rises from the ashes of war and dictatorship to become a stylish economic success story. Less is made of the suicide rate (the highest in the OECD), low home ownership or high youth unemployment.

The story of hallyu fits with the nation-building narrative, but the reality of Korean culture’s international popularity is more complicated. There was some muttering in Seoul when Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, a critique of Korean patriarchy, won the International Man Booker Prize in 2016. Han is one of around ten thousand people who in 2016 were revealed to have been blacklisted by the government and denied public funding. The movie director Bong Joon-ho was also on the list; Parasite might be a K-style triumph, but earlier administrations did their best to stymie Bong’s work.

Many of the people interviewed by Fiona Bae for Make Break Remix: The Rise of K-Style (Thames and Hudson, £20) mention the speed and ferocity of competition in Korea. Seoul can make New York City seem laidback. According to Seo Ji-eun and Chung Ji-yoon, co-founders of the streetwear brand Mischief, Korea ‘arrived rather late’ to the international scene and therefore ‘everyone is charged and sprinting together to the peak.’ The pace of change and sensitivity to trends is such that Korea has become one of the most popular testing places for new movies, cosmetics, fashion styles, video games and social media platforms. ‘Trends come here to flourish and die,’ Bae writes.

It’s worth noting that despite K-style’s distinctive aesthetic, most of its leading practitioners trained overseas (though this is beginning to change). Before 1989, foreign travel was largely forbidden to South Koreans, with a few strictly controlled exceptions for business, government and education. The outside world was unknown, beyond the American military bases and what could be glimpsed on television. As soon as the country opened up, young Koreans hurried abroad to see what was happening elsewhere. Now the world is looking at them.

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