South Korea has grown into an entertainment superpower: not only is Squid Game the most watched-series on Netflix in the platform’s history, the country has also been churning out other international hits such as All Of Us Are Dead, Extraordinary Attorney Woo, and The Glory.
The 2019 film Parasite became the first ever non-English language movie to win the Best Picture award at the Oscars. And this is only a fraction of the country’s new international success next to the massive international fan base for K-Pop and many other genres of art and entertainment.
“The ‘K’ in Korea is ‘cool’ these days,” said David Tizzard, an assistant professor of education at Seoul Women’s University and a columnist for a Korean daily focusing on social affairs.
“Korean food, make-up, games, vlogs, queer content, music and dramas are all super in-demand in the international world,” he told DW. “The ‘K’ prefix brings with it social capital. A symbol of modernity, affluence, elegance and low-key but hip associations. This is a marvellous transformation for a country which was once associated with poverty and cheap textiles.”
Netflix pledges billions for Korea’s entertainment industry
Last week, Netflix announced that it will invest $2.5 billion (€2.27 billion) in South Korean creative content over the next four years, building on the nation’s already imposing portfolio of movies, television dramas, reality shows, games and music.
The additional investment was confirmed at a meeting between South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos in Washington. The Korean leader visited the US accompanied by senior executives from many of South Korea’s largest corporations.
Speaking to reporters after meeting with Sarandos, Yoon praised “Netflix’s bold investment decision.”
“The investment will become a huge opportunity, not only for the content industry and show creators, but also for Netflix,” he said.
In turn, Netflix’s Sarandos said the move would “strengthen our long-term partnership with Korea.”
“We were able to make this decision because of our great confidence in the Korean content industry, and we will continue to make great stories.”
Changing times direct users towards Korean content
David Tizzard notes that bands, series and movies from South Korea all share a number of common identifying factors making them attractive to international audiences.
Perhaps the first and most important attraction, for consumers as well as investors and partners, are high quality and production values. Then, there is also the fact that industry has also been revolutionized by technology, Tizzard points out, making content that was in the past illegally copied on CDs now accessible immediately.
On platforms such as Netflix, international consumers can easily find Korean shows, as it is “presented to viewers automatically; it’s there even if you didn’t ask for it,” Tizzard said. Of Netflix’s 231 million subscribers in 190 countries, over 60% have watched Korean content at least once.
A final factor would be changing global values, according to the columnist. “We live in a world in which identity has become important. People no longer want only white-led productions featuring only American values. They want different ethnicities, values, representations, intersectionality and so on. As the West moves that way, Korea is arriving at the perfect time to give it those things.”
Within those changing times, Korean content has a vital advantage, Tizzard points out.
“Korea’s content is different enough to be exotic but similar enough to be understood,” he said. “If it were any more similar, people would be bored of it and it would become a pastiche. If it were any more different, people wouldn’t understand it and not engage with it. Korea’s content straddles that fine line exceptionally well.”
Netflix as an alternative to domestic investors
Kwon Jung-min, an associate professor at Portland State University in Oregon who specializes in East Asian popular culture, believes Netflix’s financial support might open new doors for Korea’s creative sector.
“Netflix is known for supporting creators’ freedom of expression and creativity, which may not always be respected in Korea’s conservative atmosphere,” she said.
“For instance, Netflix accepts the creation of content focused on minorities, including queer shows or women-driven narratives, or more genre-oriented shows like ‘All of Us Are Dead,’ which may have not received as much attention from Korean investors,” she pointed out. “However, it is important to note that Netflix’s possession of intellectual property rights has been a source of controversy,” she added.
The streaming company’s monopoly in the Korean market is also threatening local services, such as Watcha, TVING and Wavve, according to the professor.
Under President Yoon, the content industry has grown to become a key part of the national economy and a critical source of foreign revenue, but also a way of projecting South Korea’s “soft power.”
“This is what we call Koreanization,” said Tizzard from Seoul Women’s University. With more people around the world gaining a more positive view of South Korea, it gains a stronger role internationally, he added.
“Korea is affecting the world — subtly.”