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From Kimchi to Gangnam Style: South Korean culture has the world swept up in the ‘Hallyu Wave’

From Gangnam Style to Squid Game, from the Samsung’s tech wave to the delicacy that is Jjajangmyeon, there is no doubt that the Hallyu wave is taking the world by storm. Pallavi Biju dives into this international phenomenon and its impact on businesses and the economy

Through lyrics that stir the soul, delectable food, catchy choreographies, avant-garde technology, and top-notch movies, the Hallyu wave is taking over the world rapidly. From grandmothers to toddlers, everyone seems to be tapping their feet to the beats of the K-pop songs, even as Korean shops and restaurants pop up across the landscape all over the world, catering to a customer base eager to get a piece of the phenomena.

Naturally, interest in Korean culture and language seems to be taking off too. Statistics show the number of students taking Korean studies courses worldwide reached 40,000 in October 2021. Even the global pandemic could not blunt the impact of the Hallyu wave. With all eyes on Korea in the past few years, we delve into the world of the Korean wave and the business implications it brings along.

Hallyu To The World

The term ‘Hallyu’ was coined in the mid-1990s, when Korean soap operas and dramas were garnering increasing overseas attention, especially in China and Japan.

Korean boy bands and girl groups, including Big Bang, Girls’ Generation, and Kara played a major role in the growth of the Korean Wave from the mid-2000s to the beginning of the 2010s. As a result, the Korean Wave gained popularity outside of Asia, particularly among young people in their teens and early 20s in Latin America and the Middle East.

Owing to the introduction of social media and global online platforms like YouTube, the Hallyu wave started pushing its boundaries of influence, with more and more people enticed by traditional Korean culture, food, literature, and language.

An Uber-Powerful Economy

South Korea’s economy ranked 10th in GDP globally, 5th in total exports, and 9th in total imports. In addition, it ranks 32nd in terms of GDP per capita and 5th in terms of economic complexity (ECI) in 2020 globally.

Between April 2021 and 2022, South Korea’s exports climbed by $6.8 billion (13.3 percent) from $51.2 billion to $58 billion. Simultaneously, imports increased by $9.76 billion (19.2 percent), now at over $60 billion. One of the key contributors to South Korea’s success is its export-oriented policies; its exports as a share of GDP more than doubled, from 25.9 percent in 1995 to 56.3 percent in 2012.

South Korea is renowned for its rapid economic growth, evolving from an undeveloped country to one with a high standard of living in just a few generations. The country’s economic expansion, which has allowed it to join the OECD and the G-20, has been dubbed ‘The Miracle on the Han River’. After the Great Recession, South Korea still features among the wealthy nations, with one of the fastest growth rates worldwide. It is also one of the ‘Next Eleven’ nations because it has the potential to control the world economy by the middle of the twenty-first century.

BTS (K-Pop) group

Seven years since their debut in 2013, BTS was contributing $3.5 billion annually to the nation’s economy

Reputable financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund have noted their economy’s resilience to various economic crises. They believe this resilience has bolstered the nation’s economic wins, such as its low state debt and large fiscal reserves, which can be promptly deployed to deal with any anticipated financial crisis. Along with Indonesia and the BRIC nations, other financial institutions like the World Bank include South Korea as one of the key economies of the future generation.

Some Of The Biggest Industries That Have Built South Korea Are:


One of South Korea’s primary industries is electronics. Heavyweight businesses like Samsung, LG, and SK were at the forefront of this industry’s expansion in South Korea from the 1980s through the 2000s. Semiconductors made by Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix made up 17.1% of South Korea’s exports in 2017. Additionally, Samsung and LG feature among major manufacturers of electrical products such as computers, TVs, cellphones, and display screens.


South Korea is also one of the world’s top cosmetics exporters, with a double-digit increase in cosmetics exports in 2020 compared to the previous year. According to the same sources, Korean exports reached US$6.12 billion in absolute value in 2020, while imports decreased by 0.7 percent to US$1.07 billion. These strong numbers have allowed Korean authorities to claim third place among the world’s cosmetic exporting countries in 2020, after France and the United States, two nations that saw their exports hampered by the Covid-19 outbreak over the same period.


Another surprising yet extremely significant contributor to the South Korean economy is the world-renowned K-pop boy band BTS. The Korea Culture and Tourism Institute predicted that a single BTS concert could raise $500 million or more. Unsurprisingly, seven years since their debut in 2013, BTS was contributing $3.5 billion annually to the nation’s economy, according to the Hyundai Research Institute.

Revolutionising The Pop Scene

If you run into someone who hasn’t heard of the worldwide sensation that is BTS, they’ve perhaps been living under a rock. Since their debut in 2013, the septet has been taking the world by storm. With their Grammy-nominated track ‘Dynamite’, BTS made history by becoming the first all-South Korean act to top the Billboard Global 200 and US Billboard Hot 100 charts in 2020. The boy band branded the ‘Princes of Pop’, appeared on the international Time magazine cover as ‘Next Generation Leaders’ and has won several awards, including nine American Music Awards, 12 Billboard Music Awards, 24 Golden Disk Awards, and nominations for two Grammy Awards and two Brit Awards.

In addition to their chart-topping discography, they collaborated with UNICEF to start the Love Myself anti-violence campaign, spoke at three UNGA sessions, and were the youngest recipients of the Order of Cultural Merit from the President of South Korea for their contributions to the promotion of Korean culture and language.

South Korea is also one of the ‘Next Eleven’ nations because it has the potential to control the world economy by the middle of the twenty-first century

Although the band played a significant part in the Hallyu wave, they did not flag off this worldwide craze. During the 1990s, the first group emerged that gave an inkling of the massive K-pop fanaticism to come: Seo Taiji and Boys, the first-ever K-pop group. Seo Taiji combined popular American music with Korean pop, revolutionizing the genre.

The first generation of K-pop singers emerged once the recipe for K-pop popularity was set in stone: genre-defying music, immaculate appearances, and razor-sharp choreography. Groups like HOT and Sechs Kies pioneered this generation of K-pop. The second generation wasn’t far behind, which is usually credited with the rise in popularity of the genre in the USA with bands like Big Bang, Girls’ Generation, Super Junior, and TVXQ.

During the 2010s, the names we’re familiar with today ushered in the next wave of K-pop’s dominance. EXO, BTS, Twice, and Blackpink are household names, completely transforming the worldwide music scene. K-pop has now entered its 4th generation with bands like Stray Kids, Ateez, TXT, Itzy, and Aespa making a name for themselves. Combining entertainment with a deep cultural Korean correlation, the rise of these bands has increased the prominence and familiarity with Korean culture. Businesses and establishments are now capitalizing on this familiarity to serve people their own little slice of South Korea.

BTS with President Biden at the White House for 2022 AAPI Heritage Month on May 31, 2022
BTS with President Biden at the White House for 2022 AAPI Heritage Month on May 31, 2022 / Photo: Wikipedia

The UAE Impact

It comes as no surprise that the enormous impact of the Korean cultural export has created a boom for Korean businesses and business owners worldwide. With its diverse and multicultural environment, Korean businesses in the UAE have been enjoying humongous success even during the global pandemic.

Dul Set Cafe, a BTS-themed cafe that opened in Dubai during the COVID pandemic, has had an extremely prosperous trajectory. Their delicious concoction has also been nominated as one of the ‘favorite Pinoy milk tea’ by Tag 91.1. “The idea of Dul Set Café started with my younger sister who’s been an ARMY (BTS fandom’s name) since 2018. When I graduated with a degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management, I put together my passion and my sister’s love for BTS, and Dul Set Café was born,” says this small business owner.

Dul Set Cafe, Dubai, Korean Restaurant, BTS Theme Restaurant, Korean Theme Restaurant
Dul Set Cafe, a BTS-themed cafe opened in Dubai during the COVID pandemic

Talking about the initiation, they say, “Once, we attended a BTS event in Jumeirah and saw how happy the fandom was and how much they enjoyed interacting with other members of the fandom, we decided that we could give the ARMY a place to call their own.”

“Since Korean entertainment is now well-known worldwide, it is extremely beneficial to our cafe’s success. Additionally, in the last few years of living here in the UAE, we have seen increased demand for Korean products. Different Korean restaurants are popping up around the country and residents are fond of them, especially Korean barbeque. We have also seen a high demand for Korean beauty products. We believe this is due to the diverse population of the UAE,” he says, confirming the impact of the Hallyu wave on their business.

The Best Moment Is Yet To Come

In a 2021 research study on the cultural content business, which includes 11 sub-sectors, Korea’s cultural exports in 2020 increased by 16.3% to $11.92 billion from the year before. According to the Framework Act on the Promotion of Cultural Industries, the cultural industry includes books, comics, music, games, movies, animation, broadcasting, advertising, character design, knowledge information, and content creation. 

Kang Yeo-won, Senior Deputy Director of the Culture Ministry’s Cultural Industry Policy Division says, “Exports of cultural contents have been setting a new record each year, but this time it is worth noting that the increase was achieved while the overall exports were down,” which hints to the rising popularity of Korean material on international content platforms. Furthermore, data indicated that South Korea’s exports of cultural materials have consistently increased since the research’s start in 2005. For instance, the values increased by more than double from $5.6 billion to $11.92 billion between 2015 and 2020.

Research and statistics clearly indicate that the Hallyu wave has been gaining constant attention over the years and, with eager public acceptance, is nowhere close to saturation. With more interest in the Korean culture and remarkable cultural exports coming out of the country, the best of the Hallyu wave, as BTS rightly said, is yet to come.

P.S. Several statistics are till 2020 alone because numbers post that year are not by official sources or not confirmed. South Korea also had a stringent travel ban, which was only relaxed around April 2022.

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