The Hallyu Wave

“No power on Earth can stop an idea whose time has come,” said then Finance Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh quoting Victor Hugo while presenting the Union Budget of 1991. With this began the long process of liberalization of the Indian economy. The new policy of economic liberalization opened up the Indian economy to the world as it aimed at ending the license-permit raj by decreasing government intervention in business. It pushed the Indian economy through a number of reforms and paved the way for competition in the Indian market. The liberalization policy introduced Indians to globalization by creating an ethos of neoliberalism.


Liberalization brought in a trend of westernization wherein, Indians were obsessed with everything that was ‘foreign’. The cultural consumption patterns of the Indian people went through a change as liberalization presented people with a number of choices along with bringing in economic prosperity that increased people’s purchasing power. Indians began consuming imported goods and services from the West with an aim to enhance their status symbol. Globalized lifestyle became pertinent when food brands like McDonald’s, Cadbury, Coca Cola percolated into daily consumption; when American pop stars like The Beatles became icons of the Indian youth and when people were introduced to a plethora of western media products be it American TV shows or Hollywood films giving these brands and products a large Indian consumer base. Hence, globalization remained a vertical process as cultural products of the West were passed down to the East. For the layman, modernity became synonymous with westernization, and such conception resulted in core-periphery dynamics with regards to cultural products in which the Global North became the core and the global south became the periphery. It led to the conception of modernity in India that encompassed only the Western elements of modernity leaving behind no space for the representation of Asian modernities. Hence, due to the economic domination of western forces of production and sales, it gave them leverage in being culturally dominant, as well.


The top-down movement of cultural products from the occident to the orient was intruded by Korea when a music video named ‘Gangnam Style’ by Psy went viral in 2012, waking up the world to Korean pop culture. Since then, India has been experiencing the Big Bang of the Hallyu or the Korean Wave, which refers to the global expansion of the South Korean culture. The proliferation of the South Korean culture or the K-wave has made South Korea successful in overturning the mainstream narrative of globalization and modernity and indulging into the phenomenon of globalization from below, by curating an inter-Asian dialogue between India and South Korea with the boom of its cultural products in the former.

Korea underwent an incredible economic transformation from the 1950s to the late 1990s. It went from being one of the poorest countries in the world with the cheapest labor to becoming a major producer and exporter of steel, ships, and electronic goods, as the then Korean government adopted an export-oriented development strategy. However, as cheaper manufacturing hubs developed in different parts of Asia, this led to a decline in the volume of exported Korean goods, which deeply impacted the Korean economy. In order to recover from the problem, the Korean government shifted its focus to promoting the export of Korean cultural products by implementing the ‘Segyehwa’ policy with the aim of globalization of Korean culture. Moreover, the South Korean Ministry of Culture wanted to boost its own cultural products, as well, in order to stave off the impending boom of Japanese anime and music which had been banned before 1998.

The Korean government used cultural diplomacy which is the part of public diplomacy as a tool to promote ‘Hallyu’ globally and especially in India which Joseph S. Nye refers to as soft power which means ‘the ability to shape the preferences of others’. However, way before the record-breaking video of Psy, Korean culture entered India due to the impact of local Indian politics. Manipur Revolutionary People’s Front – secessionist group in north-east India – banned Hindi films and TV shows. This nudged the local population to look for entertainment further east and there they discovered Korean films and dramas that fulfilled the people’s demand for entertainment.  

Apart from Psy’s viral hit of 2012, the year marks a landmark event of the establishment of the Korean Cultural Centre in New Delhi. Since then, the center has been a prime resource in promoting Korean culture in India and we can see the result in the form of the penetration of Korean cultural products ranging from Korean food, to K-beauty; and from K-Pop to K-dramas into the Indian market. These elements of the Korean culture have become increasingly popular among Indian millennials, giving Korea a solid Indian consumer as well as a fanbase.


K-pop bands like BTS and EXO are mesmerizing the Indian youth with their enthralling music videos that come with a full package of entertainment as they are an intermingling of meaningful lyrics, exciting visuals, dance, and exquisite fashion. Moreover, they appeal to young Indians, as these K-pop music videos tell a story just like a Bollywood film. There are over 100 fan accounts of K-pop stars on Facebook and Twitter which keep the fans posted about the latest news and gossip about their favorite K-pop stars. Music streaming apps like Gaana and Savnn have observed an increase in the consumption of K-pop with the Indian audience.

What started with BB creams in the year 2011, K-beauty has redefined beauty in India with the mantra ‘clean skin, great skin’. South Korea’s prominent beauty brand, ‘Innisfree’ entered India in 2013. However, the K-Beauty trend took pace only in 2017 when the number of people buying Korean beauty products directly from Instagram sellers began to increase. Post that, various e-commerce beauty sellers like Nykaa, Jabong, and Myntra introduced Korean beauty products on their portal which led to a rise in sales on K-beauty brands in India. Apart from these giants in the Indian e-market, there has been a burgeoning impact of smaller e-stores like that specially cater to the consumer demand for K-beauty products. This K-beauty wave has led to a 10% increase in Nykaa’s revenue from the skincare segment. According to Amazon, the demand for K products has risen from cities like Kanchipuram, Vadodara, Bhubaneshwar apart from the major metro cities.


Korean food has become the new Chinese for Indians. Just like Indians are fascinated by Chinese food, recently Korean food like ramen and fried chicken have become new favorites of the Indian youth. The spicy flavors appeal to the Indian consumer. This has led to an increase in the number of Korean restaurants across the country. There are about 30 standalone Korean restaurants all over India, with a greater number in big cities like New Delhi, Bangalore, and Mumbai.

K-dramas revolve around themes of love, family, and friendship which largely appeal to the Indian audience who is very fond of melodrama. Hindi GEC Zindagi dubbed a version of a famous K-drama Descendants of the Sun and on the other hand, a Tamil GEC dubbed over 20 K-dramas between 2014 to 2016. This, in my opinion, reflects the humongous popularity of these shows among Indians.  Many OTT service apps like Netflix and Viu are making efforts to expand their K-drama and movies video library to meet the overwhelming demand of the Indian audience.

With an excellent cultural policy, South Korea has been successful in bombarding India with its diverse cultural products and in initiating a process reverse globalization and an inter-Asian transmission of culture. According to me, South Korea, with its excessive cultural and economic expansion will continue to woo the global markets with its cultural products and the Hallyu effect shows hope to many other countries of the global south to transform the core-periphery dynamic with globalization from below.

 -Devashree Juvekar


The Academy of Sociology and Anthropology


References and Further Readings: 



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