From ‘Squid Game’ to BTS, 2021 is most memorable year for Korean culture

December 17, 2021

 From the dramas “Squid Game” and “Hellbound” to superband BTS, South Korean pop culture drew fans from all over the world throughout 2021, raising hopes about what is in store in the coming year.

“Squid Game,” a dystopian Korean drama series, has become the most-watched Netflix content of all time with more than 1.65 billion hours of viewing in the first four weeks after its release in September.

The nine-part series is about contestants competing in deadly Korean children’s playground games to win 45.6 billion won (US$38.5 million) in prize money.

The show’s popularity made its costumes — green tracksuits and black masks — a huge fashion hit for Halloween in many countries around the world last month. On TikTok, a short video social media platform that is used by mostly teenagers, videos of people playing children’s games that appeared in the series has been spreading rapidly.

This file photo shows a promotional poster for Netflix's Korean-language original "Squid Game," provided by the global streaming service. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)
And then “Hellbound,” a new South Korean fantasy horror series from Netflix, overtook “Squid Game” as the most-watched TV show on the streaming platform, one day after its release last month.

“Hellbound,” which depicts social turmoil and unrest after a series of inexplicable supernatural phenomena, sat atop the service’s global chart of its 10 most popular TV programs for 10 non-consecutive weeks until it slipped off the list last Thursday. But three Korean dramas were on the chart — “Squid Game” at No. 6, KBS’ historical romance “The King’s Affection” at No. 7 and the tvN romance “Hometown Cha Cha Cha” at No. 9 that day.

In the K-pop industry, BTS continued its record-shattering run this year as its second English-language single “Butter” stayed for 10 non-consecutive weeks on the Billboard Hot 100.

The South Korean boy group followed it up with two other chart-toppers, “Permission to Dance” and “My Universe,” a collaborative single with British rock band Coldplay.

The septet snatched four awards at the annual Billboard Music Awards and three at the American Music Awards, and was nominated in the best pop duo or group performance category of the Grammy Awards for the second consecutive year. During the American Music Awards held last month, in particular, BTS became the first Asian act to win the top honor of the artist of the year.

The K-pop giant had four sold-out concerts at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, where over 200,000 American fans gathered across four nights between Nov. 27 to Dec. 1 despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

Experts say these phenomenal successes once again proved that Korean pop culture is now firmly rooted in the global entertainment market that has been dominated by the United States for nearly a century.

“In the past, the Korean Wave was just a regional phenomenon in some geographically and culturally adjacent Asian countries,” Kim Young-dae, a music critic, said in a radio program. “But now, it is a global phenomenon happening with no particular pattern and in countries with no similar culture background like the United States, Kazakhstan and Indonesia.”

Noting a total of 13 albums from other K-pop groups, such as BLACKPINK, TWICE, Seventeen, Enhyphen, ITZY, NCT 127, Tomorrow X Together and Monsta X, made it into the Billboard 200 main albums chart with some reaching high rankings this year, Kim said these achievements show there has been a fundamental change in the West’s perception of South Korean culture in recent years.

“Westerners obviously had stereotypes or prejudices about Asians, and from that point of view, they consumed foreign content in the past. They thought like foreign content is fun but very exotic or eccentric,” he said, citing Psy’s 2012 worldwide hit “Gangnam Style” as an example.

But things have changed in the recent three to four years to a point where K-pop idol groups are considered to be a new standard of aesthetics or modernity, he pointed out.

There is no doubt that behind the success of the two South Korean dramas is the development of online streaming platforms and their provision of financing and artistic freedom needed to target international markets.

Kang Yoo-jung, a professor of Seoul’s Kangnam University, said the pandemic advanced on-demand and streaming platforms’ takeover of Hollywood’s dominance in the global entertainment market and that South Korean dramas with high potential were quick to embrace the change.

She, however, said people need to pay more attention to the success of “Hellbound” than “Squid Game” to really understand how far Korean content has come.

“‘Squid Game’ was kind of a surprise hit like Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style.’ But when such incidents happen successively, they become a phenomenon together,” she explained.

“European countries initially ignored the popularity of Korean culture, labeling BTS as part of teen culture, but professional critics in the region have just begun to analyze the phenomenon, trying to understand why many of the world’s fresh stories are coming from South Korea,” she said.

She says the peak of the Korean Wave has yet to come.

“If BTS opened the way for Korean pop music, we can say director Bong Joon-ho’s film ‘Parasite’ helped to put other fields of Korean culture on firm footing and that now is the beginning of the heyday for the culture as the online streaming service itself is still an unknown area.”

The music critic Kim agreed, saying: “At first glance, what we see now appears to be the peak of Korean content. But considering various circumstances, there are big chances for it to grow bigger.”

He predicted that this trend is so strong and widespread that there will likely be no replacement for it in the coming years.