Will K-pop ‘conquer the World’ ?

13 minutes to read
Manouk Boelhouwers

The new Korean wave has been very successful. However, it will never be as successful as Western pop music.

The Korean Wave

The new Korean Wave has been tremendously (though relatively) successful on a transnational level. This is due to the efforts of the Korean government to spread and popularize the Korean culture outside of its own national borders - mainly helped by the power of modern tools such as social media. This is something that has been explored by many others before me. For this reason, I will go more into detail on the relativity of the New Korean Wave's success. The recent presence of popular groups, such as BTS and EXO, at American award shows cannot be denied, just as the large worldwide communities of fans of Korean pop music and drama series can't be overlooked, I will jump in and state that no matter how much of a help the online social mediascape has been to spread Korean culture, even the largest K-pop legends will never conquer the world like English idols have.

About Hallyu and Hallyu 2.0

The original Korean Wave, also referred to as Hallyu (한류, literally “Korean flow”), took place in the 1990’s – during this period South-Korea took to promoting the production, commodification and liberalization of its media, including television and animation, as they were pressued by the United States to open up their markets. This era is often characterized as the era in which the international interest in Korean drama (known as K-drama) raised notably. This Korean Wave was also met with the succesful export of a handful of international Korean artists, such as BoA and Rain (Chua & Iwabuchi, 2008).

Around the year 2003, a New Korean Wave was noticed, which has been dubbed Hallyu 2.0. This second 'wave' of transnational success in exporting Korean culture is thought to have been largely dependent on the rise of digital affordances – most importantly social media. This New Korean Wave is characterized as a wider spread of culture, in the sense that Korean pop music (K-pop) but also food, drinks, lifestyle and beauty products (Chua & Iwabuchi, 2008) gained significant interest outside of Korea itself.

Stating the obvious: language and culture barrier

Stating that the language barrier between South-Korea and the rest of the world plays a fair role in the spread of Korean culture is perhaps a bit like 'stating the obvious' – after all, South-Korea is home to a language and script; Hangul, to be precise - only widely used in that very country and its northern neighbour. However, one must not underestimate the power of online fan communities, and especially the combination of their high-speed spreadability, networkedness and bilingual users. Bilingual fans of dramas often work together in teams of multiple members, working at high speed to provide international viewers with subtitles in English and any other languages they can manage – often leading to impressive intercultural teamwork as is characteristic of the internet’s participatory fan culture, in which the audience takes control over "processes of cultural production and circulation", as defined by Jenkins (Jenkins et al., 2012). 

though music will remain the same no matter the geographical location where it is consumed, the local socio-cultural sphere may influence the way music is received

That being said, it cannot be denied that international, non-Korean speaking fans of K-pop have a subordinate position in the fanbases, having to rely on subtitles and other types of translations, never immediately understanding what their idols are saying or singing. If they speak no Korean at all, they are completely reliant on those who do. To take idol group EXO as an example, one simply has to open the fandom's official smartphone application (EXO-L) to find an option which translates the menu into English, but almost all posts by staff and EXO members are written in Korean, which leaves international fans searching for fan-generated translations. For those only ‘checking out’ K-pop, this type of language barrier might just be enough of a discouragement for them to drop the genre entirely.

On top of this, let's have a look at the following quote:

“Though K-Pop is dominated by Korean lyrics (unless the producers create English, Japanese, or Mandarin versions of their songs), small insertions of English into Korean songs can make them more accessible for foreign audiences.” (Leung, 2012)

This excerpt from Catching the K-Pop Wave: Globality in the Production, Distribution, and Consumption of South Korean Popular Music (2012) only fortifies this stance, since it can be read as stating that without the insertion of English lyrics, Korean music (which usually has Korean lyrics) is more ‘inaccessible’ to foreign audiences.

One might argue here that there are, in fact, many fans open to learning Korean in order to understand K-pop lyrics, Korean drama shows, and more, as becomes clear in Leung's article:

“K-pop and dramas have definitely motivated me to learn Korean. I’ve studied Korean actively for around four months. Ever since I began listening to K-pop I’ve been interested in the language (when hearing the same words being repeated in different songs and TV shows, it’s easy to form a basic vocabulary). I believe I appreciate K-pop more than before now that I actually can read, write, and understand what is being said and not having to entirely rely on translations provided by the fans. (A male fan from Malaysia)”.

“To understand K-pop and dramas better, I’ve studied Korean language for three years and continue to be an active speaker.” (Leung, 2012).

These quotes are from interviews with international fans of Korean culture. Both of these interviewees explain how they were incentivised to learn Korean, because it would enable them to understand and appreciate the Korean media they liked, without being reliant on other fans to translate the material for them. Though this proves that to some dedicated fans of K-pop, the language barrier does not form much of a barrier at all, this argument is limited to those motivated enough and supplied with the means to learn the language. It also reifies the argument that the translations provided within the K-pop community aren’t always enough to satisfy international fans, as can be derived from the Malaysian fan’s interview. In her paper, Leung also provides another culture-based point that affirms any low expectations of the future worldwide large-scale success of K-pop. She mentions:

"Jenkins asserts […] that although “the ‘surrender’ of oneself to a foreign culture enables fresh perceptions upon which a deeper understanding can be built, there is no guarantee that pop cosmopolitanism will lead to any real understanding between different cultures, since…it often involves the selective appropriation and repurposing of other cultural traditions for one’s own interests.” (Leung, 2012).

What Leung is showing here, is that though music will remain the same no matter the geographical location where it is consumed, the local socio-cultural sphere may influence the way music is received and interpreted, which leads to the phenomenon as described by Jenkins; the cultural traditions present in the music are not received as they are, but rather appropriated to one’s own will. Though this may not necessarily influence the transnational success of genres such as K-pop in a quantitative manner, it negatively influences the qualitative aspects of the exported music in the sense that the cultural implications and background are omitted.

Geographical disadvantages

It is widely known and proven that in the current world, English or Western culture has a dominant position. Take as an example the contemporary rise of English as the international lingua franca, but also the international reach and success of Western artists, such as Justin Bieber. It can be said that the 'Western world' is most influential these days, which means that international success can be defined as either the infiltration of this market or rising to a similar level of globalisation. In these cases, the popularity of Korean culture would be dependent on Western acceptance and appreciation. In order to establish this kind of effect, these other cultures must first come in contact with the Korean Wave. What we see here is a paradox. On the one hand, Western attention is attracted by that which is popular in the West. On the other hand, in order to gain popularity within Western cultures, Korean culture needs to gain appreciation and thereby popularity.

contemporary technological affordances enable many of us to come into contact with different cultures easily and effectively

Geographical disadvantages seem to play a role here. After all, who isn't familiar with the immense power of person-to-person recommendations? This type of spreading appreciation may be very successful, but is limited by physical obstructions such as borders and seas. Lack of contact between Asian and Western nations, caused by these geographical obstacles, makes for a lack of exchange of cultures. Consequently, Korean culture spreading through these physical means is limited to its direct environment, or may perhaps even have no substantial effect. Though it can be argued that in the present time, high levels of mobility have led to more and more contact between nations, this still does not mean that contact between locals and visitors is always achieved, nor that the degree to which this contact happens is substational enough to have any kind of effect on the popularity of, say, a certain K-pop idol.

However, there are of course also the contemporary technological affordances that enable many of us to come into contact with different cultures easily and effectively – this is the way I myself came into contact with Asian cultures – but it must be noted that the very nature of these affordances actually works against this. The effect that is mostly accountable for this fact, is the filter bubble.


Contra-working of social media’s technological affordances: the filter bubble

The filter bubble is an effect caused by digital media, or rather the personalisation of these media. Companies such as Google have taken to using information-collection techniques like cookies, in order to personalise advertising and make their web experience easier for users. Those data are stored and built up with one's every search quiry, click and visit to a website. The data that are collected can be used by automatised algorithms to create an online environment adapted to the wants and needs of an individual (Pariser, 2011). An excellent example would be the type of small advertisements that pop up on virtually all websites – which almost always seem to know at least the margins of one's interests. These technologies may succeed in showing us whatever is closest to what we want to see, while the filter bubble is their negative side effect. We see to an increasing degree what we want to see, and what we do not want to see or whatever is not deemed relevant by the algorithms, is subdued. As a result, we build a sort of 'bubble' around our digital selves, which results in many users barely coming into contact with contrasting information, other points of view, certain themes and topics, and so on.

If you're not already connected in some way, it's unlikely you'll come into contact.

The concept of the filter bubble is another reason why K-pop is unlikely to 'blow up' to the proportions of the contemporary English music industry. The first reason why this is so, has to do with the fact that part of the filter bubble is formed through online connections. That is, algorithms take into account the interests and filter bubbles of those you are connected to, given the probability that those interests overlap. Algorithms also promote connecting to those you already know – an example would be the function on Facebook that shows you people you might know. This means that if you are not already connected in some way offline (or online) to a person and their filter bubble, it is unlikely you will come into contact with them. Transnational connections that are initiated online are limited to a minimum because of this, with the exceptions of those who actively seek to make these connections. In this way, those who are not already interested in, well-known with, or connected to Korean culture are quite unlikely to encounter Korean content, even when it is within a few keystrokes' reach.


The Downside of Convergence Culture

In a paper by Lee and Nornes (2015), the exact meaning of Hallyu 2.0, including what it does and does not entail, is explored – mentioning how only a select portion of Korean culture is part of this transnational phenomenon. Many have argued before me that the most internationally known genre of Korean music, K-pop, forms only a small portion of the South-Korean music industry, and fails to represent the various different genres this industry has to offer (including for example K-R&B, K-Indie and K-rock). Not only is K-pop not quite as representative of South-Korean music as it may seem, it has also fallen prey to a successful, yet destructive, notion called convergence culture. This notion, as introduced by Jenkins (2006), is what causes the blending of different types of media, different cultures and so on, online. Jenkins describes convergence culture as “[A] circulation of media content—across different media systems, competing media economies, and national borders [...]” and also mentions how “convergence represents a cultural shift as consumers are encouraged to seek out new information and make connections among dispersed media content.” This connects to Hallyu 2.0 in the sense that netizens are encouraged to make use of themodern technological affordances and their dispersed, varied content and connect them, meaning that elements of various media, platforms and cultures are mixed in the process.

Can severely altered cultural export products still be called part of Hallyu?

Those who have listened to their share of K-pop songs are likely to have noticed that many of these songs contain words or even entire lines in English, blended into the otherwise entirely Korean lyrics. As mentioned before, this phenomenon makes K-pop more accessible to international fans, as it offers them a blend of familiar and unfamiliar elements. However, it must be argued that even though this production method might be very successful, it inevitably leads to what could be called the ‘watering down’ of the Korean culture elements present in K-pop music. The music is adapted by altering it to the mainstream, English-speaking, ‘Americanised’ global culture, and by doing so loses part of its Korean authenticity.

This results in the question whether cultural export products that have been severely altered in this way can still be called part of Hallyu. This discussion has taken place earlier, such as in an article for CNN Travel. In this article, Esther Oh questions whether K-pop idols gaining popularity in the US by producing English songs, can still be considered part of the Korean Wave. Taking popular Korean artists BoA and Se7en as an example, she states: “[They] have sung songs in English that were produced by Americans, and were transformed and marketed (albeit, unsuccessfully) in a way to suit the American public. Is there, therefore, anything that is so specifically and exclusively “Korean” about their U.S. debuts or their music?” (Oh, 2011).


K-Pop, stuck in a niche?

As should be clear by now, this essay is not meant to prove that Korean endeavours to spread K-pop enthusiasm are or have been failing. Rather, I am arguing that no matter how succesful Hallyu 2.0 may be, how far some artists have made it even in the Western music scene, they will never be regarded on the same 'level' as Western, or rather American, artists are. We have seen how language and cultural barriers endure, despite collective efforts of (fan)translations, as well as the restrictive effects of geographical constrictions, which cause a lack of contact between, and thereby a lack of knowledge of, different cultures. 

Additionally, there is the question of whether this type of K-pop which has been influenced by convergence can actually still be considered part of the Korean Wave; it can be argued that K-pop has Westernised to such an extent that it can no longer be seen as a product of Korean culture. So far, though K-pop has had its transnational successes, it has not managed to grow to a level of global interest the way Western music has, and as long as Western culture holds its dominant position in the world, it is unlikely it ever will.



Chaney, K. and Liebler, R. (2016). Why K-Pop Will Continue to Dominate Social Media: Jenkins' Convergence Culture in Action. Hong KongThe Good Life in Asia's Digital 21st Century (2016)

Huat, C., & Iwabuchi, K. (Eds.). (2008). East Asian Pop Culture: Analysing the Korean Wave. Hong Kong University Press.

Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence culture: where old and new media collide. New York: New York University Press.

Jenkins, H., Ford, S. & Green, J. (2012). Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. NYU Press.

Lee, S., & Nornes, A. M. (2015). Hallyu 2.0: The Korean Wave in the Age of Social Media. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Leung, S. (2012). "Catching the K-Pop Wave: Globality in the Production, Distribution, and Consumption of South Korean Popular. Senior Capstone Projects.

Oh, E. (2011, May 26). K-Pop taking over the world? Don't make me laugh.

Marinescu, V. (2014). The Global Impact of South Korean Popular Culture: Hallyu Unbound. Lexington Books.

Kim, Y. (2013). The Korean Wave: Korean Media Go Global. Routledge.

Pariser, E. (2011). The Filter Bubble: What The Internet Is Hiding From You. Penguin UK.


Other sources

Official EXO-L fan website

Official EXO-L fan application