1000px-Unified_Korea_film_icon.svg

A motorcyclist pulls to stop in front of a building that says “Public Baths.” The driver jumps off the bike, takeout food container in hand, and, without a moment of hesitation, walks into the women’s section and starts setting out the order, calling the dishes out. Suddenly, it’s mass hysteria. Shoes get thrown. Towels. Soap. Tubs. Women and girls are screaming. There’s a man in the women’s bath! The driver quickly takes off the helmet to reveal a mop of sweaty short black hair that is pointing every which way. “I’m a girl!” the driver screams. But nobody is listening and she’s chased out.

So begins the 2007 South Korean television series 1st Shop Coffee Prince, more commonly referred to as simply Coffee Prince. The story follows Go Eun-chan, a 24-year-old tomboy often mistaken for a guy. After the death of her father, she becomes the family’s breadwinner. What’s special about this popular show is that is often the “first” Korean TV show that American viewers watch. Call it a kind of icebreaker. In most conversations among viewers, Coffee Prince usually ends up being the show that introduced many of them to the “world” of Korean dramas, or K-dramas, and made them want to keep exploring.

In a way, it’s the most natural [series] for me, even though the story is ridiculous,” says one viewer who cites this series as their favorite show. “I like how they address gay issues which is, from what I know, kind of a taboo topic there.” This last subject is one of the most discussed aspects of the show. The main male character, for the majority of the show, believes that his love interest is male as well. It caused a huge stir, especially among Korean viewers, when the writer had the character decide to accept his “gayness,” portrayed in the famous line: “I like you. Whether you’re a man or an alien, I don’t care anymore.” This is just one of the many elements of a typical Korean romantic comedy that reflect Eastern values: even amongst what could be the most impossible of odds, if the characters remain morally true to themselves, things usually end up working out in the end.

A survey done by the Korea Creative Content Agency (KCCA) in 2014 found that among its average American K-drama viewership of 18 million, most chose rom-coms as their preferred genre. The shows popularity is in synch with these results, as Coffee Prince ranked as one of the top five favorites. More than half of the responders also said they had been watching K-dramas for more than three years. And those numbers just keep on rising.

The growing popularity of Korean pop culture across Asia starts in the late 1990s, with the media liberalization of television channels. This new freedom allowed the creation huge fan groups first of Korean pop music, which went on to spread to all of the surrounding Asian countries. In their effort to create a cultural industry, Koreans appropriated the mantra “learning from Hollywood” and encouraged their entertainment industries to internationalize all their exports, especially their television and film productions. This tremendous support from Korean music fans influenced the cultural hybridization of the television medium, a phenomenon that succeeded in co-opting viewers around the world. Alongside the complex economic machinations made by big businesses, there are many smaller reasons why fans say they like to watch Korean dramas. Among which are their large, varied number, and their short, rarely more than one season, length. “I can watch many different stories in a short period of time,” says one college-age American viewer. No long-term commitment required for Millennials with ever-shortening attention spans.

This still doesn’t answer the larger question of how Korean TV dramas overcame western cultural barriers so successfully. A common theory is that the innovative story concepts within a mixture of genres offer something completely unlike anything on American screens: mysterious night errand boys who fulfill any job that pays enough by way of impressive parkour; vampires working as doctors in a cancer ward fighting an inner-hospital supernatural conspiracy, and even woman reporters with “Pinocchio syndrome” that can’t lie or else risk suffering never-ending hiccups.

The culture, traditions, and social norms of South Korea portrayed in these shows are often bizarre to Americans. With deep roots in Confucianism, strong feelings of national identity, and the daily struggle between the two Koreas, K-dramas reflect conflicts foreign to many. Why do these shows still resonate? The reality is that no matter how unrelatable the setting, Korean dramas seem to tap into a set of universal values that hit the emotional centers of worldwide viewers. In the thesis The Korean Wave: The Seoul of Asia, which delves into the reasons behind the Korean Wave, the author Sue Jin Lee sustains that “Korean cultural products have become a catalyst because particular dramas have served as important bridges to encounter different country’s cultures.”

Many articles and essays across the board cite K-dramas’ well-crafted writing, relatable story concepts, and talented acting as what make these series one of the most popular products to come out of the emerging media empire that is South Korea. Another reason is the mostly PG romance: “Unlike shows from some other countries, including telenovelas, where characters have sex in the first two minutes, a Korean drama can get to episode eight before the couple has even a slight kiss. The dramas focus a lot more on story and courtship, and women all over the world especially want that,” writes Seung Bak, Co-CEO of Dramafever.com, a popular K-drama streaming site, in Euny Hong’s book The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture.

Korean dramas have also succeeded in many ways in terms of storytelling structure. At first hand, it might not be easy to tell the difference between an American or a Korean show. In an interview, Shinho Lee, Assistant Arts Professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and co-writer of the hit Korean crime thriller film The Chaser, breaks down the typical structure of a K-drama: they all have a clear conflict between protagonist and antagonist, a very clear theme of the story, engaging characterization that realistically depicts current social issues so that the audience can relate to it, and cliffhangers at the end of every episode. This doesn’t sound much different than what we already see on current American television. “What Koreans are good at,” counters Lee, “is how to find the right balance between the Western structure and the Eastern structure in their narratives. They might have borrowed Western storytelling here and there, but in the end, emotionally and culturally, they grip and move the audience in their unique, distinctive voices – so that they can take the positives from both East and West.”

The “East” in K-dramas is reflected through story elements that incorporate Confucianism, which is the overarching philosophical system in Korea. Confucianism, according to author Xinzhong Yao in An Introduction to Confucianism, rests on the belief that human beings are “teachable, improvable, and perfectible through personal and communal endeavors, especially self-cultivation and self-creation”. It is a way of life that puts paramount importance on virtue and ethics. Some of the basic Confucian ethical concepts and practices include the upholding of righteousness and the moral disposition to do “good.” This is expressed through a system of ritual norms and propriety that determines how a person should properly act in everyday life and the ability to see what is right and fair, or the opposite, in the behaviors of others. Confucianism holds a person in contempt, either passively or actively, if they fail to uphold cardinal moral values. In many of the plots of Korean dramas, impossible happiness is reached, love and sacrifice pays off, respect and consideration of the elderly is emphasized, punishment for the wicked is obtained, and redemption of the weak is achieved. “Justice,” whichever definition it might have within the scope of the show, always wins. This directly reflects the Eastern Confucian ideals of Korean society. Most importantly, these are all concepts that are universally accepted and understood as “positive” around the world.

Another way K-dramas have been able to reach so many in such a short time is due to the help of sites such as Dramafever.com. These past few years, online content providers such as Netflix and Amazon have produced some of America’s most critically acclaimed shows. To aid in their success, language barriers do not bear the same weight as they once did. The domination of “seeing” over “hearing” has become pervasive in recent years. As William Leith wrote in a 2009 article in The GuardianIt’s a reflection of the status of words in our culture. When films were first made with sound, not much less than a century ago, words were a prized commodity.” Generations before have seen the death of silent film, and now, with most movies becoming all about how complex the effects are and not really worrying about the words spoken, television is one of the few mediums left where dialogue is still significant. In a 2014 article in The Conversation Monika Bednarek, Senior Lecturer in Linguistics at the University of Sydney, lists five reasons why she believes television dialogue is important and why she studies it: “It’s everywhere, it’s incredibly popular around the globe, it’s high-quality writing, it engages us on a social and psychological level, and it tells us important stories about our world.” This could be another reason why Korean dramas have such a following. Even though the dialogue needs subtitles to be understood, what the characters say to each other is still interesting, maybe even more so, because they are talking about things so foreign to American viewers. The whole action of watching a show isn’t just entertainment anymore, it turns into a fun learning experience.

One trend, in any case, is undeniable, continues Dramafever’s Bak in an interview within The Birth of Korean Cool. The United States’ monopoly on world television is going out not with a bang, but with a whimper, because, he says, “American television has done almost nothing to accommodate to global tastes.” The phenomenon of globalization has affected all of America’s production sectors. Many do not see a future for a television industry that is not capable of adapting to the harsh laws of a global market. Many countries are already working on expanding their content to aid in cross-national comprehension, and these methods may be the difference between survival of the industry as a whole or its eventual allocation to a niche market. John Tomlinson in Globalization and Culture and Albert Moran in Watching Films: New Perspectives on Movie-Going, Exhibition and Reception write about the “deterritorialization effect” of television formats. Through this phenomenon, it may be possible to explain the cultural condition of “glocalization,” an aspect common in Korean television. Within glocalization, a format becomes internationally sellable even if, at is base, its roots are local. This is because the product is produced with the prior insight that once it is out in the world, it needs to be able to adapt to suit the tastes of different kinds of audiences.

Dramafever.com, in this regard, has been an invaluable tool to the pervasiveness of K-dramas by way of American viewers. This streaming service has had a 440 percent overall increase in viewership between 2013 and 2014. Based on their latest statistics, the site averages a total of about 20 million viewers, worldwide. What is even more interesting about these statistics is that they are not what the business itself expected. “When we started five years ago, we thought our audience was going to be Korean-American,” co-CEO of Dramafever.com Suk Park told Vox in an interview. “But we couldn’t have been more wrong.” In fact, 85 percent of Dramafever’s audience, according to the site’s statistics, is non-Asian, with 45 percent Caucasian and 25 percent Latino. And there are many avid viewers among the ranks of Dramafever’s subscribers. The amount of monthly minutes viewed per average subscriber totals to more than 3,000; that’s an average two shows a month. That’s a lot of shows.

While this immense rise in popularity may come as news to many, it is a ripple that can be traced back a few decades. At the turn of the 21st Century, Korean cultural exports exploded across the globe in what is now referred to as a “Hallyu,” a neologism meaning “Korean Wave.” In 1994, South Korea’s Ministry of Culture set up a bureau to develop its media sector. Many large business conglomerates were also encouraged to expand into the film and media sector. During the Asian financial crisis of 1997, many of these conglomerates suffered heavy losses, prompting them to shift their focus away from manufacturing enterprises and into the entertainment business.

In 1999, Korea’s first big-budget film, Shiri, was released into cinemas and it became a major commercial success, grossing over $11 million and surpassing the local attendance record for Hollywood’s Titanic. Subsequently, according to the New York Times, South Korea’s restriction of cultural imports from its former colonial ruler Japan was lifted in 1998. Worried about the possible influx of foreign, especially Japanese, cultural content, the South Korean Ministry of Culture made a request for a substantial budget increase which allowed it to set up 300 cultural industry departments in colleges and universities nationwide.

Behind this popular phenomenon there are also lie complex and in-depth market research studies and coordination efforts between the different business sectors. A media policy report submitted to the Korean government in 1995 reads: “Korea needs to encourage vertically integrated media conglomerates. . . . While there is a concern for the projected monopoly of information, in order to cope with the large-scale [Transnational Corporations], we need media conglomerates to match their size and resources.” In response to that, big business groups such as Samsung, Hyundai, Daewoo, and Kia, invested into the media sector to include production, export, distribution and international exhibition sponsorships. Tracing back to the those failing business conglomerates in the ‘90s, most television networks and, subsequently, dramas, have counted on enormous mass investments from both the private and public sectors for their production. In fact, one of the main motivations behind many companies’ initial investments were to “rebuild” a new image of South Korea to show the world and increase global interest in the country and its economy. This added layer of economic influence quietly transforms K-dramas from simple entertainment to the definition of “soft power”. As Euny Hong writes within The Birth of Korean Cool, K-dramas promote Korean values, images, and tastes to their international audiences with the subtle use of items, behaviors, and character relationships,. This is not to say that K-dramas’ only purpose is to promote Korea to the world, but when you think about how the entertainment industry was one of the reasons the country was able to balance its books after the economic crises of the ’90s, the power they hold on a commercial level is quite vast. The strong presence of public investment in this sector has resulted in a drastic increase in the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), especially through tourism. According to Professor Youna Kim, of the Department of Global Communications of the American University of Paris, in an email interview, “The interest in Korean popular culture has further triggered an increase in foreign tourists visiting the locations where their favorite dramas and acts had been filmed.” The process of going to visit the sets of their beloved television shows demonstrates how much affection and connection the public at large has with these shows, almost as if they themselves could become part of the show simply by vising the place where it was shot.

From K-pop to K-dramas, the wave has spread East to West, first taking hold in other Asian countries such as China, Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines, then, eventually, the USA. The effects of these shows’ popularity are seen in a myriad of ways. In China, fans mobbed stores that sold “chicken and beer,” the main female character’s favorite staple in 2013’s My Love From the Star. In Korea, a lip-gloss that appeared in 2014’s Kill Me, Heal Me quickly sold out in all of its stores. Great Britain’s own Tesco even commented on The Sun in 2013 that the demand for Korean cuisine was at an all-time high due to the popularity of Korean media and pop culture.

Hollywood itself has also started to sit up and pay attention. In the last few years, various networks have acquired the rights to Korean dramas for American screens. ABC, CBS, and FOX expressed interest in remaking Korean series. Most prominently among the potential lineup are Good Doctor, a story about a young autistic-savant pediatric surgeon and his daily struggles at a hospital, and My Love From the Star, which is about an alien who landed during Korea’s medieval times and 400 years later falls in love with a top actress in the modern era.

With this rapid rise in viewership of K-dramas and a similar development of platforms that make these shows available to a wider audience, came the creation of public forums that gather around to discuss and analyze these shows. Dramabeans.com is once such meeting place.

Created in the early 2000s by two Korean-American women living in the United States, their site is a go-to place for what’s “happening” in the Korean movie and television world, with 10 to 11 millions users just in the past year.

Posted on their site almost in synchrony with their Korean-language equivalents, are all the latest news in regards to shows and films being produced and written, as well as what actors are being courted for what roles. They are similar to Hollywood’s Deadline.com, only with a less extensive reach and a much more fan-focused than industry approach and style. However, the most prominent category on their site are the episode recaps, where a limited number of series are taken, one episode at a time, and looked at in-depth until the end of the show by both the two founders as well as third-party “recappers.” “I started this site because I couldn’t find a site providing meaty, or any, analysis for K-dramas, a longtime guilty pleasure of mine.” says Javabeans, one of the founders.

What followed was the creation of an avid community made up of a majority of English-speaking fans that had a forum for talking about what it was exactly in these shows that appealed to them so much. This, through time, has grown to have many shapes, and the comments range from the ecstatic: “Oh may gaawwwwwddddd!!!! One box of Kleenex is not enough in this entire episode!! I was crying the whole entire episode. My head hurts and my nose is congested… This is the BEST KDRAMA TO DATE!!” to the bitter: “So overrated. So slow, boring, mundane… Just ugh. People keep saying it’s personal and all, but wouldn’t watching a current news affair or documentary be more personal? Or reading someone’s autobiography…” No matter how crazy and vicious the comments sections sometimes get between users, Javabeans says her “underlying modus operandi is [that] just because it’s pop culture doesn’t mean discourse has to be shallow. I’d like to sustain a fun but hopefully substantive level of conversation, mixed with some irreverence. Because it’s not worth it if it’s no fun.”

Korea was not cool in 1985,” writes popular author and journalist Euny Hong about the time she was living in the country. But the fascination foreigners have with this small Asian country now only seems to keep on growing. From cell phones to music to TV shows, Korean cultural exports keep spreading throughout the world. Even in Milan, Italy at the recently opened international World Expo 2015: Feeding the Planet, Energy For Life, interviews with attendees showed South Korea’s pavilion to be of the ones with the most lasting impact, even among the 140 exhibiting countries.

It cannot clearly be stated if this worldwide success of South Korea as a cultural exporter is something that can be labeled just as a passing fad or as something that will last a long time. Television as a medium itself has, since its inception, been extremely powerful and the effects of this rise in Korean media are already present. As Sherri Ter Molen puts it in her essay A Cultural Imperialistic Homecoming, “Hollywood once convinced the world to wear blue jeans and smoke cigarettes.” Korean women beauty products, electronics, information technology, and automobiles are already globally recognized under the brand “Korea.” The impact of American exposure to K-dramas is also already being felt. A 2012 survey by the Los Angeles branch office of the Korea Tourism Organization shows that more than 40 percent of American Hallyu fans are adopting Korean culture by studying the Korean language. There are no quotas or restrictions that limit the free flow of Korean media and television across American borders. That is why, after decades of so-called “US worldwide cultural imperialism,” it should catch no one by surprise when, one day, the Korean Wave is no longer just a “wave” but a steady, continuous, cultural exchange whose influence is seen on television screens everywhere.