K-Dramas and the Global Reach of Korean Popular Culture

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By Mark P. Barry

Mark Barry Photo 2Unificationists were among the first binge-watchers in the world. Well before our era of watching multiple episodes of a previously aired TV show, many of us became consumed with enjoying Korean historical dramas (saeguks) at night. A lot of us started with DVDs of episodes of Jumong (whose lead actor met with Reverend Moon in 2007), and followed it up with Hur Jun, Jewel in the Palace or the modern romance, Winter Sonata (filmed at the Yongpyong ski resort). Amazingly, compared to binge-watchers of American television, we enjoyed it all even despite having to read subtitles since K-dramas are in the Korean language. These dramas typically were 20, 50, even 80 or more episodes long (many “seasons” of a U.S. drama are just 13 episodes).

For many Unificationists, our enjoyment of a steady diet of Korean historical dramas began six to eight years ago. If we couldn’t borrow the discs, sometimes we could find a show streamed — often in several 10 minute segments — from various transient websites. Real enthusiasts would learn how to download, through peer-to-peer sharing, “torrents” of episodes of dramas we wanted from fans who uploaded them for other fans. Ad hoc groups of English-speaking Koreans would create often high-quality subtitles for the original episodes so that non-Koreans could understand what was being said.

For Unificationists, above all, the reason to watch episode upon episode of Korean historical dramas was because of the heart expressed in the ways people cared for one other. It seemed that especially in Korea’s traditional culture, we could see a more idealized form of how people could relate. These drama episodes certainly had good guys and bad guys, and plenty of demonstrations of utmost loyalty and filial piety, but they also had real heart – the kind we would be hard-pressed to find on American television.

The irony is this mini-phenomenon among Unificationists, Western and Japanese, foreshadowed the growing phenomenon of the popularity of K-dramas not just throughout Asia but globally, including the United States.

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