K-Dramas and the Global Reach of Korean Popular Culture


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.

The major Korean television networks had already begun to license some of their programming to Asia, including Japan, China, Southeast Asia and beyond. But they did not anticipate the growing popularity of K-dramas in the West. In 2009, the first licensed site to offer streaming video of Korean dramas to an American audience was launched, called DramaFever. Earlier this month, it had become so successful that it was bought by Japan’s mobile communications giant, SoftBank.

As DramaFever grew, their assumptions about who would watch and why were turned upside down. They presumed that their episodes of primarily Korean dramas (with some Japanese and Chinese shows) — which could be viewed for free with commercial interruptions or without ads for a monthly fee — would be watched primarily by Asian-Americans. But here’s what they found: viewers were mostly women ages 18 to 24, of whom 40% were white, 30% Latino, 15% black, and 15% Asian. DramaFever estimates their subscribers watch over 50 hours of episodes each month. Independent research confirms these demographics. So, in 2014, millions of Americans are binge-watching Korean dramas, subtitles and all, much as Unificationists had been doing a few years earlier.

Of course, Unificationists have preferred historical dramas (the good and mediocre ones) with some modern exceptions, such as Shining Inheritance, Kimchi Family, or the recent hit, My Love from Another Star. But what the typical non-UC American viewer of Korean dramas prefers are the modern programs, whether romantic comedies or dramas. For members of our movement, we’ve always had a yearning to better understand the culture from which Reverend and Mrs. Moon come, and the unique strengths it has to advance the providence. But for Westerners in general, watching Korean dramas is an opportunity to explore cultural narratives that differ from their own, and, as entertainment, is a gateway to a culture that seems to have qualities missing in our own. In Iran, for example, Korean dramas often are far more popular than local programming. Korean dramas also are popular throughout Latin America (even Cuba), which is already accustomed to watching telenovelas.

In North Korea, K-dramas, though banned outright, have become increasingly popular not just as entertainment, but for the window they provide into the lives of their countrymen in the South. They are prohibited because they influence social consciousness and contradict what North Koreans are taught about the wider world. The awareness that South Korea has a far higher standard of living is becoming pervasive in the North. Episodes are smuggled in from China on DVDs and USB sticks. A good guess is that many young people — and some middle-aged as well — regularly watch South Korean dramas. But if caught watching, North Koreans can be severely punished.

Jumong Couple

A still (top) and video clip from the end of episode 73 of Jumong, depicting the marriage of Prince Jumong and Lady Sosuhno, the founders of the Korean kingdom of Goguryeo (from about the 2:00 mark). This is the original Korean HD clip; the full episode in SD with English subtitles can be watched here (image and clip courtesy of MBC).

Some of us have been watching Korean historical dramas pretty much continuously for the past seven years or so (and apparently so have Reverend and Mrs. Moon). They are far more entertaining, enjoyable and edifying than most of what one can find on American television.

That said, after countless hours of watching these dramas — and lots of redundant plots and reused motifs — one can’t help but wonder about some of the messages that cumulatively come from these programs. After all, the way some typical characters behave is how Korean directors and screenwriters deliberately have chosen to portray their culture, admittedly first to the Korean audience, but eventually also to the rest of the world.

One could say that many historical Korean dramas present the full range of Korean character, warts and all (e.g., the bad guys always vehemently deny their wrongdoing even when everyone saw them commit the crime). In that sense, Unificationists, having decades of experience working with Korean leaders, can readily relate to the good and bad traits depicted in these dramas. It’s a stretch to say that “everything I know about Korea I learned from watching Korean dramas,” but it is probably correct to say that Western Unificationists, at least, watch Korean dramas partly because they remind us of our experience relating to Koreans over many years.

In the last decade, the world has become familiar with the “Korean Wave” or Hallyu phenomenon, which until now had been largely associated with Korean pop music. Korea’s pop music is a separate discussion, though it has made significant inroads beyond Asia into Europe and is starting to make an impact on the U.S. But the emergence of Korean dramas as a serious source of entertainment for Americans — not only with the emergence of sites such as DramaFever and other licensed K-drama sites,* but also the fact that selected Korean dramas can be found on YouTube, Hulu and Netflix — is far more significant than music. Film and television, when done well, can be utterly captivating, especially when viewers can immerse themselves into an entirely foreign culture but with universal themes.

For Unificationists who joined decades ago, it is astounding that Korea, a country which in the early 1970s was still poor and had just recovered from the devastation of the Korean War, could rise to where it is not only one of the world’s leading economic powers, but is now a cultural powerhouse.

It would be best to view this new phenomenon not as heaven’s way to Koreanize the world, but as a means to help the world adapt those qualities inherent in Korean culture that could enable it to go beyond the existing conflicts and injustices, which are the staple of daily life. In that sense, we could see the growing globalization of Korean popular culture as a way to help all humanity to better become true individuals, each with one’s unique relationship with God, rather than a method for the absorption of humankind into a Koreanized world culture whose center is Korea.

*   *   *

What are your thoughts about Korean dramas and Korean culture? What are your favorite shows and why? What can we learn from these shows — and what should we avoid bringing in to our own cultures? Feel free to post your comment below.♦

*others are Viki, SoompiTV, Mnet America, and mVibo

Dr. Mark P. Barry is Lecturer in Management at Barrytown College and Managing Editor of the Applied Unificationism Blog. Long ago, he lost track of how many Korean dramas he’s watched.

Photo at top: A still of Kim Soo-hyun and Jun Ji-hyun from My Love from Another Star (viewable link), a hit romantic comedy-drama that aired in South Korea from December 2013 to February 2014 (photo courtesy SBS). An American remake is under development at ABC.

9 thoughts on “K-Dramas and the Global Reach of Korean Popular Culture

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  1. Whew! When I saw the article title about “K-Dramas,” I thought this might just be another piece on what goes on in the church. Thank goodness I was wrong.

  2. I am not sure about using the collective “we” when referring to Unificationists who watch K-dramas. I know several people who watch them, particularly those with mixed Korean-American blood, but I can’t say that I have watched more than a couple of them.

    The one cultural trait that I admire is “harmony.” Traditionally, great pains seem to be taken in Korean culture to avoid behavior that causes social disharmony and disorder. In the West, people are quick to use a sharp tongue in the name of free speech, and this trend is emphasized on anonymous internet posts. It is popular to call for social revolution and uprising in the West but, guided by the principle of harmony, I would see a much more constructive and transformational approach to social change.

    I’m not sure how much K-dramas reflect the principle of harmony, but I assume that still might be a Korean ideal even after modernization of the society.

  3. The best way to know Korean culture, at least for those fortunate enough to be able to spend time in this nation, is to work in the society, or at least travel to various islands, distant towns, mountains, valleys and villages. Even hitchhike here and there, since this is very easy in this land for internationals of all ages (even many women will take an older male in their car!). This would be a good alternative to watching endless dramas on TV — even though the historical K-dramas can be quite good, and for those unable to visit Korea, this would be a good alternative. The modern dramas, however, are showing a lot of fallen nature, anger/pride/fight/power play/materialism, in my opinion, and is not advisable.

    Korean people easily share food and what they own with others, and because of the respectful and honorable way they address each other and particularly elders (even among friends and colleagues), they work together very easily, and organize themselves quickly. There are no social support systems for those who do not want to work, so it makes the society more healthy. Many Koreans may not realize these qualities themselves and are not inclined to publicize them, as they grew up in it, and they are looking for more and more Western value systems to adopt; this is of course good in some cases, but not in many others.

  4. Culture as defined by:
    “the quality in a person or society that arises from a concern for what is regarded as excellent in arts, letters, manners, scholarly pursuits, etc.” would seem to actually have little to do with “popularity,” but then we seem to have resolved that dilemma, somehow, with the juxtapositioning of the two words “culture” and “popular”; birthing the malapropism, “popular culture.”
    And so it goes; east, west, north, south, ever awkwardly, a semblance of or faux harmony beckons.

    Have watched a few of these as well as way too much more. Prefer much less now as am seldom moved or even surprised by any of it. Ah, but for the brief captivating moment.

  5. Have to admit I’ve never been a fan of Korean dramas. Somehow the excessive displays of good and evil don’t move me, and much of what I saw seemed ridiculous and full of clichés. Of course bad subtitles didn’t help!

    I agree that to understand Korean culture it’s much better to live there. Watching movies and TV can be quite misleading. I grew up in Scotland and watched a lot of American movies and TV shows before moving to the States. From what I watched I was convinced everyone carried guns, the Mafia (or other gangs) ran the show, you got mugged every day in New York, and everyone drove fast cars. I was shocked when I arrived here (speed limit was 55 mph!) and people seemed kind of normal. My one experience of meeting Americans turned out valuable – they recommended New York bagels!

    Anyway, I do find Korean culture fascinating. Even after having visited several times I still can’t say I understand it. Maybe I should watch more Korean dramas!

  6. Thanks, Mark. Great piece. I’ve enjoyed Korean shows on Hulu for years. I find them a great window to the Korean heart and soul. The subtitles are no problem. After awhile, I can almost believe I understand the language. After all these years, it’s highly unlikely that I’ll learn to speak Korean, so this is the next best way to gain insight into the culture, thinking and values.

  7. Getting to know a culture is one thing; making it part of you quite another. One of the most basic forms of culture is the way of addressing each other, but even Westerners who have lived in Korea for a long time find it hard to adopt that aspect of Korean culture. Koreans, however, quickly adopt the Western way when they get a chance…a mystery!

  8. 2017 update: DramaFever is now owned by Time Warner, the U.S. media conglomerate, and is the main American site to stream Korean dramas (about 95% of legally-streamed Korean dramas in the U.S. are watched on DramaFever on a variety of devices). The remaining 5% of Korean dramas are watched on Viki, which is Japanese-owned and uses community-translated subtitles but also offers multiple subtitle languages. Both tend to carry most new releases, with each occasionally retaining an exclusive for a particular show.

    1. 2019 update: DramaFever was closed by new owner AT&T in October 2018. Rakuten’s Viki is still in operation and partners with Kocowa (owned by the big three South Korean broadcasters) to co-offer some of their dramas in the U.S., or Kocowa can be subscribed to separately. But these days, Netflix offers a tremendous selection of current and recent Korean dramas and is emerging as the exclusive source outside Korea for many new K-Dramas.

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