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The Influence of Korean Wave and K Pop on Culture of Thailand

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Introduction

In 2018, I went back to Thailand for a couple of months. It had been five years since I had been back, and during my time there, I noticed how much Bangkok has evolved and changed. Previous trips to Thailand were filled with memories of what truly made the country unique and fun: every corner was filled with delicious street food; metropolitan areas were blasting the latest Thai pop song; clips and scenes of Thai television dramas and movies would flash across screens and billboards; and Thai idols of both genders would be promoting the latest beauty product or the Thai tourism industry. However, this past year’s trip was not filled with the Thainess I loved and remembered. Instead, banners of GOT7 promoting Pepsi drinks hung from restaurants; the latest BTS single blared in shopping malls and the Bangkok Skytrain speakers; Thai celebrities opened Korean restaurants and promoted Korean skincare products. Simply put, there were a lot of Korean products being promoted and sold in Thailand, but enough Thai products. The most shocking experience I had was probably experiencing KCON without even attending the convention.

For the first time ever in the Southeast Asia, Thailand became the first country in the region to give fans the opportunity to experience and enjoy Korean culture through various panels, events, concerts and activities. In fact, KCON was the largest Korean Wave festival in Southeast Asia. Without even being a ticket holder of the event, I saw just how popular and how much of an influence K-pop had on the Thai youth. Crowds of people went to the event and were either dressed and decked out in K-pop merchandise or cosplayed their favorite Korean idol. Without fail, no matter if an idol passed by or if a van merely drove past, girls and guys alike would scream and shout Korean phrases. But what truly made this experience eye-opening was the fact that I attended a Thai convention that was right next door to KCON. The ร้านเด็ด แฟร์ (Ran-Ded Fair), a convention that features a variety of famous and well-known products and food from all over Thailand, had a big turnout but nothing compared to the size and numbers of KCON; and the attendees mostly consisted of older generations. Part of the reason why I found this so interesting was the way both events were advertised.

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Ads for KCON were everywhere around Bangkok; from billboards to commercials to radio announcements. The Ran-Ded Fair was mostly advertised on daytime talk shows and sparse television commercials. From that point on, I really began noticing just how many Korean cultural products were available in Thailand and just how much of an influence it had on popular culture and on the Thai youth. For the Thai youth, when consuming K-pop or, to make it a bit broader, Korean culture in general, they do not stop at just listening to BLACKPINK and Wanna One or watching “Descendants of the Sun”; they live and breathe K-pop, following fashion trends, imitating K-idols’ personalities, covering dances and songs or even learning the Korean language.

I am no longer a hardcore fan of K-pop, but I do still enjoy listening to groups such as 2PM and GOT7, while watching the occasional K-drama. But my most recent trip to Thailand made me think back to the days of when I was a fanatical “fangirl” and just how much of an influence K-pop had on my teenage life. Embracing and wanting to raise awareness about Thai culture, I began to wonder just how fanatical the youth in Thailand is about K-pop and whether it is affecting the Thainess of the country’s culture. It is this personal experience that drives me to gain further insights into Thailand’s reception of K-pop and examine whether the country is assimilating or accommodating the Korean Wave.

The tidal wave of K-pop in Thailand has probably gone beyond its intended aims, reaching a position of dominant power and influence unprecedented in local culture. My concern is that there is too much of an influence of K-pop on Thai youths as well as the future of Thai culture. Why are K-pop fans so fanatical, and what makes Korean products so popular in Thailand? Therefore, my fundamental question will revolve around cultural imperialism, and this essay will seek to examine how local Thai audiences react to and/or are influenced by Korean cultural products, as well as the different ways the Korean Wave has penetrated the lives of Thai youths. I also contend that increased exposure and acceptance of Korean cultural content in Thailand inhibits the creativity and desire for Thai cultural content, thus sidelining Thai popular culture.

The qualitative research of the effect of K-pop on Thai culture and identity will mostly be based on a collection of secondary data, which will come from various articles, journals, books, statistical research and more. Primary data would ideally be acquired from interviews with Thai K-pop fans, Thai professors, entertainment agencies and Korean cosmetic sellers as well as personal observations. Interviews are expected to be conducted in person directly or via email with questions designed within the framework of the topic discussed in the paper.

An Overview of Cultural Imperialism

Adopted to portray a modern form of imperialism in an increasingly globalized world, the framework of cultural imperialism can be described as a relationship where leading countries promote their culture in less powerful nations, exalting and spreading values and habits. The concept of cultural imperialism can either refer to the forced assimilation to the dominant culture, or to the voluntary embracing of the foreign culture. Because of these two referents, the dominant cultural influence can be viewed as a threat or enrichment to the local culture’s identity, and depending on the culture or group’s stance, the imported products thus represent certain consumerist values. In other words, the “receiving” culture either actively or passively absorbs the foreign culture using the foreign culture’s goods and services.

An Overview of Pop Culture

When thinking of the term pop culture, one might automatically think of music, television series or big screen films. While there are generally many different agreed elements comprising popular culture, the term can easily be defined as the culture of the people that is accessible to the masses. In other words, popular culture consists of “aspects of attitudes, behaviors, beliefs, customs, and tastes that define the people of any society.” Popular culture is constantly becoming, changing, adapting and emerging out of the activities of every day life. Through globalization and technological advances, individuals can keep tabs with what they find interesting. As a result, the spread of culture establishes principles, a structure of practices and representations that help formulate one’s cultural identity.

Cultural identity is the product of a person’s history and/or habits to which they cope with through what is currently in trend, thus act accordingly. In basic terms, society creates a culture that expresses their deepest desires or manifestation of what a person wants. Pop culture is important because it has the potential of influencing people’s attitudes towards certain topics and is driven by what is current and in trend in society. Especially today where technological advancements have allowed for the rapid spread of pop culture, technology has also transformed the way people consume culture. By utilizing technology, pop culture is a collective of experiences and an expression through which people can come together, share, network and create said “culture.”

Pop Culture as a Soft Power

American political scientist Joseph Nye coined the term soft power in his 1990 book, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power as a way to describe how a country gets what it wants when another country admires the powerful country’s values, thus wanting to emulate it in order to prosper. To achieve soft power, pop culture must be able to change a person’s “perceptions, preferences and interpretative frameworks” through consumption of pop culture content, which in turn must be effectively distributed and circulated in order to penetrate the local culture.

Background on the Korean Wave

Over the last decade, there has been an increasing amount of Korean popular content – which spans television dramas, pop songs, beauty products and more – that has gained popularity in East Asian and Southeast Asian countries. Dubbed the ‘Korean Wave,’ or ‘Hallyu’ by news media and magazines as a way of identifying the rise in popularity of South Korean culture around the world, the cultural phenomenon became all the rage across Asia where pop culture was once dominated by Japan and Hollywood. Carried by the Internet and social media, the Korean Wave evolved from a regional development into a movement that helped South Korea emerge as a major exporter of popular culture and tourism. The media has aided in the promotion, distribution and consumption of various forms of Korean content, heavily impacting contemporary cultures and the entertainment industry throughout the world. In 2009, South Korea exported nearly $3 billion in entertainment, more than double 2002 exports.

Korean Television Dramas

Although the Korean Wave has gained more traction than ever before in recent years, the initial stages of the cultural phenomenon began in the early twenty-first century and was first driven by the spread of Korean soap operas and Korean pop music across East and Southeast Asia. The country went from never enjoying any regional or international acclaim for its popular culture to being recognized as the pioneer of popular culture products.

Korean television programs are the forefront of the Korean Wave’s success as broadcasting corporations – both networks and cable channels – began to rapidly develop their new television programs based on global television formats. Aside from obtaining a license to produce and remake a foreign TV program, Korean broadcast companies also began to diversify their exports by producing original reality shows, game shows and dramas. As a result, the early 1990s saw an influx of new local producers that sparked domestic competition, thus producing higher quality dramas post-1997 economic crisis. This led to the decline of imported foreign programs and an increase in South Korean exports, one of which was television programs, which was about a 30 percent increase per year.

Domestic programs and serialized TV dramas, called miniseries, typically run from 16 to 24 episodes, with each episode running approximately 50 minutes. Melodramas, which are considered the cornerstone of the Korean drama industry, enjoyed the most popularity, and series like What is Love All About (1997) helped establish an interest in K-dramas in other East Asian countries. The reason why K-dramas experienced such a particular boom was because of their quality, pricing and relatable cultural characteristics, and additionally, the dramas were characterized by emotional story lines that center on family or heart-wrenching love stories. Compared to the unit price of a Japanese drama, which was about $5,000-$8,000 in 2000, Korean television dramas were about $1,326 in 2001. Some of the most notable K-drama series that helped carry the Wave to success in the 2000s was Winter Sonata, which achieved immense popularity among Japanese audiences, and Daejanggeum, which was widely received in Thailand. The actors of the dramas – Yong Joon Bae (Winter Sonata) and Young Ae Lee (Daejanggeum) – have been categorized into what is called the Hallyu 1.0 era, which paved the way for Hallyu 2.0 era stars such as Lee Min Ho (Boys Over Flowers) and Soo Hyun Kim (My Love from Another Star) to reach worldwide recognition. As of 2008, K-drama exports have been the largest share, making up 91.9 percent.

Korean Popular Music

While Korean popular music has evolved since the late 1990s, the basis of its fame and popularity remains the same. Along with Korean television dramas, K-pop – which includes dance-pop, pop ballads, techno, rock, hip-hop, R&B and more – is another primary cultural form at the forefront of the Korean Wave. Pre-Hallyu era or the 1980s, the Korean music industry was mostly domestic in the way it was distributed and consumed, and mostly consisted of ballads in the music industry as they “conformed to standard romantic themes and avoided sexual connotations…” Fast forwarding to the early 1990s, there was one key musician that helped spark the spread and influence of K-pop: Seo Taiji and the Boys. The group introduced music genres and styles that was a hybrid of Western and traditional Korean music genres, which evidently marked the beginning of the modern era of K-pop. Seo Taiji and the Boys pioneered the use of hip-hop and new jack swing with the implementation of Korean lyrics to blend the old and new cultures of the West and East. Seo Taiji’s 1992 track “Nan arayo” (“I know”) became one of the first rap songs to use the Korean language.

One of the major traits that helped characterize the growth of local popular culture in the 1990s in South Korea was the hybridization of K-pop. Due to the implementation of mixing various cultural elements that were both local and global, the “non-locality” of K-pop became easy to cross national borders, thus resulting in the globalization of K-pop we have today. Additionally, there are interactions, instruments and stylistic features that set K-pop apart from other music genres. With the rise of a new generation known as shinsedae, the values, customs, lifestyles and mind-set of the younger audiences began to change from that of the older generation’s, with more people growing up in urban areas and partaking in more Westernized activities. The loosening of censorship by the government in 1993 also influenced the change in styles and lyrics, which allowed for K-pop to both domestically and globally grow, increasing 71 percent in 1996 to 80 percent in 2004. With its danceable rhythm, catchy melody, slick choreography and good-looking singers, K-pop rapidly spread throughout East and Southeast Asia.

K-Pop Generations

First generation K-pop celebrities included teenage idol groups such as H.O.T., Baby V.O.X. and Shinhwa, which helped establish the audition processes and in-house training systems of major entertainment companies that the industry has become known for today. The production style of manufacturing boy and girl bands is primarily credited to Su Man Lee, founder of SM Entertainment. His strategic marketization of K-pop stars was eventually adopted by other entertainment houses, such as JYP Entertainment and YG Entertainment – all three of which have become the biggest and most famous labels in South Korea. The K-pop trainee system reflects the Japanese idol production system where music companies focus on raising up young, TV-friendly talents through use of singing and dancing. One major turning point for the K-pop industry was the debut of BoA in early 2001. K-pop was relatively unknown to the global music market, but it was not until SM Entertainment specifically began to promote and manufacture the singer to be a hybridized pop icon specially aimed at targeting the overseas market. BoA’s image combined elements from both American and J-pop music, which can be seen in her singing, dancing and fashion.

BoA’s 2002 debut Japanese album, Listen to My Heart became a million-dollar seller, making her the first Korean artist to debut atop the Oricon charts. Her success overseas paved the way for other Korean cultural products to find success in Japan, but moreover, led subsequent Korean artists to target Japan, which can be seen when Korean artists release a Japanese version of their singles and remake Korean music videos into Japanese marketed music videos. BoA’s image combined elements from both American and J-pop music, which can be seen in her singing, dancing and fashion.

Some K-pop groups that are noteworthy for similar success are TVXQ from SM Entertainment and Big Bang from YG Entertainment. Girl groups KARA and Girls’ Generation (also known as SNSD) found immense success not only in Korea, but in Japan as well for releasing Japanese versions of their songs Mister and Mr. Taxi, respectively. Hailing from JYP Entertainment are groups such as Wonder Girls, 2PM and 2AM, all of which became famous names of late-2000s era of the Korean Wave.

Global Turning Points for K-pop

Although the Korean Wave experienced a slight decline in the mid-2000s, the industry regained momentum since 2008 when Korean popular music began to be enjoyed more by North American and European audiences. In 2010, the export of K-pop came in at about $83.2 million before increasing to $310 million in 2014. The sales of music CDS once accounted for most of the exports before online sales increased, followed by digital music and music events such as fan meet and greets. The second largest region to import Korean popular music due to the influence of the Korean Wave, after Japan (75.8 percent), was Southeast Asia, which accounted for 13.1 percent in 2011. China came in third, accounting for 3.4 percent while Europe accounted of 2.4 percent and North America accounted for only 0.3 percent.

Although artists such as Girls’ Generation, Rain, and Ailee experienced mild success in North American music markets, their influence and popularity from the Korean Wave was not enough to make a dent. However, in 2012, Psy, famously known for Gangnam Style turned things around, successfully helping K-pop penetrate not only Asian markets but Western markets as well.

The Internet and social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter made it easier for K-pop bands reach a wider audience, which was how Psy garnered worldwide fame. Social media expedited the growth of K-pop as it made music videos, songs and the idols themselves more accessible. The boost of K-pop is also thanks to the devotion of fans who utilize social networking to spread their love of K-pop while also promoting Korean culture. Focusing on YouTube, the platform has come a long way when it comes to publishing and promoting K-pop content. Subtitles along with automatic captions through speed-recognition technology has also helped to break down the language barrier, allowing for a wider range of audiences. K-pop has become so popular on YouTube that the video-sharing website has since categorized K-pop as a distinctive music genre.

The Hybridization of K-pop

What makes K-pop so popular and unique is the utilization of hybridization when it comes to production. Through coproduction with foreign producers and composers, K-pop has not only been noted for its catchy Korean lyrics but mix of English lyrics as well. In order to target the global youth, K-pop fuses Korean with other languages like English and Japanese to extend the demographic and popularize the genre in other countries besides Korea. With the popularization of K-pop in other parts of the world, entertainment powerhouses have set up regional offices and branches to internationalize. This internationalization is another significant globalization tactic to help K-pop sell overseas, and due to the increasingly global nature of K-pop, members of idols groups are no longer strictly Korean anymore. For many years, Korean pop groups have included members from Japan and China alongside ethnically Korean members, but as K-pop began to spread to other regions such as Southeast Asia, entertainment houses realized that to appeal to that country’s audience, they would need to identify with fans through a band member.

Including a member from another country allowed for the star to speak and engage with fans and the media better in their own language. One prime example of this is Nichkhun of 2PM. Despite his weak singing and dancing skills, he was still selected by JYP to become a member of the famous boy band because of his looks and personality. However, it was more of his cosmopolitan background that really helped him and his group penetrate other Asian markets. His Thai nationality created new revenue potential, especially in Thailand, helping 2PM gain numerous endorsements in both Korea and Thailand as well as become representatives of a tourism campaign led by the Thai government. Nichkhun’s success as a foreign member in a Korean band is a pivotal marker of the Korean entertainment industry’s globalization strategy as well as to Korea’s own changing perception to diversity. Now, the Korean industry has seen diversity like never before, with many other famous groups selecting foreign individuals to become K-pop idols. Examples include Bambam (Thai) and Mark (Taiwanese-American) of GOT7; Lisa of BLACKPINK (Thai); and Tzuyu (Taiwanese) of TWICE.

The Korean Wave in Thailand

“Pride in Thainess is lived out in food, language, and other cultural practices.” This statement could not be truer in a country that does a lot to uphold its collective identity. While there is a great deal of efforts trying to preserve Thai traditions and cultures, Thailand remains a country that is heavily influenced by foreign nations, one of which is South Korea. The Korean Wave has had somewhat of an influence on certain goods between both countries, especially dramas, music and cosmetics. In addition to the increase of Korean cultural products, there has been a rise in the number of people who are interested in Korean culture and language itself.

South Korea’s Relationship with Thailand

Thailand and South Korea have strong diplomatic ties in numerous areas since 1950 when North Korean military forces invaded the South and Thailand became the first country in Asia to send troops to assist South Korean forces. Fast forward 40 years later, South Korea has experienced rapid success economically, surpassing that of Thailand’s. In an effort to adopt and adapt Korea’s strategies into its own economy and culture, Thai civil servants traveled to Korea in order to observe the country’s industrial and urban development. The South Korean government began to emphasize its cultural industry export on foreign countries in order to attract interest and build a positive image. Because Thailand has a high preference for Hallyu content, the country has become a hub region in Southeast Asia because Thailand also has influence over neighboring countries.

K-Dramas in Thailand

The country began to export movies and television series other countries in Asia, starting from China, before making its way to Thailand. As a result, the Korean Wave gained its popularity in Thailand from Korean miniseries, with the most famous and influential drama being “Winter Sonata.” Thai TV stations later began airing more K-dramas in response to the higher demand, with Channel 3 and Channel 7, arguably two of Thailand’s most famous public TV stations, airing famous dramas such as Coffee Prince, Full House, Daejanggeum and more. Now, Korean dramas make up a lot of the main programming of various Thai TV stations, and a lot of Thailand’s broadcast market has taken to remaking famous Korean dramas and adapting them to the style and culture of Thailand.

Tentative Conclusion

The cultural phenomenon of the Korean Wave has increased its efforts to create global awareness of the different aspects of South Korean culture and is evidenced by its popularity and established foothold in Thailand. Because Southeast Asia is a region that posses its own diverse history of interaction with transitional cultural products, it is interesting how much K-pop has come to become a popular choice of entertainment and influence over the Thai youth and local Thai culture. From personal observations, it seems as if Thailand is not assimilating with the Korean Wave, but rather being accommodated by it. As this essay continues to be structured out, I will further to explore the ways in which the Thai youth have become consumers of K-pop, how K-pop is marketed in Thailand, and how Thailand’s own creativity is affected when it comes to national mass media production. The essay will also aim to examine Thailand’s own entertainment industry and how characteristics of K-pop influence have penetrated the industry, and whether or not Thailand can possibly learn valuable lessons from the Korean Wave in order to establish a Thai Wave of its own.

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