K(Korean)-pop’s path towards Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’


Jonghyun Choe is the ambassador of the Republic of Korea to Oman.

National Last year the Korean singer Psy's 'Gangnam Style' was one of the smash hits in the world of popular music. On December 21, an unprecedented milestone was reached. It became the first video in the history of the Internet to be viewed more than a billion times.

It was hailed by many as one of the cultural masterpieces of 2012. The Korean people were elated to see Psy taking the centre-stage in the global pop scene. For many, it was almost unbelievable. Many Koreans have still not gained a deep sense of confidence with respect to their country's standing even after Korea has become a very different country from the underdeveloped country it was in the early 1960s.

The first Korean song sung by a Korean singer which was also popular outside Korea was 'Oh! The guy in A Yellow shirt' which was released in 1961. It was well received in a number of Southeast Asian countries. A few years later, some Korean popular musicians, including the legendary rock guitarist Joong-hyun Shin began to produce a different kind of music influenced by American pop music.

In 1962, Joong-hyun Shin formed a four-men rock band named Add-4, and in subsequent years, he presented a wholly new and original sound to Korean music listeners. The year of 1962 was the year the first single of the Beatles was released. However, Korean pop music of those days could not go farther than its domestic market, since at that time Korea was still not so well known to the world.

The current popularity of Korean singers, TV soap operas and movies in some parts of the world has been termed the Han Ryu. The word Han Ryu was coined in China. Han means 'Korea' and Ryu means 'wave' or 'style.' Chinese broadcasting stations have played Korean popular songs since 1996. And from mid-1999, Chinese media used the word Han Ryu to refer to the increasing popularity of Korean songs and TV dramas. It became an official word in the entertainment world when one Chinese newspaper reported that 'Han Ryu conquers China' with regard to the then famous Korean singing group HOT's concert in Beijing in February 2000.

In Korea, from the early 1990's, many musicians presented a different sound or distinct genre of music, and many singing groups made up of teenagers appeared. They first spread to China, Japan and subsequently to other Asian countries with significant mainstream success. In the case of Japan, the 2002 Korean TV drama 'Winter Sonata' gained enormous success in 2004.

It was the prelude to the subsequent Han Ryu phenomenon in Japan. The Korean actor in the drama rose to cult status in Japan with sales of 'Winter Sonata'-related products. It opened the door for the success of subsequent Korean dramas. Other K-dramas released in subsequent years including Dae Jang Geum were also well received in Asia and increasingly, in other parts of the world as well. In 2006, the male singer Rain embarked on his 'Rainy Day Tour' with sold-out performances in America. This was followed by the vocal girl group 'Wonder Girls' who made their debut in 2007 and became the first K-Pop artist to enter the American Billboard Hot 100 music chart with their YouTube-hit 'Nobody' of 2008.

In parallel with the popularity of Korean songs sung by teenage singing groups, Korean movies were increasingly loved in many parts of the world. In 2004, two Korean movies received the Best Director Award at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival respectively. And last September, the Korean movie 'Pieta' won the Grand Prize at the Venice International Film Festival. In the same month, 'Gangnam Style' topped the British chart. (The international recognition of Korean movies first came when a Korean actress was awarded the Best Actress Award in the Venice International Film Festival of 1987.)

Last year's 'Gangnam Style' can be regarded as the pinnacle of the current Han Ryu. What are the factors behind this huge success? The first reason, I think is that Korea has begun to have or enjoy soft power as a result of its impressive economic development in the last five decades. Secondly, the quality of Korean pop music, dramas and movies has greatly improved since the mid 1990's. The new generation in the entertainment industry is very talented and even more creative, enabling them to produce products to compete in the international market.

Thirdly, CDs and DVDs have played a role in making music and movies more easily accessible. Another factor worthy of note is the proliferation of global social networks especially after the video sharing platform YouTube was launched in February 2005. It seems that every day, some short video clip on YouTube makes headline news. YouTube has served as a good vehicle for introducing Korea's pop culture. By the end of 2011, the total number of YouTube views generated by K-Pop videos surpassed the 1 billion mark.

The increasing popularity of Korean entertainment products has led to increased sales of other aspects of Korean culture including food and the opening of Korean language classes in the world. Taking this opportunity, as Ambassador of the Republic of Korea, I would like to express my deep gratitude to those who have liked and enjoyed the
Han Ryu.

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