Korean culture has become a worldwide sensation. Over the past two decades, Korean cultural exports such as television programs, K-pop, and video games have garnered a global audience. Netflix’s Korean series Squid Game hit number one on the streaming platform in 90 countries. BTS has become the most loved boy band in the world, debuting 5 studio albums at No.1 on the Billboard 100 in the past five years. South Korea is attracting more international students, showing a 13% increase in enrollment every year before the pandemic. This global fascination with Korean culture, labeled the “Korean Wave” by foreign media outlets (or Hallyu in Korean), is growing as big as ever. 

South Korea’s neighbor, Japan, has been an enthusiastic recipient of South Korea’s pop culture successes. Japan was one of the 90 countries where Squid Game hit number one. BTS became the top-selling artist in Japan in 2021, the first overseas artist to win the title. Before the pandemic, Japanese students were studying abroad in South Korea at a 10% annual increase every year. Clearly, the Korean Wave has swept over Japan.

As Japan and South Korea have a rocky relationship, the Korean Wave brings hope for the two countries to reconcile. Yet, cultural appeal alone is not enough for a major policy shift. If Japan and South Korea want to mend relations, they need to commit to addressing underlying issues. 

Creating the Korean Wave

While the Japanese rush for K-pop concert tickets, few consumers actually know the origins of Korea’s pop culture success. The Korean Wave actually blossomed out of a government initiative to expand its entertainment industry in the aftermath of the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997. Struggling to rebound from economic recession, it was clear that South Korea could no longer sustain itself on low-cost labor and the manufacturing sector and needed to promote an alternative industry to recover. South Korean policy-makers thus took a creative approach to develop a more resilient and creative Korean economy. 

Then-President Kim Dae-jung set his eyes on expanding the cultural sector as one of the main methods for economic growth. While the manufacturing sector was stagnant, the cultural sector showed potential for growth in global markets. Kim Dae-jung implemented a wide range of policies to develop the nation’s cultural industries, like increasing subsidies to the film and music industry and increasing the cultural budget from $4 million USD to a whopping $530 million USD. This endeavor proved successful, and later presidents followed suit in developing South Korea’s cultural sector. 

Kim Dae-jung and his successors’ policies boosted the domestic economy. South Korea’s cultural exports rose by 650% from $189 million USD in 1998 to $12.3 billion in 2019. The cultural sector has employed three percent of the entire South Korean workforce since 2017, surpassing the size of the semiconductor, computer, and telecommunications sectors. 

A Promising Past 

Although the Korean Wave didn’t necessarily aim to improve relations with other countries, as South Korean culture gains ground in Japan, it’s possible the Korean Wave can help improve governmental relations between the two countries. 

Pop culture has been useful in the past for improving relations as a form of soft power. In 1998, President Kim Dae-jung lifted the ban on Japanese cultural products after a decades-long ban in South Korea. The South Korean government had imposed the ban out of anger over Japan’s harsh colonial rule in the country which lasted from 1910 to 1945. To maintain their colonial project, Japanese authorities promoted the educational, religious, and cultural assimilation of Koreans. Korean students were forced to speak and learn Japanese, visit shintō shrines for worship periodically, and adopt Japanese names.

Yet, as aspects of Japanese pop culture like film and music were becoming popular, Kim believed that lifting the ban would boost the Korean economy and positively influence Korea’s own entertainment industry. This policy, part of the Japan-South Korea Joint Declaration of 1998, was the most significant improvement in Japan-South Korea relations since the colonial period according to some experts

Now, riding the Korean Wave, South Korea’s cultural popularity in Japan could similarly facilitate a policy shift. During a virtual event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), prominent political scientist Joseph Nye stated that there is a “broad cultural base among younger people” who will provide support for the Japanese prime minister, Fumio Kishida, on policy changes. This could be a timely opportunity to restore the bilateral relationship. Ultimately, using pop culture as a form of soft power incentivized two hostile countries to re-establish friendly relations.

A Hard Reality

Even though there’s a precedent of using pop culture to improve international relations between Japan and South Korea, the reality of using soft power to change policy is far more complicated than it appears on screen. Translating cultural appeal into actual power is where the difficulty lies. This would require long-term changes in how Japan interacts with South Korea. Currently, there is a big gap between the Japanese appreciation for Korean culture versus their political views on their neighbors.

According to a 2019 public-opinion poll conducted by the Cabinet, 87.9% of Japanese viewed the Japan-South Korea relationship as “bad” or “very bad.” In other words, even if the Japanese love ramyeon and Squid Game, their views on Japanese-South Korean politics remain unchanged. 

There is such a drastic misalignment in perceptions because those attracted to the Korean Wave are not engaged in politics. South Korean culture is most popular among the youth, who are widely uninterested in politics. “The people who like Korean pop culture don’t really care about diplomacy and don’t care about Japan-Korea relations,” says Dr. Michael Green, a senior vice president for the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Although former President Kim Dae-jung’s policy to expand South Korea’s cultural sector into global markets has yielded great success, improving Japanese-South Korean relations requires more than relying on the Korean Wave. 

Getting to the Crux of the Matter

Conclusively, there are limits to what cultural appeal can do. In the case of Japan and South Korea, an appreciation of culture alone will not make these two nations shake hands and move forward after years of traumatic relations. In addition, Japanese and South Korean leaders need to show readiness to address deep-rooted problems. This includes remediating the Takeshima/Dokdo territorial dispute, the legacy of forced sex trafficking during WWII by Japan, and forced wartime labor. Working on these issues could build a trusting friendship and working relations between the two neighbors. Only with full commitment will Japan and South Korea ride the Korean Wave to its heights.  

Edited by Pearl Zhou

Yulina Goto

Yulina Goto (she/her) is a Japanese undergraduate student at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. She is Japanese and grew up in the US, Japan, Denmark, and Taiwan. In her free time, she...