The Hallyu Project

Edited by Yin Yuan

The Hallyu Project: Introduction

Yin Yuan

Cultural Specificity, Hybridity, and Transnationality in Squid Game

Benjamin Han

K-Crossover, or, Crying Over Marbles

Michelle Cho

Squid Games, Transcultural Fan Parodies: Black and Queer Adaptations

Young A. Jung

Temporal Ruptures: Crises of Meaning in Hallyu Dystopias

Sunhay You

Hallyu and Crisis

Joseph Jonghyun Jeon

K-streams: Global Korea and the OTT Era

Eunjin Choi and Rita Raley

Woo Young-Woo’s Whale: A Response to K-streams

Yin Yuan

When Korean Wave Flows Back: The Ethnic Face of Hallyu in Korean Television Audition Programs

Hyo Kyung Woo

“Don’t Let Me Fly”: on Intimacy and Fame in BTS’s Map of the Soul: 7

Lee Mandelo

Bots and Binaries: On the Failure of Human Verification

Andrea Acosta

Embodying K-Pop in Public: The (Inter-)Subjective Kinesthesia in K-Pop Random Play Dance

Zihan Feng

Pod45 Episode 11: The Hallyu Project

Post45 Contemporaries Editorial Team


Consider: Parasite's historic Best-Picture Oscar win; Squid Game's still-unrivaled Netflix triumph; the globally chart-topping tracks of BTS and Blackpink; and the recent addition of 26 new Korean words to the Oxford English Dictionary, which publicly professed that it, too, is "riding the crest of the Korean Wave." I begin here with a rhetorical gesture, listing, that the English-language media routinely performs as it tries to fathom just how the cultural exports of a non-Western nation have seized the global consciousness. The lists of K-culture's latest feats reflect the inroads it has made into mainstream Euro-American discourse. Such enumeration also bespeaks a sense of wonder toward how, to paraphrase a prevailing sentiment, a country colonized by foreign powers and ravaged by war just 70 years ago has become a global cultural powerhouse with the potential to activate what Daya Kishan Thussu calls "subaltern contra-flows" against dominant Americana.1 

One common response to the Korean Wave (also known as Hallyu) has been to demystify the phenomenon by explaining its "origins" and "essences." Befitting of its own roots in the 1851 Great Exhibition, where the collection and classification of "the world and its arts" served Britain's imperial agenda, the Victoria and Albert Museum has tried to explain Hallyu by making an exhibition out of it, supplemented with a catalog tellingly titled "The Hallyu Origin Story." Dispatched to Seoul by The Guardian in search of those same "origins," Tim Adams's report on his "brief hallyu tour" rehashes techno-Orientalist clichés about South Korea's grueling K-pop star factory, "ppalli-ppali" culture, and dubious embrace of digital virtuality that is somehow still undergirded by the traditional vitality of kimchi.

"The idea of 'culture' grants us explanatory power," Łukasz Szulc writes, "but it also activates stereotypes and simplifications."2 The problem with such stereotypes is not just that they distort reality, but also that they create essentialized meanings where none exists.

As a term, Hallyu's very etymology reflects the instability of the phenomenon it tries to name. Mandarin before it was Korean, "Hallyu" (韓流) was coined in 1997 by the Taiwanese media and initially referred to the impact of South Korea's Financial Crisis on Taiwanese raw material industries.3 The explicitly economic context behind Hallyu's naming demonstrates the relationship between South Korea's growth in culture industries and the stagnation of its national economy that Joseph Jeon has laid out compellingly in his contribution to this cluster. Facilitated by governmental investment, the Korean Wave emerged as part of the segyehwa (globalization) policy that the Kim Young-sam administration (1993-1998) launched in response to neoliberal reforms imposed by the IMF after the Asian Financial Crisis. What appeared to be a top-down policy initiative was thus, from the start, dislocated by market forces that cut across geopolitical boundaries.

By 1998, Hallyu's denotative meaning has shifted as Taiwanese newspapers began primarily employing the term as a warning against the tidal wave of Korean popular culture crashing on its shores.4 The characters "韓流" literally mean "Korean Wave," but the word is also a homophone for "cold current" (寒流), conjuring up the scene of a threatening foreign assault. Given Korea's own historical sub-alternity in relation to Japan and China, as well as its ongoing subjection to American neo-colonialism, Hallyu's emergence as a trans-Asian cultural force has created opportunities for new regional solidarities but also risks replicating what Olga Fedorenko describes as "earlier imperial imaginaries and accompanying unequal power relations."5

From the beginning, then, the cultural enterprise named by "Hallyu" highlights the "elsewhere-ness" of both its impetus and interpretation.6 The distribution, consumption, and transmedial as well as transnational adaptations of diverse cultural forms recognized as Hallyu continuously transform Hallyu's presumptive status as an umbrella term. To grasp such transformations, scholars have periodized the Korean Wave into multiple phases (Hallyu 1.0, Hallyu 2.0, and Hallyu 3.0), characterized by governmental policies (restrictive or lax), major export genres (TV and film to K-pop, webtoon, and digital game), geographical reach (from East and Southeast Asia out to the broader world), and distribution platforms (traditional television channels, CDs, and VCDs to social media and streaming platforms).7 

Netflix's investment in Korean content is widely seen as the beginning of yet another new phase, one characterized by Hallyu's growing prominence in North America. In April 2022, Seoul National University's Asia Center hosted an international conference titled "Is Netflix Riding the Korean Wave or Vice Versa," focused on developing a collaborative "analysis of new horizons generated by Netflix in tandem with the Korean Wave." Netflix's preference for action and horror breaks with the emphasis on melodrama and romance in classical K-drama, while the distinctive structure of SVOD (subscription video on demand) original content blurs the line between film and television. As cluster contributor Michelle Cho notes, the result is that, along with Bong Joon-ho's Parasite, Netflix Korean originals such as Squid Game, Kingdom, Sweet Home, Hellbound, and All Of Us Are Dead now constitute for many North American viewers the "new, paradigmatic hallyu corpus." Eunjin Choi and Rita Raley provocatively describe this new OTT-consolidated creative ecosystem as "Post-Hallyu," a kind of "transmedial universe" that skillfully cultivates audience investments through "next-generation self-reflexivity." On the other hand, Jeon reminds us that the crisis conditions underlying Hallyu's initial emergence could very well overtake the industry itself, as global audiences turn in search of the next big thing.

Where Hallyu is headed next might be anyone's guess, but what is clear from the preceding discussion is the recurrently protean nature of the phenomenon. Thus the growing ubiquity of "K" as a mobile prefix that attaches to anything and everything, from K-drama and K-pop to K-food, K-tourism, and K-style. Transforming all that it touches, the "K" that constitutes the Korean Wave is akin to what Stephen J. Collier and Aihwa Ong call a "global form," characterized by a "distinctive capacity for decontextualization and recontextualization, abstractability and movement, across diverse social and cultural situations and spheres of life."8 Not just national branding or some contested notion of essentialized "Koreanness," the prefix can perhaps be more productively thought of as a processual aspiration toward the global, materially bound by state and corporate infrastructures while opening up space for a wide range of differently-situated local concerns.9

The essays assembled in this cluster exhibit and engage with Hallyu's multiplicity, tracing the diverse meanings that can emerge from the production, distribution, and reception of globally-bound Korean cultural objects. Considered together, they ask not just what Hallyu is, but, to invoke Stuart Hall in his analysis of popular culture: When? Which aspects? For whom? Under what conditions?10


As poster child for a new era of OTT-driven K-content, the Netflix original Squid Game has emerged as a natural area of focus, providing a fertile site for inquiries ranging from cinematic form and political economy to media imperialism and uneven audience receptions. Benjamin Han questions the line between cultural specificity and cultural othering in Squid Game, arguing that the depiction of "culturally specific Korean childhood games" in the series functions as a Netflix "marketing ploy." For Han, the global K-drama smash hit should not simply be embraced as subaltern contra-flow, but exemplifies how American streaming platforms have transformed subscribers into "globalized subjects with a cosmopolitan ethos" in service to their own bottom line and in maintenance of US hegemony.

Focusing on the audience reception end, Michelle Cho similarly interrogates the concept of "global media" and the celebration of Squid Game as its paradigmatic instance. Through a structural analysis of the YouTube reaction video compilation "TEARS! 😭 | SQUID GAME FANS React to GGANBU – Episode 6 | 오징어게임," Cho finds evidence of Squid Game's reenactment of familiar emotional scripts, but argues that such aspirations toward the universal actually reveal Hallyu's targeting of Anglophone viewers as a "generic 'global' audience." At the same time, Cho notes that the flatness of such audience responses highlights the diverse meanings that "evade capture," and it is precisely to Squid Game's pluralities of reception that Young A Jung turns in her examination of Black and Queer fan parodies of the show. As Jung argues, these parody videos "illustrate how international fans make sense of globally circulated drama content by appropriating themes and characters, making continued self-referential and cultural connections. For YouTube creators, transcultural appropriations are practiced through contextualization within their local culture."

While Han, Cho, and Jung focus on Squid Game's contemporary distribution and reception, Sunhay You and Joseph Jeon both look back in time to situate the show's narrative and formal logics within Korea's economic and social development. Squid Game's allegory of South Korean household debt and labor precarity is oft-noted, but You argues that such thematization exposes US neo-coloniality and the violence of its liberal empire. Disruptive of American master narratives, the economic crises depicted in Hallyu texts such as Squid Game and Parasite short-circuit neoliberal capitalism's "linear-progressive temporality" by presenting its seductive future as a dystopic present. On the other hand, Jeon suggests that Hallyu "in many respects does not just depict economic crisis, as in the example of Squid Game, but is itself a direct expression of the economic crisis it often depicts." Through a comparative analysis with Japanese pop culture, Jeon draws attention to the crisis conditions underlying South Korea's culture industry takeoff and examines what crisis conceptually means for the future of Hallyu.

Expanding beyond Squid Game, Eunjin Choi and Rita Raley read Korean creative content in the OTT era as a self-reflexive ecosystem, where the strategic deployment of conventional tropes and intertextual allusions cultivates worldwide audience investment. For Choi and Raley, the "K" of "Global Korea" perpetuates a "fantasy structure" through its mobility and pliancy; instead of designating settled objects, it comes closer to "atmosphere." My response to the authors considers how K-drama as a global media category nevertheless opens up space for the articulation of local concerns. My approach is thus intentionally micro in scale, focusing on how the digitally-generated whale in Extraordinary Attorney Woo strives for global relevance through Hollywood-style VFX even as it draws attention to numerous domestic political issues.

In a similar vein, but turning from K-drama to K-pop audition programs, Hyo Kyung Woo examines how governmental investment in Hallyu as globalizing project and national pride "inversely penetrates everyday practices of Koreans," whose encounter with "cultural, racial, and ethnic Others" leads them to confront their own xenophobia and racism. As Woo observes, TV audition programs like Super Star K and The Great Birth often include multiracial Koreans, diasporic Koreans, and foreign nationals in their efforts to claim global terrain, but these subjects end up revealing the "discriminatory nature of Hallyu discourse in South Korea against the original intention of the audition programs."

Exemplifying Hallyu's uneven reception, the discriminatory nature of Hallyu discourse not in but beyond South Korea has generated different sets of racialized meanings. Both Lee Mandelo and Andrea Acosta address the techno-orientalism of Western media's response to K-pop artists and fans. Pushing back against what he describes as the Orientalist "tendency to discuss BTS as phenomenon," Mandelo "moves away from an external or merely surface consideration of the properties and influences of the 'the Korean wave' to an internal, reflexive positionality focused on felt experiences." To this end, he close reads BTS's fourth studio album, Map of the Soul: 7, as a singular "affect archive," a "survival mechanism" through which global artists riding or caught up in the wave wrestle with the transnational circulation and consumption of their bodies. While Mandelo's attention to bodily intensities refutes the techno-orientalist figuration of Asian performers as robotic, Acosta instead recuperates similarly racist constructions of K-pop fans as "bots" by exploring how "bothood (to borrow Taina Bucher's term) has served these fans in unexpected ways." Coordinated botlike behavior, Acosta suggests, allows K-pop fan communities to infiltrate, move through, and affect systems of power within the Western music industry, decentering US cultural hegemony and Anglophone expectation to create minoritarian possibilities.

In the cluster's final essay, Zihan Feng likewise considers K-pop fandom practices but traces movement of a different kind. Feng examines how Random Play Dance (RPD) events around the worldakin to K-pop flash mobsprovide space for "individual amateur dancers to explore their subjecthood, connect with local dancing communities, and intervene in local politics under the rubric of K-pop choreographies." Studio choreography, which serves the needs of global media capital, moves into streets and public squares, as the individual and collective dancing bodies that perform RPD into existence also re-contextualize K-pop within "vibrant and diverse social contexts."

In Feng's analysis, K-pop is "kinesthetic pop," where amateur practitioners develop affective ties with pop idols and with each other through bodily movement, imitation, and collaboration. I would like to suggest in closing that Feng's framework illuminates the Korean Wave more broadly, drawing attention to Hallyu's occurrence at the interface between the individual and the collective, the physical and the digital, the grassroots and the governmental, and the local and the global. What becomes visible in the substitution of kinesthetic movement for some sort of essentialized "Koreanness" is the approach, echoing Stuart Hall, toward culture as "routes" and not "roots." By examining Hallyu's ongoing constraint by nation-state policies and techno-economic infrastructures even as we track how variously-sited subjects find new ways, to quote Feng's provocative formulation, of "unfold[ing] a material capital to roam flexibly in the multicultural world," my hope is that this cluster will spark continued conversation regarding Hallyu's unsettledness and, for that same reason, the felicity of the Korean Wave for the pursuit and ongoing development of a global cultural studies. 

Yin Yuan (@yinyuanx) is Assistant Professor of English at Saint Mary’s College of California. Her book, Alimentary Orientalism: Britain’s Literary Imagination and The Edible East, is forthcoming with Bucknell University Press, and her current project focuses on the cultural logic of K-drama genres.  


  1. Daya Kishan Thussu, ed. Media On the Move: Global Flow and Contra-Flow (Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2007), 4. []
  2. Łukasz Szulc, "Culture Is Transnational," International Journal of Cultural Studies (2022): 2. []
  3. Qing Zhi Chen, "A Study on the Etymology of the Term ‘Korean Wave’ and the Development of the Korean Wave in Taiwan," East Asian Cultural Studies 77 (2019): 227.[]
  4. Chen, 231-232.[]
  5. Olga Fedorenko, "Korean-Wave Celebrities Between Global Capital and Regional Nationalisms," Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 18, no. 4 (2017): 501.[]
  6. On the "elsewhere-ness intrinsic to Hallyu," see also JungBong Choi, "Hallyu versus Hallyu-hwa: Cultural Phenomenon versus Institutional Campaign," in Hallyu 2.0: The Korean Wave in the Age of Social Media, eds. Sangjoon Lee and Abé Mark Nornes (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015), 40. []
  7. For a handy summary, see Dal Yong Jin, "Ten Myths About the Korean Wave in the Global Cultural Sphere," International Journal of Communication 15 (2021): 4154-4156.[]
  8. Aihwa Ong and Stephen J. Collier, eds. Global Assemblages: Technology, Politics, and Ethics as Anthropological Problems (Malden and Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), 11.[]
  9. My approach here is informed by the "global-popular" framework laid out in Bishnupriya Ghosh and Bhaskar Sarkar, The Global-Popular: A Frame for Contemporary Cinemas," Cultural Critique 114 (2022): 1-22.[]
  10. Stuart Hall, "Notes on Deconstructing the Popular," in Cultural Resistance Reader, ed. Stephen Duncombe (London and New York: Verso, 2002): 190. []

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