The Chinese media first introduced the term hallyu (meaning Korean wave) in the 1990s when South Korea’s popular culture gathered momentum in China, winning the hearts and minds of its people. Since then, Korea’s cultural influences have spread like wildfire across the world, making a notable imprint in Western countries, too.
The United States has certainly not been immune to them. Today, it is impossible to miss the Korean influence on American culture—from music and movies to cuisine and language.
The Rise of Hallyu in the United States
The relationship between South Korea and the United States goes decades back.
The immigration of Koreans to the US has been taking place in massive waves for over a century. At the same time, the two countries have also been close allies during critical wars and political turbulence since 1945. So, they are no strangers to each other, although mainstream cultural influences only strengthened over the past decade or so.
South Korea’s growing economic prosperity has had an obvious impact on its ability to promote and spread products of its popular culture on a global scale. But there is much more to their phenomenal success in the US than meets the eye.
Part of the appeal has been the gentle and respectful nature of Korean people and their strong work ethic and determination to succeed. The Japanese kawaii-style cute, lovable, and feel-good characteristics of South Korea’s cultural representations also add to their exotic charm. The intense creativity and the infusion of modern technology are other factors buoying mass acceptance.
Besides, Korea’s pop culture carries US influences, too. These undoubtedly create an underlying sense of familiarity for Americans as they experience South Korean entertainment.
Mass Appeal of K-Pop
Korean artist Psy’s Gangnam Style took the world by storm in 2012. The fun, quirky dance moves and catchy chorus also turned heads in the United States, making him an instant hit among the US media, celebrities, and the general public.
Since then, interest in K-pop has been revived only in the recent few years, mainly by the boy band BTS, followed by others like BLACKPINK, TWICE, and Stray Kids.
These bands have amassed millions of American fans, as they have in other Western countries. In fact, the US has even surpassed China to become the second-largest international market for K-pop.
This hardly comes as a surprise when you consider how well Korean pop stars have fared on US soil.
BTS, for instance, has clinched the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100, played live at the Grammys, and won the Best Artist award at the American Music Awards. Its Rose Bowl concerts became the highest-grossing engagement at the venue, outperforming the likes of U2 and Taylor Swift.
Popular Korean bands consistently attract massive fan bases to their US concerts, rake in millions of dollars on merchandise, and make regular guest appearances on US television.
Social media, Spotify and similar streaming sites, and talk shows, including those hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, James Corden, and Ellen DeGeneres, have all helped them rally support and go mainstream in the US.
New Wave of Movies and TV Shows
The influence of Korean entertainment is not just limited to music. Movies, K-dramas, and reality shows have also made a significant impact on the US culture.
Take the popular drama Squid Game, for example. Hitting number one on Netflix USA and becoming the most-watched show globally on the streaming platform, this K-drama became one of the most talked-about shows in the United States since its release in 2021.
Based on the name of a childhood game in Korea, Squid Game captivated Western audiences with its thought-provoking and, at times, gruesome storyline and high production quality. It has created a cult-like following, with fans even dressing up as its characters for Halloween.
Winning the Best Picture at the Oscars, the 2019 movie Parasite has had a similar effect on mass US viewers, although at a different scale.
Popularity of Korean Cuisine
Korean restaurants in the US had mostly catered to the Korean-American community in the past. However, the rise in popularity of Korean entertainment in recent years has led to surging demand for its tasty dishes among the larger non-Korean population, too.
Kimchi fried rice and Korean fried chicken, corn dogs, and barbecue (better known as KBBQ) have become trending foods in the United States. Ramyeon, the Korean version of the Japanese ramen, is also seeing increased interest, resulting in some manufacturers marking double-digit growth.
Certain dishes have gained attention thanks to much-loved K-dramas and movies. Dalgona candy from Squid Game and chapaguri from Parasite are notable examples.
Impact of Korean Language
In 2021, 20 Korean words were added to the Oxford English Dictionary. But even more words have become popular in the United States due to the rising influence of Korean entertainment. Terms such as hallyu, bulgogi, kimbap, and K-pop are all too familiar words for many people today.
Americans are even signing up for Korean classes, leading to a 78% jump in enrollments between 2009 and 2016. Learning the language is indeed an excellent way to explore what the country has to offer at a deeper level.
From taking a class at a local college to finding a personal language tutor on Leadar, there are a growing number of options to master the Korean language in the US now.
The United States was the second-largest export market for Korean beauty products in 2022.
Influencers, celebrities, media, and retailers have all been instrumental in introducing and promoting uniquely Korean beauty trends—from glass skin and double-cleansing to sheet masks and BB cream—to the local consumer.
Korean beauty retailers, especially Peach & Lily and Soko Glam, have also helped educate and popularize K-beauty regimes, products, ingredients, and practices among Americans. Since then, brands like Dr. Jart+, CosRx, and Laneige have gained massive attention, with Sephora, Dermstore, Ulta Beauty, and other local retail stores catching up with the trend.
Even popular US brands are making use of traditional Korean ingredients, such as red ginseng and licorice root, to come up with new product lines.
Digital connectivity has made the world smaller, creating a global platform for weaving in diverse countries and their people and cultures.
One important outcome of this is the hallyu phenomenon, which has been steadily taking over the world.
And the US was not left behind. Korean music, movies, TV shows, food, language, and beauty products have all influenced the American culture, at times creating cult-like obsessions. They are shaping not only how we consume and live but also our values, attitudes, and behaviors, creating more inclusive and creative communities that transcend geographical borders.