If you've swooned over BTS, bought beauty products from Soko Glam, binge-watched "Squid Game" or hungered for kimbap, you've contributed to one of today's hottest trends.
Hallyu, which translates to "Korean wave" and refers to South Korea's cultural industry, has swept over America. No age group is immune to its strength.
"Baby Shark," the children's music video from Pinkfong, has more than 10 billion hits, making it the most watched YouTube video of all time. Nine K-pop albums were among the top 100 bestselling ones last year, thanks to the teen followers.
Young adults are hooked on Korean dramas like "The King's Affection" and "Snowdrop," even if they need to rely on subtitles or dubbed English. Following the success of "Squid Game" last fall, Netflix is releasing 25 original films and series this year.
No wonder hallyu was one among 26 words of Korean origin added to the Oxford English Dictionary last year.
"Korea is having an unusual moment," said Patricia Liu, who launched the Minneapolis-based newsletter Best of Korea in March 2021. "In terms of popularity, we're at a pinnacle. We were at a steakhouse the other night and all our waitress wanted to talk about was 'Squid Game.'"
Minnesotans like Liu are more than just fans.
MKDC, an award-winning dance troupe based in Minneapolis, dedicates several hours a week mimicking the steps of South Korean choreographers through videos for performances across the country. At a recent rehearsal at the Cowles Center, about a dozen young people stretched and sweated to Aespa's "Savage," which sounds like a collaboration between Britney Spears and Abba, shrieking with delight every time a fellow dancer arrived at the studio.
Soaking it in
"K-pop has led me to aspects of Korean culture that I otherwise might not have found." said 23-year-old Lauren Frommelt, who is in her fourth year of dancing with MKDC. "I now teach Korean and I wouldn't change it for the world. I love guiding young scholars in their interest, helping them find beauty in the Korean language and culture the same way I did."
May Lee-Yang became so obsessed with Seoul soap operas that she wrote "The Korean Drama Addict's Guide to Losing Your Virginity," which was staged by Theatre Mu in 2018.
"I love that they have a quick resolution," said the Hmong-American playwright, who once woke up at 5 a.m. to catch a BTS concert online. "You watch 'The Office,' hoping that Jim and Pam get together, but you have to sit through years of sexual tension. In a K-drama, you know by Episode 26 whether someone is going to die or get married."
Chang Yoo, the owner and chef at St. Paul's Mirror of Korea, plans to launch CrunCheese Korean Hot Dogs, a Korean-style hot dog restaurant that's all the rage in Las Vegas. The franchise, scheduled to open in Dinkytown and Eden Prairie this year, will feature gourmet corn dogs that could have been designed by art students for the State Fair.
Don't be surprised if Erin Hassanzadeh is first in line.
The WCCO reporter moved to South Korea in 2014 on a Fulbright scholarship, teaching conversational English in the country's public schools. During her two-year stay, she sang karaoke in private rooms and sampled the street food. These days, she stays connected to her overseas experiences by bingeing on shows like "Coffee Prince" and checking out Korean restaurants in the Twin Cities.
"When I came home, half of my suitcase was packed with Korean skin-care products," she said over lunch at Dinkytown's Kbop Korean Bistro, cracking an egg over her jjagae, a spicy stew.
Hassanzadeh might want to add Aland to her list. The new store in the Mall of America, with locations in New York and New Jersey, specializes in Korean products like Baby Shark books and green-tea eye patches.
Expanding far and wide
Aland is riding the wave that first started swelling at the turn of the century when South Korea began marketing its entertainment and culture to Asian countries like China, Japan and Vietnam in hopes of attracting more vacationers. It worked. According to the Korean Tourism Bureau, more than 17 million visitors came in 2019, nearly four times the number in 2003.
In the past decade, South Korea has expanded its target audience to America, and it's not only because it benefits home-based companies.
"Commercial success gives them a lot of soft power and influence," said Bryce Johnson, a professor in the Asian languages and literature department at the University of Minnesota.
One of the breakthrough moments was the success of Psy's "Gangnam Style," a single that incorporated rap and hip-hop. It reached the No. 2 spot on the Billboard charts in 2012.
"The lyrics were very catchy with just enough English lyrics so you can sing part of it. The visuals in the video were bright and eye-catching," Johnson said. "That's a formula they continue to use."
Some of the entertainment appeals to younger fans who crave something less explicit than Miley Cyrus writhing onstage. K-pop videos almost always star fresh-scrubbed teens who are more interested in being cute than controversial, dancing on striking sets that could have been designed by Willy Wonka.
The protagonists in Korean TV shows rarely swear or show much skin.
K.-dramas were meant to be watched by the whole family and traditionally lacked violence and sex," Liu said. "Things have changed recently with the rise of cable and streaming TV, but for a long time Koreans learned to make incredibly addicting high-quality dramas without relying on sex or violence as a crutch. There is a certain innocence in the characters and relationships that has universal appeal."
Minnesota is a particularly rich market for South Korean trends. That's because not only has the state's Lutheran Social Services been a leader for the past 50 years in the adoption of South Korean children but other Asian groups can also connect to the culture.
"The products may be Korean, but they are manufactured as generic Asian culture," Johnson said. "Many Asian-Americans can relate to the social hierarchies and family dynamics. They embrace it."
Popularity has also stretched to those who have no Asian heritage.
Yoo, who took over Mirror of Korea in 2017, said new customers are often asked what drew them to the restaurant, whose dishes include kimbap, a seaweed rice roll. Many cite K-dramas and YouTube clips of mukbang, a popular video genre that features people wolfing down massive portions of food.
"I don't think people come to eat here after just watching K-pop," Yoo said, after showing an example of a mukbanger on his cellphone. "But they do start to consider looking into other stuff that's related to Korea."
That's because they find Koreans, such as members of BTS who sell themselves as everyday folks, to be relatable.
"It's such a contrast to Western artists who often act like they are way up here on a pedestal. We look up and revel," said Hae Joo Kim, who teaches about Korean culture at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. "But in K-pop, the idols are real people. They're always thinking about their audience and how they can relate to them."
Movies and TV shows also are highly relatable because the companies producing them don't have big budgets. So they rely more on personal stories than special effects.
"Squid Game," one of the most popular dramas in Netflix history, is rooted in the bond between the desperate contestants. That's a big reason the show's leads, Lee Jung-jae and HoYeon Jung, were recently honored at the SAG Awards, beating out established stars like Jennifer Aniston of "The Morning Show."
All this success is changing the image of a country most Americans would still have a hard time locating on the world map.
"Respect has definitely grown," Kim said. "Right now, it's kind of cool to be Korean."
Sample this Korean fare, too
You already know all the dance moves to BTS' "Butter" and tore through the first season of "Squid Game." What's next? We asked some hallyu experts for recommendations:
BlackPink: The all-girl group that has recorded with Lady Gaga and Dua Lipa. "They're at the top of their game," said Best of Korea publisher Patricia Liu. "The documentary about them on Netflix ["Light Up the Sky"] takes you behind the scenes so you see the hard work it takes to achieve perfection."
Jung Ji-hoon: Also known as Rain, the artist is a pioneer of the modern K-pop sound and one of the first Korean stars to make a mark in America thanks to roles in "Speed Racer" and "Ninja Assassin." "He's a great dancer and his songs are catchy," chef Chang Yoo said.
"Oldboy": Skip Spike Lee's Americanized remake and check out the 2003 original, which is considered a classic example of neo-noir thriller. "'Parasite' got Hollywood to give South Korea an official stamp of approval, but the country has been producing high-quality films like this one for decades," Liu said.
Dong Yang Oriental Foods & Deli: Liu raves about this Hilltop grocery store with a top-notch restaurant in back. "It's extremely authentic," she said.
"Reply 1988": A heartwarming series about how the Seoul Olympics was a game changer for local residents. "I love it," said WCCO's Hassanzadeh. "It's a great window into what is was like to be a teenager at that time."
"Coffee Prince": The TV series follows the life and dreams of four ambitious youngsters who frequent a cafe. "I watched K-dramas to learn the language and got hooked on this show," Hassanzadeh said. "It's hilarious."
"My Love From a Star": A 400-year-old alien falls for a modern-day Hollywood star in this 21-episode romantic comedy. "One of the things I love about Korean shows is that they make me think outside the box," said playwright May Lee-Yang. "Some of the premises are pretty funky."