The Liberal Arts Experience™

Essays from a History & IR undergraduate student at Ashoka University.

Popular Culture & Gastrodiplomacy: An Analysis of Hallyu in India

This paper shall attempt to analyse the impact of Hallyu, a Chinese term meaning “The Korean Wave” that refers to the unprecedented growth of South Korean popular culture, in India. This will be done by tracing the historical origins of South Korea’s cultural presence in India and exploring its influence through multiple dimensions such as television, music and food. Additionally, the soft power strategies of the South Korean government will be highlighted as well as arguments in favour of Hallyu’s continued rise in India.

The earliest signs of South Korean influence in post-colonial India materialised in the form of the migration of expatriates to the mainland in 1996. In the wake of India’s economic liberalisation reforms in 1991, which reduced tariffs on imports and effectively opened up the economy to foreign investment, the Look East policy was introduced. The motive behind this policy was fostering an increased engagement with India’s neighbouring countries in East and Southeast Asia[1]. This ultimately resulted in the setting up of the first Hyundai automobile factories in the towns of Irrungattukottai and Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu, which brought with it an influx of South Korean employees and their families. The 1997 Asian financial crisis further prompted the arrival of South Korean businesses or chaebols such as Samsung and LG that have, ever since, evolved into household names in India[2].

Tamil Nadu has maintained its stature as the Korean hub of the country, boasting a dense concentration of over 6,000 South Korean natives within its borders. A possible theory for this phenomenon could be the plethora of linguistic similarities between Tamil and Korean that are far from coincidental. First brought to light in 1905 by Homer B. Hulbert, the Dravido-Koreanic hypothesis[3] proposed a strong resonance between the two languages by discovering roughly 500 words that were almost identical in both their sound and meaning[4]. Examples include referring to one’s mother and elder sister as ‘omma’ and ‘eonni’ respectively in Korean, resembling the Tamil equivalents of ‘amma’ and ‘anni’.

Presently, the most concrete evidence for this unlikely connection is found in a folktale from the Samguk Yusa, a 13th century Korean historical text, which describes the marriage of King Suro to a princess named Suriratna who is believed to have visited the Geumgwan Gaya kingdom from India[5]. Although ancient legends like these are wont to be historically unfounded, they offer a potential explanation for the Hallyu that has begun to be experienced by India in the recent past. After all, legends, while possibly exaggerated with regard to detail, have their foundations in culture and society. And, as this paper will continue to show, these elements go a long way in the maintenance of relations between countries.

Tamil Nadu may have acted as the birthplace for South Korea’s hard power in India, but the indisputable catalyst of its soft power is the north-eastern state of Manipur. Popularly referred to as Mini Korea, Manipur was the first region of India that welcomed South Korean content with open arms. K-dramas or South Korean television dramas as well as the bourgeoning music industry of K-pop became pervasive influences in Manipuri households during the early days of the twenty-first century. This was made possible partly via the illicit trade of pirated DVDs with South Korean content conducted across the border from Myanmar to India[6]. The sudden proliferation of hitherto unexplored content was met with a spike in demand from the local Manipuri people, thus bringing down its prices and further increasing its sales[7]. Given that there was little to no migration of actual South Korean natives to this state, the penetration of the country’s influence into Manipur is of particular significance when analysing the origins of Hallyu in India.

Interestingly enough, one of the primary factors responsible for the popularity of South Korean entertainment in Manipur was related to its tense political climate. The Revolutionary People’s Front of Manipur, a militant group advocating for a secession of Manipur from India, was successful in its demands for a complete ban on the public broadcast of Hindi media, including films and satellite channels[8]. Such a ban, while alienating Manipuri people from the rest of the country, whetted their appetite for alternative sources of entertainment, thus bringing to pass the state’s unique reputation as the pioneer of Hallyu in India. The vacuum left behind by the ban was further occupied by the establishment of Arirang TV, an English language television network funded by the South Korean government, which provided a 24/7 broadcast of Korean media to a population eager to reap the benefits of newly-arrived cable television. Additional theories that have been proposed to explain Manipur’s early cultural reset include its proximity to South Korean values and tradition. For example, their respective indigenous religions, namely Sanamahism and Shahanism, exhibit a number of parallels, and their societal structures are both clan-based[9].

Although Hallyu found a secure footing in Manipur, and subsequently other states on India’s north-eastern periphery, several years passed before the bulk of the country took notice. In fact, a survey conducted in 2008 discovered that work culture, as opposed to popular culture, had come out on top as the prominent Korean influence in the country on the whole[10]. Thus, while Korea’s hard power had made an impact on the economic front with Samsung and LG gaining visibility, the same could not be said for its entertainment industry. However, this changed dramatically with the advent of over-the-top media services, popularly referred to as OTT platforms, that democratized the arena of film and television nationwide.

In December 2020, Netflix announced that India had claimed the top-spot in film viewership globally. More relevantly, however, this was attributed in part to the heightened popularity of K-Dramas in the country with a staggering 370 per cent rise in viewership over the year[11]. Another streaming platform called Rakuten Viki, whose audience was previously limited to niche K-Drama connoisseurs, witnessed a 46% spike in site traffic from India during the first six months following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic[12]. The incessant national lockdowns that were set in motion to contain the virus also augmented the leisure time spent indoors. Against this backdrop, the increased access to online streaming created the ideal breeding ground for Hallyu in India.

Granted, these were powerful contributing factors to the exposure of Indian audiences to Korean media, but its sustained popularity can be credited largely to cultural proximity. Bearing much resemblance to Indian soap operas, K-Dramas place a high priority on conservative family values and feature familiar tropes such as love triangles and conflicts borne out of class difference[13]. The plethora of Bollywood films that are based upon the greatest hits of Hallyuwood, the South Korean entertainment industry, further instantiates this claim[14]. It’s also important to note that K-dramas, unlike Western media, tend to be family-friendly and are enjoyed by younger and older generations alike.

Each of these particularities constitute evidence of the pendulum swinging away from Western society’s hold on the Third World and inching towards a culturally familiar neighbour in the East. Capitalising on this shift, the president of the Korean Creative Content Agency or KOCCA announced a budget amounting to US $462 million from the South Korean government for the year 2022 following the unprecedented success of ‘Squid Game’ created for Netflix[15]. The establishment of a government-funded body, whose sole responsibility is the sponsorship of cultural content overseas, effectively demonstrates that the popularity of K-dramas was anything but accidental.

The rise of K-pop follows a similar trajectory with the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism devoting an entire department to the management of the world-famous boy band BTS[16]. Given that BTS rakes in over US $5 billion annually for South Korea’s GDP, it’s no surprise that the East Asian country prioritises this industry through generous funding[17]. In this context, India’s large population of 1.4 billion constitutes a profitable market for South Korean interests. A case in point of India’s economic value to South Korea is the country’s immense BTS fanbase. Within 24 hours of its release, the BTS song ‘Dynamite’ garnered 8.6 million views from India alone, making it the country with the third-highest views following closely behind Indonesia and USA[18]. Examples like these serve as proof that India will continue to ride the Korean wave for the foreseeable future.

An often neglected ingredient of public diplomacy concerns the soft power symbolised by food. Popularly known as gastrodiplomacy, the promotion of a country’s local cuisine internationally has long been utilised by government bodies as a strategy to accumulate foreign exchange. The measurable benefits of gastrodiplomacy are reflected in increased tourism as well as through the export of locally sourced produce in order to satisfy overseas demand.

Following the success gained by K-pop and K-dramas worldwide, the South Korean government introduced a culinary diplomacy programme called ‘Global Hansik’ that translates to ‘Korean Cuisine to the World’. The programme’s tactic of narrowing its focus to the health benefits of South Korean dishes is particularly noteworthy[19]. For instance, Kimchi, a South Korean staple made from fermented cabbage and radish, is celebrated for its immunity-boosting properties. Given the universal impression of Chinese food as oily and deep-fried, this tactic attempts at redefining the global image of Asian cuisine. This has proven successful especially in a country like India where sattvic diets outlined under Ayurvedic practice are renowned for their medicinal properties, both physical and mental. Kimchi, in particular, has been prioritised under South Korea’s gastrodiplomacy, prompting even the development of the World Institute of Kimchi that researches the dish from a microbiological perspective[20].

Coming to branded foods, South Korean instant noodles or ‘ramyeon’ has hit the mark with Indian consumers. Popularised on social media through trends like the Fire Noodle Challenge, the South Korean dish has readily found resonance with the Indian palate, known for its high spice tolerance[21]. Ramyeon brands like Samyang boast 4,404 Scoville Heat Units for their products[22]. In fact, the import of instant noodles from South Korea to India increased by a staggering 162% in 2020[23]. Many have attributed this meteoric rise partly to the popularity of K-dramas during the pandemic. This is a logical assumption considering that a similar incident followed the global success of Parasite, the first South Korean and foreign language film to win Best Picture at the Oscars. The movie’s representation of a noodle dish called Ram-Don made with black bean sauce singlehandedly caused a spike in the sales of ramyeon internationally, thus serving as a testament to the economic benefits of Hallyu[24].

Another victory for South Korean branding in India involves the multinational giant Lotte, which made great strides in the Indian market with the popularity of its ‘Choco Pie’ product. In fact, the chairman Shin Dong-bin personally visited the country to meet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and inaugurate the opening of a new factory in Rohtak, which would go on to produce US $51 billion worth of Choco Pie every year[25]. A major factor fuelling this success was Lotte’s calculated decision to alter the original recipe of the product in India and appeal to its vegetarian consumers[26]. This is a shining example of glocalisation, a phenomenon whereby global products are adapted in certain respects to generate local interest.

Glocalisation can also be observed with regard to GoPizza, a South Korean restaurant franchise that has opened several international outlets. Upon the launch of India’s first GoPizza outlet in the city of Bangalore, nine new vegetarian pizzas were added to the menu[27]. The alcohol industry as well has benefitted from Hallyu with the popular South Korean beverage ‘soju’ finding a sizeable consumer base in India. In 2013, Advent Brand House signed a deal with HiteJinro, the world’s leading producer of soju, for the purchase of bottling and distribution rights in India[28].

Looking ahead, there is much reason to believe that the Korean wave will only continue to rise in India. Language, arguably the highest threshold to cross in the domain of public diplomacy, has found widespread adoption and acceptance with Duolingo reporting a 256% increase in Indian users learning Korean during the COVID-19 pandemic[29]. Moreover, India’s New Economic Policy 2020 has included Korean as a foreign language option for students at the secondary level[30]. Unlike the dimensions of television, music and food that run the risk of being a flash in the pan, language proficiency opens up an entire world of long-term foreign exchange opportunities from tourism to emigration. In fact, South Korean government scholarships for Indian university students has experienced a sharp rise in recent years[31]. In light of these developments, the future looks bright for Hallyu in India.

Works Cited:

[1] Bajpaee, C. (n.d.). Asia times online :: South Asia news – India rediscovers East Asia. Wayback Machine. https://web.archive.org/web/20080517035426/www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/IJ31Df01.html

[2] Pal, S. (2017, February 27). Sambhar for the S(e)oul: The little-known story of Chennai’s connection with Korea. The Better India. https://www.thebetterindia.com/89171/chennai-connection-korea-seoul-history-hyundai/

[3] Lee, K., & Ramsey, S. R. (2011). A history of the Korean language (p. 15). Cambridge University Press.

[4] Kumar, S. (2021, July). Korea’s intriguing Tamil connect. The New Indian Express. https://www.newindianexpress.com/magazine/voices/2021/jul/25/koreas-intriguing-tamil-connect-2333956.html

[5] Mandhani, N. (2018, November 4). The Indian princess who became a South Korean Queen. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-46055285

[6] Kanozia, R., & Ganghariya, G. (2021). Cultural proximity and hybridity: Popularity of Korean pop culture in India. Media Asia48(3), 219-228. https://doi.org/10.1080/01296612.2021.1902079

[7] Lee, K. H., & Ro, Y. J. (2021). The New Southern Policy Plus Progress and Way Forward. SSRN Electronic Journal, 352.

[8] Sunita, A. (2018, August 28). How the ban on Hindi entertainment ushered in a new culture in Manipur. The Caravan. https://caravanmagazine.in/reviews-and-essays/korea-comes-manipur

[9] Kshetrimayum, O. (2008, June 6). Korean cultural diffusion in Manipur. Manipur – E-Pao! :: Complete e-platform for Manipuris. https://e-pao.net/epPageExtractor.asp?src=features.Korean_Cultural_Diffusion_in_Manipur.html..#:~:text=The%20key%20factor%20that%20abets,similar%20streams%20of%20philosophy%20in

[10] Lee, K. H., & Ro, Y. J. (2021). The New Southern Policy Plus Progress and Way Forward. SSRN Electronic Journal, 352.

[11] India has highest viewership of films on Netflix globally. (2020, December 10). The Economic Times. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/industry/media/entertainment/india-has-highest-viewership-of-films-on-netflix-globally/articleshow/79657637.cms?from=mdr

[12] Bhatt, S. (2020, October 30). How K-pop and Korean drama had their biggest breakthrough in India amid the pandemic. The Economic Times. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/tech/tech-bytes/how-k-pop-and-korean-drama-had-their-breakthrough-moment-in-india-amid-the-pandemic/articleshow/78954150.cms?from=mdr

[13] Jha, L. (2020, August 10). Covid draws Korean content into Indian view lists, firms’ investment bouquet. mint. https://www.livemint.com/news/india/covid-draws-korean-content-into-indian-watchlists-companies-investment-bouquet-11597038664274.html

[14] 13 Bollywood remakes of Korean movies (Till 2021). (2021, December 14). Kdrama World. https://kdramaworld.org/blog/bollywood-remakes-of-korean-movies/

[15] Gyu-Lee, L. (2021, December 16). ‘Squid game’ is a beneficiary of OTT era: KOCCA president. koreatimes. https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/art/2021/12/688_320603.html

[16] Kelly, E. (2019, December 12). The South Korean government actually has a department dedicated to K-pop. Metro. https://metro.co.uk/2018/01/19/south-korean-government-actually-department-dedicated-k-pop-7242799/

[17] Smith, S. V. (2021, August 6). How BTS is adding an estimated $5 billion to the South Korean economy a year. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2021/08/06/1025551697/how-bts-is-adding-an-estimated-5-billion-to-the-south-korean-economy-a-year

[18] Exclusive: BTS reflect on the massive success of ‘Dynamite’ in India –. (2020, September 4). My Site. https://rollingstoneindia.com/exclusive-bts-reflect-on-dynamite-massive-success-in-india/

[19] Hyun-cheol, K. (2009, May 12). Global Hansik off to strong start. Korea Times. https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/biz/2009/05/123_42711.html

[20] S.Korea launches world kimchi research centre. (2010, March 10). The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/s-korea-launches-world-kimchi-research-centre-5527508.html

[21] Lee, H. K. (2018, December 5). Foodies across the globe are taking part in the ‘fire noodle challenge’. ABC News. https://abcnews.go.com/International/foodies-globe-taking-part-fire-noodle-challenge/story?id=59594235

[22] (n.d.). Korean Fire Noodles. https://koreanfirenoodles.com/

[23] The rise and future of Korean food in India. (2021, June 30). Euromonitor. https://www.euromonitor.com/article/the-rise-and-future-of-k-food-in-india-food-provenance-in-consumer-decision-making

[24] Lee, S. T. (2021, January 6). Film as cultural diplomacy: South Korea’s nation branding through parasite (2019) – Place branding and public diplomacy. SpringerLink. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1057/s41254-020-00192-1

[25] Ji-sook, B. (2015, August 28). Lotte seeks shopping malls in India. The Korea Herald. https://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20150828001007

[26] Dhawan, R. K. (2017). Korea’s cultural diplomacy: An analysis of the Hallyu in India. Strategic Analysis41(6), 559-570. https://doi.org/10.1080/09700161.2017.1377895

[27] He-rim, J. (2021, February 23). [Herald interview] how a Korean pizza parlor aims to become a global fast food franchise. The Korea Herald. https://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20210223000839

[28] Dhamija, A., & Kurian, B. (2013, April 29). Korean soju giant inks India bottling deal – Times of India. The Times of India. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/business/india-business/Korean-soju-giant-inks-India-bottling-deal/articleshow/19772490.cms

[29] Bhatt, S. (2020, October 30). How K-pop and Korean drama had their biggest breakthrough in India amid the pandemic. The Economic Times. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/tech/tech-bytes/how-k-pop-and-korean-drama-had-their-breakthrough-moment-in-india-amid-the-pandemic/articleshow/78954150.cms?from=mdr

[30] Adoption of Korean as a second foreign language in Indian schools in encouraging, says H.E. Shin Bong-Kil. (1159, November). https://www.educationtimes.com/article/editors-pick/79036185/adoption-of-korean-as-a-second-foreign-language-in-indian-schools-in-encouraging-says-h.e.-shin-bong-kil

[31] Lee, K. H., & Ro, Y. J. (2021). The New Southern Policy Plus Progress and Way Forward. SSRN Electronic Journal, 356.

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