The cultural success of the Korean squid


Everyone talks about ‘The Squid Game’. The South Korean series has become the best Netflix premiere with 111 million views in 28 days. It displaces the British ‘The Bridgertons’, with 82 million viewers. This new hit of a cultural product from South Korea confirms the strategic commitment that this country has been developing since the 1990s and that was already confirmed in 2020 with the triumph at the Oscars of the film ‘Parasites’ and the consolidation of the BTS group, which was invited to launch its message at the last United Nations assembly.

This bet has two dimensions that are fed back: the economic and the political. Refering to

First, the value of overseas content sales already reached $ 10.8 billion in 2020, nearly 10% of integrated circuit exports, Korea’s main source of income. The music band BTS alone contributed $ 4.65 billion to Korean GDP in 2018, an amount very similar to that contributed by the airline Korean Air. In 2020, with the pandemic crisis, BTS became worth more than the airline. In fact, experts estimate that BTS’s economic impact over the next decade will be nearly $ 50 billion.

“The way in which Korea manages to transform its problems into an element of attraction is instructive”

The second dimension is the so-called ‘soft power’, the term created in 1990 by Harvard professor Joseph S. Nye Jr. Since he coined it in an article in the magazine ‘Foreign Policy’ the concept has been modified, but basically Nye was referring to the power of cultural seduction to change the behavior of others by way of sharing tastes. In another magazine article, this one from 2006, Nye explained: “A country’s soft power can come from three sources: its culture (in places where it is attractive to others), its political values ​​(when they are admired in the country and abroad) and their foreign policy (when they are considered legitimate and have moral authority).

South Korea’s adventure to conquer the global cultural market began in 1994 with a government report claiming that Hyundai needed to sell 1.5 million cars overseas to match the revenue from the movie ‘Jurassic Park’ by Steven Spielberg. So they designed a strategy to establish hegemony in the world of music, the audiovisual industry and video games. Later, the barriers protecting their local products were erected to encourage them to compete with foreigners. The success of some teleseries in the Chinese market gave rise, around 1997, to ‘Hallyu’, the term to describe the Korean Wave.

The result has been impressive. The number of workers in creative and artistic services grew by 27% between 2009 and 2019, while in industry, a traditional engine of Korean growth, increased by 20% in the same period, according to Statistics Korea.

Official support has aroused misgivings. Jenna Gibson, an expert on Korea, writes: “At times, this support has been misinterpreted as the South Korean government allegedly subsidizing the success of South Korean pop culture as it has gained prominence around the world. But it would be more accurate to say that Seoul just created an environment in which the film, television and music industries could flourish. ‘

South Korea has also shown that it can lead certain business models.
The group BTS (its acronym stands for Bangtan Sonyeondan) has become an example of the fan economy.
Its success is due to the careful cultivation of an extraordinarily committed fan base. During the pandemic, the group had to suspend its world tour, but continued to make money by releasing albums, streaming, merchandising and videos.

All of this is based on clever management of what is called the follower economy. In the case of BTS, these are grouped under the acronym ARMY (Adorable Representative MC for Youth) and began spreading through social networks relying on the three basic principles of the economy of followers: (a) Trade with any product or service that results in an economic benefit for the artist. (b) Promote and encourage others to learn about, consume and purchase content and merchandising, and (c) Protect the artist’s reputation from criticism or other negative forces.

‘The Squid Game’ is a Netflix series and this company ensures that in 2020 it contributed 1.9 billion dollars to Korean GDP. In a report last month, the firm said its programs and investments helped create 16,000 full-time jobs in Korea during the 2016-2020 period.

It is instructive how Korea manages to transform its troubles into an element of attraction. It already happened with ‘Parasites’ where economic inequality was portrayed. In ‘The Squid Game’ the plot revolves around the high debt that ordinary people have in this country. And the vigor with which Korea and also Turkey are dominating the cultural market, almost in the same way as Spanish music and Italian did so in the 1970s and 1980s, projecting the image of both countries in Latin America and the world.

The game

‘The Squid Game’ is the story of 456 participants of different origin and fortune, who compete in various children’s games where if they win they can get a multimillion-dollar prize, but, if they fail, they die. The spur of each player is their great debts. The series describes a set of situations, many of which have been described by behavioral economics and Game Theory about how decisions are affected by own biases or external constraints.

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