Surfing the K-Wave in Southeast Asia

by Matthew Escosia
K-Wave in Southeast with k-pop, k-drama, beauty products and travel
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by Stacey Renei Dy

Philippine TV networks air Koreanovelas during primetime programming. Young Vietnamese audiences are captivated by the modernity shown in Korean TV shows. Malaysians take Korean language lessons just so they can sing along to Kpop songs. Thai boys and girls embody Korean fashion trends.

Boys Over Flowers. BTS. My Love From the Star. BLACKPINK. Korean BBQ. Lip tints. Glass skin.

Korean pop culture has evidently established itself into the mainstream consumerism ideals of Southeast Asian countries.

Once an impoverished country greatly affected by the Asian financial crisis in 1997-1999, South Korea now boasts as the world’s 11th largest economy. Previously confronted with global skepticism, South Korea is now the 6th most visited country within Asia.

K-Wave. Hallyu. Kim-chic. All of these terms pertain to the ongoing worldwide popularity of South Korea’s exportation of pop culture. Hallyu, which directly translates to “flow of Korea”, encompasses means of entertainment such as TV dramas, music, variety shows, and movies, as well as fashion, cosmetic surgery, and tourism.

Shiri (1999)
My Sassy Girl (2001)

The transformation from being under the scrutinizing global skepticism to intercontinental esteem started in 1999. Blockbuster Shiri, a film abiding by the Asian action cinema film style, was the first Hollywood-esque Korean film given its big budget and it sold 2.4 million tickets in the Seoul region alone. Following in 2000, is pioneer Korean drama series Autumn in My Heart, which was internationally aired in 14 countries – including the Philippines where it had been broadcast multiple times and reaching peak viewership of 39.7%, making it one of the top ten highest rated Asian dramas in the country. Romantic-comedy film My Sassy Girl (2001)became a blockbuster hit all throughout Asia making it the highest grossing comedy Korean movie of all time, consequently having an American remake. Three years later followed the TV drama series Winter Sonata, due to its success it had been adapted into a stage musical and an anime series. The drama’s filming primarily took place in Namiseom, making Nami Island a top destination spot in Korea.

A significant proprietor for the unrelenting prominence of Korean pop culture is none other than the Korean government. Together with promotional agencies and influential corporations, the government has effectively funded the Popular Culture Industry Division, under the Ministry of Culture, centers on maintaining the grand effects of Korean mass entertainment; making them one of the few countries in the globe that dedicates to grow as one of the world’s key exporter of pop culture. In order to put this into full effect, the government monitors Asian countries – being their target audience are Asian consumers – to know which K-wave products have the highest probability of being a hit. With the proper amount of soft power, they have successfully shaped their distinct style of cool.

Now why does the K-Wave still persist despite cultural differences, posing a big language barrier? The reason being that Korea shares an eastern mentality with those in Southeast Asia. A mentality which shows the implication of respecting parents; also focusing more on multi-cultural regions such as the Philippines and Singapore. In an article entitled “Riding the Korean Wave in Southeast Asia” by Doobo Shim, a professor in the Department of Media and Communication at Sungshin University, the K-Wave also gives Asian audiences a breath of fresh air from Western imperialism that Asians have grown accustomed to.

There are multiple facets to Korean pop culture – extending from variety TV shows to lip tints. All these different things they offer coax Southeast Asians to jump into their trends. Just when you think all possible K-drama storylines have been exhausted, they come out with a riveting new one. Just when you think you have enough makeup, they release a new line you just have to have.

Korean Dramas

These are one of the most consumed products of the K-Wave. Nowadays, it would be impossible to not have heard of them or not see a dubbed version of it on your local TV channel. Recent hits like Descendants of the Sun, Goblin, Weightlifting Fairy, and Legend of the Blue Sea have been dubbed in local TV channels to cater to local citizens. These dramas serve as an alternate from American TV shows and deviate from the infamous cheesy storylines of national TV soaps and dramas.

Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo
Descendants of the Sun


Korean pop groups prove to have a big steady fan-base all over Southeast Asia. The fan bases’ presence are heavily felt from social media platforms – most especially Twitter – to sold-out concerts. There is an interesting dynamic in Kpop groups that both girl groups and boy groups are able to dominate the scene – very unlike most Western and local pop groups. Korean groups, which have seven members or more, sing Korean tunes and partner them with in sync choreography. These groups usually hold meet and greet with their fans; giving fans an encounter of a lifetime.

Korean girl group, BLACKPINK
Korean boy group, EXO

Fashion and Cosmetics

Korean fashion and makeup have greatly affect both women and men in Southeast Asia. Fashion statements like long vests, lace dresses, and statement cross body bags are being sported by Southeast Asia fans. These staples are usually worn by characters in Korean dramas and avid watchers imitate these fashion ideals. The straight brown trend or the Korean brows are also prevalent in the world of cosmetics. Beauty YouTubers have uploaded K-brow tutorials and threading salons have catered to shaping customers’ brows straight with a soft arch compared to Western known “Instagram brows.” One cosmetic staple brought about the K-wave are lip tints. Korean brands like Etude House, Tony Moly, and 3CE continuously come out with multiple tints in multiple shades to give customers that soft and youthful gradient lip look. Korean cosmetics is centered on giving off plump and youthful looks. Usually more minimalistic and natural compared to American contoured baddie looks.


Tourism in Korea has boomed recently due to Korean Wave. Once in a while when you’re scrolling through your timeline, you’re bound to see a friend or a family member visiting Korea. Tour packages are consumed by Southeast Asians. These tours’ itineraries feature tourist spots where K-dramas are filmed.

Needless to say, the K-wave has had and continuously has a great impact to multiple aspects in Southeast Asia. For Korean, this means a continuous growth in economy brought about by tourism and successful pop culture exportation.

What was once doubted to stay, a country once an underdog and under the microscopic global skepticism, has made an established name for herself. Southeast Asia which was once under heavy Western imperialism now appreciates a neighboring Asian country; seeing it as an example – a vision of what their own country can become.


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