Korean Wave Seen through K-Pop and Drama Search Trends
Lee Ji-hong

Analyst, LG Economic Research Institute

Kim Min-hee

Senior Consultant, LG Economic Research Institute

The word hallyu, or the Korean Wave, dates back to the 1990s. It first appeared when Korean pop idol groups became popular in China. Robust exports of Korean pop music and TV drama series ensued after “Winter Sonata” and “Jewel in the Palace” (a.k.a. “Dae Jang Geum”) took overseas viewers by storm. “Jewel in the Palace” has been exported to about 90 countries since it was first broadcast in 2003, underscoring the hallyu boom. It has earned 22 billion won (approximately 20 million) and generated an estimated 110 billion won in knock-on effects. 


In the late 2000s, a new music genre called “K-pop,” centered around young idol groups, spread beyond Asia to Latin America and Europe. Rapper Psy’s “Gangnam Style” video of 2012 hit more than 1 billion views for the first time on YouTube, becoming a global megahit. This further encouraged the spread of K-pop. With a new interest also increasing in TV entertainment programs besides music and dramas, more Chinese and Indian agencies are importing Korean entertainment program formats. Hallyu stars are so busy performing overseas that the term “celebrities’ airport fashion” has become a household buzzword. The meaning of hallyu has been stretched to more sectors, including “K-food” and “K-medical services.”


The economic ripple effect of the Korean Wave has been significant. The personal, cultural and recreational services balance of payments has recorded a surplus for two consecutive years and the number of inbound tourists increased over the past five years. Based on a study of foreigners’ interest in the K-pop and dramas, types of typical hallyu contents, this report examines changes in hallyu and their impact. We compared the level of interest in hallyu among nations and correlations between foreigners’ interest in Korea, their visits to Korea and their purchase of Korean goods.

I. Korean Wave Seen through Search Results


1. Soaring Interest over the Past Decade


Online viewing of K-pop music videos and Korean soap operas has been climbing steadily. Immediately after Korean singers release new albums, their fans around the world view YouTube videos and post messages. Sometimes, reaction is faster overseas than at home. For dramas, many people access streaming services and search for information on them. The volume of online searches can gauge the degree of interest in hallyu abroad. While it is difficult to determine if the search traffic is positive or negative, patterns of interest and key search words can be compared.


Using Google Trends, which account for 89 percent of the global search engine market, we analyzed the number of searches for K-pop and Korean TV serials over the past 10 years. For K-pop we calculated the number of clicks for 123 Korean pop singers/groups who received prizes at major music awards in the past decade. For TV drama serials we analyzed the search traffic of 274 out of some 500 works that have been broadcast since 2000. As with the K-pop, we concluded that the combined number of clicks for these selected pieces represent the worldwide interest in Korean TV dramas.


The combined number of clicks for the K-pop and soap operas shows that overseas interest in the Korean Wave has shot up over the past five years, though its rate of increase has slowed slightly. With dramas leading the initial surge in the 2000s, there were not many clicks for K-pop until the middle of the decade. But clicks rose sharply after 2009, when overseas tours of Korean idol groups began to increase. But their boom slowed down somewhat in 2013. Interest in Korean dramas rose drastically after 2009. The clicks slowed down in 2012, but have recently rebounded.


Dramas led to more clicks in the fourth quarter of 2013 mainly due to the popularity of “Heirs,” which featured many hallyu stars. This drama was so popular that it was posted on overseas streaming sites in real time while being broadcast in Korea, prompting thousands of messages.


There is a generation gap in the fandom between the K-pop and dramas. While K-pop music gets more clicks from younger people who enjoy the Internet, dramas are popular among older generations who watch video recordings or TV broadcasts. Therefore, the number of clicks for dramas can possibly be underestimated to a certain degree.


To examine the characteristics of each singer or drama, we selected those with a significant number of clicks. The analysis involved 37 singers and groups who enjoyed high popularity in any year between 2004 and 2013. Many of them continued to have large numbers of clicks for several years. The overall total rose sharply between 2008 and 2010. But the increase rates have slowed since 2010, with the nominal total falling slightly in 2013.


Whenever we discuss the need to keep the hallyu flame alive, we inevitably mention a heavy bias toward certain K-pop genres. Results of overseas poll surveys about the sustainability of hallyu have pointed out an uncharacteristic uniformity of contents. This is also corroborated by the genre characteristics of the singers/groups who have received large numbers of clicks. A comparison of the number of clicks before and after 2010 revealed that the post-2010 trend still favors dancing singers. Out the 26 singers/groups who received large numbers of clicks in 2013, 24 were idol dancing singers/groups. Overall, 27 idol dancing singers/groups of the total 37 singers/groups in the main music genres were in the spotlight.


In a similar way, 55 out of 274 TV dramas that have had large numbers of clicks in certain years over the past 10 years were analyzed. Interest stagnated slightly in 2012 but a sharp upturn followed and carried over into 2013. <Table 2> While the search trends for dramas and music are similar, there is a big difference between their patterns. K-pop singers/groups continuously receive clicks by releasing new songs. In contrast, dramas rarely maintain their popularity through many years. However, some Korean dramas featuring popular hallyu stars continue to draw viewers abroad several years after they are first aired in Korea.


Indeed, drama series such as “Full House” (2004) and “Palace” (2006) have constantly attracted clicks over the years. Trendy dramas like miniseries are also gaining popularity overseas, as they are posted in real time on streaming sites. But in case of some period dramas or daily serials favored by older generations, they become popular only when they are broadcast on TV or their videos hit the market. So, there is a time difference between when they are broadcast in Korea and when overseas clicks increase. 


2. Interest in Hallyu Content Remains High


The clicks on Google are off their peak but the current state of hallyu cannot be defined by the number of clicks alone. For example, some countries like China, where hallyu is booming, don’t have easy access to Google and fans in some other countries have access to Korean cultural content through local search engines. The actual number of clicks could be larger, considering that many people use search words in their own languages, while we analyzed searches basically done in English. (In our study of dramas, we also analyzed searches done in Chinese and Japanese, in view of the keen interest in Korean soap operas in China and Japan.)


We have so far analyzed the trend of interest in Korean popular culture abroad over the past 10 years based on the number of clicks. Now we are going to look at some data from which we can understand the relative level of interest in the Korean Wave.


Dramas are mainly accessed through video sites like YouTube or sites providing streaming services. In case of K-pop, mostly dance music performed by idol groups enjoys high popularity overseas. Their concerts involve both acoustic and visual appeal, which explains why many people take interest in their music or performance videos as well as in their music itself.


For a relative analysis, we compared YouTube videos of K-pop and Korean dramas to those of Japanese and Chinese music and dramas. (We used Webometric Analyst 2.0, a program that automatically collects data of Web, YouTube and Flickr.) To determine the reactions that Korean, Japanese and Chinese music and dramas are receiving, respectively, we calculated ratios of messages, and “likes” and “dislikes” on the videos collected. The “ratio of messages to K-pop music” refers to the ratio all messages to total clicks for K-pop-related videos. Therefore, a high ratio of messages means a high ratio of messages to clicks for K-pop videos.


However, some messages may have nothing to do with the videos, or they can be either positive or negative. For an index that can overcome limits of messages, we compared the ratios of “likes” and “dislikes” to the total number of views. By nation, the ratio of “likes” on K-pop and messages on Korea was higher, while that of “dislikes” was lower. This shows that K-pop videos received more positive responses than Japanese or Chinese music videos.


K-pop videos hit 700 million views, far outdistancing J-pop (400 million views) or C-pop (200 million views) videos. This shows that Korean music is getting more favorable responses than Japanese or Chinese music in all aspects ― clicks, messages and “likes.”





Korean soap operas had less impact than K-pop and prompted fewer messages. But they received more “likes” than their Japanese or Chinese counterparts. On the back of the high popularity of K-pop and TV dramas, overseas fans also took keen interest in the related entertainment industry. Anybody who is interested in Korean pop culture may obtain information about their favorite performers through the websites of entertainment agencies, the stars’ private blogs, or social media.


We looked at how many websites have links to the official sites of major entertainment agencies and social media networks like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. For a relative comparison, we studied the sites of Korea’s leading entertainment agencies, global album makers like Universal Music and Warner Music, Japanese firms such as Avex, Amuse, Universal Music Japan and Warner Music Japan, Chinese firms such as Yuehua and Huayi Brothers, and Hong Kong enterprises like Emperor Entertainment Group and Media Asia. However, it wasn’t possible to install hyperlinks to the websites of YG and JYP, two leading Korean entertainment agencies.


The size of the circles represents how many sites are linked. More links indicate a company frequently updates information, posts interesting information, or features many popular stars. <Figure 4> shows that Korea’s entertainment companies are getting less attention than global enterprises like Universal Music and Warner Music, but more attention than those in Japan, Hong Kong and China. It also shows which countries’ sites have links to Korean agencies’ sites. Data analysis indicates that sites in various countries like France, Indonesia, Spain and Thailand have interest in Korean sites.

II. Correlations between the Korean Wave and Related Industries


Overseas interest in Korean pop culture is not limited only to cultural contents, but has expanded to Korea itself as well as Korean businesses and industries.


In 2012, the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry surveyed 300 major service and manufacturing companies to evaluate the “economic effects of the Korean Wave and their benefits for Korean businesses.” Some 82.8 percent of the respondents offered positive views, saying, “The spread of the Korean Wave has helped create a favorable image for Korea and Korean goods.” Also, 51.9 percent attributed their increased sales to the Korean Wave. Sales increased conspicuously in services industries, including culture, tourism and logistics. In addition, manufacturers of foods, electronic appliances, cosmetics, cars and clothing, in that order, have boosted sales thanks to the Korean Wave.


Based on the click volume for Korean pop culture over the past decade, we categorized countries into three groups: six mature markets where the Korean Wave has spread far and wide, five growing markets where interest in the Korean Wave is growing, and five incipient markets where interest in the Korean Wave has emerged in the past two or three years. And we looked for correlations between the number of clicks for hallyu in each country and the number of its citizens visiting Korea, and between Korea’s exports of major consumer goods and interest in the Korean Wave in respective countries.



1. More People Experience Hallyu and Visit Korea


The most quoted indicator when we discuss the impact of the Korean Wave is the balance of payments in personal, cultural and recreational services, which comprises audio and video services that are closely related to exports and imports of music, broadcasting and video contents, and the other services. The indicator remained negative after 1990, and fell further after 2000. But in 2010, when the Korean Wave began spreading in earnest, the balance of payments improved and posted a surplus in 2012 and 2013.

In audio and video service balance of payments, the service spending (imports of audio and video contents) has remained flat since 2007, while the service revenue (exports of audio and video contents) has increased consistently to post a surplus in 2013.


With the number of foreigners visiting Korea increasing thanks to the Korean Wave, the travel balance of payments, as well as the personal, cultural and recreational services balance of payments, has been positively affected. According to overseas surveys conducted by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism twice in 2012, 58.1 percent of the respondents who had experienced Korean pop culture wanted to visit Korea. Korea’s tourism revenue has been increasing continuously thanks to the growing number of inbound tourists. The rising tourism revenue is highly correlated with surplus in the personal, cultural and recreational services balance of payments.

To determine correlations between the Korean Wave and the number of foreign visitors to Korea, we analyzed the level of people’s interest in Korean pop culture in each country and the number of visitors to Korea from those countries. The level of interest in the Korean Wave was estimated based on the number of clicks for the aforementioned K-pop singers/groups and dramas with high viewing rates, and the number of inbound tourists based on Korea Tourism Organization statistics.


As a result, a linear relationship appeared between national levels of interest in hallyu and the number of tourists visiting Korea from respective countries. That is, more tourists came from countries that have higher numbers of web searches for hallyu content. Also, in regions where hallyu has already spread broadly, high correlations appeared between the number of visitors to Korea and searches for K-pop, rather than Korean soap operas.


This suggests that in regions where Korean dramas are already well known, K-pop refreshed people’s interest in hallyu after their interest in soap dramas had somewhat dwindled. Hallyu-related tourism peaks while interest in hallyu is growing. In this regard, we expect to see tourism revenue increase through the spread of hallyu in countries where the wave is about to spread and its influence is to grow.
The quantified correlations between hallyu and tourist arrivals can be found in diversified tourism programs based on hallyu content. For example, hallyu-related drama filming locations have become new tourist attractions as many hallyu fans visit Korea to see places where their favorite dramas were filmed. Likewise, with the K-pop gaining popularity, urban districts clustered with entertainment agencies have emerged as tourist hotspots.


2. Hallyu Content Boosts Interest in Korean Goods
Pop stars’ fashion, hairstyle and even their personal electronic gadgets attract attention. Right after a TV program or drama is aired or celebrities are exposed by media, their personal accessories like bags or clothes make it to the top of the word search charts. This phenomenon also occurs abroad. Overseas hallyu fans pay close attention to what K-pop stars wear, what cosmetics they use, and what bags or smartphones they carry. A surge in sales of goods advertised by hallyu stars, of course, has a lot to do with this phenomenon.
According to 2012 data of the Korea Chamber of Commerce Industry, “Vinegreat Drink-Hong Cho,” advertised by the girl group Kara, took the largest share of vinegar drinks in Japan, and “Seoul Makkeoli,” advertised by actor Jang Keun-suk, doubled its target of export to Japan in 2011. Similarly, exports of “Kiss-Myun” noodle, advertised by idol singer and actor Park Yoo-chun, to Japan, China, New Zealand and Russia have increased
Chinese visitors bring K-pop stars’ photo spreads to Korean department stores to find identical items featured in the pictures. They even show interest in Korean furniture, daily necessities and small electronic appliances, as well as fashion items.
How does the interest in Korean pop culture affect the exports of Korean goods? According to a 2012 survey by the Korea Culture and Tourism Institute, small and midsize exporters noted that music and dramas, among other hallyu content, have an effect on 42 percent of their total sales. A $100 increase in the export of cultural products leads to $412 in exports of consumer goods or $395 in exports of high-tech products, the Korea Exim Bank speculated in 2012.
In examining the correlation between searches for hallyu content and exports of consumer goods, we focused on 12 goods ― cosmetics, beverages, tobacco, clothes, jewelry, leather goods, furniture, refrigerators, washing machines, TVs, cars and mobile phones. We found that there was a high correlation between an increase in exports and the dissemination level of hallyu.
For instance, significant correlations existed between cosmetics and hallyu in most countries where the craze for Korean pop culture began spreading and where its influence was growing. In some of the countries where hallyu had already spread far and wide, there were high correlations between beverages, clothes and electronic appliances, in addition to cosmetics, and the search volume for Korean pop culture. There were more distinctive correlations between K-pop and exports than between dramas and exports.

As was found by various earlier studies, the effect of hallyu on the export of cosmetics turned out to be enormous in most countries ― regardless of the level of interest in hallyu. Sales of cosmetics soared in China and Southeast Asian nations after hallyu stars were recruited as models for cosmetics. Exports to these regions have increased consistently since 2000, with the annual increase rate reaching 30 percent recently.


Foreigners’ keen interest in Korean cosmetics and clothes is closely related to major tourist destinations in Korea; there was a surge in clicks for typical commercial districts like Myeong-dong and Dongdaemun Market. In a poll conducted by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism in 2012, foreign visitors cited Myeong-dong, Dongdaemun Market, ancient palaces, Mt. Nam Tower, and Namdaemun Market, in that order, as their favorite places in Seoul.
We analyzed relations between the interest in hallyu and tourism and exports in various time periods. First, we compared changes in growth rates of inbound tourists from, and exports to, hallyu-friendly countries with those of Korea’s entire tourism and exports. From 2009 to 2013, the number of inbound tourists increased 13.9 percent, 5.3 percentage points higher than the average increase rate of 8.6 percent in the previous five years. During this period, the increase rate of tourist arrivals from most countries where the influence of hallyu was growing or had spread widely was higher than that of all tourist arrivals in Korea. But this was not the case with most other countries where hallyu was introduced recently.
Korea’s average growth rate of exports stood at 11.4 percent in the 2009-2013 period, down 2.2 percentage points from 13.6 percent in the previous five years. But the exports of goods showing high correlations with hallyu grew 15.8 percent, from -0.5 percent to 15.3 percent, in contrast to overall slowdown in exports. Exports to most regions where hallyu has widely spread has been on the rise since 2009.


III. Conclusion
Korean popular culture, mainly K-pop and TV dramas, has been spreading far beyond Asia to North America, Europe and even Latin America. Interest in the Korean Wave has impacted various sectors, including related businesses and industries. In this report, we discussed that there are high correlations between the growing interest in K-pop and dramas and the increasing number of inbound tourists and growth of exports. We believe that the Korean Wave not only plays a role as cultural content but has direct and indirect influence on creating positive images of Korean products and Korea itself in the global community.
Recently, with the increase in searches for K-pop and dramas apparently slowing down somewhat, there have been voices of concern about the sustainability of the Korean Wave. A review of search trends on Google shows that K-pop is still led by idol groups and a considerable number of dramas rely primarily on the popularity of hallyu stars rather than unique and original storylines. Despite the widespread contention that K-pop and dramas have recently expanded their influence in the world, they have yet to spread more extensively beyond Asia and the Pacific. Google data also show that the popularity of K-pop and dramas remains confined to specific regions. This is why we are worried that interest in the Korean Wave in those regions might ebb soon, depending on their domestic policies economic situations.


Therefore, more efforts are needed to see K-pop and dramas diversify their genres to make the overseas enthusiasm for Korean pop culture more sustainable. It is necessary to expand the genres of hallyu by drawing on overall Korean culture, including traditional arts, fashion, cuisine and language, enhancing their synergistic effects to introduce more attractive aspects of Korea to visitors who arrive after experiencing K-pop and dramas.

[LG Business Insight, February 19, 2014, LG Economic Research Institute]