How The PyeongChang Olympics Is Helping South Korea Spread Its Influence Around The World

Bring on the Korean cultural invasion.

If you've been watching the PyeongChang Olympics, you've seen a lot of great sports — but you've probably also heard K-pop, learned a bit about Korean culture, and experienced some cravings for Korean food.

And that's exactly the point. In an effort to diversify the country's economy and expand their soft power — a persuasive approach to international relations using cultural and economic influence — in the world, South Korea developed a strategy called hallyu or Korean wave: a focus on technology and pop culture that would be popular (and profitable) not only in Korea but around the world.

BTS at the 2017 American Music Awards on Nov. 19, 2017.
BTS at the 2017 American Music Awards on Nov. 19, 2017.

The strategy has positioned South Korea as a global cultural trendsetter, says Euny Hong, whose book The Birth of Korean Cool explores hallyu.

Overall, the Korean's government large financial investment in making hallyu happen is paying off. K-dramas and K-pop grew from national popularity into becoming regional cultural forces across Asia. Pop singer Psy's "Gangnam Style" became a global hit and BTS is having similar success in North America, becoming this generation's Backstreet Boys. And Korean films like "Oldboy" and "Train to Busan" enjoyed critical success around the world.

In terms of technology, Korean electronics brands went from being undesirable to being top of the line. The government invested in broadband internet across the country, which both made it easier for everyone to access cultural products and allowed Korea to get ahead of the game in developing digital technologies. Now brands like Samsung and LG are global leaders.

The PyeongChang Olympics and soft power

The PyeongChang Olympics provide many unique opportunities for South Korea to expand that soft power into new areas, like sports.

Popular figure skater Yuna Kim participated in the opening ceremony, and K-pop bands have performed at various Olympic events, including the medal ceremonies. Athletes like American Chloe Kim and Russian Evgenia Medvedeva have discussed their love of K-pop.

PyeongChang Winter Olympics mascots.
PyeongChang Winter Olympics mascots.

And instead of flowers, medal winners receive a stuffed Soohorang, the official mascot for the 2018 Olympics.

Soohorang is a white tiger, an animal important in Korean mythology and culture, and he's also pretty cute — something that must be resonating outside the country, as the mascot has become tough to find in stores around the world.

A North Korean wave?

The Olympics have also created, perhaps unwittingly, an opportunity for North Korea to try to catch its southern neighbour's cultural wave.

North Korean athletes are participating in the Games, and the two countries — who are technically still at war— marched into the stadium during the opening ceremony under a flag depicting a united Korean peninsula.

"The North is sort of trying to glom onto the Korean wave as well," Hong says. "They want the spotlight to be shared."

North Korean cheerleaders wave unified Korean flags as they perform during the PyeongChang Olympics.
North Korean cheerleaders wave unified Korean flags as they perform during the PyeongChang Olympics.

But North Korea's Moranbong Band, whose lead singer came to the south to view potential venues for Olympic performances, lacks the sophistication or global appeal of South Korean favourites. And there's little reason to believe the North Korean co-operation will continue once the Olympics are over, Hong says.

And South Korea's hallyu is increasingly a force for change in the north, where shows and movies are smuggled in on thumb drives.

"Some people think that South Korean soft power is actually wearing down North Korean resistance," Hong says. "It's making North Koreans realize that South Korean life can't be as bad as they've been told."

South Korea's next waves

Hong's book came out in 2014, and since then hallyu has spread in new ways, she says. For starters, K-dramas and K-pop have grown in popularity, beyond Asia and beyond the Korean diaspora in other parts of the world.

"The penetration in the U.S. and North America is much stronger," Hong says.

Another of those ways is food, which can also be seen at the Olympics.

"Something that I noticed this time around is that they're really emphasizing Korean food," Hong says of the PyeongChang Games. "The U.S. network that is covering the Olympics asked [Korean-American chef] David Chang to be a special correspondent."

A bowl of traditional Korean napa kimchi.
A bowl of traditional Korean napa kimchi.

Korean food products like kimchi are becoming common enough that they're found on tacos and poutine, and condiments like gochujang can be found in many grocery stores.

And the explosion of Korean beauty brands in North America is another aspect of the country's growing cultural relevance that Hong, who wrote about K-beauty for the New York Times, didn't see coming.

Bring on the Korean cultural invasion!

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