Within the trendy, high-end area of Apgujeong Rodeo sits K-Star Road, a large strip of sidewalk occupied by huge, colorful bears and excited tourists. Though the image would not immediately strike a person as a monument to an important history with its lack of grey stone, copper, or solemn faces, K-Star Road is the proud symbol of the rapid rise of South Korea’s entertainment history to a global phenomenon.
Coming out of the Korean War, Korean pop culture, like that of many countries, was heavily influenced by the United States. American trends dictated which genres were relevant and popular. Now, however, Korea’s pop culture has evolved into a completely new monster, attracting the attention of millennials from around the world and asserting its unique influence with hits like Psy’s “Gangnam Style” and more recently, the rise of BTS or Beyond The Scenes, a K-Pop band that even changed its name to appeal to growing American demand.
K-Pop’s popularity, much like Korea’s economy, was built within the last 60 years and marks a period of constant change in the country. After the Korean War, the nation was left in ruins with widespread poverty, ranked as one of the poorest developing countries in the world. However, Korea turned the tables with the “Miracle on Han River,” which involved strict government regulation, propaganda-propelled cultural resilience, and enormous reliance on Western benchmarks. The country was speeding through a game of catch-up and using the successful precedents of Western powers like the US to influence its development.
It was within this environment of tireless resilience towards achieving prosperity that the Korean entertainment industry developed. With the constant interactions between the US and Korea during this time period, concepts like rock and pop began to seep in. However, without much government support for creative growth at the time and the nation’s now well ingrained practice of benchmarking or replicating other successful models, the music industry lacked a characteristic flair, sounding suspiciously similar to America’s hits of the time and quickly following the changes that the US leaked to Korea.
However, as Korea began to reach its goal of economic prosperity, creative industries began to take their Western benchmarks and look for areas of improvement to better compete in the international market, as seen foremost by the efforts of Samsung. For the music industry, this meant the incorporation of concepts like difficult dance moves, high-production music videos, and music shows —all now common trademarks of K-Pop. Though it took time, these unique characteristics adapted to face and attract a more international audience despite cultural and linguistic barriers. While the process started well before him, Psy became the first global indicator of this slow shift in influence.
The process is not complete just yet, but it is still going strong. BTS recently appeared on the American Music Awards, garnering intense surprise from the general public from the group’s jaw-dropping performance, their social media power, and the size of their American fandom.
K-Star Road, created in 2015, is a testament to this rise. Although designed for the enjoyment of tourists rather than the Korean people, it shows what the nation has achieved in just six decades and the soft power that is becoming an ever larger source of Korea’s prominence in the world.
The street’s bears represent the size of the overseas popularity of the artists they represent. Each bear has a specific design inspired from the concept of the chosen K-Pop group, a small sign with a picture of the group and their name in both English and Korean in case the fan cannot easily identify the bear, and if the bear is fortunate, signatures from those it represents. After every three or four bears there is a stand equipped with a map of the surrounding area, identifying the location of each bear, notable entertainment agencies in the area, and stores deemed as “favorites among stars,” and a guide to make the most of the road. Though there is Korean present, English covers most of the stand.
At one end of the road sits Gangnamdol Haus, a shop that sells miniature versions of the bears and employs someone who can usually speak Korean, English, Japanese, and Mandarin. Unlike other monuments in Seoul that have a good balance of native and foreign visitors, mainly foreign tourists frequent and take pictures with the bears, in contrast to the large number of native Koreans who walk by without a glance.
The natives’ lack of strong association with Hallyu — the Korean Wave — may stem from just how recent the phenomenon is. The K-Star Road’s construction very conspicuously followed the 2012 popularity of “Gangnam Style” as Apgujeong Rodeo is a prominent part of Gangnam district. With the creation of the road, the Korean government is clearly marking Hallyu as an important part of the nation’s history. However, while most Koreans are familiar with the term Hallyu, it has not directly affected their everyday lives and therefore is not immediately perceived as a historical turning point or an important indicator of national prominence. After playing a game of catch-up and being influenced by the West for so long, the shift in perceiving their own capabilities and influence is, for now, subtle.
The installation of K-Star Road is the Korean government’s recognition of Korea’s growing soft power, the full extent of which has not been fully realized yet. However, what is important to notice is the give and take of global and local cultures that reflects the integration of Korea into a more globalized world. Korea is not suddenly immune to the hegemonic, Western influencers of pop culture. K-Star Road has some reminisce of Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, and the intense surprise of the public towards BTS’ AMA performance is indicative that Hallyu is still categorized as counterhegemonic. But the interest it is attracting is undoubtedly significant, and maybe it is only a question of time until K-Star Road will be as recognized as its — for now — much more famous Los Angeles counterpart.