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Asia Goes Crazy Over Korean Pop Culture

The hottest thing in Asian pop culture these days is South Korea. The so-called Korean wave covers the craze for South Korean TV dramas, movies and pop singers - but increasingly also for fashion, cosmetics and electronics.

The Korean drama "Jewel in the Palace" clocked up record television ratings in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan last year. Even Chinese President Hu Jintao admitted to being a fan of the historical drama about a cook at Korea's royal court. The show's actors have become mega stars across Asia.

South Korea has been exporting movies and TV dramas since the late 1990s. Many Asian TV networks initially bought them because the glossy productions were comparatively cheap. But audiences from China to the Philippines soon got hooked.

Lisa Leung is assistant professor of cultural studies at Hong Kong's Lingnan University. She says one of the reasons for the dramas' strong appeal is that, unlike Western productions, they are culturally close to Asian viewers.

"Audiences can not only identify with the skin color, the hair color, the similar faces and looks of Korean actors and actresses but also the kind of values expressed in these TV dramas," she explained. "More to the point the kind of stress on familial values, the filial piety, the love between siblings and friendship and all these elements that might make Korean television dramas so popular in Asia."

South Korean pop stars, like the singer BoA, have also achieved cult status in many Asian countries. One young woman in Hong Kong looks for magazines and posters featuring her favorite pop star, the South Korean singer and actor Rain.

"I like him, I'm his big fan," she said. "He dances great and he sings great. And his performance in the drama is good as well."

The popularity of South Korean films and music has led to a veritable craze for everything Korean across Asia.

Hong Kong street markets sell traditional Korean robes to children and some brides in China are wearing them for wedding photos.

Learning Korean has become increasingly popular in many Asian countries, as have Korean food, fashion and cosmetics. Ms. Leung says in China the craze has even meant more people undergoing plastic surgery, as she noticed during a research trip last year.

"I found that there were more and more younger girls and also older women wanting to go through plastic surgery," she said. "They would be visiting these hospitals which stress this kind of Korean-style cosmetic technology. This is not too much of a question of wanting to look more Korean, but I think in mainland China the audience might have been affected by Korean TV dramas and that they want to look more beautiful."

Ms. Leung says advertisements featuring South Korean idols have resulted in increased sales for the country's products, such as Samsung mobile phones or LG electrical appliances.

Shim Doo-bo, a South Korean, is assistant professor of communications and new media at Singapore's National University. He says Koreans living overseas have profited from the popularity of their country's cultural exports - like the South Korean housewives he interviewed in Singapore.

"They reported to me that after the immense popularity of Korean television dramas and films they feel that they are better treated by local Singaporean people," said Shim Doo-bo.

In many parts of Asia, Korea has become a byword for cool. South Koreans have coined a new word to describe the phenomenon: Hallyu, meaning "Korean wave".

Mr. Shim says his country has not been slow to cash in on the craze.

"Many regional governments within Korea have built up theme parks based on the characters of Korean dramas and films and the image of [South] Korea of a country which used to be known to other countries for labor strikes or student demonstration strikes for democracy is slowly moving to cool or fashionable or dynamic," he said. "So that recently officially the [South] Korean government inaugurated a campaign of so-called dynamic Korea as its catchphrase for the tourist industry."

As Asian tourists are now visiting South Korea specifically to see the locations where popular dramas are shot, the government has organized events with famous entertainers and launched a multilingual web site with information on movies and TV dramas, actors and filming locations.

The Korean wave is a point of national pride for South Korea. After having been colonized or overshadowed by its neighbors, Japan and China, for centuries, the country finally has the chance to outdo them on the cultural stage.

But Hallyu has also boosted South Korea's economy. In 2004, the export of film and television programs along with tourism and merchandising generated revenues totaling nearly $2 billion.