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South Korean Culture Wave Spreads Across Asia

A crowd of Lee Young-ae's fans, some of whom traveled across China to see her in person.
Louisa Lim, NPR
A crowd of Lee Young-ae's fans, some of whom traveled across China to see her in person.
Lee Young-ae (at right) the South Korean star of the <em>The Jewel in the Palace</em>, promotes a brand of ginseng in Shanghai.
Louisa Lim, NPR /
Lee Young-ae (at right) the South Korean star of the The Jewel in the Palace, promotes a brand of ginseng in Shanghai.

Forget Desperate Housewives or Survivor. In Asia, The Jewel in the Palace and Winter Sonata are the must-see television shows. South Korea is cashing in on a marketing push that has made its soap operas and pop stars wildly popular across Asia.

Is this simply canny branding? Or is it an attempt to forge a pan-Asian identity to compete with mainstream U.S. culture?

In a rainy afternoon in Shanghai, hundreds of people, mostly women, wait outside a pharmacy for the appearance of Lee Young-ae, a South Korean television starlet. This is the visible proof of what's being called the Korean wave -- a wave of enthusiasm for South Korean pop culture that's sweeping Asia.

On television Lee Young-ae is a doctor in The Jewel in the Palace, a historical soap opera set in the past. The actress was in Shanghai to publicize a popular Korean product -- the medicinal ginseng root. But in essence she was really selling the whole idea of Korea -- the country, the culture and the products.

The Korean wave's impact is so great that people from around the region are traveling to Seoul to have plastic surgery -- they want to make themselves look like their favorite Korean soap opera stars.

"Over the last three years, there's been a 30-percent increase in foreigners coming to have plastic surgery," says Dr. Chung Jong-pil, who works at the Cinderella plastic surgery clinic in Seoul. "It's all because of the Korean wave. A lot of Chinese and Japanese have surgery to make themselves look more like Koreans."

But a backlash against the Korean wave may be beginning. A Chinese news magazine has accused the South Korean government of wanting not just to spread Korean culture, but to present itself as the essence of Asian culture. And the Chinese media is reporting plans to limit the amount of airtime given to Korean dramas.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit

Beijing Correspondent Louisa Lim is currently attending the University of Michigan as a Knight-Wallace Fellow. She will return to her regular role in 2014.
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