From K-pop phenomena "Gangnam Style" and BTS to South Korea's success on screen with Parasite and Squid Game, interest in Korean popular culture has skyrocketed in the past decade. One way experts have seen this interest manifest is in the steep rise in enrollment in Korean language classes.
U.S. college student enrollment in Korean language classes has risen 78% from 2009 to 2016, reaching 15,000, while total enrollment in language classes has plateaued in recent years, according to data analyzed from Modern Language Association. The only other widely learned language with significant growth in the span was American Sign Language, which increased enrollments by 37%.
East Asian Studies departments have struggled to accommodate the increasing demand for Korean classes, which historically have been limited and underresourced, experts say.
"Because language programs in East Asian Studies have traditionally focused on Mandarin and Japanese, Korean language is a new area that really started to be offered in most East Asian Studies programs only in the last 15 years or so," said Michelle Cho, assistant professor of East Asian studies at the University of Toronto.
Experts say there's one main reason for this trend: K-pop
When Victor Cha, a professor of government at Georgetown University, took Korean in the 1980s, his entire class was made up of heritage speakers like him — Korean Americans who were exposed to the language at home and sought to improve their fluency. Now half or more of Korean language students are made up of non-Korean students who discovered the Korean language through K-pop, he said.
Georgetown University rolled out a new Korean major this fall after seeing its Korean language classes reach full capacity.
Michelle Cho also noted the shift from heritage speakers to non-Korean speakers, with non-Korean students now making up about 80% of her Korean cinema and media classes at the University of Toronto.
"They are learning Korean to become more involved in their interest in Korean popular culture, whether that is television, music or cinema, or they're learning Korean as a language that will allow them to pursue some goals they might have working with Korean companies in Asia," she said.
Ten years ago, Psy's "Gangnam Style" became the most viewed video on YouTube of its time, marking K-pop's first splash on the global music stage. In 2018, BTS became the first K-pop act to hit No.1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, and BLACKPINK became the first K-pop girl group to perform at Coachella a year later.
Korean TV shows and films have also broken barriers in the past few years. Parasite became the first film in a foreign language to win best picture at the Oscars in 2020. Squid Game then became Netflix's most-watched show of all time, winning a historic six Emmys in September.
Victor Cha, who is also the Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, called the world's obsession with Korean popular culture a "homegrown grassroots generation-specific love" unlike anything he has seen.
"People like French food, but [that's] not like middle-aged housewives from New Jersey who go to a BTS concert who are singing the words to the song phonetically even though they don't know what they mean," he said. "It's just extraordinary."
Harnessing this interest into a life-long friendship with Korea
Young people's infatuation with Korean popular culture is an opportunity for South Korea to engage different sectors of Americans and make them supporters of the country across various industries, experts say.
South Korea has emerged as a global leader in industries including electric vehicles, semiconductor chips and global health, as seen in the country's aggressive tactics to combat the pandemic. South Korean industrial giant Samsung is one of the biggest producers of memory chips in the world and has agreed to aid the U.S. in its "Chip War" with China by investing $17 billion in a new chip plant in Texas.
"Korea is positioning itself as being an important player in all these issues, and that naturally will bring American business sector, scientific community and all others to become much more interactive with Korea," Victor Cha said.
He called on the South Korean government for more funding and programs to sponsor young people's travels to Korea to help promote a life-long love of and interest in Korea.
Michelle Cho said South Korea was not a place that people thought of as a destination to find work before the mid 2000s, but it is now much more common for students to study Korean and travel to South Korea for work after graduation.
Programs like the Fulbright U.S. Student Program's English Teaching Assistant Programs and EPIK (English Program in Korea) place Americans in classrooms across South Korea to teach English.
"That will drive more interest not just in the popular culture but in politics, economics, history, society, business, and in areas in which students can envision future career opportunities," Michelle Cho said.