Becoming an Unexpected Soft Power: Korean Television Dramas in the Middle East

By Yesim Kaptan
Submitted to Session Individual Submission, 2021 Annual Meeting
Media Arts
All Middle East;
Pop Culture;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
Since the 2000s, Korean dramas (K-dramas) have reached the national television markets of the Middle East, and their popularity has suddenly risen among younger audiences in Iran, Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates. Popular K-dramas and their wider appeal have sparked discussions around the cultural power of the Korean Wave in the Middle East because of their increasingly visible success and unprecedented influence in this region. However, despite the growing literature about Korean Wave dramas in the Middle East in recent years, the multifaceted influence of K-dramas in this region has not fully received scholarly attention, except a few (Kim 2014; Azad 2018; Elaskary 2018; Lyan 2019). Relying on case study research, our study explores the implications of K-dramas in Turkey, Iran, Israel and in the Arab countries to understand the intricate relationship between transnational media flows and cultural consumption as transnational popular culture can possibly cultivate Korean soft power in the Middle East. Promoted by the Korean government, in early 2005 for the first time in the Middle East, Korean popular culture began spreading the non-economic side of its soft power to the political sphere. K-dramas have become an instrument of soft power and intertwined with the national benefits of Korea, including an increase in exports, business opportunities, Korean language learning, cultural participation, and tourism. K-dramas entice and influence the Middle Eastern audiences and especially fans, as unofficial cultural ambassadors, who are eager to engage with and voluntarily promote Korean culture in their local communities. The attractiveness of these has created a visible fan culture on digital platforms and social media, as well as the bottom-up grassroots participants contributing to Korea’s soft power. Our research concludes that as the consumption of K-dramas has become part of the Middle Eastern audiences’ daily media habit, this routinized consumption and associated participatory practice can enhance the national image and reputation of Korea and potentially cultivate its soft power in the Middle East.

Azad, S. (2018) Koreans in Iran: Missiles, Markets and Myths, New York: Algora Publishing.
Elaskary, M. (2018) “The Korean Wave in the Middle East: Past and Present,” Journal of Open Innovation: Technology, Market, and Complexity, 4(51):1-16.
Kim, S.W. (2014) “Neo-Hallyu in the Middle East, the Major Part of the Korean Creative Economy,” Islamic Soc. Korea (24): 41–67.
Lyan, I. (2019) “Welcome to Korea Day: From Diasporic to Hallyu Fan-Nationalism,” International Journal of Communication, 13(2019): 3764–3780.