Super Junior, who with 13 members are one of the world’s biggest boy bands, are household names across Asia.
Miwa Tanaka is browsing in the Hottracks music store in downtown Seoul, lost in thought at one end of the Korean-music aisle.
The racks in front of her are seeing a brisk trade – but Ms Tanaka is taking her time, considering a fistful of compact discs in her hand, their bright “buy-me” colours competing with her glittery eye-shadow.
She is not pleased at having her shopping interrupted. Neither does she understand our questions, in English or in Korean.
Ms Tanaka is Japanese. She is on holiday to do a little shopping, and immerse herself in Korean culture. And by culture, she is not talking about just the old palaces and modern art.
“My whole family is really into Korean music and TV dramas,” she says. “We make sure to watch them together at home all the time.”
Bands such as Kara and Super Junior have become household names in much of Asia. They belong to a new hip generation of South Korean artists that has launched the musical genre K-pop.
Coupled with the success of Korean TV shows and films, they are part of a wider cultural movement here that has become known as Korean wave.
Ms Tanaka has already spent $500 (£304) since she arrived in South Korea and she is not the only one being lured by the country’s new cool culture.
On the other side of the aisle, manager Jae Chol Youn is stacking copies of an album by Girls Generation.
“In the past, it was just Koreans who were buying our music,” he says.
“But in the last few years, more people from China, Japan and South East Asia have been buying here, and the sales have been steadily rising.”
The number of people who visited South Korea specifically to attend events such as album launches, concerts and awards ceremonies doubled to 34,000 in 2010.
Still more came to visit the set of a famous soap opera or movie.
Two cents’ worth
Mr Youn says K-pop has proved such a hit in Asia because it offers something different, but is still familiar enough for audiences to relate to.
And the fact that K-pop’s unique style is attracting foreign fans is something that benefits both the people who visit South Korea and the bands whose music they like.
That is why Ms Tanaka is stocking up on Korean music in Seoul. A CD that costs 15,000 won in South Korea ($13.81) is four times more expensive in Japan.
In fact, according to music industry veteran Bernie Cho, K-pop stars do much better financially when they sell their music abroad, rather than just at home. His company, DFSB Kollective, markets and distributes a range of Korean music.
“If you bought a single on iTunes in the US, you’re paying around $1,” he says.
“In Korea, the price was originally 50 cents, it dropped to 12 cents, then it dropped to six cents. And the artists are getting 35% of that – they’re making two cents a download.”
According to Mr Cho, many of K-pop’s top acts are selling 100,000 or 150,000 albums straight after release. It is an impressive number in any major market.
“Music is so heavily discounted in Korea that a lot of them are looking to go overseas, or are relying on their popularity to boost their income in other ways, like acting or advertising,” he says.
That diversity of roles is helping to spread their appeal to other countries, as well as to other areas of the South Korean economy. Many tourists who come for the music also buy the clothes and cosmetic brands promoted by Korean stars.
According to South Korea’s Trade and Investment Agency, income from cultural exports like pop music and TV shows has been rising by about 10% a year. In 2008, it was worth almost $2bn.
The success of the South Korean economy was, for decades, laid at the door of the big “chaebol” or family firms.
While conglomerates such as Samsung and Hyundai still form the backbone of the country’s financial structure, many people now believe that the Korean national brand itself is changing to reflect this new passion for Korean wave.
Mr Cho cites the English-language websites devoted to Korean wave, which attract more visitors than the Korean-language versions.
For people under a certain age, all across Asia – and increasingly in Europe and the US too – the South Korea of today is just as likely to be associated with pop music or TV dramas as with cars or microchips.
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