Seo Young-Doo is upbeat about 2021. “We will become the Amazon and Flipkart of Korean brands,” says the founder of Korikart.com, an India-based online marketplace for Korean products and brands which saw rapid growth in demand over the past few months. “During the pandemic, many Indians started cooking Korean food. They started watching K-dramas on Netflix because the stories are sweet and romantic and they appeal to Indians. Also, K-beauty is big because Indian ladies like Korean ladies’ skin. The popularity of K-pop and K-dramas opened up the market for us,” says the 40-something Korean national.
“When I came here in 2004, people used to think Hyundai was from Japan. But slowly, Korean companies have made their mark,” says Seo, who initially came to India as an employee of a South Korean automobile company that acted as a vendor for Korean and Indian firms like Hyundai, Tata and Mahindra. “Earlier, when I met Indians they would think I am Chinese and greet me with ‘Ni hao’ but that happens very rarely now. These days, they say ‘annyeonghaseyo!’”—the Korean word for ‘hello’, which now trips easily over the Indian tongue.”
Eventually, Seo got into retail as the only vendor of products from his country on teleshopping network HomeShop18, where he witnessed the growth in popularity of their skincare items, cosmetics and healthcare products like sauna belts and weight-loss tablets. Teleshopping tanked after 2016—partly owing to demonetisation (80% of the business functioned on a cash-on-delivery model, Seo recalls) and partly because online shopping was gaining strength, even in non-metros. That is when Seo spotted an opportunity to sell products directly in India.
Korikart began operations in December 2018, focusing on Korean beauty products. “The popularity of K-beauty made us think we can launch a multi-brand store that will cater to the people who are familiar with Korean music and dramas.” Based in Delhi, the company has just 15 employees but the number of products and categories is increasing every day, says Seo. He dreams big—of becoming an Amazon-like company straddling global retail, with branches in Ireland, Japan and other countries where the K-wave is big.
Seo is among a new breed of entrepreneurs who first came to India working for bigger Korean companies and have now started their own ventures, running Korean-speciality businesses in the country. On a nippy winter evening in Bengaluru, while looking for places to grab a quick dinner on a rare evening out, Zomato shows a listing for Daily Sushi, a neat little café-style restaurant tucked away in a lane in Bengaluru’s HSR Layout—once a neighbourhood where people built retirement homes and now the latest “it” location favoured by startups. Daily Sushi was started by two former employees of Korean steel companies who have been in India since 2010.
Later, chatting with Minseong Seok, co-founder and CEO of Buza Foods Pvt. Ltd, which runs Daily Sushi, over bowls of spicy, steaming hot “ramyun” (Korean ramen) and sushi rolls, it becomes clear that he has done his market research. “In most countries, Italian and American fast food is the first ‘foreign’ cuisine to be adopted by the local population. Then it’s Chinese food with localisation, and according to our research, Japanese and Korean are the next wave,” says Minseong.
With co-founder Hyungtaekk Lim, Minseong opened the first outlet of Daily Sushi in Whitefield in 2019, and has expanded the brand into a franchise model, with three more outlets in the city, including a central cloud kitchen in Indiranagar. They felt there was a gap in the market for Japanese and Korean food—which share many commonalities in ingredients and dishes (“like Indian and Pakistani food,” says Minseong)—especially in a casual-dining format with a sushi bar and to-go sushi. This is where Daily Sushi, with its Instagram-friendly interiors, comes in. Recently, the company launched a Korean barbeque restaurant in HSR Layout called Roast and is in the process of starting a delivery and takeaway-only fried chicken chain called 1551 Chicken.
Entrepreneurs like Seo, Minseong and Lim represent the second wave of their country’s economic foray into India; the first began in the late 1990s with big corporations setting up manufacturing and retail of Korean cars and electronics. In a way, they are the business arm of Hallyu, a Chinese term which literally means “Korean Wave”, and refers to the phenomenal growth of Korean popular culture, including music, movies, drama, beauty and food across the globe.
Interestingly, while business is not overtly a part of Hallyu, it is inextricably linked with promoting Korean business interests overseas. The business community of the 10th biggest economy in the world (nominal GDP rank as per the International Monetary Fund’s 2020 estimates) is very aware of the social and economic impact of its pop culture and eager to cash in on it—with the government’s blessings; in fact, some scholars have called Hallyu a “government construct” and “a phenomenon of cultural production” in the book The Korean Wave: Korean Popular Culture In Global Context, a collection of essays edited by Yasue Kuwahara, a scholar of communication theory at Northern Kentucky University, US, and published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014.
Korea knows that when a nation’s popular culture gains strength, it becomes that much easier to build a market for brands and products—just look at the way Hollywood and American television and music have shaped our tastes and lifestyles. And with its chart-busting K-pop music, addictive K-dramas on streaming services, its beauty industry, which is now setting trends globally where Paris and Milan once reigned, and its food becoming mainstream (it’s not uncommon to find bottled kimchi and gochujang paste on supermarket shelves in India), the world is indeed immersed in the Korean Wave.
In fact, the wave became stronger in 2020, during the pandemic, as millions of Indians watched K-pop videos on YouTube, listened to the music on music streaming apps, and watched K-dramas. India joined the club of the top five or six countries contributing to views of K-pop music videos on YouTube, and Bollywood stars, from Ayushmann Khurrana to Deepika Padukone, posted about being fans of mega K-pop bands like BTS and Blackpink.
Creating a phoenix
“There is a saying in Korean—that to make a phoenix you have to first hatch 1,000 chickens,” says Junghee Hahn, director general of the Chennai-based Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (Kotra). The organisation, created by the Korean government in 1962, is evidence of the outward-looking policies of the republic, says Hahn. “Kotra has a network of offices in 120 major cities in the world. No other trade organisation has this kind of network, and through this the Korean government has strategically promoted trade for decades. In India, this process started in the 1990s and early 2000s and was part of a worldwide effort to push the promotion of investment in foreign countries.”
“There have been challenges. Korean products are usually more expensive than Indian or Chinese-made items and the Indian market is very price conscious. Also, the average Korean manufacturer may be a little hesitant to enter India because they find the paperwork, certification procedures, etc. challenging. But there are some that have very clear India strategies and see India as a huge market. Right now, they are hatching the chickens in the hope of creating a phoenix someday,” says Hahn.
Hahn says two K-beauty companies—Innisfree and The Face Shop—are heavily invested in India and have long-term strategies for the country. With an emphasis on skincare over make-up and targeted products for a host of skin issues that aid in the maintenance of young, dewy and fresh-looking skin—the Korean beauty ideal— the brands, which entered India between 2012-15, have transformed our skincare and make-up industry.
From the introduction of the 10-step beauty regime to the use of sheet masks and sleeping masks and make-up essentials like the BB cream and cushion foundation, such beauty brands have not only made it to the essentials list of every user even remotely interested in skincare, they can be credited with inspiring the surge of direct-to-consumer, micro-beauty brands in India, from Juicy Chemistry to Mamaearth, Wow Skincare and Dot & Key.
“Indian micro beauty brands have definitely been inspired (by K-beauty) in the sense of owning their own niche of home-grown ingredients, just like the K-beauty brands focus on their forte of achieving glass skin, using unique ingredients and technological innovation,” says Anchit Nayar, CEO, retail, Nykaa, India’s top online retail platform for skincare and make-up products, on email.
“They really opened up the market in a big way with their innovative products and the way they harness technology to deliver skincare benefits, like sheet masks. Now even Chanel has introduced sheet masks—and they are all made in Korea,” says beauty and wellness writer Geeta Rao, former beauty director of Vogue India and Lounge contributor. “The world looks to Korea to bring the next big innovation in skincare and beauty and somehow they have also managed to get that mix of natural ingredients and technology of delivery just right.”
The Korean beauty/wellness industry continues to innovate at a fast pace, from using bee venom, snail mucin and volcanic lava ash in products to packaging innovations like “airless pumps” for lotions and creams and vitamin-enriched scented shower filters. According to a survey conducted by market research firm Rakuten Insight in 2019, 39% of female Indian respondents stated that their skincare routine consisted of under 25% of K-beauty products, while 3% of the women surveyed in India said all their skincare products were from Korean brands.
Kingdoms and fandoms
The Korean Wave in India—with its fandoms, cosplay, rock shows and fashion shows—first took off in North-East states like Mizoram and Manipur in the early noughts, with films like The Classic (2003) and the Korean drama Full House (2004). Many factors contributed—among them the ban on Hindi films and TV channels in Manipur by the Revolutionary People’s Front in 2000, when young people started bingeing on pirated DVDs of Korean films, which probably came across the border from China, where Hallyu was just taking off. Soon, cable TV operators had found a way to air Korean TV channels like KBS World and Arirang TV, and the trend was cemented over the next 15 years with the growing popularity of K-pop bands across the world and the easy availability of K-dramas and movies on streaming networks.
In a June 2017 paper, Globalization, Hybridization And Cultural Invasion—Korean Wave In India’s North East, Athikho Kaisii , an assistant professor at the Jamia Millia Islamia Centre for Culture Media and Governance, notes: “Clear and visible resemblance of looks, physical features, appearances, talks and movements provide a means to develop an attachment with the wave...people from the region can identify with the wave better and closer as compared to mainland Indian entertainment and popular culture…. The near total absence of North-Easterners in the Hindi film industry and mainland entertainment world is a barrier to identify, among other factors. The same is true with even Korean entertainment but the similarity of looks has made the scene different in case of Korean movies.”
And Hallyu has benefited its Indian fandom as well. Take Jacinta Lalawmpuii, founder of the band 5Feet, an all-girls music and dance group of four young K-pop fans from Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Manipur, which has participated in several K-pop concerts in India as well as India’s Got Talent. Today, Lalawmpuii is a K-beauty influencer and a well-known face on the Indian K-pop circuit, where she judges upcoming musicians and dancers.
Then there are the merchant sites run by Indians, like LoveKarnival.com, an online store for Korean merchandise started by Mumbai-based entrepreneurs Sneha Arora and Bhavish Choksi in 2018. “Many startups and influencers are using Hallyu to sell their products. It started more informally, with people selling official and unofficial merch on Instagram, but it has become much more organised now,” says Nikita Gupta, editor of the K-pop webzine KPop High India (kpophighindia.com). The webzine is a platform for K-pop fans in India to read about the latest news and gossip about their favourite stars, stay updated on concerts and events, and read interviews with K-pop and K-drama performers conducted by Gupta and her team of seven writers.
“With the fandom comes increased interest in Korean language, food, culture…. Anything that happens in Korea now catches on very quickly thanks to global fandoms,” says Rathi Jafer, director of the Chennai-based Indo-Korean Cultural and Information Centre (InKo Centre), a non-profit that promotes cultural exchange between India and Korea, funded in part by corporations that have strong ties with both countries, such as TVS Motors and Hyundai Motors.
Besides bringing Korean theatre, classical music and dance to Indians, the centre also conducts classes in the language and traditional arts like taekwondo, calligraphy and ggotggozi, or the Korean art of flower arrangement. The language too got a boost during the pandemic, says Jafer. In Delhi, the Korean Cultural Centre India reported recently that when it opened registrations for the online language class in August with a 300-seat limit, it took just a minute to fill. Many schools in India have started offering Korean as a language option. In 2020, the Korean Cultural Centre facilitated regular language classes for 130 students from three Delhi schools and hobby classes for 304 students from 10 schools, besides conducting teachers’ training in Korean.
It was at the InKo Centre that members of The K-Wave India, a K-pop and K-drama fandom based in Chennai, started meeting in 2008. “Now there are fandom chapters in most Indian cities but we were definitely among the first,” says Sanjay Ramjhi, a Korean language interpreter and founder of the K-Wave India group.
Ramjhi’s interest in the language, which he has turned into a career as he works with Korean companies setting up or expanding businesses in India, was fuelled by an interest in K-pop. “I just wanted to watch K-dramas without subtitles! But as I learnt the language and became more and more immersed in Korean culture, I travelled to Korea as well and spent a few months there, and in 2014 I landed a job at the Korean consulate in Chennai. There has been no looking back, because back then and even now there are few people who can speak Korean, English and Tamil,” says Ramjhi.
The fandom grew organically with the Korean Wave, and the Chennai chapter today has 1,800 members who meet regularly at the InKo Centre or at Korean restaurants to discuss K-dramas, organise cosplays and contests. In December, in fact, the group organised a K-pop and K-drama festival featuring competitions, cosplay and a “Hallyu and Korean culture quiz”. There have been several such contests over the years—this time, of course, it was organised virtually, says Ramjhi.
“Korean cultural and trade centres have always been long-term in their vision and strategy and short-term in their programming. Korea has very quickly adapted to understand the Indian psyche and market, and if we help Korean companies do business cleanly and efficiently, they will come. There is a world of opportunity,” says Jafer, who is also studying the connections between Korean and south Indian languages, starting from the phonetic similarities between the two (words like omma and oppa mean the same in Tamil and Korean, mother and father, respectively). “It is fascinating, though they are from different language families,” says Jafer, who is putting together a research group with scholars from the two countries to study the possible role of Indian migration to Korea via the sea route, which could have predated the migration from China via the land route.
There is already a connection via a legendary queen—Heo Hwang-ok, Princess Suriratna according to legend. According to the Samguk Yusa, a 13th century Korean chronicle, she arrived by boat from a distant kingdom called “Ayuta” (believed to be Ayodhya) and became the wife of King Suro of Geumgwan Gaya. More than six million present-day Koreans, especially from clans like the Gimhae Kim, Heo and Lee, trace their lineage to her as direct descendants of her 12 children with Suro. This fascinating piece of historical theory, if proved, could well become the final piece that cements Indo-Korean relations, and perhaps set in motion yet another wave. Against a backdrop of worsening relations with China, India could do with an ally.