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K-content’s ‘unfamiliar familiarity’ theme goes viral on global stage

By Nov 29, 2020 (Gmt+09:00)

Baby Shark Dance claims the No. 1 position as the most-watched video on YouTube.
Baby Shark Dance claims the No. 1 position as the most-watched video on YouTube.

It’s simple and irritatingly repetitive. Many people, kids and adults alike, around the world hum along and often complain that they just can’t get the viral children’s rhyme Baby Shark out of their heads.

The “Feel the Rhythm of Korea” series, a tourism promotional video, featuring eccentric dances by a funky Korean dance group and a traditional pansori-turned-pop music, a genre still unfamiliar with some Koreans, recently racked up more than 400 million views on YouTube in less than six months.

Following in the footsteps of global K-pop sensation BTS, popular K-drama and K-movie, represented by the Oscar-winning film Parasite, non-main stream Korean content such as educational videos for kids, animations and traditional music gugak is emerging as the next Hallyu, or Korean Wave, by fusing unfamiliar Korean culture with globally known genres.

“A growing number of people around the world are looking closely at the various spectrum of the Korean culture, or K-content, in the wake of the film Parasite hitting the global screen and BTS ascending to the Billboard’s top spot,” said Jung Duk-hyun, a Korean pop culture columnist.

“The time has come for Korea to work out a lasting strategy to make K-content a global phenomenon.”

Source: Courtesy of Pinkfong! Kids' Songs & Stories channel on YouTube


Earlier this month, Korean educational technology startup SmartStudy’s video Pinkfong Baby Shark Dance claimed the No. 1 position as the most-watched video on YouTube with more than 7 billion views. It was the first time for a Korean content video to win the title.

Played back-to-back, that would mean Baby Shark has been streamed continuously for 30,187 years, BBC reported on Nov. 2.

The song has also been certified Diamond by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), marking the world’s first children’s song to receive the honor. To be certified Diamond, a single must surpass sales of 10 million.

SmartStudy’s CFO and co-founder Ryan Seung-kyu Lee
SmartStudy’s CFO and co-founder Ryan Seung-kyu Lee

“We didn’t expect Baby Shark to become such a global big hit. Our strategy of unfamiliar familiarity has worked,” SmartStudy’s CFO and co-founder Ryan Seung-kyu Lee told The Korea Economic Daily.

The addictive “doo doo doo doo doo doo” hook, combined with a nursery rhyme originated in US summer camps, has whetted the people’s appetite for repetition, industry officials said.

While US culture magazine Rolling Stone picked Baby Shark as one of the “50 Most Important Music Moments of the Decade,” The Verge, an American tech news media outlet, reported Baby Shark “hasn’t even come close to peaking yet.”

“It (Baby Shark) seems to have a totally different trajectory than any of the big music hits,” said The Verge.


Established in 2010, SmartStudy expects its sales to double to more than 200 billion won ($181 million) this year from 105.5 billion won in 2019. Back in 2015, its revenue stood at a mere 9.5 billion won.

The company plans to release Pinkfong Wonderstar, its popular animated series, on YouTube Originals on Dec. 2.

“When you take kids' content globally, you need to know each market’s peculiar culture. We don’t use a pig character when we tap into an Islamic market. We don’t want to lose a potential client group that accounts for a third of the global population,” said SmartStudy’s Lee.

The company’s Pinkfong content is currently adapted into more than 4,000 versions in 20 different languages.

“One of the major characteristics of the Korean culture is that of a peninsula, meaning the ability to connect and combine the different and foreign nature of things together,” said culture columnist Jung.


The Haunted House, a Korean animation, produced by CJ ENM.
The Haunted House, a Korean animation, produced by CJ ENM.

One such example is Beauty Water, a Korean horror animation, which is being exported to countries like Germany and New Zealand at high prices. In Taiwan, the Korean animation is sold at four times the price of local movies.

The Haunted House, a Korean animation produced by CJ ENM’s children’s TV channel Tooniverse, has also been a big hit in Taiwan and Indonesia.


Leenalchi, a Korean music act, performs during a Hallyu festival.
Leenalchi, a Korean music act, performs during a Hallyu festival.

The rise of K-content is not limited to K-streaming but expanding into a fusion of traditional and modern music genres.

The “Feel the Rhythm of Korea” series, a tourism promotional video released by the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO), is the latest hit going viral globally.

The video features Ambiguous Dance Company, a group of sunglass-donning dancers showing off addictive dance moves in funky outfits, and Korean music act Leenalchi, a band named after Lee Nal-chi, a famous pansori master in the Joseon Dynasty.

Inspired by the country’s traditional music gugak, Leenalchi’s four pansori vocalists showcase the funky and modern version of old stories like Sugunga, which centers on the folk tale of a turtle that sets out to get a rabbit’s liver to help cure an ailing dragon king.


Leenalchi vocalist Ahn Yi-ho
Leenalchi vocalist Ahn Yi-ho

“Global listeners are taking pansori as a genre just like the Reggae music of Jamaica. They say it’s new and fresh to listen to pansori on a familiar modern tune,” said Ahn Yi-ho, one of Leenalchi’s pansori vocalists.

The band’s latest song, Beom (tiger in Korean) is coming, is so popular that some young Korean music lovers often shout “a beom a day,” meaning watching the video at least once a day.
“Culture is always changing,” said Leenalchi’s Ahn. “If you regard pansori as a traditional heritage that should never change or frame it as a thing of the past, you won’t be able to listen to Leenalchi’s pansori as it is now.”

Source: Courtesy of Rhythm of Korea YouTube channel by Korea Tourism Organization

Write to Hee-Kyung Kim and Hyeon-woo Oh at

In-Soo Nam edited this article.

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