From shows like Squid Game to musical sensations like Twice and BTS, it’s no secret that Korean pop culture is trending worldwide. In the US and elsewhere, people can’t get enough of all things Korean, from food to music, movies, and fashion. Korean pop culture is so huge, in fact, that it’s spawned its own category of words: K-words.
In the US especially, adding a K- to common pop culture categories, like K-pop, is a way of signifying trends that are borrowed directly from South Korea. It also celebrates the country’s major cultural influence. Let’s dive in and take a closer look at the many K-words that have become everyday terms in the US. How many of these do you know?
K-culture is a catchall term for Korean entertainment, food, music, movies, beauty, and fashion products that have become popular worldwide. But it’s important to note that K-culture doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s popular or favored in Korea. Rather, it refers specifically to the pop culture elements that have been exported around the world. There’s still so much more to learn about Korean culture and its people.
If you follow the latest in beauty, you’re likely familiar with the wildly trendy world of K-beauty. The term K-beauty covers a wide array of Korean beauty and skincare products, from sheet masks to serums and makeup. K-beauty is also known for adorable packaging that includes bright colors and cute characters. K-beauty has been on the radar in the US since at least the mid-2010s, and the Korean beauty market is among the top 10 in the world.
K-pop is a special name for pop music that originates in South Korea. It’s all the rage in 2022, thanks to groups like BTS, but the term has actually been around since the 1990s. K-pop sounds similar to pop from the US and other places, but it’s especially loved for its upbeat tunes, catchy blend of English and Korean language, super famous K-pop idols, and lots of choreography.
Looking for something to watch? K-drama is a subgenre of Korean dramas that have found audiences worldwide. These episodic shows are similar to soap operas and feature plotlines full of suspense, humor, and romance, but the category also includes thrillers like the mega-viral Squid Game. K-dramas exploded in popularity in the US between 2019 and 2020. They’re so popular, in fact, they even have their own category on streaming services like Netflix.
After you binge watch all the K-dramas, you might be ready for some K-horror. Korean horror is a genre of horror movies from South Korea. Not only are these movies scary, but they’re also known for delivering complex social and political commentary right along with the thrills. One example is the Oscar-winning movie Parasite, which critiques greed and classism. K-horror has been popular in the US throughout the 2010s and 2020s.
After K-beauty took over, K-fashion wasn’t far behind. K-fashion refers to Korean brands and fashion trends marketed in the US. Though K-fashion isn’t quite as celebrated as some other Korean-inspired trends, brands like Gentle Monster and Greedilous are targeting the US market and celebrity collaborations.
K-pop isn’t the only kind of Korean music trending in the US. K-rock, or Korean rock music, is a contribution to the rock genre featuring Korean artists and language. Though it doesn’t enjoy the same level of attention as K-pop, Korean rock has existed since the 1950s. It’s gained a fanbase worldwide thanks to the explosion of interest in Korean music and trends.
K-food, a catchy name for Korean cuisine, has become a mainstay in the US food scene. In major cities, restaurants and food trucks serve everything from bulgogi to kimchi and delicious fusion dishes. Though Korean restaurants have been popular for decades, the K-food scene has seen a huge increase in popularity throughout the 2010s and 2020s.
9. K-hip hop
Korean hip-hop, which is also called K-hip hop or K-rap, is a subgenre of Korean music. It was inspired by Western rap and hip hop, and originated in Korea in the 1980s. K-hip hop took off in the Korean dance scene and remains heavily influenced by dance club music. Now, K-hip hop has joined K-pop as a musical export that has unique Korean style.
So, what do all of these K-words have in common? They’re a part of the K-wave. The K-wave is a term for describing the increasing popularity of South Korean culture, brands, music and entertainment in the global mainstream. The term has been around since at least the early 2010s. Former president Barack Obama even referred to the “Korean wave” during a speech in 2012.