Without Democracy, You Wouldn’t Know This Korean Actress

October 27, 2014 Updated: August 5, 2016

Those Korean dramas and music videos you love? Wouldn’t exist without democracy, apparently.

In an exclusive interview with Hong Kong’s Ming Pao newspaper, Korean superstar Lee Young-ae said that the “Korean Wave” could only happen because South Korea is a democracy.

The “Korean Wave” describes a phenomenon that started in the 1990s, and has gained incredible momentum in recent years.

South Korea’s pop culture, including film and television serials (“K-dramas”) have won countless fans from Asia’s teeming millions.

In 2003, Lee rose to prominence when she starred in Dae Jang Geum, a 70-episode K-drama about the struggles of Seo Jang-geum (played by Lee), a talented 16th-century Korean palace lady who became a royal physician. 

The show’s immense popularity home and abroad — about half of Hong Kong’s 7 million people watched the final episode in 2005 for example — helped push Korean culture into the spotlight.

Lee says that this could only take place because of democratic reform in South Korea.

“Korea’s cultural development closely followed its political development,” said Lee in her interview.

“From the 60s, 70s, and 80s, we made it step by step gradually from closed to open, and that contributed to today’s prosperity.”

South Korea, which spent most of the 20th century either under Japanese colonial servitude or military dictatorship, finally saw democratic liberalization in the late 1980s.

In June 1987, two years before their Chinese counterparts would be massacred on Tiananmen Square, a student and labor movement forced the South Korean government to hold free elections.

At present, when Hong Kong’s Occupy Central pro-democracy movement hovers precariously in the face of opposition from the Chinese communist regime and its supporters, Lee’s take on democracy’s positive impact on culture weighs in all the heavier. 

Hong Kong celebrities that come out in support of Occupy Central face censorship on the mainland, and Beijing has warned international figures not to support “illegal organizations.”