Cars, electronics and Kimchi—South Korea’s most famous exports to the West. Until now. After meeting with South Korean President Lee Myung Bak earlier this week, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt has struck a deal to create a special YouTube channel solely dedicated to broadcasting Korea’s cookie-cutter, hair gel addicted pop groups (and their dance moves).

Over the past decade, South Korea has reigned as the pop culture king in Asia with its maudlin yet addictive dramas and booming movie industry. Now, the $3.8 million (and rising) Korean entertainment machine has set its sights on conquering the U.S. and Europe.

In addition to a special K-pop channel, Schmidt said that Google may also use YouTube to stream select K-pop concerts in real time, as well as create a film production studio for small and mid sized content developers in Korea. As YouTube and other Internet video streaming sites have been vital to spreading the K-pop phenomenon throughout Asia, it’s not unthinkable that YouTube’s endorsement might help to boost interest in Korean culture in the West. Translation: The more countries addicted to K-pop, the higher Korea’s tourism revenue ($123.5 million in tourism dollars in the first half of 2011 alone, ka-ching!). The Korea Tourism Organization website even has an entire section devoted to the country’s most popular bands as well as detailed instructions on how to see them live.

As far-fetched as it might seem, K-pop has already made some inroads into infiltrating mainstream American pop culture. Korean R&B singer Rain has starred in recent films such as Ninja Assassin and Speed Racer (he also has a hilarious rivalry with popular comedian Stephen Colbert). Meanwhile, just a few short weeks ago South Korean entertainment firm SMTown managed to completely sell out a show at the legendary Madison Square Garden, following successful concerts in Los Angeles and Paris.

But for all the catchy hooks and flashy dance moves, whether or not South Korea can recreate Cool Japan’s success in exporting its pop culture outside Asia is still up in the air. Japanese samurai flicks, Pokemon and even maid cafes in Akihabara have managed to capture the West’s imagination with their inherent Japanese-ness. Meanwhile, K-pop’s critics are quick to point out the inhuman speed and factory-like efficiency with which Korea’s music industry manages to churn out new pop groups and idols. Others are skeptical that K-pop groups have anything significantly different to offer Western audiences, as they have been heavily modeled after U.S. pop acts.

Still, with more than 5 million K-pop videos already uploaded onto YouTube, it may just be a matter of time before everyone is singing in Korean.

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November 10th, 2011

Victoria Song