In the advent of alternative globalization whereby the flow of cultural content is moving from the East to the West instead of the other way around, Koreans across the globe are shining on the world’s stage. This includes musical artists, chefs, sports figures, TV personalities, actors, visual artists, e-sports players, and more! Here are some of the most prominent Korean celebrities who have truly held their heritage up for the world to see!
Grammy-nominated K-Pop group BTS needs no introduction. Breaking records and creating new ones every other day, BTS has contributed heavily to the popularisation of the Hallyu wave even in the deepest corners of the world. Dealing with touchy subjects like mental health and toxic masculinity at a time when mainstream K-Pop wasn’t bold enough to, BTS made a name for themselves and the Korean language on an unbelievably large scale. Today, BTS is considered a national treasure, and rightfully so!
Right on top of every musical chart stands BLACKPINK, proudly. BLACKPINK’s success is a win for Korean music and the feminist ideals that the girls uphold through their music. Representing strong and independent women who undoubtedly face struggles but overcome them with even more grace and power, BLACKPINK is spreading a message of hope and strength to those who need it the most.
Chef David Chang
As of the time of writing this article, Chef David Chang (Korean name: Chang Seok Ho) is officially the first-ever celebrity to win a million dollars for charity on ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.’ True to his profession, the charity of his choice was Southern Smoke Foundation, a crisis relief organization for people in the food and beverage industry.
Besides this incredible feat, David Chang is also the founder of the Momofuku restaurant group, one of the biggest culinary brands in the world with restaurants in New York City, Sydney, Toronto, Washington, DC, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles, a bakery established by pastry chef Christina Tosi (Milk Bar), a bar (Nikai), and a quarterly magazine, ‘Lucky Peach.’ He’s also the creator and producer of the hugely popular Netflix original series, ‘Ugly Delicious’ and the producer of another Netflix series ‘Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner.’ Needless to say, he’s a star of the Culinary world and truly, pride to Korea.
Chef Roy Choi
With a familial background in the Korean food industry and a mother whose kimchi was so good that his family sold it locally, Chef Roy Choi is best known as the creator of the gourmet Korean-Mexican taco truck ‘Kogi.’ What he had created was so revolutionary that he’s now popularly regarded as the founder of the gourmet food truck movement. This food truck movement heavily inspired the mega-hit Hollywood film ‘Chef’ starring Jon Favreau. In 2019, Favreau and Roy collaborated for the Netflix original series ‘The Chef Show,’ drawing from the film's experience. Chef Roy’s contribution to bringing Korean food and authentic Korean culinary experiences to the States is immeasurable. In June 2013, Roy, along with fellow chefs Wolfgang Puck and the aforementioned David Chang, came together at the Hotel Bel-Air to fuse different styles such as the ggaejjang style and traditional Korean spices like gochujang onto the Hotel Bel-Air menu, and they did so successfully. Much like chef David Chang but also in his own way entirely, Roy Choi is a superstar.
A fun fact about David Chang winning a million dollars for charity was that he had called up Mina Kimes for help on the Million Dollar Question question, and she delivered. When he was calling her after the big win, Mina cheered, “Korea!” expressing the pride she held for her roots.
Mina Kimes is a Korean-American investigative journalist with expertise in business and sports reporting. Truly, there is not one fan of sports who doesn’t know her by name. A senior writer at ESPN and an NFL analyst on NFL LIVE, it isn’t an exaggeration to say that Mina is as much of a household name as some of the NFL players themselves.
Son Heung Min
Son Heung Min or "Sonny" is the South Korean national football team captain and plays as a winger/striker for the Premier League Club Tottenham Hotspur. Tottenham hasn't lost in the league since the opening day of this season, and this consistency of form has seen them go right to the top of the Premier League standings. This huge feat is being attributed mainly to Son Heung Min and his amazing partnership with fellow player Harry Kane, comparable to the partnership that Lionel Messi, Thierry Henry, and Samuel Eto'o once showed at Barcelona. Together, the two have 16 goals and 11 assists between them this season, at the time of writing this article. Heung Min is single-handedly considered one of the best wingers in the world and was even nominated for the Ballon D’or in 2019. Son has represented South Korea at the 2014 and 2018 FIFA World Cups and is his country's highest scorer in the World Cup jointly with Park Ji-sung and Ahn Jung-hwan with three goals. Needless to say, Son Heung Min is an icon.
Younghoe Koo is a South Korean professional American football placekicker for the Atlanta Falcons of the National Football League (NFL) and is most popularly known for his outstanding ability to execute onside kicks successfully and is well on his way to make his first pro bowl. This season, Koo leads the NFL in scoring and has converted on over 96 percent of his kicks, making 29 out of 30 field goals. What’s more, is that he’s a perfect 6-for-6 on his attempts from 50 yards or more. The young athlete is truly a force to be reckoned with.
A third-generation Korean American, Kyler Murray is an American football quarterback for the Arizona Cardinals of the National Football League (NFL). Even as a rookie, no one questions his skillset. He reads defenses like clockwork, is incredibly cerebral, and executes his movements accordingly with amazing accuracy. He won the 2014 Gatorade Football Player of the Year award as a senior in high school, and the Associated Press College Football Player of the Year, Davey O'Brien Award, and Heisman Trophy awards for his 2018 season with Oklahoma, in addition to numerous other accolades. It is obvious at this point that Kyler Murray is a superstar in the making.
Born to a family of South Korean immigrants in Ontario, Sandra Oh is one of the most celebrated actors in the global entertainment industry. She has two Golden Globe Awards and four Screen Actors Guild Awards, and twelve Primetime Emmy Award nominations. Besides the importance of her achievements with respect to her career, she has also contributed a huge amount to the representation of Asian women on film and television. Sandra was the first Asian woman to host the Golden Globe Awards at the 76th ceremony in 2019; in March 2019, she became the first Asian-Canadian woman to host Saturday Night Live and was just the third actress of Asian descent to do so, after Lucy Liu in 2000 and Awkwafina in 2018. She was also the first Asian actress to be nominated for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series and the first Asian woman to win two Golden Globes. A true gem, Sandra Oh continues to make South Korea proud.
As she is known professionally, Nora Lum or Awkwafina is one of the most prominent Internet personalities of this generation, besides being an award-winning actress, comedian, rapper, author, and television host. Born to a Chinese American father and a Korean American mother, she endured several personal struggles without giving up on her dreams. For her outstanding performance in the comedy-drama film ‘The Farewell,’ Awkwafina received high critical acclaim and won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical, becoming the first-ever Asian woman to win a Golden Globe for playing the role of a lead actor in a film category. She was also nominated for the BAFTA in the Rising Star Category in 2020 and the Critics' Choice Movie Award for Best Actress. She also admirably won the Satellite Award for Best Actress. If that wasn’t impressive enough, she is also the co-creator, writer, and executive producer of the semi-autobiographical Comedy Central show ‘Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens’ where she plays a fictional version of herself!
Born in Seoul to a South Korean mother and a father originally from North Korea and raised in Los Angeles, Cho Yo Han, or John Cho as he is known professionally, had to rise above immense prejudice to reach the heights of success he knows today. In 2018, he starred in the thriller film ‘Searching,’ making him the first Asian-American actor in history to headline a mainstream thriller film in Hollywood, a huge feat for Asian representation. He also made history for the Asian American community when he was cast as the first-ever Asian American romantic lead in the 2014 sitcom ‘Selfie.’ In extremely exciting news for anime fans, John Cho has also been cast as Spike Spiegel in the live-action film for ‘Cowboy Bebop’!
The very definition of an all-rounder, Ken Jeong is not only a full-time entertainer, comedian, actor, producer, and writer but also a licensed doctor. Besides appearing in numerous memorable roles in various films and television shows, he was also awarded the Visionary Award by East West Players, the oldest Asian Pacific American theatre company in the United States, for helping to raise "the visibility of the Asian Pacific American (APA) community through his craft.” Ken Jeong also appeared as a celebrity panelist in the American and British adaptations of the classic South Korean television reality show, ‘King of Mask Singer’!
Bong Joon Ho
As Korean society moved from a highly authoritarian state to a fledgling democracy, still reeling from the trauma of a civil war, a group of cinema intellectuals in the 1980s started to bring about a remarkable change in the local cinema, slowly but surely giving birth to the Korean New Wave. One of the pioneers in this regard had been director Bong Joon Ho. At present, having won 3 Oscars personally and 4 in total for his social commentary masterpiece, ‘Parasite,’ Bong Joon Ho remains one of the most prominent figures in world cinema.
Born in Seoul, South Korea, as Lee Young Cheol and naturalized as an American citizen at the age of 12, Jim Lee drew inspiration for his extraordinary career from his own life experience as an immigrant. He currently holds the position of Publisher and Chief Creative Officer of DC Comics. Ironically enough, he started as an artist for Marvel Comics, illustrating incredible titles such as ‘Alpha Flight’ and ‘The Punisher War Journal,’ before gaining worldwide popularity with ‘The Uncanny X-Men’ in the early nineties. His achievements are so expansive that he has received the Harvey Award, Inkpot Award, and three Wizard Fan Awards in recognition of the same.
Kim Jung Gi
Korean artist Kim Jung Gi, born in 1975 in the town of Goyang-Si, located in the province of Kyongki-Do, South Korea, holds the world record for “Longest drawing by an individual” in the Guinness World Records book. He’s most well known for his near-perfect rendition of extremely complicated scenes from memory, without any references whatsoever. A majority of his influences come directly from his own experience serving in the South Korean military as a part of the Special Forces Unit. He has a total of six sketchbooks in print, which equates to about 4,500 pages’ worth of drawings within a span of 12 years. Even more impressive is the fact that the artist arranged a feature exhibition of his work at the Republic of Korea’s president’s official workplace and residence, Cheongwadae. Safe to say that he deserves the national treasure title.
Much like the other personalities on this list, Faker, too, needs no introduction. Widely recognized as the best League of Legends' players of all time, Faker is a formidable competitor with incredible mechanical skill and an extremely versatile champion pool. The T1 mid-laner has alone contributed more to his country culturally as well as economically than any LoL player or even any eSports player ever. He won the LCK 9 times and the Mid Season Invitational twice and was also one of only 2 players (besides Bengi) who won the League of Legends World Championships 3 times. Recently, earlier this year, Faker even became a part-owner of T1 Entertainment & Sports! He also appeared alongside his team in Episode 114 of 'Run BTS,' which was received with an incredible amount of love from ARMYs.
Winners of the 2020 League of Legends World Championship, Damwon Gaming, is a South Korean professional esports organization. Their team also won their first LCK title on September 5, 2020, beating DRX in a 3-0 stomp in the 2020 LCK Summer finals. After winning the most prestigious prize in League of Legends for 5 consecutive years, Korea had a 2-year absence from lifting the trophy. Damwon's roster of Nuguri, Canyon, Showmaker, Ghost, and BeryL redeemed Korea and won the Summoner's Cup at Worlds 2020. With the growing success of esports players from South Korea and a considerable expansion of the field itself, Damwon Gaming is bringing renewed hope to young gamers worldwide in general and South Korea in particular who aspire to be like them and find success in what they’re passionate about.