famous koreans
RM of South Korean boy band BTS speaks with other members of the band at the SDG Moment event as part of the UN General Assembly 76th session General Debate at United Nations Headquarters, on September 20, 2021 in New York. Source: John Angelillo/AFP

What does a Korean footballer, actor, and K-pop icon have in common, apart from global superstardom? You’d never guessed it, but underneath that glitz and glam, they all studied abroad at some point in their lives. 

From “Gangnam Style” parodies by Ellen DeGeneres to BTS’s historic speech at the United Nations headquarters in New York, South Korea’s astronomic rise as a major cultural export has been said to exert a kind of soft power globally, owing to “Hallyu,” the Korean wave phenomenon that first emerged through K-dramas and K-pop. This boom isn’t surprising, considering the methodical campaigns that the South Korean entertainment industry employs to captivate audiences worldwide through catchy beats and emotive storytelling. 

Making it big in a highly competitive market takes a lot of drive, backbone and resourcefulness if you want to maintain star power. Talent alone isn’t sufficient in the long haul, and these icons know it. Take a look at five famous Koreans who went the extra mile, literally, to add a little finesse to their resume by studying abroad: 

South Korean pop star Psy (C) performs during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Asian Games at the Incheon Asiad Main Stadium in Incheon on September 19, 2014. Source: Ed Jones/AFP


A name that needs no introduction, Park Jae-sang, famously known as Psy, burst into the international scene when “Gangnam Style” went viral in airwaves and social media all over the world. Psy’s jab at the affluent lifestyle of Seoul’s Gangnam district through a flashy music video with his signature horse dance was an instant hit, becoming the first video to surpass one billion views on YouTube

The student-turned-pop star originally had no intention of entering showbiz. Hailing from a business family, Psy entered Boston University to major in business administration, but quitted after discovering his love for music. He then enrolled in the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, but eventually dropped out, and spent his money on equipment instead to experiment with music production. 

Despite never graduating from his programme, he remains as one of Berklee’s most successful dropouts, with endless accolades and honours to his name. Even Berklee is proud of this former student who became a pop culture phenomenon. Had he not gone overseas and stumbled upon his musical side, we’d perhaps never have known “Oppan Gangnam Style” as a universal catchphrase.

Jennie Kim of BLACKPINK performs at Sahara Tent during the 2019 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival on April 12, 2019 in Indio, California. Source: Rich Fury/Getty Images for Coachella/AFP

Jennie Kim, Blackpink

The all-girl K-pop group’s lead vocalist has been dubbed the “YG Princess”, a reference to YG Entertainment label, who manages the band and other K-pop stars like 2NE1 and Big Bang. In a country where English proficiency is still considered “moderate”, this pop icon stands above the crowd through her impressive education at ACG Parnell College in Auckland, where Jennie spent her formative years. 

For K-pop stars, the English language has become crucial if they want to penetrate the international market. JIGOOUH, a company specialising in foreign language services for idols, has even quipped that many K-idols are looking to emulate Jennie’s command of English. Thanks to her boarding school education, Jennie’s fluency in English has served her well as a music and style icon adored by fans worldwide. As if that isn’t enough, Jennie also speaks Japanese, and is picking up French, so she’s quite the polyglot!

Former South Korean football player Park Ji-sung poses upon arrival at the final draw of the 2019 FIFA Women World cup football tournament in Boulogne-Billancourt, near Paris, on Dec. 8, 2018. Source: Frack Fife/AFP

Park Ji-sung 

Another famous Korean joining this list is Park Ji-sung, Manchester United FC’s former midfielder who holds the honour of being the first Asian footballer to play in a UEFA Champions League final. Who could forget his sensational goal against Portugal at the 2002 World Cup in his home country, which now ranks as one of the best goals in the Cup’s history? 

The “Pride of Asia” would later join Manchester United FC, where his fame grew exponentially through successive winning streaks that included four Premier League titles. He was the first Asian man to captain the club in 2005, and would participate in two more World Cup tournaments before his retirement. 

It was in England that Park recognised that managing a football team was a great responsibility to shoulder, requiring in-depth knowledge of the business. From Old Trafford, he tested new waters in Leicester City at De Montfort University’s highly-acclaimed FIFA Master International MA in Management, Law and Humanities of Sport.

“Everyone on the course comes from different backgrounds, which is great as we can share our experiences and learn from each other. Everyone at DMU has been very welcoming,” Park reflects of his time there. The programme has been awarded as Europe’s best course of its kind for a record eight consecutive years, which also boasts double Olympian sculler Emma Twigg among its alumni. 

(From 2nd L) Kang-ho Song, Lee Sun Gyun, Cho Yeo-jeong, Choi Woo-shik, Kwak Sin-ae, and Park Myung-hoon accept the Best Picture award for ‘Parasite’ with interpreter Sharon Choi onstage during the 92nd Annual Academy Awards at Dolby Theatre on February 09, 2020 in Hollywood, California. Source: Kevin Winter/Getty Images/AFP

Choi Woo-shik

From auditions to the Oscars, Choi Woo-shik is a household name in South Korea’s silver screen. The Parasite and Train to Busan actor in fact grew up in Vancouver after his family immigrated there, where he briefly attended Simon Fraser University (SFU)

The Screen Actor Guild Awards winner struck a goldmine during his freshman year when he auditioned for a Korean role online. His mother wasn’t convinced at first. “My mother said ‘This is going to be one of your tipping points, so you have to really think like an adult… When you take that ticket and go to Korea, don’t blame us,'” Choi remembers. He boarded the plane back to his home country, and the rest is history. Choi’s gamble paid off, and even SFU is cheering on his laurels

Shon Seung-wan, Red Velvet

Capping our famous Koreans roster who studied abroad is none other than K-pop idol Shon Seung-wan, better known as Wendy from the girl group Red Velvet. From 2007 to 2010, Wendy attended the prestigious Shattuck-St. Mary’s School (SSM) in Minnesota, where Wendy’s budding musical talent started to shine. 

While attending the school, she starred in the lead role of the musical production Hello Dolly, and Glinda in The Wiz. From all accounts, it appears that Wendy was quite the athlete too at SSM, where she also played Varsity golf as a freshman. 

It’s clear that even the most bankable Korean icons known worldwide treasure the experience of expanding one’s educational horizons overseas. Why not follow in your K-idols footsteps, and start planning your own study abroad experience?

If you’re feeling ambitious, you can try picking up Korean, and enrol in one of South Korea’s most competitive universities. After all, if Angelina Jolie sees the value of a Korean higher education for her son, then what’s stopping you from living your K-drama dreams?