To her mother in South Korea, SuJin Kim is a failure: She’s over 30, single and not working for a big Korean corporation.
But to her millions of followers in Latin America, she has become a relatable friend and a teacher of all things Korean. In Mexico, where she lives, they know her, in fact, as “Chinguamiga,” her online nickname, a mash-up of the words for friend in Korean and Spanish.
Her success has been propelled not just by her ingenuity and charisma, but also by a wave of South Korean popular culture that has swept the world, driven in part by a government effort to position the country as a cultural giant and to exert a soft power.
In her homeland, Ms. Kim, 32, struggled with the grind of a hypercompetitive society where success is defined narrowly and young women face diminishing labor prospects, grueling work schedules, sexism and restrictive beauty standards.
In Mexico, the growing interest in all things Korean has made her a social-media sensation with more than 24 million followers on TikTok and over eight million subscribers to her YouTube channel, allowing her to gain popularity, financial stability and a romantic partner — all on her own terms.
“There was a packaging that she came with,” said Dr. Renato Balderrama, who leads the Center for Asian Studies at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León in Monterrey, an industrial hub with an expanding Korean presence. “She had all this training in Korea, in this new Korea that allows her to land in a place like Mexico and be successful.”
A sort of a teacher of comparative pop culture, Ms. Kim offers lessons on popular Korean soap operas, lyrics, fashion standards, traditions and social norms. She once worked as a waitress in Mexico for a day and posted about her confusion with tips. (South Korea is a no-tip country.) She showed followers how Korean students crammed for exams. She started traveling across Mexico tasting regional delicacies.
Her social media success has attracted invitations to events, award nominations, magazine spreads and sponsorship deals, and yielded a popular business teaching Korean language classes online. She moved from Monterrey to Mexico City to gain more exposure and grow her brand.
Ms. Kim’s budding empire now includes an online store of Korean beauty products. She will be featured as a contestant in the second season of HBO’s “Bake Off Celebrity” show.
Ms. Kim’s success tracks the growth of Korean influence in Mexico and the region.More than 2,000 Korean companies have a presence in Mexico, part of a so-called near-shoring strategy that has driven larger corporations — Kia, LG, Samsung, Hyundai, among others — to take advantage of a free-trade agreement with Canada and the United States.
South Korea has not only arrived in Mexico with jobs, cars and cellphones, but also with something more intangible: its own idea of modern culture. K-pop, K-beauty and K-dramas have shown Latin Americans a new, different way to be cool.
K-pop bands have been performing to increasingly bigger and sold-out venues since 2012. This year, a summer festival will bring 16 Korean groups to Mexico City, with ticket prices starting at around $170.
Some newsstands specialize in magazines, posters and merchandise about South Korean celebrities. Netflix offers dubbing in “Latin Spanish” for Korean shows. Movie theaters stream live K-pop concerts performed abroad.
Ms. Kim grew up in Seoul but after a work-study stint in Canada and traveling through South America, she returned home and found life in South Korea stifling.
“I don’t want to go back to my old life,” she remembered thinking.
She moved to Mexico in 2018, driven by a desire to experience life in Latin America and trying to escape severe burnout. She worked for a Korean multinational corporation and found the work rhythm all too familiar so she started teaching Korean.
Then the pandemic upended the world.
“It’s my moment, I have nothing to do,” she recalled thinking before she started to post her Korean classes on YouTube. “I had zero views, nobody saw me.”
Her videos were straightforward language lessons: “Easy Words in Korean — 3 Minutes!” But then she pivoted to TikTok and uploaded a short clip, this time explaining Korean culture.
“That same day it had like 5,000 views and I was like, what?!” she said, her pointy nails adorned with jeweled stars, bows and moons.
Very quickly, her TikTok following exploded.
One afternoon this year, Ms. Kim welcomed her students to a virtual Korean class on Zoom; she charges $35 to $45 for each four-week session, with one 90-minute class per week.
When the class started, 76 students had logged on. There were young girls and bespectacled moms and at least one longhaired businessman, spread across Central and South America.
Ms. Kim’s bright blue curls bounced on the screen as she moved her head approvingly.
When a student trying to figure out how to pluralize singular nouns asked, “No plural?” she chirped: “No! How neat, right?”
After finishing college in South Korea, Ms. Kim said she experienced severe stress. “I wanted to die and I wished to rest,” she said in one of her most popular videos. She has spoken openly about being hospitalized to take care of her mental health.
She attributes her exhaustion to Korea’s culture of sacrifice and grind that helped the country become an economic powerhouse after the Korean War.
“Everything is quick, quick, now, right this second,” Dr. Balderrama said. “This created a culture where there’s no place for mediocrity, there’s no place for those unwilling to compete.”
In Mexico, Ms. Kim hoped to find a more joyous life: “I saw how Latin culture is, how Latin people live and they’re living happily,” she said. “I don’t want to waste a single moment I’m in Latin America because it’s so precious to me.”
But if Ms. Kim has found a passion and a business, she has not completely found the peace of mind she was seeking. She’s in therapy to deal with what she described as some depression and anxiety.
Her large following and popularity has bred fear: “I feel people will forget me, that nobody will like me,” she said, worried about the toll of having to come up with creative content to remain relevant.
“I also have this problem with haters, with people’s comments, which affect me,” she added.
She does get criticized online by users who say she should go back to Korea, who ask whether she pays taxes in Mexico (she says she does) and who consider her another foreigner lured by life on the cheap and who contributes to the gentrification of parts of the country at the expense of Mexican residents.
In a recent video, as she prepared to go home for a visit she showed an ID card that she said was proof of her status as a legal resident. She wanted to dispel any rumors she had to leave the country because she was on a tourist visa.
Ms. Kim declined to discuss her citizenship status with The New York Times, but months ago she posted a video in which she said she’d taken the exam to become a citizen of Mexico.
By many standards, Ms. Kim has made it. But what about her mother’s standards?
“I don’t think she’ll change her mind about success — that I’m not a success, that’s a fact for her,’’ she said following her visit home. “She’s still more worried than happy for me.”
Still, after meeting Ms. Kim’s boyfriend and his family in South Korea, her parents promised to visit her in Mexico.