South Korean soap stars are unlikely geopolitical pawns. But with the Chinese government furious over South Korea's decision to host a U.S. anti-missile battery on its soil, that's exactly what they're becoming. In the past week, public appearances by South Korean TV and music stars have been postponed and even canceled in China, while shares in some of South Korea's biggest entertainment companies have sunk over fears that the country's cultural exports are now in the line of fire.

The threat is real. Hallyu, a blanket term for South Korea's wildly popular film, television and music products, has become an economic and cultural juggernaut in East Asia. Last year, exports of South Korean culture surged by 13.2 percent, accounting for tens of thousands of jobs, even as the country's total exports declined by 8 percent.

The benefits don't flow just to the studios, either: In 2014, one popular Korean soap generated nearly $500 million in economic activity, including through tourism and cosmetic sales (the lipstick favored by the lead female character was particularly popular). Nobody is buying more — or watching more — than the hundreds of millions of rabid Hallyu fans in China. And despite their government's best efforts, they're unlikely to change channels.