Around 2015–2016, then-grade 7 student Grace Zhang unintentionally fell down the rabbit hole of Korean popular music; the world would better recognize the genre today as “K-Pop.”
“I think it was just the algorithm on YouTube,” Grace said. “I think I started with one of the [older] girl groups like Girls Generation. I heard one of their songs that I liked, and I was like, ‘Okay, that was pretty good.’” The rabbit hole eventually led her to discover other well-known groups such as SEVENTEEN and ATEEZ, attending concerts headlined by figures like Eric Nam and VIXX, plus buying merchandise and albums of other groups.
Grace is part of the growing number of K-Pop listeners outside South Korea, a group dominated by Gen-Z teenagers of all races, ethnicities, and nationalities. Whether it be that world audiences are captivated by the high-energy choreography in music videos, the emotionally-touching hits, or the immersive experience that groups and artists offer to their fans—the effort to make K-Pop revered around the world is working. Groups such as Blackpink, BTS, and EXO have gained international recognition through high levels of social media interactions, as well as record-breaking sales and view counts. For instance, on May 22, 2021, BTS’s music video for their newest single, “Butter,” broke the YouTube record for receiving the most online views within 24 hours (108.2 million).
This new spotlight on the genre has provided South Korea with more power to influence culture, which is a force to benefit the country’s international reputation. Nonetheless, with diplomatic mishaps that could arise from actions made by K-Pop groups, South Korea will have to navigate through the hurdles that this new force presents to be recognized as a global cultural powerhouse.
South Korea’s Soft Power Expands
Coined by Joseph Nye, former Dean of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, “soft power” is a term used to describe how a country can influence international politics through “positive attraction.”
Soft power is measured through several factors, including the level of a government’s engagement with other nations, and the state of the country’s Internet access and quality of technology. These factors, along with other sectors such as education and business, determine how attractive the country appears to the rest of the world—creating soft power.
One significant factor of soft power is the country’s cultural appeal, which is based on how popular the country’s pop culture is. South Korea is currently excelling in this area. The surge of K-Pop has allowed South Korea to shape its global image. In the past, the country’s dark crises plagued the peninsula nation despite its unique history.
South Korea’s Changing Image
“Korea has long been misrepresented due to its unfortunate modern history—the Japanese occupation, the division of the country, the Korean War, and decades-long tyranny,” says Professor Inkyu Kang, an Associate Professor of Digital Journalism at The Pennsylvania State University’s Behrend College. In an interview with Spheres of Influence, Professor Kang notes that “[South Korea’s] growing soft power would definitely help overcome its age-long stereotypes.”
K-Pop’s effects on the country’s image have certainly been positive, as shown through data from the South Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism. With data obtained “through an online survey of 8,000 respondents from 16 countries” in 2019, the ministry reported that “76.7% of foreign nationals” held a positive opinion of South Korea, with 38.2% of respondents saying “K-Pop, movies and literature” was the main factor for their choice.
With an overwhelmingly favourable global image, South Korea is using its newfound recognition to expand its influence. For example, in the Philippines, Isko Moreno, the mayor of Manila, announced that a Korea Town will be built to “showcase Korean culture” in the city. In another instance, members of the Korean-Chinese boy group EXO travelled with President Moon Jae-In in his first official visit to China to strengthen Chinese-South Korean relations. Again, President Moon invited EXO to welcome former American President Donald Trump during his visit to South Korea in 2019.
Where K-Pop Meets Its Diplomatic Limits
“As K-Pop expands its fan base around the globe, it’s getting more difficult to satisfy fans from countries with conflicting interests, complicating Korea’s foreign policy,” said Professor Kang. He also highlighted the landmines K-Pop groups unintentionally detonated when it came to South Korea’s foreign relationships.
For instance, in 2015, one of the members of the girl group Twice, Taiwanese singer Chou Tzu-yu (more famously known as Tzuyu), faced backlash from Chinese fans for displaying the Taiwanese flag when she appeared on a South Korean television show. Pro-China advocates accused Tzu-yu of being a supporter of Taiwanese independence, thus going against the People’s Republic of China’s policy of considering itself as the sole China, with Taiwan (formally known as the Republic of China) as one of its provinces.
K-Pop’s global popularity has also been experienced in North Korea but only through underground operations. Consuming non-government-approved media is illegal in North Korea and punishable with imprisonment. Thus, the only exposure to South Korea and Western media is through the illicit smuggling of USBs and DVDs containing foreign movies and music; anyone caught in the act will be executed.
“The North Korean government has rarely been favourable to K-Pop, but it’s not necessarily because its leadership sees the South’s pop culture as a political threat,” says Professor Kang. He then explained that popular culture in North Korea has “developed under the significant influence” of an art style that positively depicts socialist ideals and the Juche Idea (an ideology believing that a nation can only achieve true socialism through self-sufficiency).
That is not to say North Korea cannot positively acknowledge K-Pop. “How North Korea responds to K-Pop depends pretty much on its relations with the South,” Professor Kang says. In times where the inter-Korean relationship is relatively friendly, K-Pop can be used to build cultural bridges.
For instance, before the “historic” 2018 inter-Korean summit between North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a South Korean delegation of music figures, martial artists, journalists, and government artists went to Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital city, as part of a pre-summit cultural exchange. The girl group Red Velvet was among the eleven acts who performed at a concert in Pyongyang called ‘Spring is Coming.’ Kim Jong-un himself attended the event, even giving a standing ovation, stating that he was “deeply moved” by the performances.
When relations in the Korean Peninsula sour, caused mainly by the shifting diplomatic conflict between North Korea and the United States, North Korea’s views on K-Pop can also negatively change, as Professor Kang notes. “When Washington and Pyongyang were at a stalemate over how to achieve peace, a North Korean news site criticized that most South Korean pop entertainers are bound to an unfair contract and exploited from a young age, ‘deprived of their body, heart, and soul like slaves.’”
No one is certain whether K-Pop will reign forever or retreat into a fad whose time in the global spotlight was fleeting all along. But with the popularity of groups like BTS and Blackpink only rising, K-Pop may grow to an even more powerful tool that can further enhance South Korea’s cultural standing. Moreover, K-Pop can help create new responsibilities for the country’s government to ensure that the genre does not become a diplomatic hindrance. Spectators can savor the music whose message has resonated with the rest of the world for the time being.