Making Big Waves: How K-pop Became a Cultural Superpower

November 17, 2022

SEOUL – The Washington Post called it a “cultural force” – from hosting the US presidential couple to representing the country at the Olympics – K-pop has become ubiquitous beyond the realm of the entertainment industry.

K-pop idol groups have communicated with the world through song, and their milestones locally and internationally indicate that Korea may have found a new resource for diplomacy.

In a recent exclusive interview with The Rolling Stone, BTS’ RM talked about becoming a social figure and participating in international events.

“A K-pop group spoke at the UN and met with presidents. I think I was really confused about “who am I”. Am I a diplomat or what? he asked.

Although RM said he doubted his role, it’s no secret that K-pop isn’t a one-time act. At the heart of the rise of Hallyu fever, or Korean wave, Korean pop music is not just a musical genre. It has become an integral part of South Korea’s statecraft in recent years, expanding its horizons into cultural and public diplomacy.

Former administration Moon Jae-in’s appointment of BTS as presidential special envoy last year was a watershed moment. Unlike the traditional formula that envoys can only be accredited by those in between ambassadors and senior officials, Moon gave BTS the political power to deliver Korea’s messages to the international community.

BTS embraced their new diplomatic role by attending the 76th United Nations General Assembly as an official delegation from South Korea. The group performed “Permission to Dance” and gave speeches on behalf of young people and future generations.

“K-pop has aroused the interest of many people to learn the language and visit the country. It may help at first, but it is up to the Korean people, culture, society and above all the responsibility of the government to take that interest to the next level,” said Lee Hye-jin, professor of communications at the University of Southern California.

Building on the growing interest in South Korea, a report by the Modern Language Association showed that Korean language adoption in American universities increased by 14% between 2013 and 2016. The increase in data also showed that the desire to learn a language is a crucial part of a globalized fanbase wanting to connect with K-pop idols on a deeper level.

According to the 2021 National Image Survey commissioned by the Korea Culture and Information Service, 80.5% of foreigners had a positive image of Korea in 2021, showing an increase of 2.4% compared to 2020. Respondents justified their answers by identifying Korean culture, such as K-pop, as a “salient” force behind their positive image of the country.

Exo and CL of the now disbanded 2NE1 shed light on South Korean aesthetics at the closing ceremony of the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic Games, where the two singers performed songs based on ideas of inclusion and of harmony. Exo’s Kai performed solo while donning a flowing hanbok, a traditional Korean outfit.

K-pop group Exo poses with former US Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris and former White House Counselor Ivanka Trump at a cocktail party at the Blue House in 2019. (Screenshot captured on Twitter)

In 2019, Exo hosted then-US President Donald Trump, his daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner for a pre-dinner cocktail reception at the Blue House.

The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism launched a “K-Culture” initiative in 2020 aimed at diversifying Korean content and boosting the various cultural industries, including K-pop.

K-pop continued to make big waves. Since diplomacy develops on the basis of bilateral relations, K-pop representatives have reached out to foreign audiences, countries, intergovernmental and international organizations.

In July, the seven members of BTS were officially named public relations ambassadors for the Busan 2030 World Expo bid and held a free concert in the port city to support the bid. BTS also helped South Korea bid for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup in a video highlighting why the country could be a great host for the event despite the nation not winning the bid.

Now, K-pop’s influence isn’t just about topping the Billboard charts, it’s about bringing more players to the table.

South Korean conglomerate giants are teaming up with idols to jump on this bandwagon in a bid to continue raising Korea’s international profile.

This file image shows a special collaboration between BTS and South Korean cosmetics company Amore Pacific. (Peaceful Love)

For example, cosmetics giants are using K-pop idols to help position K-beauty as a brand name in the global beauty industry, long monopolized by European and American companies.

Amore Pacific has teamed up with BTS for a special limited-edition set featuring three scents inspired by the group’s mega-hits. Sulhwasoo, a premium brand from the beauty giant, recently named Rose of Blackpink its global ambassador.

“Since Amore Pacific is a company that represents K-beauty and BTS is an artist that represents K-pop, this could be considered a collaboration between a singer and a company that represents the country,” said an official from Amore Pacific to the Korea Herald. .

“Rose is young, but she worked hard to become a singer, and Sulwhasoo aims to go global, so her image was consistent in that regard, apart from the fact that Blackpink is a famous K-pop idol,” added the manager. .

According to the Korea International Trade Association, 70% of overseas buyers believe that Korea’s global reputation has positively influenced purchasing decisions.

This file image shows a special collaboration between BTS and South Korean cosmetics company Amore Pacific. (Peaceful Love)

Not only is K-pop a tool behind the country’s national branding, but it can also be an olive branch.

When Korea-China relations hit rock bottom over the deployment of THAAD, an American advanced missile defense system, Exo accompanied then-President Moon to the opening ceremony of the Korea-China economic and trade partnership in 2017. During the event, Moon expressed her hopes. make South Korea and China “true friends” by expanding cultural exchanges.

In 2018, Red Velvet and Girls’ Generation Seo-hyun flocked to Pyongyang – an event no one could have imagined in this century – to perform for high profile North Korean audiences, which included the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

“Each country has their preferences in terms of which K-pop idols they prefer, so national marketing has become crucial depending on which leader the country encounters and what type of event or business will take place,” said said Lee of Southern University. California.

Lee added that, for example, if Japan-Korea relations were to thaw, BoA, one of the first Korean artists to successfully enter the Japanese music market, could be a good diplomatic resource for the government.

But Lee expressed concern that only a handful of K-pop idols could fulfill his role as a public diplomat.

“Lisa from Blackpink is from Thailand, and so if the band is going to represent Korea, it could potentially be a strange situation with the Thai people and government. As K-pop becomes multinational, with an increase in foreign members, this mix could pose a dilemma for the Korean government as to which K-pop groups to use.

James C. Tibbs