Korean pop culture, consumed globally and known by the name Hallyu, primarily involves music, television and aesthetic preferences and is much more than a virally popular entertainment trend. Former South Korean president Park Geun-hye stated during his inauguration speech in 2013 that “In the 21st century, culture is power”. The South Korean government’s official budgetary support for the industry characterises the trend of using entertainment as a tool of economic and foreign policy.
Roots of Korean Pop Music
The history of Korean pop music reaches back to the 19th century, when a Western missionary called Henry Appenzeller introduced British and US folk songs with the lyrics translated into Korean to the local population. During the Japanese occupation (1910–45), patriotic songs were banned to prevent the common people from undermining the colonial power. In the post-war years, American pop music reached Korean ears through the US forces stationed in the newly freed South. The servicemen’s demand for familiar-sounding music gave rise to a prototype based on Western pop music performed by Korean artists and rooted in local content—the West being at the same time the source of inspiration for the developing genre and its main market. One of the first success stories was a group called The Kim Sisters, which consisted of two sisters and a cousin. They performed in bars and clubs for US troops to earn extra money for their families. The growing support of the local Westerners brought them a Las Vegas contract, more than 20 performances on the famous Ed Sullivan Show and a number 7 hit on the Billboard singles chart, thereby effectively paving the way for modern Korean pop music as well as Asian artists’ commercial success on the Western entertainment landscape.
K-pop: Culture-specific Pop Music
K-pop’s uniqueness lies in its skill in combining traditional elements specific to Korean culture with Western-oriented pop music. In the past, heritage was expressed through language, but recent years have seen familiar folkloric details displayed in melodies, choreography and the visual elements of music videos, such as costumes (e.g. BTS’s song “Idol” and Peggy Gou’s “Starry Night”). Historical and cultural aesthetics are modernised to empower heritage in the eyes of globally-minded Korean youth. The standards for writing music, producing videos and performing dance numbers are high. Great demand allows companies to pick the best of competing professionals so as to shape multilayered and complex conceptual art and aesthetics. The industry frequently cooperates with Western artists, drawing attention to East Asian music, while performers are under increasing pressure to perform in English to win over new audiences, which may cause them to sacrifice their unique cultural characteristics.
A Challenge to Western Stereotypes
K-pop, which is predominately performed in Korean, has created massive interest in the Korean language and culture worldwide—so much so that the South Korean government has established 130 language institutes in 50 countries.1 This tendency helps to reduce the xenophobic and at times racist attitude towards East Asian cultures supported by stereotyping and antiquated perceptions in the West. K-pop is a counterstrike against the incorrect image proliferated through US films that represent all East Asian people as shy, uncreative, dull, a- or hypersexual, geeks or ninjas.
Moreover, the genre, which has cross-cultural appeal, has improved the image of East Asians born and raised in Western countries who have been previously socially marginalised. In addition to creating a wider selection of career choices, K-pop has introduced ancestral culture to younger generations who might not have come across it.
Breaking down language barriers, empowering East Asian people and, first and foremost, forcing Western and Anglo-centric aesthetics into retreat in global pop culture are thus some of K-pop’s most prominent achievements.
K-pop as a Flagship of the Korean Economy and a Tool of Foreign Policy
K-pop has swiftly become South Korea’s number one cultural export: the currently most popular K-pop band, BTS, alone contributed 3.6 billon dollars to the country’s GDP last year.2 While technology giants like Samsung, Hyundai and LG still bring in more, their success can also be attributed to promoters who are mainly well-known performing artists.
The “soft power” of K-pop in foreign policy is proved by the performances of CL and EXO during the closing ceremony at the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang in 2018, BTS’s speech at the UN and the fact that former US president Barack Obama noted in his speech at the Asia Leadership Conference in 2017 how many Americans were learning Korean to keep up with the K-pop group SHINee.3
Moon Jae-in, the current president of South Korea, knowingly makes use of K-pop to strengthen diplomatic ties with the US. Moon recently invited EXO to meet Donald Trump during his visit to South Korea.4 This naturally created uproar among many fans, as the band members’ reactions showed they didn’t attend the meeting of their own free choice. While many Western celebrities have refused to meet Trump on ethical and political grounds, Korean stars have no such choice, given their every move is controlled by their employer. As Korean society considers the president’s recognition to be a great honour, it would have been improper to decline the invitation.
Just before the South Korean and North Korean leaders signed the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Reunification of the Korean Peninsula in April 2018, the K-pop group Red Velvet performed for Kim Jong-un. This was the first time in over a decade that South Korean artists had performed in North Korea.5 Thus, Moon Jae-in presents K-pop as a symbol of goodwill in making peace with North Korea.
In rare cases, K-pop also creates foreign-policy incidents. Chou Tzu-yu, a Taiwan-born K-pop star in the group Twice, had to apologise for waving the flag of her native country during a South Korean TV show, because this created uproar in the People’s Republic of China, which does not recognise Taiwanese independence. At the same time, Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen, who supports independence, was disappointed that the teenage singer was pressured into supporting a unified China.6
Manufactured and Controlled Identities
All K-pop stars must present the perfect façade of a supremely talented and gorgeous, single, heterosexual star, seemingly accessible to fans of the opposite sex. To maintain this illusion and prevent fans from becoming irrationally jealous, performers are often prohibited from dating, at least at the start of their careers. As recently as last year, Cube Entertainment dropped two of its highly successful artists, Hyuna and E’Dawn, because they had started a relationship despite a contractual ban on doing so.7
In addition, this image reinforces heteronormativity, which is already deeply rooted in the conservative and homophobic Korean society, as coming out automatically means certain disgrace and even the end of their career for LGBTQ+ stars. There have been tragic cases of LGBTQ+ celebrities losing their jobs and the support of their families as a result of public stigma, even causing them to take their own lives. Holland, who made his independent debut in 2018, and stands up against discrimination and suppression, is one of the few openly gay idols. He says that K-pop often fantasises about same-sex love, but at the same time it is ironically a sensitive subject and a taboo.8 This is a manifestation of a particular trait of capitalist conservatism, which commercially exploits homo-romantic “fan service” to satisfy the fantasies of heterosexual fans and employs queerbaiting without acknowledging and accepting gender and sexual minorities, who are forced to hide their identity in the K-pop industry.
Trapped by Restrictive Beauty Standards
Due to South Korea’s restrictive and ethnically specific beauty standards, the country has the highest per capita ratio of plastic surgeries in the world. This is why plastic surgery is common among both female and male performers. The cult of beauty increases the already fierce competition in the jobs market, since appearance is considered important in hiring even for jobs where looks are of no consequence. For that reason, people pay a lot of attention to their looks, not so much out of vanity but because they want to be successful and socially accepted.
The most noteworthy beauty standards are having an extremely light skin and slim figure, which does not come naturally for many Koreans. As in Europe, idealising light skin originates from the customs of the nobility in East Asia, where it symbolised the privilege of not working and thereby showed a person’s status in society. Leaving elitism aside, it undoubtedly also has connections to white Western imperialism and outright racism. For the same reason, some of the most popular local plastic surgeries that reference European facial characteristics without actually emulating them—creating an ideal double eyelid and making the nasal bridge more pronounced—are a result of internalised racism.9 Colourism (the preferred treatment of light-skinned people, and prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic group) is widespread in Korean society, which is why there are only a few darker-skinned idols. Even they are often bad-mouthed because of it or fetishised for appearing exotic. Most of the idols’ photos are edited beyond recognition by the media and, first and foremost, fans, so that stars who actually have a beautiful golden skin tone begin to resemble startlingly pale porcelain dolls (“whitewashing”).
The idealisation of being thin is so extreme that even people of normal weight are criticised in society and the media, especially women, celebrities and even young teen K-pop artists (e.g. Pristin’s Kyla10). Artists are often forced to practically starve, as the industry trains them to excess until they faint on stage. Twice’s singer Momo revealed that the company forced her to lose seven kilos before the band’s debut. To achieve this, she trained every day, only ate an ice cube for a week, and feared that she wouldn’t wake up the next morning due to malnutrition.11 Because of this, K-pop is one the major reinforcers of the unrealistic beauty standards rooted in Korean society, as it is especially harmful to the confidence and mental health of young people and normalises dangerous skin-bleaching creams and eating disorders.
Conforming to and Breaking from Gender Norms
Female performers are expected to look sexualised but innocent in a doll-like way, which can be explained by the industry’s Lolita complex, bordering on paedophilia, as well as the misogynistic idea of humble and “untainted” beauty.12 Nevertheless, the album and video concepts available to female idols have recently expanded to include more dynamic images compared to the doll vs sexual object binary. Despite this, the bodies of K-pop artists, especially female stars, are like national property to take pride in or criticise. Female artists are sexualised in an especially objectifying way typical of a capitalist patriarchal society. Although an illusion of a strong and independent female performer is created to boost sales, when a solo artist like Hyuna expresses her sexuality as they want to, labelling and outrage follow.
Women are expected to be mild, extremely polite and sometimes even childishly innocent (aegyo in Korean), while men are allowed to show more of their character. Although political statements other than expressing patriotism are prohibited, anything that isn’t compatible with the Korean Confucian patriarchal view of society is also controversial. For example, when Irene of Red Velvet said that she read a feminist book, many male fans organised a childish protest and burned her photos.13
In the case of male idols, distancing themselves from traditional Confucian masculinity and breaking gender stereotypes, especially in terms of appearance (gender-neutral clothing, normalising make-up and dyed hair for men) but also in creative work (e.g. Taemin’s dance style incorporates both masculine and feminine moves), can be viewed as positive.14 Differences can also be seen in general attitudes—instead of toxic masculinity, male performers are encouraged to be more sensitive, empathetic, polite, etc. This is one of the main reasons why teenage girls and young women identify with them, which has boosted their global popularity (in addition to the music), given that misogynistic hyper-masculinity is no longer considered acceptable or attractive thanks to the increasingly widespread adoption of feminist principles. All of this doesn’t mean that the same stringent beauty standards don’t apply to men. On the one hand, the ideal is to have a slim but archetypically masculine athletic figure, while on the other, male performers are supposed to have almost androgynous soft facial features. Thus, combining traditional gender normative sexiness and romanticised innocence may be considered the central characteristic of K-pop in terms of both beauty and behavioural norms.
Cultural Schism: Appropriating Other Cultures, Racism and Xenophobia
Korean society’s ethnically homogeneous and collectivistic nature is also reflected in culture. The constant fight for independence has exacerbated society’s introspective qualities and ethnic nationalism. Although K-pop groups increasingly include more non-Korean artists, their employers are often xenophobic and discriminatory, which is one of the reasons why three of the four Chinese members of EXO sued their company and left the group (they are now enjoying success back home).15
Especially in the past decade, K-pop has been more and more inspired by African-American R&B, hip hop and rap music and style. At the same time, the awareness of African-American culture is low, which frequently causes tactless and sometimes even directly racist incidents, because people don’t distinguish between deferential and neutral references and the symbols of a very painful history. This is why one may find references in K-pop to the US Confederate flag, which signifies support for slavery; the “n-word”, which is always racist when a non-black person uses it; blackface; and false dreadlocks. The last may seem an innocent hair style, but one must take into account that this is one of the traditional ways to style Afro-textured hair. At times, this styling has provided employers legal grounds to dismiss people in the US, since the style is not considered “presentable” on grounds of racism. Thus, if other races employ a so-called trendy accessory of African-American culture, it’s racist, especially when its creators are still discriminated against.
These major and minor issues create dissonance with K-pop amongst the international fan base, who are culturally more knowledgeable, since—while the racist and xenophobic mocking of marginalised cultures in order to earn a profit by emulating them is increasingly criticised in the West—the K-pop industry mostly ignores criticism or refuses to understand it, not to mention self-reflection or apologising. Performers are frequently barred from having a say in choosing the styles intended for them, which makes it difficult to find the real culprit in this issue. This is why many black fans of K-pop are deeply disappointed and alienated by the genre, which imitates their culture without respecting them.
Ignorance is often excused by the fact that Korean culture existed in isolation for a long time but, given the current K-pop industry, which has a global reach and has borrowed extensively from other cultures, the ignorance seems knowingly cultivated. The same applies, of course, to the West’s demeaning and at times racist attitude towards K-pop in particular and East Asian cultures in general. Interestingly, the industry is very tactful towards Japanese culture despite Korea suffering under Japan’s imperialist power, because the K-pop market is so large in that country that entire albums in Japanese are produced for many performers so that they can make a breakthrough.
Pre-teen would-be stars talent-scouted by companies among massive competition often sign so-called slave contracts, which used to be valid for more than ten years. However, in 2008 the duo TVXQ sued SM Entertainment for an unfair 13-year contract that barred them from earning any money from albums that sold fewer than 500,000 copies.16 The following year, the Korean Fair Trade Commission established a rule that contracts may only last up to seven years. In 2017, the fines that companies could legally demand for cancelling a contract were reduced and pressuring performers into extending agreements was made more difficult.17
Nevertheless, almost the entire earnings of new performers are often taken by the company to compensate for training and launch costs, so that artists may effectively work for nothing for years before they earn anything at all. Training performers to sing, rap, dance, act, speak foreign languages, perform and so on may take years. For example, one of today’s most popular artists, G-Dragon, trained for 11 years at YG before making his debut in the group Big Bang.18 Some of the groups are never launched, since only the super-talented make it and some less successful groups only perform for a couple of years. Thus, hopes of stardom may end with crippling debt, not to mention the fact that many youngsters sacrifice their education to chase a dream, which is why it’s hard for them to find another job later.
Moreover, the restrictive slave contracts allow companies to control nearly every aspect of their performers’ lives. The trainees, who live in ascetic dormitories, are often prohibited from communicating even with their parents and friends. They may not go out if it’s not urgent and they’re worked to exhaustion up to 20 hours a day. This state of half-imprisonment cuts young teenagers off from normal development and may cause mental health issues, especially if they live in fear of their employer’s violence.
Physical and Sexual Violence
Systematic physical and sexual abuse is widespread in the K-pop industry. It was revealed last year that Lee Seok-cheol and his brother Lee Seung-hyun, members of the group The East Light, suffered physical and verbal violence at the hands of their producer since before they were teenagers. Over four years, they were beaten with a baseball bat and tortured with guitar strings tied around their necks, among other things.19 It is to be hoped that this is an exceptionally extreme case, but it is not rare for managers to punish performers for even minor mistakes with aggressive reprimands or outright hitting.
Sexual abuse, even procurement, is an even bigger issue in the Korean entertainment industry. It is known that Jang Suk Woo, the owner of a smaller K-pop company, sexually harassed and raped at least ten female artists, some of whom were minors.20 Female would-be starlets are told to offer sexual favours to “investors” or “sponsors” and there are reports of rape under the influence of GHB. In 2009, actress Jang Ja-yeon, who was forced into prostitution, committed suicide because of it.21
At the beginning of 2019, one of the Korean entertainment industry’s biggest sex scandals was revealed. It was suspected that drugs were sold aided by police corruption in the Burning Sun nightclub owned by Seungri, the by-now former member of K-pop group Big Bang. He was convicted of providing prostitutes at the club to potential foreign investors. Seungri’s former boss, Yang Hyun-suk, founder of K-pop company YG, is also suspected of the same crime and stepped down from his position due to the charges. Seungri was in a group chat in which several male celebrities posted videos of sexual acts with various women that they had filmed in secret and without consent, and even perverse clips of unknown women in public toilets and elsewhere filmed with peephole cameras—an issue that has become an epidemic due to the combination of South Korea’s patriarchal misogynistic society and advanced technological connectivity.22 The only positive difference from Western men who abuse their similar positions of power and engage in sexual violence is that the public condemnation of such crimes is so serious in Korean society that it is followed by life-long loss of reputation and an end to the abusers’ stellar careers.
Ignoring Mental Health Problems
Companies’ control over their performers’ working and private lives, exploitative overworking, occasional abuse, restrictions arising from fame and the pressure to appear perfect create a lot of stress and mental health issues like anxiety and depression for K-pop artists. Ignoring mental illness is prevalent not only in the K-pop industry, but in Korean society as a whole. South Korea has the highest suicide rate in the world, since few people seek psychiatric help.23 The main reason for this is the Confucian social mentality that values family honour over the individual. This is why many fear even to admit mental health issues in order to preserve their family’s reputation, since mental illness is a considered a huge stigma arising from a lack of self-discipline or selfish weakness.24
In late 2017, South Korea and millions of fans across the world were shaken by the untimely death of Kim Jong-hyun, who belonged to the popular K-pop group SHINee. Jonghyun (his stage name) was undoubtedly one of the genre’s most talented vocalists and songwriters who, unlike the average K-pop artist, dared to publicly criticise Korean society, support discriminated minorities and talk about the depression he had suffered for years without false shame. In his radio show, Blue Night, he offered a kind of a therapy session to listeners, sharing advice to alleviate their troubles. It is even more tragically unfair that a person who helped so many around the globe to face their mental health problems was let down by the Korean healthcare system when Jonghyun’s personal psychiatrist said that the singer’s long-term depression was a personality issue. Together with a sense of inferiority created by the cruel entertainment industry, this false claim convinced Jonghyun that he was to blame for his mental illness, and he lost hope of recovery and believed that his depression was the result of his total personal failure, not a chemical imbalance of the brain that was at least partially curable.
Several other leading Korean celebrities have taken their own lives and it is feared the tendency will continue until adequate psychiatric help becomes available, the success culture that causes so much stress is reduced, and dangerous social prejudices are disproven.
Problematic Fan Culture
The power of the public and K-pop companies to dictate the behaviour of stars and the objectified image of idols cultivated by the companies have created an at times problematic fan culture that is obsessively possessive of artists who are no longer seen as ordinary human beings. There are thousands of fanatic fans (sasaeng in Korean, meaning “private life”) who have extensive networks that function as a totally unethical business in which people trade detailed information on stars’ private lives for large sums of money: addresses, phone numbers, private photos and videos, their locations and activities at any given moment, and more.25
Although these extreme fans are clearly a minority, many dedicated normal fans pressure others to support one artist or group only and spend a lot of time and money on him/her/it, creating unnecessary stress in impressionable young people and at the same time acting as free advertising for the K-pop industry.
The Phenomenon of Koreaboo and Fetishism
Until recently, K-pop was exclusive outside Korea, which made being a fan almost an elitist and special hobby. Many fans start learning Korean and studying the culture owing to K-pop, but some extreme fans idealise everything related to Korea in a superficial and stereotypical manner based on the genre. Some even want to become Korean. In Korean society, being Korean primarily means being born in the nation, not obtaining citizenship. Identity is intrinsically connected to ethnicity, which is why fans who are mockingly called koreaboo sometimes also imitate Korean features. Even though this is not malevolent behaviour, such a parody is actually offensive to and harmful for Koreans since it is fetishist, cements stereotypes and generalises the entire Korean culture on the basis of the industrial K-pop genre.
The phenomenon of koreaboo has given rise to a wave of fetishism directed at people of Korean and East Asian origin in the West. On the one hand, it is very positive that other kinds of beauty are idealised besides European standards, which have dominated the world thus far under the influence of Western imperialist racism. On the other hand, Western fans of K-pop increasingly frequently deem all Asian people Koreans solely on the basis of their racial characteristics and identify them with K-pop artists even though the similarities are minimal, even going as far as stalking people of Asian origin. Many Western fans try to make friends or engage in romantic relationships with people of East Asian origin just because of their ethnic background and appearance. Such fetishism may seem harmless or even a compliment, but it actually reduces a person’s unique personality down to stereotypes and exotic appearance, which is always dehumanising. It is especially detrimental because Western racism against East Asian people manifests itself in seeing them as a monolithic mass, due to which the aforementioned fetishism contributes to erasing the individual personal level even further.
The Background to K-pop’s Popularity and its Positive Aspects
Given the almost dystopic and inhuman aspects of the K-pop industry, what is it that these numerous fans identify with besides the music? The genre is probably so popular because a large proportion of the artists belong to bands or groups that work and live together for years or even decades, which creates a unique group dynamic between them. Watching these familiar close-knit units as bystanders is emotionally comforting and allows one to escape from one’s daily worries. It creates a sense of belonging with the groups as well as fandoms for the fans.
Numerous concerts, autograph sessions and other special events, as well as participation in large fan clubs, facilitate closeness between performers and fans. Fan projects foster creativity, artistic talent and organisational skills in the young fans—this includes making thousands of banners and coordinating them so they appear in the right order at concerts, preparing and spreading official fan chants (specific cheers to be sung at concerts), creating fan art and merchandise, as well as taking photos for fan sites that rival professional photographers’ skills.
The Unregulated Chaos of Capitalism
Any listener to K-pop with a working moral compass at some point faces the dilemma of how to support these talented artists without financing the unethical industry to which they belong. Does K-pop really help to realise people’s greatest dreams, or does it hinder artistic creativity, suppress performers’ personalities and create a Stockholm syndrome-like relationship of trying to gain approval from an abusive employer, since this is the only way of achieving a breakthrough? There probably are K-pop stars who are genuinely happy about their careers, but there are more who suffer in this semi-authoritarian stressful environment that values profit over people than those who thrive in it. It is to be hoped that fans and the media are able to make the authentic voices of the idols heard and can stand beside them when cases of injustice and inhumane treatment are revealed. Most of the dark side of K-pop remains behind closed doors, which means that if the industry is not systematically forced to adopt more humane principles, nothing will change.
We hope this critical exploration of the K-pop industry isn’t simply the expression of cognitive dissonance but, rather, a testament to the need for reform in the interest not only of local and global consumers, but of the stars themselves. Creating art to serve the capitalist appetite for profit never justifies human sacrifice, and no artist, no matter how commercially minded, deserves to suffer.