When Pop Music Goes Nuclear: The Explosive Politics of K-Pop in Asia
The fans had waited hours to see one of the most popular bands in Japan. Tens of thousands of them filled the seats of the Tokyo Dome that night in January 2013. Finally the lights dimmed, save for five spotlights trained on the stage. The five members of the girl group KARA stepped into view and began the final show of their first Asian tour.
But KARA is not a Japanese girl group. All five members are from South Korea. Their songs, however, are in Japanese — written, recorded, practiced and performed in a language completely foreign to the singers who sing them.
International crossover is the norm in Korean pop music, often abbreviated as “K-Pop.”
“K-Pop reaches the whole world,” said Billboard Contributor Tamar Herman. “There are [K-Pop] events every year in the Middle East, the U.S., Australia, Europe, just bringing the music everywhere.”
With a worldwide audience, Korean artists often branch out into different countries. But their approach differs from those of American artists. When Beyoncé tours the globe, “Single Ladies” sounds the same wherever she goes. But if the Wonder Girls, another popular female Korean ensemble, were to do the same, the song would be different. In Seoul, they would sing their hit “Nobody” in Korean. But they would perform the song in Chinese if they toured Shanghai, Japanese for Tokyo, and English for New York City. The English version remains one of Korea’s only presences on the American Billboard Hot 100, where it briefly sat at number 76 in 2009.
According to Herman, “K-Pop wants to go international partially because the Korean music market is so small. Korea doesn’t have a large population, so idols need to perform overseas in order to make money.”
While South Korea, Japan, and China have complex political relations, media has flowed easily and profitably between these countries.
“K-Pop needs to be historicized in the context of Asian entertainment history,” Jung Bong Choi, Professor of Cinema Studies at New York University, told The Politic. “In the early 1990s, the Korean cultural phenomenon began with Korean Dramas, especially in China. The drama laid the groundwork for the introduction of Korean popular culture into Chinese society. Later in the 1990s and into the 2000s, the K-Drama craze eventually took over Japan.”
The rest is history. In 2011, KARA earned over $60 million in Japanese CD and DVD sales alone. BIGBANG, one of K-Pop’s most well-known acts, made $44 million in 2015, exceeding bands like Maroon 5 in revenue.
At first glance, this arrangement seems mutually beneficial. Citizens of both countries can interact and connect over shared interests, while the artists can make profits and find musical success on a global level. But the disagreements between East Asian cultures run deep. “Each of these countries wants to wield influence on the Asian continent as a whole,” said Herman. “Korea wants to be that cultural influencer now, and they’ve been doing that very well, but every time there’s an international incident, that hurts Korean media.”
This competition fuels already existing tensions left over from Japan’s imperial domination of Korea, China’s recent claim on the South China Sea, or the North Korean regime’s aggression. The tensions have hurt artists and damaged business cooperation between countries.
The most recent issue concerns Tiffany Hwang, a lead vocalist of Girls’ Generation — arguably K-Pop’s most successful group of all time. The group records Korean and Japanese versions of their songs. One of their Japanese concerts in August awkwardly coincided with Korean Liberation Day. Hwang uploaded a picture to her Snapchat for thousands of fans to see, with the app’s Tokyo geofilter on the bottom. The design had imagery from the Japanese Imperial Flag, which, given Japan’s history of imperial domination over Korea, is a deeply offensive symbol to the Korean people — especially on their day of liberation. Though Hwang deleted the picture within three minutes, the damage was done.
“Her career literally came to a halt,” Herman said. Hwang lost television roles and sponsorship deals, ending her promising solo career.
Choi emphasized the strong effect of politics on Asian music. “We have to look at the sharp division between political and historical aspects surrounding East Asia, and the economic and cultural dynamics of East Asia,” she said. “Japan, South Korea, China, and Taiwan are still hung up on the past, in terms of comfort women, territorial disputes, and more. The past, along with the emerging power of China, create a historical-political issue.”
Why, then, is pop music so profitable in Asia? As Choi explained, “The historical-political issues are in sharp contrast with the economic-cultural issues. The cultural flow is the most effective lubricant that keeps the Asian economy going.”
Japanese KARA fans weren’t thinking about hostilities between South Korea and Japan when they bought their concert tickets. So the cultural economy thrives across international boundaries despite ongoing tensions.
At seventeen years old, Taiwanese-born Chou Tzuyu is new in the K-Pop world. She is a member of TWICE, an explosively popular girl group that debuted in late 2015. In January, at the height of TWICE’s popularity, Chou held a Taiwanese flag on Korean television. Mainland Chinese residents quickly accused her of promoting Korean independence. Chou responded with an apology video on YouTube — one that the Taiwanese considered a humiliating recognition of Chinese economic and political influence.
The video received hundreds of thousands of dislikes, many from international fans frustrated to see Chinese politics affecting someone they considered an innocent teenager.
But Chou did more than just hold a flag. BBC reported that Chou may have affected the Taiwanese elections happening then. Estimates suggest the scandal boosted the pro-independence candidate, Tsai Ing-Wen, by at least a percentage point. The controversy ended after Chinese state media issued a statement condoning Chou’s actions, saying she still expressed the One China Principle, even if her flag-waving favored the Republic of China and not the People’s Republic of China.
But the message remains clear: If an East Asian star makes any political statement (even an unintended one), the backlash can become a political scandal.
Chinese patriotism has caused more problems for K-Pop idols. After an international tribunal rejected China’s claims on the South China Sea, several Chinese K-Pop stars voiced their support for Chinese expansionism, using Instagram and Weibo to express their opinions. While their reputations and starpower may have grown in China, Herman claims, “these celebrities have essentially been blacklisted in Korea by the online community.”
Victoria Song of the girl group f(x) and Wang Feifei of the girl group Miss A faced the brunt of the criticism. Fei had just released new solo music in Korea, and the reception was very polarized. The song tanked in Korea but saw explosive success in China.
According to Choi, “The Communist Party has complete penetrating power to people’s minds through state media… It’s natural for the Chinese to think that the South China Sea is theirs. I think that is very absurd from the standpoint of the countries that are being somewhat browbeaten by China—Mongolia, South Korea, Taiwan, etc.”
Putting celebrity scandals aside, K-Entertainment has penetrated the largest geopolitical threat to East Asian peace—North Korea.
“The North Korean people, so many of them are watching Korean dramas and listening to K-Pop, but what’s important is that it has to be done in secret,” Choi explained. “It is against the grain of the North Korean regime—it is a sedition of mind and a transgression. Therefore, I think this is a serious issue, as serious as North Korea’s nuclear power. The power of these people’s rebellious minds will have a major impact on the destinies of North and South Korea and their relationship in the future.”
South Korea seems aware of this – the country has used K-Pop to protest North Korean nuclear missile tests in the past. In January, the Southern government played Korean songs over the Demilitarized Zone, presumably to heighten the contrast between North and South Korea, and to catch the attention of North Korean listeners.
South Korean intelligence agencies are, as Choi claimed, “sponsoring the trafficking of cultural products into North Korea. It is done under the rubric of Christian charity, humanitarian aid, etc. Is it really just natural civilian flow of entertainment? No, it is a heavily political matter.”
When Chinese-Korean relations see strain, so do media relations. The United States and South Korea recently announced the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) strategy to counter North Korean nuclear aggression.
The Chinese government, seeing THAAD as a threat to Chinese influence in Asia, responded fiercely. China pressured South Korea to drop THAAD by manipulating the international entertainment industry.
As Choi described it, “China nailed the Korean culture industry. A show managed by a Korean company but shown in China was cancelled. Korean stars were asked to stop working on Chinese shows, and the Chinese government delayed its visa process for Korean stars with no explanations.”
East Asian aggression has moved off of the battlefield and onto television screens. With politics and music influencing each other, nationalism and political ire have permeated entertainment. The international response to movies, music, and celebrities has been anything but light. Snapchat stories stand in for explosives, Instagram posts for drone strikes, and television still-shots for war declarations.
Peace between these societies hangs in the balance. Could these tensions destabilize diplomacy in the near future? Hopefully not. But until then, fans of all nationalities will attend concerts, buy albums, and watch music videos.