The surprising activism of South Korean pop culture

One million tickets were reserved for then-President Donald Trump’s campaign rally in June 2020. But the stadium in Tulsa, Oklahoma, only had room for 19,000 people. It turned out to be a campaign carried out by thousands of fans of K-pop – South Korean pop music; a mix of pop, dance and hip-hop – who had encouraged each other on social media to reserve tickets, only to fail to turn up. At the end, the hall was about half empty. The fans were inventive; they deleted their post within 48 hours, according to the New York Times, so the act would go unnoticed beforehand.

K-pop has become extremely popular in recent years, both inside and outside of South Korea. And films and series from the country also receive worldwide praise. K-pop is much loved by activists because it conveys a universal message of self-love and acceptance. It is striking that activism also seems to play a common thread in films and series.

In the South Korean series Play octopus for example – since last year the record holder for the most watched Netflix title – a group of indebted people is recruited by the super rich. They are taken blindfolded to a remote location where they compete for a huge amount of money in a series of children’s games. Losers die, winners advance to the next round. The first game is in an enclosed courtyard, where participants must reach a life-size doll on the other side of the court as quickly as possible. However, running is only allowed if the doll, dressed as an innocent schoolgirl, looks the other way – a kind of live version of Annemaria Koekoek. Anyone still moving when the doll turns is promptly shot.

Play octopus proved to be an international success shortly after its premiere, with over 1.6 billion views in the first 28 days. Before his big hit, filmmaker Hwang Dong-hyuk went through bad times financially, and he has never hidden that his idea is to criticize the effects of hyper-capitalism in South Korea. “We live in a society where people have the audacity to trample on others to survive,” he said when receiving an award from the Corea Image Communication Institute last January.

The plastic surgery district

Also the four Oscar-winning feature films parasite (2019) is such a big South Korean success with an activist message. In it, a family lives in a well-stocked basement that is constantly overflowing. Out of sheer desperation, they are hired as staff by a wealthy family that looks down on Seoul from their villa. Cinema visits for this hit by filmmaker Bong Joon-ho brought in around 240 million euros. About the theme of his film, he said in an interview with the British newspaper: The Guardian: “On the surface, South Korea looks like a rich and glamorous country with fast internet and IT technology, but the gap between rich and poor is widening.”

Capitalism is also criticized in the global hit Gangnam Style from 2012, which has been listened to billions of times on YouTube: the singer Psy ridicules the inhabitants of the wealthy Gangnam district in the South Korean capital Seoul – which the South Koreans joke about. is called the ‘plastic surgery district’. Where does this activism come from? Whos behind?

According to filmmaker Hwang Dong-hyuk (Squid Game), survival of the fittest is the rule in capitalist South Korea.

As filmmaker Hwang Dong-hyuk put it: In capitalist South Korea, survival of the fittest applies. The studies are as spartan as the conscription. When you first start working, you have long days. Despite the rapid economic growth of recent decades, many people are also at home. Companies have been able to lay off workers more easily since the change in labor laws in 1998 – one of the consequences of the economic crisis the previous year. So writes sociologist Hagen Koo in an article in the scientific journal Journal of Contemporary Asia.

According to Remco Breuker, professor of Korean studies at the University of Leiden, the boundaries between classes have become petrified. “It’s much harder to climb now compared to the 90s. About a quarter of South Koreans are in a desperate situation with temporary jobs that pay poorly.” Performance pressure, layoffs, unemployment and debt are causing a skyrocketing suicide rate: every 40 minutes someone in South Korea dies by their own hands, which equates to 36 people a day.

Family background of applicants

Many South Koreans are vying for jobs in state-owned banks or large family-owned companies such as Samsung, LG and Hyundai. In recent decades, a gap has emerged between such large companies and the small players, writes Hagen in his article from 2019. “The large companies can survive on the international market, while small and medium-sized companies have barely survived the increasing international competition. .” In South Korea, Samsung alone accounts for 17 to 21 percent of gross domestic product.

Not only your CV is relevant if you want to get a job in South Korea, looks also count

The jobs are sought after, but the working situation is not always optimal. “It’s amazing how much power a brand like that has,” says Korea expert Breuker. “You can see that in the way you look at the employees. For example, there has been a long-running lawsuit involving Samsung factory workers who were exposed to toxic substances and developed cancer during their work. If you look at how the company has dealt with it, dogs don’t like bread.” It took more than ten years of litigation before Samsung offered an apology and compensation, up to more than 100,000 euros each. victim.

And not only your CV is relevant if you want to work in South Korea, your appearance also counts. Companies may ask for a photo, your height and family background during the application process. A slim figure is indispensable for everyone, and women should have fair skin and men an androgynous appearance. Plastic surgery is on every street corner; eyelid corrections are particularly popular. In 2011, the country even took the crown worldwide with the highest number of surgical procedures per capita, writes philosophy professor So Yeon Lee in an article in the scientific journal in 2017. Medical Anthropology.

Many of today’s South Korean directors grew up in the 1980s, at the end of the military dictatorship

Many well-known South Korean directors today, such as Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook (known for the films oldboy from 2003 and The maid as of 2016) grew up in the 1980s, at the end of the military dictatorship. Breuker: “The protests from that period were the engine for democratization. The critical view of what the government is doing is therefore very much on the minds of these artists.” parasite like other South Korean films and series, wants to dispel the myth of the meritocracy that prevails in South Korea. The idea is that if you have talent and work hard, you will end up well.

In principle, everyone would have the same opportunities for education and work, writes Park Kwon-Il in his book Korean meritocracy from 2021. The responsibility for seizing those opportunities would lie with the individual. No success? Own sake. But in practice, your family’s socio-economic conditions are decisive for your access to education and work. Park should pay more attention to this. “A society that uses inequality to enforce ruthless competition is not just, happy, or efficient.”

Kind gesture to Kim Jung-un

So many South Korean movies and series are essentially activist, but surprisingly, K-pop is not. On the contrary, the music is apolitical and preaches a universal message about being oneself and self empowerment. Breuker: “The labels that produce this music are part of listed companies. They have gone to great lengths to keep the music neutral, so they can sell records in, for example, China, Japan and Taiwan.” And not unimportant: This neutrality allows the South Korean government to insert K-pop stars – known as ‘idols’ – into diplomatic relations; for example, K-pop band Red Velvet performed for North Korean dictator Kim Jung-un in 2018, as a friendly gesture from South Korea.

It is part of a deliberate strategy to use South Korean pop culture as ‘soft power’ abroad; it brings prestige and money. Hallyu calls this development, ‘the Korean gulf’. After the 1997 financial crisis – which prompted South Korea to receive aid from the International Monetary Fund – new President Kim Dae-jung proclaimed in his inaugural address: “We must focus our energies on globalizing South Korean culture.”

South Korea’s government uses K-pop in diplomatic relations

It was only in the US that K-pop bands were associated with activism. psy’s hit gangam style was at the beginning of K-pop’s rise in 2013, but with BTS it really took off. In 2020, the boy band became the first South Korean act to reach number 1 on the US Bill Board top 100 with their hit Dynamite. The popularity of these types of bands in the United States is due in part to Korean Americans who embraced the music from the start. Later, K-pop was also taken up by other Americans of color and by the LGBTQIA+ movement.

These Western fans – who call themselves ‘stans’ after the obsessed fan Stan from Eminem’s song of the same name – are using the K-pop message of love and being yourself as a weapon in the fight for Black Lives Matter. Their activism receives a lot of attention in the media, forcing some K-pop bands to engage in the public debate. In solidarity with fans, BTS donated one million dollars to the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation. Breuker: “K-pop is a subculture in the US with fans who are more aware of the margins of society. When BTS speaks out on social issues, it’s largely thanks to foreign fans. That fans have an influence on what the idols do is special. And perhaps the fact that K-pop is experienced as a two-way street is also the key to success.”

The Stansene also point out to their idols that their music is a form of cultural appropriation: especially black, American music is a source of inspiration. K-pop artist CL writes on Instagram in 2020 that K-pop is actually “inspired by black culture”. And rapper Han, a member of the band Stray Kids, will apologize in 2021 for racist lyrics he wrote in the past – including the South Korean equivalent of the n-word. Thus changing the meaning of K-pop from the outside; it takes a new charge from fans eager to make their idols allies in their activism.

No bonus

Of course, South Korean pop culture artists and filmmakers cannot escape the capitalist system they criticize. Breuker: “It’s the same kind of studios and sometimes investors that publish K-pop and produce Bong Joon-ho’s movies.”

parasite for example, was produced by the CJ Group, a large conglomerate that was once a sister company of Samsung. And Play octopus is a product of Netflix, which made hundreds of millions from the series, without giving creator Hwang Dong-hyuk a bonus, in his own words. Netflix paid him according to the original contract, he said The Guardian: he has therefore seen nothing of the enormous profit. “Netflix paid me enough to put food on the table.”

This article appeared in OneWorld Magazine in Summer 2022.

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