Last week, fans of Korean pop music groups made headlines after organizing a campaign to register for upwards of hundreds of thousands of free tickets for Donald Trump’s rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma—helping to raise expectations of an event that turned out to be a sparsely attended dud. This followed another effective piece of digital activism in early June, when K-pop fans flooded an app released by the Dallas Police Department to collect videos of “illegal activity from the protests” with content from their favorite artists, rendering the app unusable. These fans also did something similar with the Twitter hashtag #whitelivesmatter. And fans of the boy band BTS raised $1 million for various Black Lives Matter organizations, matching a donation by the band.
All this might seem unexpected from a genre better known for monster hooks, tight choreography, and airbrushed faces than political activism. But while this particular form of activism is new, K-pop has been a deeply political genre for years.
For starters, the South Korean state has always played a strong role in the country’s pop music industry—positive and negative. During the 1970s, Western-style rock music—by both foreign and Korean artists—was heavily censored by the government of dictator Park Chung-hee. Censorship was lifted after the country’s transition to democracy in the late 1980s, but the real turning point came after the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which devastated the country’s economy, forced it to ask for what was seen as a humiliating International Monetary Fund loan, and laid bare the vulnerabilities of its export-reliant growth model. In a bid to rehabilitate the country’s image, as well as focus on an industry that could be built up quickly with little infrastructure investment, then-President Kim Dae-jung decided to invest heavily in the country’s pop culture, boosting the budget of the ministry of culture and setting up agencies to invest in and promote cultural products.
The result, known as the Korean Wave or Hallyu, has been staggeringly successful. Today, South Korea is a pop culture superpower, from the popularity of its TV dramas throughout Asia, to Parasite’s historic Oscar win, to the world-conquering success of K-pop. When Psy’s “Gangnam Style”—technically a K-pop song, though an uncharacteristically ironic one—became a viral smash in 2012, many dismissed its success in the United States as a fluke. BTS’ recent run on the Billboard charts, though, seems to have proven otherwise.
Hallyu content may be produced by private companies, but as Euny Hong writes in her book The Birth of Korean Cool, the state still plays a guiding hand in promoting cultural products overseas, advising producers on the “socioeconomic, political, and cultural factors that might make [a foreign region] a good market for Hallyu.” These include manuals with suggestions like keeping Muslim prayer times in mind when scheduling Korean TV dramas in Arab countries.
For South Korea, Hallyu is a form of soft power—global influence based on having an attractive national culture and ideology rather than military force. Along with the technological influence of firms like Samsung, Korean pop culture has helped develop the country’s image as a dynamic and futuristic society. And that pop culture has penetrated markets in countries like China and Japan, where the South Korean state is not exactly popular.
Sometimes this form of power projection is quite literal. During times of inter-Korean tension, the South Korean government has set up loudspeakers to blast K-pop tunes across the Demilitarized Zone.
K-pop’s association with South Korea’s national image makes it a target as well. When Seoul reached an agreement with Washington to build a missile defense system known as THAAD in 2017, angering the Chinese government, which saw the system as a threat, Beijing responded by, among other measures, blocking Korean music videos and TV shows. The Chinese market was once so important to K-pop that the popular band EXO included a subgroup, EXO-M, that performed exclusively in Mandarin, and the industry still hasn’t fully recovered. In fact, critics point to the THAAD affair as one reason for K-pop’s recent ascendance in America: With the Chinese market off-limits, the genre’s marketers were forced to turn their attention across the Pacific.
But while K-pop is often viewed as an unofficial branch of the Korean state, it’s occasionally used by nonstate actors for more anti-establishment ends. The song “One Candle” by boy band g.o.d., for instance, became an unofficial anthem for the 2016–17 “Candlelight Revolution” protests that brought down President Park Geun-hye.
Even given this history, K-pop’s new role in the George Floyd protests might seem particularly unexpected. While the online K-pop vigilantes fit in well with the decentralized, nonhierarchical nature of this protest movement, their recent activism is a bit ironic given that K-pop is famously one of the most centralized, hierarchical genres of music on the planet, one in which bands are assembled and trained by labels who tightly control public images and appearance. It’s a model that K-pop impresario Lee Soo-man, whose company created acts like Girls’ Generation and Red Velvet, refers to as “cultural technology.” K-pop idols are still considered ambassadors for the state and subject to implicit censorship.
But as John Lie, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley who has written on K-pop, noted in an email to Slate, “one of the core marketing strategies of K-pop—create participatory fan culture—has succeeded beyond K-pop producers’ wildest dream and BTS fans, for example, take considerable pride in their size and influence.”
That size and influence is most often used by K-pop stans to boost the latest releases of their favorite artists. But there are also numerous cases of them organizing to raise money for charity. In a Frankenstein-like twist, the fans have often turned on the industry itself, acting as corporate watchdogs at times, including pressure campaigns to force the agencies behind their favorite acts to treat beloved artists more humanely and revise infamous “slave contracts” that have kept idols locked into yearslong exclusive deals.
Despite the missteps of some of its artists, though, it’s hard to think of a more cosmopolitan genre than K-pop, which first became popular in the U.S. primarily among young Asian Americans but now has a wider, more multicultural fan base.
In her book The New Kings of the World, the Pakistani journalist Fatima Bhutto describes the growing popularity of K-pop, alongside Indian Bollywood movies and Turkish “Dizi” soap operas, as emblematic of a global shift away from the former dominance of American pop culture. She writes, “As the world struggles with the tensions of globalization—the shock waves of neo-liberal economic adjustments, the ferocious speed at which information travels, and the turbulence caused by urbanization and mass migration from villages to the cities—American pop culture seems less and less reflective of this new, uncertain present.”
During the last century, American and American-influenced rock and pop music—with its themes of freedom, individuality, and modernity—was often embraced by young progressives in autocratic countries, including Korea. Perhaps it’s not so surprising that American fans of a genre known for relentless positivity, intense levels of collaboration, and a participatory, internet-native fan culture—and one that comes from a country where everyone willingly wears a mask without being forced to—have turned their attention to addressing racism and structural inequality in their own society.