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An illustration of a K-pop act. Sam Nakahira for Vox

The surprisingly political history of K-pop

The influence of the “wave” of Korean music and film on global culture was no accident.

Part of The Gatekeepers Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.


By almost any measurement, the K-pop band BTS is the most popular band in the world. They’ve broken records for sales and audience engagement, topped global and American charts, and spawned a massive fanbase.
In 2020, the music video for their English-language single “Dynamite” became the first K-pop song in history to debut at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. 
But BTS isn’t alone. K-pop, or Korean music that blends pop, hip-hop, and dance to create enormously infectious entertainment, is exploding. Over the last decade, numerous K-pop bands, or idol groups, have gained massive popularity around the world.
In 2019, the Blackpink became the first all-girl K-pop group to headline Coachella.
The boy band NCT is launching a US-based reality show to choose the newest members of their group.
K-pop’s catchy sound and sharp choreography are increasingly everywhere, and its distinctive production values have deeply influenced the global pop landscape.
K-pop is part of Hallyu (“Korean wave”), the term for the ongoing exporting and globalization of Korean entertainment and culture that began in the late 1990s. It has led to the global popularity of  everything from idol groups to Korean skincare to video games.
Hallyu didn’t arise from nowhere. It began as a deliberate strategy orchestrated by the Korean government in response to a changing global economy — and its rise can be directly tied to Korea’s economic, geopolitical, and cultural role in the 20th century.
After Japan’s occupation of Korea ended in 1945, the Korean War again brought outsiders to the nation, as  US military troops were stationed throughout South Korea.
The origins of K-pop are often attributed to this time, when Korean bands would perform Western-influenced pop music for American soldiers.
After the Korean War, dictator General Park Chunghee —encouraged by the US, who had and still has a military presence in Korea — invested in rapid industrialization of South Korea. Entertainment industries were ignored or censored heavily by the regime.
After his assassination, Korea began to change during the 1980s and 90s, and with its modernization, to cultivate its cultural exports. Corporations like Samsung began to invest in Korean filmmaking.
Then, in 1994, a South Korean government council published an intriguing report pointing out that one blockbuster — its example was Jurassic Park — could single-handedly equal the sales of over a million Korean-manufactured cars.
This potential cash cow became very important after the devastating 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, when South Korea suddenly faced economic woes, followed by protests of international bailouts.
“We must pour our energy into globalizing Korean culture...Tourism, the convention industry, the visual industry, and special cultural commodities are a treasure trove for which a limitless market is awaiting.” -President Kim Dae Jung, in his 1998 Inaugural Address
This was the beginning of Hallyu — and K-pop. To help it develop, the South Korean government provided funding and benefits to giant conglomerates to promote movies, entertainment, video games, and music.
This government-directed support for pop culture  isn’t unique to Korea: Many other nations have taken a similar approach to rebuilding  — like Roosevelt’s New Deal in the Depression-era U.S., or Milton Keynes’ postwar reconstruction of Britain. Both programs included arts subsidization as a way of fueling economic growth. By 2018, its entertainment industry was worth an estimated $9.5 billion. But K-pop’s influence isn’t just financial. It’s cultural.
K-pop can be described as a source of Korean soft power, or a country’s ability to wield global power through appeal and attraction rather than through economic and military means.
Hallyu has already found its way into politics. Idols performed at the historic summit between North and South Korean leaders in 2018.
All this might feel familiar to American pop culture fans. The U.S. also relies heavily on soft power political influence, investing in Hollywood and other forms of entertainment after WWII to export American nationalism globally. It’s one reason why K-pop’s global rise is often used by American pundits and thinkers as a sign of America’s declining cultural dominance.
But Hallyu’s government origins haven’t stopped Korean entertainers from using their platforms as a voice for the people. In his viral 2012 hit, “Gangnam Style,” entertainer Psy cleverly satirized Korea’s severe income inequality.
In 2002 and 2004, Psy performed at anti-American protests against the Iraq War and the accidental killing of two South Korean schoolgirls by a US military vehicle stationed in South Korea for which he eventually apologized after gaining fame in the US.
Economic inequality has been a recurring theme for director Bong Joon-ho, director of the 2020 Oscar-winner Parasite. K-pop artists have also been speaking out about anti-Asian hate crimes following the Atlanta attacks.
But Kpop’s rise has paved the way towards another form of power: the fans themselves. K-pop fans are some of the most dedicated in the world, ensuring their idols dominate streaming and record sales charts. They have proved a force for political organizing as well — during the American 2020 election, K-pop fans claim they registered hundreds of thousands of tickets to a Donald Trump rally and did not show up, severely thinning the crowd.
As the fandom continues to grow into a force of its own, fans are also beginning to reckon with ongoing racism within its ranks — and the issue of cultural appropriation of Black culture.
As new international fans discover K-pop and Korean culture, Hallyu looks likely to continue to grow. Understanding the roots of the industry is core to understanding the power of the genre’s appeal today.

Sam Nakahira is a comic artist and recent graduate from the Center of Cartoon Studies. Her Twitter is @smnakha and more of her work can be found at samnakahira.com.

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