The seven-member Korean boy band BTS — “Bangtan Sonyeondan” in Korean or “Beyond the Scene” in English — has become an unprecedented international sensation since their debut in 2013. Their popularity has spread from South Korea around the globe. In 2018, they became the most popular boy band, with two albums in the Billboard Top 200 and a Top Social Artist award. The American toy maker Mattel has announced the signing of a licensing agreement to produce dolls of the band’s members, upon which the company’s share value shot up by 7.7 percent. According to the Hyundai Research Institute, the band is estimated to bring more than $3.6 billion into the South Korean economy annually.
BTS is to date the most successful manifestation of the Hallyu phenomenon of Korean pop cultural exports such as such as K-pop (Korean popular music), soap operas and films. While the initial spread of Hallyu within East Asia may have been facilitated by affinities in mentality and cultural norms among these countries while remaining exotic and foreign enough to be intriguing to other Asian consumers, its worldwide proliferation marks a new level of global success for Korean contemporary culture. The international popularity of BTS, and Hallyu in general, is an example of the proliferation of Korean “soft power” via the savvy crafting of an image and a message that resonates across cultural boundaries. In recognition of their status as global influencers, in 2018 BTS was invited to speak at the launch ceremony at the UN headquarters in New York for Generation Unlimited, a global partnership by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
The rise of BTS is linked to explicit strategies on the part of the South Korean government. The role of Hallyu in economic policy was first mentioned in 2001 in an address by South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, who termed it a “chimney-less industry” and an engine of economic development that creates high added value with relatively little investment of resources compared to industrial development. During the administration of President Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2007), the declared prime national objective was to become one of “the world’s top five content powers in 2010” and the Korea Creative Content Agency was founded in 2009 to promote and support the production of Korean popular culture content. The big South Korean businesses (chaebol), which have close ties to the government, began to turn their attention to media and the creative industries.
In this context, as the most successful Korean pop culture producer, BTS has demonstrably contributed considerably to the South Korean national economy. In addition to sales of music, merchandise, and concert tickets, this figure also reflects the added number of tourists who will visit South Korea because of their interest in the band. In 2017, it was estimated that around 800,000 tourists to South Korea, or about 7 percent of all arrivals, were motivated to visit the country because of their interest in BTS. The members of BTS have been named as Seoul’s Honorary Tourism Ambassadors, and have been luring visitors to the city with the “Live Seoul Like I Do” initiative that seeks to draw tourists to band members’ favorite locations in the city. The government website “Imagine Your Korea” provides a list of locations of BTS music videos and album covers, encouraging tourists to visit the sites to “recreate the scenes yourself, or simply bask in the knowledge that your bias [sic] was once standing in the exact same spot, breathing the same air, and seeing the same view.”
Soft power is at the foundation of cultural diplomacy, through which nations and other “actors” on the international stage mobilize their cultural resources to build up positive opinions and associations with their culture and values. The promotion of soft power through cultural diplomacy is the shared purview of both governmental and nongovernmental actors, as illustrated in the complementary roles of the South Korean government, which incentivizes the production and diffusion of Hallyu content through its policies and directives, and the private enterprises that produce and promote the content, such as the entertainment company Big Hit Entertainment, which manages BTS. In a 2019 address, South Korean President Moon Jae-In praised the success of BTS in spreading Korean culture around the world.
Beyond such official promotional measures of governments and corporations, the case of BTS also exemplifies the power of grassroots “people-to-people” diplomacy in spreading soft power. People-to-people diplomacy happens when positive feelings about a nation or culture are spread through shared experiences between individuals across cultural divides. The enthusiastic dedication of the global BTS fanbase, who are referred to as an “army,” is a pivotal factor in the bottom-up facilitation of the band’s meteoric rise to international success, as the universality of the themes featured in the band’s lyrics, which offer listeners solace in the face of personal struggles, encouraging them to love themselves and speak for themselves. Via social media, bilingual fans provide English translations and subtitles to BTS songs and videos, as well as translating news stories about the band. Fans also use such digital platforms to conduct coordinated promotional and support campaigns for the band as well as organizing offline social activities.
In addition to these fan-led initiatives, another important factor in the coherence and dedication of the far-flung fanbase of BTS is the intensive activity of the band members themselves on social media. They regularly post videos and pictures of their day-to-day lives together, accounts of their struggles, and news and special messages for their fans, sustaining a narrative of the seven members as sincere and open, caring for each other as well as for their fans. As of April, 2018, the band’s Twitter account held the Guinness world record for the most engagements. This is all part of a strategy on the part of Big Hit Entertainment to portray BTS at the same time as objects of adulation (“idols”) and as familiar faces to whom fans can relate like family members or close friends.
Social media functions both as a conduit for the distribution of content related to BTS and also as a platform for communication and networking of a “virtual community” around the band. Both of these aspects provide continual stimulus and motivation for fans’ ongoing involvement with these social media platforms, deepening their emotional identification with the band’s members and their oeuvre and providing positive feedback and camaraderie from other members of the community.
While the arts and popular culture are important aspects of cultural diplomacy, their promotion is important not only as an end unto itself but must also be seen in the context of a program of development, dialogue, and education that affects minds and perceptions. BTS has played a big part in spreading positive associations with Korean contemporary culture worldwide, not only through the immediate impact of their performances and merchandising, but also via the ripples of their influence manifested, for example, in demand for tourism to sites associated with the band, and by the global army of devotees who magnify and multiply the diffusion of the band’s popularity. The vast and distributed wave of people-to-people cultural diplomacy fuels the band’s burgeoning notoriety and influence, which in turn brings more and more economic growth to many facets of the South Korean economy.
Dr. Wantanee Suntikul is Assistant Professor at the School of Hotel and Tourism Management at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University.