Considering their widespread success, there is one country notably absent from BTS’ global strategy for dominance: China. Although China has been a large market for K-pop groups, BTS and others have looked beyond China in recent years. Political tensions between China and South Korea in 2016, in particular, dampened K-pop’s reach in China and since then groups like BTS have turned more to the world stage.
K-pop groups have often utilized the nationalities of their group members to reach markets, leading to debates about how “Korean” the K-pop industry truly is. EXO, one of the first Korean boy bands to introduce K-pop to the world, was one of the first groups to recruit non-Korean talent to expand the reach of its music. EXO features two separate groups to tailor its music to Chinese audiences: EXO-K (Korea) and EXO-M (Mandarin). While EXO-K, more often simply called EXO, sings and raps in Korean and English, EXO-M will perform the same tracks but with Mandarin in place of Korean lyrics.
Take one of EXO’s most popular songs, “Overdose.” EXO-K’s version, with nearly 200 million views, features the original six members of the EXO-K group, all of whom were born in South Korea: Suho, Baekhyun, Chanyeol, D.O., Kai, and Sehun. The EXO-M version, with only 26 million views, primarily features its original six members, four Chinese and two Koreans: Kris (Chinese), Xiumin (Korean), Luhan (Chinese), Lay (Chinese), Chen (Korean), and Tao (Chinese). Both music videos, however, feature both groups, and at 2:45 in both videos, all 12 members are present with almost exactly the same dance formations, despite having different lead singers at given moments.
EXO’s tour schedules also reflected this focus on the Chinese market. In EXO’s first solo concert tour in 2014, titled “EXO from Exoplanet 1 – The Lost Planet,” EXO played 10 out of 30 shows in mainland China, along with two shows in Hong Kong. In EXO’s 2015-2016 tour, “Exo Planet 2 – The Exo’luxion” EXO played a total of 48 shows, 10 in mainland China, two in Hong Kong, and one in Macau.
In stark contrast to “EXO Planet 2,” the following tour in 2016-17 for “Exo Planet 3 – The Exo’rdium” hardly touched China due to political tensions between Beijing and Seoul. In August 2016, South Korea deployed a U.S. missile-defense system that led to a backlash from Beijing, including the blocking K-pop in China through limiting visas to Korean artists and cancelling Chinese-Korean entertainment. This immediately impacted EXO’s tour at the time, ultimately resulting in the cancellation of shows planned for the Chinese cities of Shanghai, Chengdu and Nanjing. The performance scheduled for Hangzhou that reportedly sold out within five minutes was allowed to continue in October 2016, and EXO also managed to play twice in Hong Kong.
In stark contrast, BTS has only performed once on live TV in China, back in January 2015 at the Golden Disk Awards held in Beijing. The Golden Disk Awards are a South Korean music awards ceremony held annually in an Asian city, typically in South Korea. On the “Love Yourself” World Tour, BTS played four concerts in Hong Kong and did not venture onto the Chinese mainland. On their previous “Wings” tour in 2017, BTS played 40 shows: five in the US, 15 in Japan, only two in Hong Kong, and one in Macau. Out of the 42 shows for their “Love Yourself” Tour, BTS played four shows in Hong Kong compared to nine shows in Japan and two shows in Taiwan. Of the 16 shows played in the “Love Yourself: Speak Yourself” Tour, four were in Japan. Between the two tours combined, 16 shows were in the United States. Over the past three years, only seven of the 98 total shows have been in China, none of which took place in mainland China.
Although BTS did not extend its reach to China, it does not mean it did not look elsewhere in East Asia for support. Similar to EXO’s focus on China, BTS targeted Japanese audiences with Japanese-only songs and tours throughout the country. A major difference between these two strategies, however, remains that none of BTS’ seven group members are of Japanese descent.
Similar to BTS, other K-pop bands have difficulty receiving the correct permits to visit and perform in mainland China. The most popular female K-pop group, Blackpink, performed in both Hong Kong (January 2019) and Macau (June 2019) as part of their ongoing Blackpink “In Your Area” World Tour. Monsta X, another popular male K-pop group, collaborated with French Montana on the all-English track “Who Do U Love?” and recently appeared on Jimmy Kimmel and Good Morning America. Monsta X recently completed their 18-city “We Are Here” World Tour without a single stopover in China. Similarly, NCT 127, a K-pop group managed by the same entertainment company as EXO, skipped China on their first world tour.
Unless China reverses its decision to bar K-pop from the mainland, K-pop groups and their managers will inevitably continue to strategize for success without Chinese audiences. While perhaps not a priority for the Chinese government, the continuation of this policy represents another avenue where Chinese citizens are blocked from participating in international cultural phenomena. Considering K-pop has already broken out of the Asian bubble, a re-entry into China would force K-pop labels to restrategize to accommodate the potential of the Chinese market. Until then, K-pop will continue to push forward on an international scale, reaping success without support from its once-captivated neighbor.