K-Pop idols and their music have positively contributed to South Korean diplomacy, economy, human rights movements, and the country’s global status for decades, especially during times of high political tension.
As a middle-power country, Seoul often relies on non-coercive diplomatic tools to strengthen its political position in the world, rather than using military or coercive economic power. Korean entertainment, in particular K-Pop, has provided a unique opportunity for Seoul to improve its global standing through appeal and attraction, known as “soft power.” After the fall of authoritarianism in South Korea in the late 1990s, which previously censored domestic and foreign media outlets, Korean music, film, and television programs began to circulate throughout Asia. As a result, Korean pop culture became accessible to a global audience for the first time, making way for the Korean Wave, also known as “Hallyu.” Overseas K-Pop fans have directly contributed to the growth of the South Korean economy, as the foreign market for South Korean music and pop culture roughly doubled from $5.7 billion in 2015 to $10 billion in 2019. However, K-Pop also has had a profound impact on domestic and foreign politics, demonstrating its importance for South Korean diplomacy.
Since its founding in 2005, YouTube has provided an virtual window into Korean entertainment for viewers overseas, but the first ripples of the Korean Wave splashed on the shores of Japan several years earlier under the name Kwon Bo-ah (BoA). For 20 years, Korean singer and entertainer BoA has contributed to improving civil relations between the Korean and Japanese public through her music and appearances in Japanese radio and television.
Recruited and trained by SM Entertainment, one of the largest and most successful South Korean entertainment companies, BoA was assigned the unprecedented task of breaking into foreign music charts in 2001 at age 14. Following a joint investment of roughly $3.6 billion between SM Entertainment and its Japanese business partner AVEX Entertainment, BoA debuted in Japan after receiving Japanese language training to ensure her successful transition into the Japanese music and entertainment industry. As a result, BoA became the first Korean singer to top Japan’s Oricon Charts and the Billboard 200 charts, selling 1 million copies of her Japanese single, “Listen to My Heart.” In addition to spreading a positive image of Korea abroad, BoA also paved the way for future K-Pop idols like TVXQ/DBSK, Girls’ Generation, EXO, BTS, and others to later captivate Japanese fans despite souring relations between Seoul and Tokyo. Teaching foreign languages and selecting K-Pop trainees with proficiency in Japanese, Chinese, or English later became a trend among future South Korean entertainment companies.
BoA’s rise to fame in Japan occurred during a particularly low point in modern Japan-South Korea relations. Although South Korea began to lift import bans on Japanese media in the early 2000s, former Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro visited a highly controversial site, the Yasukuni Shrine, in 2001 and it caused a major rift between the two countries. The site honors the Japanese citizens and soldiers who lost their lives in wars from the 1800s to the modern day, including World War II war criminals who helped colonize the Korean Peninsula and other parts of Asia. As a result of his visit, Seoul came close to canceling a major diplomatic trip to Tokyo and 20 South Korean citizens publicly severed their pinky fingers in protest. Despite the continuation of this conflict, BoA continued to serve as a cultural envoy between Seoul and Tokyo. In 2003, the Japanese Foreign Ministry officially invited BoA to attend a diplomatic dinner between Koizumi and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, demonstrating a mutual understanding of BoA as an important cultural link between ordinary Japanese and Korean peoples.
Although the release of the widely popular South Korean drama, “Winter Sonata,” during the same year is often considered the starting point for Hallyu in Japan, BoA’s 2002 debut in Japan likely shattered the glass ceiling that would have otherwise preventing the Japanese public from developing a large interest in Korean pop culture and entertainment. “Winter Sonata” is credited for a massive influx of Japanese tourists to South Korea, with some estimates indicating an 884 percent increase after the release of the drama.
While Korean music and entertainment will certainly not resolve political tension between the two countries, BoA has managed to leave long-lasting impacts within the Japanese music and entertainment industry despite these difficulties.
South Korea: Girls’ Generation
Following in the footsteps of BoA, a new K-Pop group emerged in 2007 called Girls’ Generation with a team of nine South Korean female members. While the group became global legends overnight for their charm and catchy songs, their legacy also includes a powerful image of self-empowerment, equality, and human rights activism. Girls’ Generation debuted with the song “Into the New World” that quickly captured the hearts of many young South Korean students and later became an empowerment anthem for women, political protesters, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. The song speaks to the importance of unity in the face of oppression and adversity, which has struck a chord in marginalized populations across Asia.
“Into the New World” has played during pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and Thailand, as well as candlelight vigils calling for the impeachment of former South Korean President Park Geun-hye, student protests against university corruption and nepotism, the #MeToo women’s rights movement, and Pride Month parades. Tiffany Young, one of the members of Girls’ Generation, has acknowledged the impact that “Into the New World” has had on the LGBTQ+ community, especially in South Korea, and continues to publicly support marginalized peoples through interviews and appearances in pro-women and pro-LGBTQ+ content.
The United States: BTS
Among all South Korean idol groups that have debuted in the United States, BTS has undoubtedly had the greatest success in breaking into mainstream America. The Hyundai Research Institute estimated that BTS alone has raised more than $3.6 billion every year for the South Korean economy – equivalent to the contribution of 26 mid-sized companies. In 2017, nearly 7 percent of all recorded visitors to South Korea expressed that BTS was a primary motivation to visit the country. According to the Billboard Hot 100, BTS is the first group to have six No. 1 songs on the Hot 100 in just over one year since The Beatles. Prior to their temporary pause from group projects, BTS has accounted for nearly one-third of all K-Pop-related sales and streaming in the United States, resulting in 3.6 million album equivalent units, 2.56 billion audio streams, 1.3 million album sales, and 3.1 million digital track sales.
Since their debut in 2013, BTS has made guest appearances on some of America’s most famous entertainment programs, including but not limited to: The American Music Awards, Billboard Music Awards, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Jimmy Kimmel Live, Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rocking Eve, America’s Got Talent, Saturday Night Live, and the 61st Grammy Awards. These opportunities helped launch BTS into the public eye of American households, which likely contributed to their ability to stay afloat within the American music and entertainment industry.
Beyond their enormous economic impact, BTS has also played an important role in projecting a positive image of South Korea abroad while interacting with major world leaders. In 2018, BTS joined United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres and other world leaders to launch a partnership aimed at empowering the youth and promoting non-violence abroad. In 2022, the White House invited BTS to speak with U.S. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris about anti-Asian hate crimes, Asian inclusion, and diversity. Back in South Korea, the global recognition of BTS as a juggernaut for South Korean soft power has resulted in legal debates over whether the members of BTS should be exempt from their mandatory military service, an honor that is only bestowed on those who have brought great national pride to the country, typically gold medal Olympians.
In the years to come, K-Pop and South Korean entertainment will likely continue to play a major role in expanding the scope of the country’s soft power abroad with more global music performances by leading K-Pop groups and blockbuster productions like “Parasite” and “Squid Game.”