Beyond K-pop

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Beyond K-pop

Fifteen entrants from around the world showcasing their talent and love for Korean popular music. This is the culmination of contests and events held in over 80 locations worldwide, featuring over 13,000 entrants. In this modern day of short attention spans and children playing games all day, what an amazing sight to see young people from around the world coming to Changwon city on their first trip to Korea to show off the results of hours of practice.

From top to bottom, all the contestants showed amazing dance moves and singing voices to match. The Korean Wave (or Hallyu) is showing its long reach, as this year’s contestants came from Mexico, the United States, Sweden, Vietnam, Nigeria, Russia, China, Malaysia, Nepal, Japan, Hungary, Israel, Indonesia, India and Italy. What a diverse range of countries and backgrounds all tied together by one thing: a love of K-pop.

In my previous diplomatic assignment in New Delhi, I attended the local K-pop festival, sponsored by the Korean Cultural Center. We witnessed then first hand a packed arena full of mostly young Indian men and women watching their fellow Indians show off their singing and dancing skills along with a clear love of Korean music. It was fascinating, in a country known for it’s own cultural wave of Bollywood, to see young people compete to sing in Korean and dance like the latest Korean boy bands. However, seeing the results from around the world competing on stage in Changwon city really opened my eyes to the power and reach of Korean pop music.

Their performances transcend culture and race. How many countless hours of practice must have been put in by these dedicated young men and women? If all these young people are willing to put in so much time and effort, one can begin to understand how captivated they must be by the Korean Wave and the power of K-pop. More importantly, what an amazing demonstration of soft power through public diplomacy! All these young people are learning about the Korean language, culture and more through the medium of music. As more young foreigners search the web for K-pop videos and try to sing along, the interest and knowledge about Korea itself, as well as Korean language and culture, keeps growing. This in turn allows the Korean brand to reach the hugely important and influential market of young people around the world as interest in K-pop leads to more knowledge and a positive image.

Since I just recently moved back to Korea after a long absence, I am not yet an expert on the latest wave of Korean artists and their popularity.

So, I brought along an expert to help me interpret the performances and understand the current K-pop scene — my own 16-year-old daughter.

My daughter, being half Korean, has always had some interest in Korean pop culture. But like many others from outside Korea, it was the catchy beat and crazy video of “Gangnam Style” that really helped her make the connection. Now she recites lists of who’s popular, which group has changed members the most, which male star is headed off for military service and which groups are most watched by teens around the world.

Yet even she was amazed by the performances and mastery of Korean lyrics demonstrated by this year’s contestants. She posted pictures, video clips and brief summaries on social media after the show and her phone buzzed for hours as likes and comments came in from around the world.

Pop culture and music tastes change, and I cannot predict how long the influence of the Korean Wave will continue. However, I do know that the reach and popularity continues to soar, and thanks to YouTube and the growing connectivity of the internet, young children in India, the United States, Europe, Latin America and around the globe can all tune in to their favorite Korean stars and songs.

What is harder to measure is what long-term positive effects will come from tomorrow’s influential people and leaders who have a positive view of Korea thanks to the Korean Wave.

This is an effect that millions of won spent on government awareness campaigns could not even begin to approach. While there is a lot more to public diplomacy than K-pop and the Korean Wave, one cannot discount the value of reaching such a diverse international audience. Today’s Korean stars are serving as ambassadors of public diplomacy and helping to spread information and understanding about Brand Korea. I urge the Korean government to take advantage of this phenomenon and harness this interest and good will to help raise interest in all things Korea.


*The author is a secretary in the regional public diplomacy division at MOFA.

Brian Peterson
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