How K-Pop Evolved Beyond a Music Fandom into a Global Political Movement

By Rosunnara RothLast Updated Aug 16, 2020 12:15:49 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: K-pop boy band BTS. Photo Credit: RB/Bauer-Griffin/Contributor/GC Images/Getty Images


K-Pop First Challenged Many Norms in South Korea

When you hear the term “Korean pop” (K-pop), BTS or the "Gangnam Style" dance may come to mind, but the phenomenon is more than just smooth dance moves and catchy melodies. Since its inception, K-pop has defied rules by challenging the norms of censorship, fashion and music in South Korea.

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Photo Courtesy: Seo Taiji and Boys started K-pop as we know it today. Photo Credit: @allkpop/Twitter

In 1992, K-pop band Seo Taiji and Boys broke boundaries with "I Know," the first song in history to combine modern American pop music and South Korean culture. It also smashed records by dominating South Korea’s music charts for 17 weeks — but some TV channels banned the song. At the time, singing about teen angst, social pressure and a tough education system was uncommon, but the boy band didn’t care and made music on their own terms, shining a spotlight on controversial topics. 

The socially aware band paved the way for other K-pop artists to break new ground, with hordes of devoted K-pop fans supporting their actions. For instance, pop idols have asked their fans to stop sending them gifts and to donate to charities instead, and the fans have had no problem complying. The K-pop sensation isn’t just a cultural institution now in South Korea; it has also spread to an unlikely territory, North Korea.

K-Pop Gained Ground in North Korea in Clever Ways

Home to more than 25 million people, North Korea is known for controlling its citizens — to the extreme. This isolated communist country doesn’t allow people to speak freely, disagree with the government or even engage with foreign media, like films, TV shows and music. Consuming foreign content is punishable (harshly), but K-pop found its way over the country’s border through illegal markets and via the South Korean military.

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Photo Courtesy: KIM JAE-HWAN/Contributor/AFP/Getty Images

In 2016, North Korea blasted nuclear tests, so South Korea got even by blasting its own weapons — propaganda and K-pop music. Using loudspeakers, South Korea turned up the volume along one of the most protected borders in the world, the demilitarized zone (DMZ), which is a heavily fortified buffer zone between the two countries. Some may argue that this move was hilarious, especially considering the song choices, which included "Bang Bang Bang" by Big Bang, but North Korean officials believe the broadcasts from the outside world represent a "dangerous virus" to North Korea, and it’s easy to see why.

K-pop has attracted North Koreans and encouraged them to escape to South Korea, which is illegal and punishable by imprisonment and even death. According to Ryu Hee-Jin, a defector, South Korean music gave her the "chills." The lyrics were "fresh" and "relatable." Ryu and many other defectors revealed that music opened their eyes to the North Korean government’s deception and led them to the truth, ultimately inspiring them to flee North Korea. Even more interesting, North Korea isn’t the only place that has felt the influential wrath and power of K-pop.

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K-Pop Stans Sabotaged a Racist Hashtag and a Trump Rally

Mega K-pop fans, also known as K-pop stans, are recognized for supporting their pop idols with enormous force. Just like some of their idols, K-pop stans are socially conscious. So, when George Floyd’s murder sparked protests across the U.S., these dedicated fans supported the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement with overwhelming force. Some K-pop stars, like BTS and MOMOLAND, have advocated for BLM, and fans took it upon themselves to take action.

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Photo Courtesy: Drew Angerer/Staff/Getty Images

For instance, when the Dallas police department asked the public to use an app to send in videos of illegal activities taking place during the protests, K-pop fans protected BLM protesters by flooding the system with K-pop content and bombing the app with low ratings. Another example occurred when K-pop fans took over #whitelivesmatter, a hashtag created by white supremacists to promote racist propaganda. These famous online vigilantes also helped tank a Donald Trump rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, by RSVPing for the event and not showing up. As a result, the 19,000-person venue booked for the rally appeared empty, with only 6,200 supporters in attendance. 

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Obviously, being socially conscious and helping society isn’t new in the world of K-pop. K-pop fans are forces to be reckoned with, and the powerful movement extends far beyond the music into the territory of true activism. Although we can’t be sure what the future may hold, it’s almost certain that K-pop groups and stans will be there, working to combat injustice using unique tactics and inspiring others to do the same.