Suk-Young Kim on K-pop’s Global Rise

Suk-Young Kim is Professor of Theater and Performance Studies at UCLA where she also directs the Center for Performance Studies. She is the author of Illusive Utopia: Theater, Film, and Everyday Performance in North Korea (Michigan, 2010), DMZ Crossing: Performing Emotional Citizenship Along the Korean Border (Columbia, 2014), and most recently, K-pop Live: Fans, Idols, and Multimedia Performance (Stanford, 2018). Her scholarship has been recognized by the James Palais Book Prize from the Association for Asian Studies, the Association for Theater in Higher Education Outstanding Book Award, and ACLS/SSRC/NEH International and Area Studies Fellowship. Currently, she is working on a book titled “Millennial North Korea: Cell Phones, Forbidden Media, and Living Creatively Under Surveillance” and is editing Cambridge Companion to K-Pop.
Salonee Goel CMC '20 interviewed Suk-Young Kim on Feb 14, 2020.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Kim on behalf of University of California, Los Angeles.

How significant is K-pop’s contribution to the Korean entertainment industry?

It is pretty significant. Korean entertainment really started elsewhere, with the film industry and television dramas, which became popular 20 or 30 years ago, but the centre of gravity has really shifted to the K-pop industry in recent years. With so many tourists and students coming to study Korean language or to have cultural experiences, it really is the industry’s
leader at this point.

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. Has K-pop produced significant economic spillover effects benefiting other Korean industries, such as tourism?

Benefits go way beyond tourism. It is really about boosting the Korean lifestyle. K-pop is a way of getting into Korean pop culture, but the whole industry is promoting Korean lifestyle which includes food, fashion, medical tourism and beauty industry. The benefits trickle down beyond entertainment. In terms of long-term engagement with Korea, an increasing number of people are learning the Korean language because of K-pop.

Is there any evidence that K-pop has added to Korea’s “soft power” or improved Korea’s cultural influence abroad?

Of course. In 2011, then president Lee Myung-bak, established a presidential council on enhancing South Korea’s soft power. Put the detrimental legacies of Lee’s presidency aside, it is unusual to have a national leader spearheading efforts like this. Although in 2010, the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry established a new Creative Industries Promotion Office, we haven’t heard of the Japanese Prime Minister directly being involved in effort to launch a council like that. If you look, also, at the promotional images of the South Korean tourism bureau, the main image that they promote the bureau’s campaign has changed significantly over the years. Some twenty years ago, the images of traditional landscapes, traditional dress and cuisine dominated their posters. Now, most of what you see is popular K-pop idols from EXO to whoever is popular at the moment.

While K-pop has a huge following in East and South-East Asia, K-pop group BTS has recently played a pioneering role in bringing it to a Western market, particularly the United States. How will this shift in focus, with some groups being created with a specific focus on the U.S. market, change the culture of K-pop?

The big change is that BTS came to be known as a group that started out as underdogs who circumvented the whole entertainment promotion system on TV shows in Korea. That kind of success model is starting to impact other K-pop acts. If you look at K-pop acts touring overseas, you see a different pattern. In the past, they wanted to do big venues and go on major TV shows to promote themselves as soon as possible. With the success of BTS, you see more acts intentionally targeting small venues and trying to build an image of themselves as a group that is starting from the grassroots level and being conscious of these very dedicated and hardcore fans rather than trying to have a big impact from the get go. This is a new shift that has emerged from the popularity of BTS. However, the shift that hasn’t happened quickly enough is for more self-conscious efforts from the K-pop industry to form a more ethical production model. They are now bothered by creating this positive image inspired by BTS even when the actual production process is far from being ethical. What I hope will happen as a change is not only in the images being promoted but the actual industry taking a more responsible stance on how they relate to minor trainees and idols who are so abused emotionally, physically and at so many levels. My personal wish is that the production model itself will change.

Following the suicides of numerous top Korean idols, there has been a growing conversation about the pressure that idols face and the taboo surrounding reaching out for help. Do you believe that changes should be made to the way the industry is run? What kinds of changes would you recommend?

Definitely. Firstly, the work hours. When idols are promoting their new songs or new albums, they sleep three to four hours a night and a lot of them are underage, so they should be having minimum eight hours of sleep. They also endure a lot of emotional abuse. After Sulli’s suicide, South Korean media prohibited a chat function in entertainment news that allows responses from fans, which can be abusive and have negatively impacted idols in the past. There is a lot of financial abuse as well. We always focus on extremely successful acts such as BTS or Blackpink who are doing financially well but the vast majority of K-pop acts actually get into debt. Before they debut, a lot of entertainment companies of small scale or dubious reputation actually charge their trainees for their hair, makeup, music video production fees, coaching fees. A large number of these trainees actually never make it, and they end up with financial debt. That is hugely irresponsible. These are some examples of what I mean by having a more ethical production model.

One such idol was Sulli of the girl group f(x) who was often criticized prior to her death for her feminist views and “unladylike” behaviour. Additionally, there have been accusations of the sexual exploitation of women in Korean entertainment companies or agencies and the recent Burning Sun scandal, where male K-pop idols were implicated in a sex trafficking ring. Does K-pop have a serious problem with gender discrimination and exploitation of women?

For sure. Female idols seem to be placed under heavier scrutiny. Starting with body image, the general public is extremely harsh to what they perceive as any deviance from the ideal body, which is really skin and bones. There also has to be a higher level of performance or a public persona that is willing to please the audience. There is that expectation for male idols as well but I think female idols’ compliance with public expectations tends to be high. Female idols have less leeway with fans. If you look at Korean K-pop fandom, you normally have this really dedicated core of fans for boy bands whereas for a girl group to succeed, you have to appeal to a wide range of audiences. In other words, you have to have popular success; you can’t just target your hard-core fandom. This is why the bar for success for female acts tends to be higher in that regard.

The Burning Sun scandal also highlighted that well-regarded male Kpop idols were allowed to fly under the radar in regard to their questionable behavior. Is it true that Kpop’s large influence on Korean society and its huge presence in Korea’s entertainment industry accord idols special treatment?

I’m not sure whether gender plays a huge role here. Of course, they have some immunity as celebrities with financial means. But when scandals of that magnitude appear, I don’t think there’s any special immunity reserved exclusively for male idols. In a way, male idols suffer in different ways than female idols. For example, if there is a dating scandal, it is usually the male idols who get hit hard with their fandom leaving the fan clubs in massive numbers.

As BTS contributes so heavily to Korea’s GDP, there has been speculation over whether they would be granted a special exemption from the military. Do you see this as a possibility?

That is wishful thinking. If it happens, a lot of people will understand and sympathize with it because the amount of contribution they have brought to the Korean economy and its cultural standing is much, much higher than most Gold Olympic medallists. I can only imagine a few medallists who exceed that kind of expectation, so a lot of people would empathize with them getting exemptions from military service. However, military service in Korea is a very thorny issue. It’s a sensitive issue that national leaders in Korea don’t want to touch by meddling with its rules. We have had so many scandals involving political leaders whose sons have somehow gotten off the hook to the degree that it totally derailed their hopes for powerful office—including presidency—that they may have had. We had people like Yoo Seung-jun, a really high-flying entertainer in the early 2000s, who was a Green Card holder in the U.S. and had Korean citizenship. He claimed he was going to serve in the Korean army but acquired American citizenship and didn’t serve. He is still barred from entering Korea. People don’t forgive when they think these celebrities are trying to get off the hook. There is a substantial segment of Korean society that will react really antagonistically to BTS being potentially exempt from military service; so if BTS is smart, they will just go and serve like the rest.

Do you think other countries are going to take this cue from Korea in investing so much
into its entertainment industry as a form of building soft power?

Absolutely. There are quite a few examples of that. Even before BTS’s huge success, J-pop had an influence on K-pop as a lot of K-pop training systems and idol systems were modelled on the J-pop industry. K-pop’s global impact is now so much bigger than J-pop because Japan’s domestic music market is robust enough that J-pop idols can survive mostly by appealing to their domestic audience, so they don’t have strong needs like K-pop idols to really go out into the world, speak to foreign fans and win their market share. Even before BTS’s big rise, in 2013, Japan already established a joint-venture with CJ E&M, which is oneof the major entertainment companies in Korea. The joint-venture was to advise Japanese idols on how to conceive a career overseas. In many ways, the K-pop model is actually providing this consultancy to entertainment industries. Z-Pop Dream is this new idol production system that is also carried out in partnership with multiple Asian countries, from India to Japan. The pan-Asian partnership has created pan-Asian pop groups that are based on the K-pop model. It has already inspired music industries to emulate and exceed K-pop’s success.

How sustainable is K-pop’s global popularity?

A lot of people, especially Korean people, approach K-pop from a mode of nationalistic pride as it is gaining a lot of attention. It seems to be the only industry to create music that primarily targets teens to young adults while having a global presence, and I think, in that sense, you don’t find any parallel industry that does teen music production so consistently like K-pop. Because of this, a lot of people speculate how long this will last. My take on this is that it’s going to be here much longer than any of us would expect. I speculate so because who else is making music like K-pop? They produce so much and new things are coming out constantly. In that sense, I believe that it is unique as an industry.

Salonee Goel CMC'20Student Journalist

Dispatch / CC BY (

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