K-Pop and ‘‘Koreanization’’ — Through the case studies of BTS and China-(South) Korea Relation

Bang Tan Boys, a 7-member boy group under Big Hit Entertainment. They debuted on June 13th 2013. Blood Sweat & Tears, the aesthetic style is different from their earlier ‘teen-boy’ style, and this transformation turns out to be a huge success.

‘Hallyu could be a stepping stone for peace.’(Herald, 2013) This is the title of a journal that was posted on The Korean Herald. In general, it proposed the idea which professor Park Gil-sung had came up with, that it has become more and more important for scholars to delve into the study of hallyu. Since the word hallyu has gained so much information to itself, which includes Korean food, fashion, products, culture, and a lot more. Moreover, through the process of the internationalization of hallyu, it gives a chance for the world to encounter a new South Korea. Thus, it could become a way for Korea to communicate the peace around the world. Nevertheless, the recent China-Korea relation caught my attention since it seems that hallyu has done the opposite from what Park had proposed. Recently, United State and South Korea are issuing the installation of the Missile System in South Korea, and China reacts extremely upset about this event. Thus, as an opposed response, China cut all access to K-Pop and K-drama within China and shuts down huge numbers of Korean shops in China. Obviously, K-Pop is seen as an important bridge according to China-Korea relation. So, as a case study, I will examine how K-Pop functions as a cultural and economical bridge in Korea-China relation, and how it becomes the first target when two nations have problems.

K-Pop has become a global phenomenon started since the year of Gangnam Style. Then following the lead of Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style 강남스타일’ in 2012, BTS’s new song ‘Blood Swear & Tears 피 땀 눈물’ hits the South America once again in Fall 2016. Right after its release, it became the most viewed K-Pop video in 24 hours of 6.34 million of viewing. Moreover, it is the fastest video to hit 10 million views (in only 41 hours), and the fastest boy group video to hit 20 million views (in about 136 hours). Not only this number broke the record, but as well as the album which includes this song, Wings. This album became the first Korean album which breaks into the Billboard. Soon after Wings, they released another album, You Never Walk Alone, on February 13th, 2017. According to Billboard, BTS rose to №15 on the Hot 100 Chart and №61 under Billboard 200 Chart. Meanwhile, their leading song for this album, ‘Spring Day’(봄날), became their third time to be the first on the World Digital Songs Chart. For both of BTS’s two most recent albums, they are both successful nationally and internationally, culturally and economically.

What have been given above is their success and great influence in South America, their fame is even more popular in Asia. Then it is significant and fun to know how does Korean bands (both girls and boys) manages such great influences without too much effort of ‘intentional’ publicity? (Korean bands are aware of their international influences and has some kind of intention to expose themselves to some Asian countries, but in general, they do not need to worry about the language and the cultural content embed in the lyrics and etc.)

First of all, the success of BTS owes to Korean music industry system. Although it is not exactly the same, but I would compare K-Pop industry structure similar to the American Hollywood studio system. What they have, is the All-in-one entertainment companies. Just like Hollywood’s film system during its early years, which they have the integrated system. It refers to the combination/absolute control over the industry through integration of the production, distribution, and exhibition companies. Just like the Big Five for Hollywood at the time, the Big Three for Korean music industry are JYP entertainment, SM entertainment, and YG entertainment. Then, the entertainment company that BTS belongs to, the Big Hit entertainment is not large enough to compete with the Big Three, at least financially. However, their success in promoting the BTS is capable of underlying Korean music industry system’s contribution to the success of K-Pop.

I would suggest that how Korean companies promote their bands is a way of fusion. This idea of ‘fusion’ is noted in R. Anderson Sutton’s journal, “Fusion” and Questions of Korean Cultural Identity in Music. In this article, Sutton explores the formation of Korean music through several historical perspectives, which indicates that Korean (traditional) music is composed of elements from all over the world. For instance, the influence of Chinese culture, Japanese music form, and other non-eastern music genres(pop, disco, EDM, and etc.) However, here, I would like to take a step further to say that the Korean music(specifically pointing at K-Pop) industry almost masters on the method of ‘fusion’ to produce countless and endless of successes like BTS and Psy.

One can not talk about Korean ‘idols’(this is how Korean call their K-Pop band members) without Korean trainee system. ‘Rather than find ready-made talent, K-Pop companies manufacture it.’ As it notes in Harvard Business Review of analyzing K-Pop’s global success, it is actually pointing at the trainee system. “There were many times during training that I’ve wanted to give up,” says Rap Monster, the rapper and the leader of BTS, “Idols who’ve debuted with great difficulty may empathize; it was very difficult.” In Korea, numerous young kids started their trainee career as young as ten years old, and it can take years for them to be ready to debut. “My friends and family asked when in the world I’m going to debut….Whenever they did, I grew scared. I really wondered if BTS was really training to never exist,” says J-Hope, the main dancer and rapper of BTS.

One of the promoting poster of their song Dope which is created by their fans(Their fans are called A.R.M.Y. Since Bang Tan Boys literally means ‘Bullet Proof Boys’)

Beside the trainee system, another factor which leads to BTS’s success is their almost flawless cooperation with the Korean Broadcasting Companies. While BTS were in media res of the publicity of Blood, Sweat & Tears, they participated in several programs with different broadcasting companies. V(vocalist of BTS) was in the television show Hwarang: The Poet Warrior Youth which was broadcasted by KBS(a Korean Broadcasting company); BTS went to the Star Show 360(this show is aimed at providing more fun facts of the idols’ to their (potential) fans) under MBC; BTS maintains their dynamic on the app ‘v live’(a live broadcasting app between idols and fans); as a complement to the Wings and a treat for BTS’s fans, after the release of the MV of Blood, Sweat & Tears, Big Hit Entertainment released 7 MVs of each individual member’s, in which every member takes part in the making of their own song, and etc.

This song, 21st Century Girls, is included in both Wings and You Never Walk Alone. This video is their live performance on the show, M COUNTDOWN. As the title of the song suggests(as well as the lyrics), its target is really clear which points to the young fan girls.

To sum up, what has been mentioned above, Korean entertainment companies do a fantastic job to have fans to get to know their idols better through all types of forms (reality TV show, music TV program, live performances and so on) without actually meet them. Despite the fact that majority of the shows are only available on Korean TV, yet, the accessibility through the internet brings the Korean Wave all over the world.

‘It is intended to provide pleasant listening experiences, to earn money for its performers, but also to introduce Koreans to their musical heritage, to promote Korea and Korea’s culture overseas, and more.’ — Sutton (p16)

In Sutton’s article, it argues the function of the Korean fusion music, which it helps with Korean nationalism, globalism, modernity, and commercialism. Now, it is crucial to be clear about what is Korean fusion music that Sutton points at. In the article, he points out Korean culture’s ability to ‘koreanization’ of any non-Korean elements. Furthermore, this article that almost no Korean song is 100% Korean. This means that it has to involve some kind of foreign elements in it. For instance, even the Korean traditional style of singing, Trot(teuroteu) owed the credits to its precursor, the Japanese Enka. Indeed, Korean companies have a trend of involving more and more foreign elements into the industry. The reality girl group survival show, Produce 101 which started on January 22nd, 2016, it includes several girls who were not born in Korea but have been in Korea several years as trainees.(A side note, Produce 101 season 2 is launching soon in 2017. It is going to be a reality boy group survival show).

I would suggest the ‘koreanization’ actually indicates Korean culture’s uniqueness and its purity. Thus everything in Korea is Korean, the only matter is how Korean it is. On page 5 of Sutton’s article, it also points out the ‘purity and authenticity’ of Korean culture and Korean music. Nevertheless, Sutton calls the process of ‘koreanization’ as Korean culture preventing the ‘pollution’ from other foreign cultures. I do think the choice of ‘pollution’ here is an appropriate word, in terms of the potential negative influences the K-Pop contains.

‘Official discourse on the arts and government-supported culture policy in Korea has strongly favoured the forms with the least evident influence from other countries and cultures, but the vast majority of Korean people.’ This quote of Han Myong-hee, professor of Korean music at Seoul City University is included in Sutton’s reading. It does not only enhances the ‘koreanization’ but also reveals the government intervention into the industry. Just how much K-Pop has benefited from government’s protection, it also has to face the downside which comes along with it. As a case study, I will examine how K-Pop functions as a cultural and economical bridge in Korea-China relation, and how it becomes the first target when two nations have problems.

Left, President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping. Right, former President of South Korea(Presidential term: February 25, 2013 — March 9, 2017), Park Geun-hye.

I will start the discussion of this case study from the article, The Korean Wave and Its Implications for the Korea-China Relationship, by Soo Hyun Jang. China-Korea relation has been complicated. Since 1992, the establishment of the diplomatic relation between two countries has been accelerating ‘the mutual exchange and cooperation in all area encompassing the economics, politics, society and culture.’ Among all kind of exchange between Korea and China, the trend/wave of Korean culture that is largely exported to China is called by Chinese, Hallyu. The origin of Hallyu, as it notes in Soo’s article, started since 1993 which is right after the establishment of the diplomatic relation. The very beginning of Hallyu refers to the Korean dramas, ‘drama Hallyu’. Almost simultaneously, K-Pop set foot in China along with the ‘drama Hallyu’ in the form of OST.

According to Soo, it is crucial to understand why Hallyu is an important element in terms of China-Korea relation. In his article, he suggests three points. The first, Soo says Hallyu is a gate/window of how Chinese people get to know about Korean culture, information or even just the Korean image/illusion. Secondly, it helps with ‘the cooperation and the competition between the K-C industries.’ Finally, last but not least, it becomes an ‘A fertile soil for cultural politics’.

Indeed, just by having foreign fans to listen to K-Pop, Korea is already exposing its language and hangul(Korean letter). The reason why China forbids the K-Pop and the Korean shopping mall is because of ‘the consumption in the scope of world system is always the consumption of the identity.’ (Friedman, 7) Lotte Duty Free Company made an advertisement with all most famous celebrities in 2015.(idols, actors, rappers and etc.) Last year, they even made a series of short films also with all famous celebrities to advertise the company. It is clear that the company is aiming to foreigners/tourists since this is a duty free shopping mall. Imagining if you were a fan of a certain group, and then you see this group in the advertisement of Lotte, it is quite possible that you will at least pay attention to the shopping mall and buy something from there.

Another point that Soo has pointed out is the fact that K-Pop has perfected the image of idols and Korean culture. It is not hard to prove his point from any of the above videos of BTS and the advertisement of Lotte. As it reports in China Youth Daily Newspaper, ‘‘Korean Culture is similar to Chinese culture in many ways, both being part of Eastern Culture. Thus it is easier for Chinese to embrace it, compared to western culture.’ The familiarization actually becomes problematic when K-Pop is actually providing a false image to China. These potential problems did not explode until the Missile Shield System Event.

The boycott in China, it says ‘South Korean Lotte Company declares war in China by supporting the Missile Shield System, immediately out of China.’

The Missile Shield System is agreed by U.S for ‘South Korea to protect the close US ally from North Korean attacks.’ China is indeed, politically unhappy about this, that China responds this unhappiness not with any military threatens, but the economic threatens. China carries out the ‘Korea’s ban.’ China immediately prohibits all Korean performers in China and takes down all access to Korean entertainments.(Including K-drama, K-Pop and etc.) “No Korean entertainer has obtained Beijing’s permission to perform in the neighbouring country since October.” Notes in Korean Times, as a respond to China’s ban, Korea forbids all extension of visa for all Chinese who are currently in Korea. It is clear that the tension between two countries is extremely high.

Overall, this article is trying to point out the importance and the power of a nation’s music practice. In terms of China-Korea relation, the ‘Cold War’ is benefitting neither of the countries. As for Korea, it really suffers from the decrease of Chinese consumers. On the other hand, China has to deal with the dissatisfaction of its own people, especially the young teenagers, about the lust towards the access to Korean Culture.


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