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K-Pop as lip-gloss diplomacy

Many North Koreans die escaping their country. Mind you, many North Koreans die not escaping their country too. Without luck, bribery or help from a skilled trafficker, the chances of running across the border and living to tell the tale are very slim. This is especially when you run across one of the most heavily armed borders in the world – the Demilitarised Zone. This is why the story of the 25-year-old North Korean soldier Oh Chong Song, who ran across the DMZ in November, was shot six times, and still survived, is one almost as miraculous as Buster Douglas’ knockout against Mike Tyson.

When soldier Oh woke up, he reportedly said two things: Is this South Korea? Followed by I’d like to listen to some K-pop.

During the spring of the Korean War, Secretary of State Dean Acheson was wholly unprepared to give American aid: he was reportedly unable to place Korea on a map. In the last 60 years, the situation has changed, and nobody doubts current secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s ability to find the location of Korea. But it’s not only war that has put Korea on the map – K-Pop, along with K-drama and K-beauty, has helped to transform Korea into a cool place that people actually know of. The boy band BTS (방탄소년단) recently won the Billboard Music Award for Top Social Artist, beating Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande and Shawn Mendez. K-Beauty products can be found in any commercialised country, and K-dramas are watched worldwide.

The K-pop virus has certainly spread to two countries with otherwise very different tastes: North Koreans and Americans alike love the genre. Ivanka Trump has posted several videos dancing to some of K-pops biggest names, and did not miss the opportunity to visit an EXO concert while in Seoul. And earlier this year, around 160 musicians, among them girl group Red Velvet, visited Pyongyang to perform for Kim Jong Un in the name of world peace. It is a new era of what could be described as nothing less than lip-gloss diplomacy.

Ivanka Trump enjoyed a fan moment in South Korea with K-pop group EXO.

K-Pop has not only improved the ties between South Korea and the US and North Korea; Japan-Korea relationships are slowly thawing partly thanks to groups such as BTS and TWICE. It is badly needed, particularly after Japan and Korea’s mutual cold shoulder in the conflict over comfort women. The South Korean Moon Jae-in administration says the 2015 agreement reached with the previous President Park Geun-hye administration on Korean women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese wartime military government is flawed, and that Korea still wants a sincere apology from Japan. Top Japanese officials have said the agreement is final and irreversible, which has led to tension, riots and protests. For a while, K-pop sold very poorly in Japan.

But slowly, as bands such as TWICE, which has three Japanese members, are appealing to Japanese music fans, and global all-Korean BTS has produced a Japanese version of its latest album, the K-pop industry is once again more willing to make big leaps into the music market in Japan, improving the image of the respective countries among Japanese and Korean people.

The immensely popular group Red Velvet, signing for peace. (Photo: secret_icecream, Wikimedia Commons)

The spread of Korean pop culture also shines a light on the many issues in the industry. K-Pop artists live a life very different to that of American pop starts. The artists are recruited at a young age and spend up to six years in training before their debut, upon which they sign several years long contracts with a label, work twelve hours per day and see very little of the profits. If they are lucky enough to make a big break. If not, their contracts are annulled and the years in training never returned.

Although many K-Pop artists have worked to improve the relationship with Japan, Girl’s Generation (SNSD) got caught in a big scandal as they visited Japan during the Korean Independence Day. (Photo: shinjimindotcom, Wikimedia Commons)

Since K-pop became a worldwide phenomenon, the situation has improved, but it is far from healthy for the artists. Several K-pop stars have recently died of cardiac arrest or committed suicide at young ages. The most recent star was 33-year-old Seo Min-woo, who was the leader of boy band 100% and was found in his home in March after dying from a cardiac arrest. Being a K-pop artist can be just as dangerous as being a North Korean soldier.

In a world where nobody can agree on anything, it is comforting to know that the Trumps, the Shinzos and the Kims all like to shake their booties to Korean beats.  Lip-gloss diplomacy does play a role in international relations, and might help unite a people separated for nearly seventy years. Perhaps that is why BTS fans are nicknamed “ARMY.” Perhaps there was a deeper meaning to Red Velvet’s words to Kim Jong Un:

You can try to get away but there’s no room at all
The answer’s decided, you follow me naturally
I choose you, I already chose you

Julia Bergström

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