We Need To Talk About K-Pop
by Liam Thomas
The Korean demilitarized zone is a site of monumental historical significance. It is also, incidentally, a place with some of the most destructively loud K-Pop in the world can be heard. This is due to the fact that for the better part of the last decade, South Korea had utilized eleven loudspeaker systems scattered along the border of the demilitarized zone to blast anti-North Korean news and propaganda directly into the territory of their upstairs neighbor. These eleven speaker systems are loud enough to be heard up to six miles into North Korean Territory, causing the North to implement their own propaganda-spouting speakers to counteract the noise. A majority of the South Korean broadcasts cover relatively innocuous topics, such as world news and weather. Yet ironically, it is the most seemingly innocent component of the South Korean broadcasts that carries the most political weight. K-Pop.
WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT K-POP.
In addition to the news and weather updates, the South Korean speaker front regularly blasted K-Pop through the North Korean airwaves. This was largely an attempt to both cultivate distaste for the Kim dynasty and illustrate to their northern neighbors what the Defense Ministry has referred to as “the happy life of South Koreans.” While the use of K-Pop as a propaganda tool may come as a surprise to some, the fact that a world power is using their cultural exports to their own political advantage is not implausible, especially in the case of the South Koreans. While K-Pop itself has a glossy, inoffensive appeal, the sheen is entirely surface level. The genre’s roots are both intrinsically tied to and deeply reflective of South Korea’s tumultuous political history, rife with civilian massacres, military coups, and restrictive labor laws.
South Korea’s founding as a U.S proxy state plays heavily into the evolution and contemporary applications of K-Pop. Founded in the midst of the Cold War, South Korea was built from the ground up as a combative force to stop the spread of communism. The country has a history of brutal U.S backed dictatorships facilitating the massacre of leftist civilians, such as the atrocious Mungyeong Massacre, where the South Korean government murdered eighty-eight unarmed suspected communists and blamed the event on non-existent communist guerrillas. Regardless, the United States continued to provide massive financial support to South Korea throughout the Vietnam War, resulting in a gradual increase in South Korea’s national wealth over time. It wasn’t until 1980 that South Korea had their first legitimate presidential election, but by that point, the foundations of western capitalism and communist suppression had so deeply permeated the country’s relatively young national identity that they began to take the shape they hold today.
South Korea’s history of anti-communist violence has bled into their modern economy in the form of union-busting, overworking employees, and generally neglecting to view workers as human beings. According to Amnesty International, in 2016; “a Nepalese migrant worker in North Chungcheong Province committed suicide in a factory dormitory. He left a note stating that his employer had refused to allow him to either change his workplace or return to Nepal to receive treatment for severe insomnia.” Just last year, leftist activist Lee Jin-Young was detained by the South Korean government for the online distribution of pro-union “labor books” into North Korea. This disregard for the rights of workers doesn’t simply extend to the K-Pop industry; it wholly defines it. Since South Korea was under dictatorial rule (and by virtue of this, heavy media censorship) for a majority of its history, the country had minimal time to develop a national pop music identity. Unlike American pop music, born out of post World War II boredom and leisure time, K-Pop was cultivated in the ’90s alongside the nationwide growth of highly censored Korean television. This placed a greater emphasis on the synergy of visuals and music for Korean artists, contributing to the manicured, overproduced aesthetics of modern K-pop. In turn, this created the incentive for South Korea to shift their prevailing national exports from automotive manufacturing to cultural exports.
That being said, since South Korean pop music culture was conceived much later in history than its American counterparts, the country spent the last few decades furiously playing catch-up. In today’s streaming culture, the price listeners are willing to pay to listen to their favorite music has depreciated since the heyday of the record label industry. These financial concerns, combined with a long history of heavy South Korean media censorship and a prevailingly capitalistic national ethos, led the country’s three talent management agencies to engineer a rigid, unforgiving formula for the production and release of K-Pop. A formula that would both maximize the potential and profit of South Korea’s cultural exports, and exploit the country’s lenient labor laws to contort young Koreans with dreams of superstardom into tools of the state. A formula that disregards the human rights of the country’s citizens for the sake of cultivating an appealing, marketable national image through pop music.
While K-Pop may be intended to reflect “the happy life of South Koreans,” the process of becoming a K-Pop ‘Idol’ is an arduous and unforgiving one, defined by South Korea’s historic neglect for the rights of workers. Aspiring Idols typically audition for a talent agency when they are in their late adolescence. If they’re deemed to have potential, these prospective pop stars become “trainees” of the talent agency; forced to sign “so-called slave contracts, which tied its trainee-stars into long exclusive deals, with little control or financial reward.” These contracts are binding and typically last for decades, forcing Idols to relinquish both creative control of their art and the financial reward that comes as a result. The company itself take the reins in both of these fields, ensuring the end product is in accordance with the Korean government’s history of social and economic conservatism.
Trainees are forced to balance their high school (yes, high school) responsibilities with relentlessly demanding training schedules for dance routines, vocal control, and physical appearance. They are constantly under the appraisal of the talent agency and can be arbitrarily dropped from the roster at any time if the company believes they don’t have what it takes to succeed as an Idol. Trainees are deeply overworked in every aspect of their performance, resulting time and time again in tragic circumstances of total physical and emotional exhaustion. Idols are known to frequently faint on stage, wave to fans and paparazzi half-asleep, and make massive shifts in their limited personal lives to accommodate their training schedule. In a seemingly outrageous yet historically unsurprising instance of this, K-Pop boy band INFINITE reportedly removed all the furniture in their house so they would have space to practice dance routines at night.
While this unrelentingly rigorous training period is enough to dehumanize trainees into manicured tools of the state, the issues don’t stop there. In an interview with WorldofBuzz, ex-trainee Stella Kim detailed the extent of the outright emotional abuse experienced by herself and her fellow aspiring idols: “They would make us stand in line and go on (a) scale. They would call out what your weight is in front of everyone. If your weight had not gone down from the week prior, you would get bashed on.” Idols are put through the absolute wringer, both physically and emotionally, all for the sake of crafting intrinsically homogenous pop that serves the interest of the South Korean government. While the country has shifted their prevailing national exports from the Automotive field to the Cultural, their attitude towards the rights and treatment of workers has remained the same; a rigorous, imbrute disregard for their health and well being.
While it is undeniable that South Korea has been plagued by profoundly flawed labor laws since its founding, there’s something especially manipulative about applying these dehumanizing practices to something with the assumed innocence of pop music. K-Pop Idols come across as sanitized, precise, innocent, and above all else, fun; in exact opposition to the actual process of becoming an idol. The South Korean government does not, nor have they ever, cared about the rights of their workers, and due to the recent national shift in exports towards culture industries, we’ve been given the clearest possible example of this in the form of the K-Pop star-making process. For this reason, the idea of the South blasting their state-approved, factory-line pop music into North Korea as an example of “the happy life of South Koreans” is so profoundly and devastatingly ironic. No matter how you look at it, the production of K-Pop is blatantly dishonest, ethically questionable, and inherently propagandistic. This is just a suggestion, but maybe the South Korean Defense Ministry should drop “happy” from “the happy life of South Koreans” when describing what K-Pop represents to North Koreans. Because while it may be correct that the production of K-Pop is reflective of some aspects of everyday South Korean life, none of them are particularly happy.