Season 1
From the Travel Journal: Can K-pop Save the World?

Is K-pop the only thing standing between the world and World War III?

This week Passport headed to Seoul to explore the real life Upstairs, Downstairs of a city and culture that gave the world the shiny, beautiful, uplifting, and joyful gift that is K-pop and also the deeply disturbing basement dwellers of Parasite. Rather than a tale of two cities, it’s a tale of one city with two personalities — both of them completely captivating and true. And in these two personalities, we found one thing that linked them: the fear of nuclear annihilation. So we went deep — well, semi-basement from Parasite deep — to explore how a culture living on the brink of WW3 for decades came to create a music genre so upbeat and how K-pop might just be the key to saving us all.

INTRODUCTION – THE WALL IN THE NORTH

Up until the Rona became the actual viral moment of 2020 and temporarily relegated all other earthly concerns to the “Oh, yeah… that did seem like a big deal at the time” pile — there were a lot of people pretty concerned about North Korea, its nukes, and its possibly supernaturally talented leader, Kim Jong Un. And, Rona notwithstanding, we should be.

As late as April 20 of this year, North Korea was spotted conducting a barrage of missile tests off the coast of the Korean Peninsula. The tests came on the heels of stalled nuclear talks with South Korea AND a report of a Coronavirus outbreak in North Korea and subsequent fears of widespread starvation. What might that kind of chaos lead a supernaturally talented guy like Kim Jong Un to do? If he’d hack Sony over a Seth Rogan movie, what might he do over a pandemic and famine?

When you look at a map of nuclear hotspots in the world (the places most likely to produce WW3: The One Where All the Humans Die), the border between North and South Korea has made that list every year since 2006, when North Korea successfully conducted its first nuclear tests. Ever since then, North and South Korea have been locked in a state of suspended animosity.  And the place where North and South Korea actually meet — known as the DMZ — is the hottest of those hot spots.

The Korean DMZ, or “Demilitarized Zone” is 1.2 miles deep and runs for 150 miles along the 38th parallel. It’s the line where, over 60 years ago, the armies of each side called a cease fire to their bloody civil war — a war that eventually involved the US (who call it the Korean War aka The Forgotten War). And that war has never technically ended. Both armies just sit there at attention, waiting for something to happen. You know that scene in Game of Thrones when Jon Snow and his army of wildlings and Dothraki (I see you, Andy McClay from our first episode of Passport in Belfast) silently stare at the Night King and his Army of the Dead, each side poised like a coiled spring ready to charge the other at any moment? 

It’s that — except with guns and nuclear weapons.

And along this super fraught border, South Korea has built 11 giant broadcasting stations — places where sets of enormous, elevated speakers point at North Korea — and at the North Korean soldiers guarding the DMZ. Ready to do what? Spout anticommunist propaganda? Broadcast orders or warnings?  All of the above.

But that’s not all they broadcast. On any given day, these giant speakers can be heard broadcasting this.

It’s dangerous… dangerously catchy.

At all hours, on any given day, you may hear these loud speakers blasting K-pop songs towards North Korea. Depending on your musical taste, you might imagine that this music is meant to annoy or entice the North Korean soldiers of the DMZ. And it actually has. Back in 2017, a North Korean soldier made a run for it in a daring escape over the border, was shot 4+ times, and survived after he was pulled to safety by South Korean soldiers and treated by American medics. When he finally woke up after surgery — the first thing he wanted to see? K-pop music videos. (Also Transformers 3, which… I don’t know what to do with that information.) But back to the lead, K-POP VIDEOS.

And while it seems like such a crazy juxtaposition that something called “Crayon Pop” has a hand to play in one of the hottest of military hot spots in our world — the thing is, it actually makes perfect sense.

This is the story of K-pop.

PART I — THE REPUBLIC OF K-POP (OR THE POP SONGS OF WAR)

K-pop — that infectiously catchy, upbeat brand of pop music from Korea — is having a moment. Well, more than moment — a movement really. In the last decade, K-pop has made massive inroads globally and has never been bigger, or more profitable, than now. BTS, the biggest K-pop band of all time, claims 90 million (at least) fans — and those fans are part of a community that literally calls themselves ARMY. So yeah, it’s intense.

And ARMY is fitting, because in many ways, Korean Pop music has its roots in The Korean War. The war was terrible, of course. It devastated the country and killed 5 million people, more than half of whom were civilians. But the war left more than destruction behind. As American soldiers were shipped there by the thousands, all those American GI’s needed more than guns and combat boots. They needed entertainment. And the USO couldn’t always get Marilyn Monroe or Bob Hope to headline. So, they started sourcing more local talent — and that’s when some supremely talented Korean performers stepped in.

Perhaps the most popular act of all time during this period was a group known as The Kim Sisters. If Elvis was making hips shake in the States, these ladies were basically the Korean version of The Supremes. The group was made up of two sisters and a cousin from a well-known musical family in Korea. During the conflict, their father had been imprisoned and killed by the North Koreans. Their mother needed to feed seven children, so she taught the girls to perform and play instruments and sent them off to the military stages. At first, The Kim Sisters sang to eat. But along the way, they grew in popularity. Until one day, when Ed Sullivan saw them. The rest is history.

Seriously — do yourself a favor and click the link above and be transported. The Kim Sisters were everything. They sang, they harmonized, they danced, they played instruments. They were a three-woman variety show.

Ed brought them on as guests on his popular TV show in the US and they became some of the first and most important “ambassadors” to a nation that knew little about Korea — a place where so many of their sons had been sent to fight. Ed had them on again and again and each week, American audiences watched them as they crooned as good as any Motown group. A Life Magazine article even followed the girls as they visited a farm in Illinois to experience a slice of Americana.

The Kim Sisters were more than just the first cultural ambassadors for South Korea — they signified the welcoming of American pop and rock influence into Korean music. The war eventually ended (or stalemated, as it were). But the music stayed. Soon, it wasn’t just The Kim Sisters. Other popular Korean rock and soul groups were on the rise, blending traditional Korean sounds and lyrics with Western style music. And people loved it. The government, not so much.

In 1963, South Korean General Park Chung-hee took over as dictator. He was determined to rebuild South Korea’s economy and infrastructure from the destruction of the war. At that time, South Korea was one of the poorest nations on Earth. And he took his job seriously. But Park Chung-hee saw himself as more than just a dictator.  He was also a musician.

Now, unless you’re the 76 Trombones type, his music wasn’t everyone’s cuppa. But Park Chung-hee believed that one of the keys to rebuilding South Korea was to rebuild its national pride — and its traditional values. And that meant music. And so he outlawed Western music, long hair — the whole nine. And he used his music as the model for what “good Koreans” should listen to. If there is a Dark Ages in Korean pop, this was it.

Under Park’s dictatorship, pop music was forced underground and disappeared almost entirely for the rest of the 60s and 70s. Then things got even darker. In October of 1979, Park was assassinated — by his own best friend, no less, who was the head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency – the KCIA.

Though Park was gone, his old policies of cultural censorship stayed — even after the rules were loosened. In the 80s there were only 2 TV stations in the entire country. Every weekend the stations broadcast popular music competitions. And because there were only two of them, they had a complete monopoly on what kind of music was heard. They had the power to dictate what music in Korea sounded like. Decades of cultural reprogramming had stagnated artistic expression and creativity.

But South Korea wouldn’t be held down much longer. A change was on the horizon. A fire was about to be lit in Seoul that, quite literally, would change everything.

PART II — THE RISE OF THE K-POP MACHINES

In the Summer of 1988, television all across the world tuned in to watch Seoul, the home of that summer’s Olympics. For many, it was their first glimpse of this country since its past as an impoverished, war-torn nation.  And in the lead up to the Games, South Korea had begun a sweeping round of democratic reforms. They wanted to launch themselves onto the international stage and finally shake off their old image in a real way. As South Korea physically welcomed the world to their nation for the Games, they also creatively welcomed the world back in. First, travel restrictions were relaxed for South Koreans. Tens of thousands of Koreans were now able to bounce around the world freely. And the world they encountered in the late 80s was the height of generation MTV. Hip hop was catching on, dance music, top shelf music videos — it was the golden age of pop music. And as globe trotting Koreans picked up the music, the clothes, and the tastes — like a gorgeous musical panspermia — they brought Western rock back to South Korea.

And it wasn’t just the images or the instruments they brought back with them. It was the ideology and the mentality. For hundreds of years, traditional Korean values had emphasized things like obedience, modesty, extreme respect for elders and authority. Now, they were listening to songs about people fighting for their right to party, virgins touched for the very first time, and careless whispers.

The seeds were planted and began to germinate.

Now, there aren’t many musical genres that have an EXACT, and I mean, EXACT start date. But K-pop does. April 11th, 1992.

That’s the day Seo Taiji & Boys performed on MBC’s immensely popular weekend show. Remember those weekend musical competitions? Those continued throughout the 80s and 90s. But, as the TV stations were still tightly controlled by an older Korean generation — they still tended to be fairly chaste, predictable affairs. All that changed the moment Seo Taiji & Boys stepped onto the stage.

They were dressed in head to toe hip-hop attire. The beat started and they began rapping in Korean. The judges were agape, almost to the point of anger. When their performance ended, the judges awarded them the lowest score possible. The audience at home, though? It was Susan Boyle x 1 million.


In 8 minutes and 22 seconds, Seo Taiji & Boys had changed Korean music forever. This was the dawn of K-pop.

Seo Taiji & Boys started a revolution in Korean Pop music. They sang about disenchantment with school and rules and parents. They wore wild clothes. They wrote their own lyrics and played their own instruments. They featured dancing as a key component of their performances because the TV showcase was still the main venue for music in South Korea, so visuals were key.

And the country’s youth went bonkers for it.

As Seo Taiji & Boys rose to meteoric heights, Lee So-Man watched, riveted by what he saw. He had been one of those disenfranchised youths during the cultural censorship era in the 70s and 80s. A classically trained folk musician in his own right, he became a popular DJ in the country. In 1979, he had traveled to the US and was rocked, quite literally, by the music he heard. He came back to Korea with a vision of what Korean music could be — the beat, the fashion, all of it. But it was still the dark ages, so he waited. Eventually, he became a music producer. And then he watched as Seo Taiji & Boys blew the lid off everything. Lee So-Man knew the time had finally arrived.

He changed creative gears and put all his money into Hyun Jinyoung, a tall, good looking (but oh so vanilla) aspiring pop star. But this wasn’t going to be a get rich quick story. It’s actually a story of failure. Failure and marijuana possession charges to be exact.

Lee So-Man used all the money he’d scraped together to found the fledgling SM Entertainment and prop up Hyun Jinyoung as its vehicle. He took Hyun Jinyoung and transformed him into a hip hop version of his former self and began promoting him as the next big thing. And it worked at first. Korean youth were hungry for more of what Seo Taiji & Boys had served up. 

But then, disaster struck. Hyun was busted for pot. This news shocked, like, to the core, his fans. For all the evolution that K-pop and Korea as a whole were going through — Korea was still an extremely conservative society. Drugs were just… no.

And as Hyun Jinyoung went down in flames (and then went to jail), Lee So-Man learned an important lesson: protect your investments. Determined to never be burned again, he put a strict training regimen and rules into place for all of his future musicians. He also opened up a training academy as part of the process of getting a deal with SM. And it is this academy system — which is so effective (sometimes brutally effective) — that still exists today.

Soon, there were 3 giant K-pop conglomerates that arose: SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment, and JYP Entertainment. They are the godfathers of K-pop. And we’re talking real-deal “godfathers” in the mafia sense — because these guys control EVERYTHING. They rule with an iron fist and there are consequences for those who don’t play by the rules. Artists are trained, hours and hours a day, from the age of 10 or younger, how to be a bonafide K-pop idol. And while it may be brutal, it’s no surprise. Academy culture plays into the very heart of what Koreans value.

That’s because South Korea is a country obsessed — OBSESSED — with education. In fact, in South Korea, education is so highly venerated that some of the top teachers there are literally multi-millionaires. (Something I think we can all appreciate a lot more now that we’re all homeschool parents/full time employees/sanitation crews.) And this obsession with education grew out of the rubble of war too.

With a low GDP and no infrastructure post-war, South Koreans embraced education as THE way to lift themselves, their children, and their nation out of poverty. And to this day in Korea, they don’t see genius as some innate, special quality and don’t subscribe to the whole “Greek muse” model of greatness that so many Westerners do. For them, genius is earned through blood, sweat, and one single slow-motion tear. And so they train. And train. And train some more — for years at these academies until they are ready (and that’s IF they’re deemed worthy) to debut.

Like so many things in South Korea post-war, the government takes a strong hand in K-pop. The South Korean government had the foresight to see that K-pop could be more than just a music genre — they believed it could be an ambassador for them. It could help them remake their image from a poor, developing nation to a nation on the cutting edge of all things technology and culture. So while they made huge investments in companies like Samsung, they also invested in K-pop — literally. They have put hundreds of millions of dollars into the big K-pop machines. And it’s paid off. For every $1 they’ve spent on K-pop, South Korea has earned roughly $5 back. Good call. But it’s given them more than their money back. It’s given them power. Soft power.

There are two ways to wield international power. The first is through nukes and soldiers— that’s hard power. Soft power is about other nations believing you are powerful, wanting to be in business with you, and respecting what you have to say. So, as silly as K-pop might sound to some ears, to the extent that it’s made the world view Korea as a major player, it’s literally put them back on the map. And it’s this power that K-pop wields that brings us to the present day and the future of K-pop.

PART III – SPRING IS COMING

“When music and courtesy are better understood and appreciated, there will be no war.” — Confucius

It was a brutally hot day in Los Angeles. And myself and a friend were in the middle of K-CON (pre-pandemic, obvs) — the US’s largest K-pop convention. Tens of thousands of American fans of every shape, size, color, and gender packed the Los Angeles Coliseum. And though Confucius certainly knew his stuff, K-CON did have its share of conflict. There were battles. Except they were in the form of dance-offs — literal, impromptu, dance-offs. IRL. And there were also some signs of gang activity — but at K-CON that meant wearing the color and swag of whatever group you stan. There were also some sad dads, trailing behind their elated daughters, carrying armfuls of merch and looking the part of a K-pop POW. K-pop had arrived in America. And as we walked the booths and witnessed the dance-offs, I thought about how we were living through one of the most tense, high-stakes times in our relationship with the Korean Peninsula. And how, in fact, it was entirely possible that Kim Jong Un now had missiles capable of hitting Los Angeles and taking it — and me and K-CON — out. Just kidding, I thought about how Girls’ Generations “I Got A Boy” is a perfect pop song.

But this all brings us back to the DMZ, where two armies stand poised to attack at a moment’s notice in one of THE hottest nuclear spots on Earth. And the K-pop hits being projected into North Korea, possibly as we read.

While the pumping of music across the border is certainly meant to annoy the North Koreans, it’s also meant to show them — in a soft power kind of way — what the South has to offer. It’s like Radio America in the Cold War or chocolate bars during the Berlin air lift. Because you can call K-pop anything you like — but there is no denying it’s fun, it’s bright, and it paints the picture of a world anyone would want to live in. And maybe it’s silly to think that something like music can solve a problem as deep and dangerous as the conflict on the Korean peninsula. Something armies, empires, dictators, and nukes have failed to solve for over 60 years. But then again, maybe not if Confucius was right.

On April 1st — 3rd 2018 — just a few weeks before a historic summit was to take place  between North and South Korea to discuss easing the tensions between the two nations representing one people — Kim Jong Un attended an unusual, and very special event in the capital city of North Korea, Pyongyang: a K-pop concert. Top K-pop groups like Red Velvet and Cho Yong Pil, performed and it was reported that Kim Jong Un — the first North Korean leader to publicly attend a performance by South Korean artists in Pyongyang — was “deeply moved”.

The concert series was titled, appropriately — Spring is Coming. Let’s hope so.

Things are once again incredibly tense on the Korean Peninsula. The COVID-19 pandemic and the crisis it has created around the globe is extreme — and we’re only at the start of what that fallout could be. But if music really can be the bridge that brings the North and South together, there’s reason to hope that the fallout won’t be nuclear. Spring is here. It’s in like a lion and out like a dystopian sci-fi movie.

But it’s here.

So suck it, Jon Snow.

IMAGE CREDITS
1. photo of BTS Image credit: ‘LG Q7 BTS 에디션’ 예약 판매 시작 used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
2. photo of the DMZ – Image Credit: Driedprawns at en.wikipedia. Used under the  Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic

 

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© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.
© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.