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Is K-Pop Foreign Propaganda? (Spoiler Alert: It's Not)

Is K-Pop Foreign Propaganda? (Spoiler Alert: It's Not)

One of the most entertaining plot twists of 2020 took place on June 20, when President Trump’s Tulsa, OK rally was protested by “K-Pop stans and TikTok teens.” Hundreds of teenagers requested tickets to Trump’s rally, leading Trump to believe that more than a million people would attend.

Of those who requested tickets, only 19,000 people were selected, but Trump boasted that supporters would surround the arena and parade through the streets. When only 6,200 people showed up at the arena, the news broke: Trump had been pranked. By none other than some very clever TikTok and K-Pop loving Gen Z kids.

 Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (AOC) took to Twitter to thank the “Zoomers,” writing, “You [Trump] just got ROCKED by teens on TikTok who flooded the Trump campaign [with] fake ticket reservations & tricked you into believing a million people wanted your white supremacist open mic.” She then added a second tweet, writing, “K-Pop allies, we see and appreciate your contributions in the fight for justice too.”

After the staggering humiliation at the Tulsa rally, the Trump administration—which has long since incited a Red Scare against anything East Asian—tried to ban TikTok and WeChat, two apps owned by Chinese company ByteDance. And on July 7, K.W. Miller, an Independent who ran for Florida’s 18th Congressional district, made his infamous claim, Tweeting,

“Last month AOC worked with KPOP agents via the app TikTok to sabotage the President’s rally. KPOP is foreign propaganda. Why was AOC conspiring with Koreans such as Junkook [Jeon Jung-kook] and BTS (Big Time Socialists) to undermine our President? TikTok is Chinese owned. Kim Jong Un knew?” 

Miller made quite a few bold claims in that statement, many of which are xenophobic and problematic. But why are politicians even talking about K-Pop and Korean artists in the first place?

BTS and BLACKPINK: The Power of K-Pop

In the past few years, K-Pop has fully entered the mainstream, taking over pop culture, music culture, and everything in between. Korean boy group BTS, who were named by BBC, “The Beatles for the 21st Century,”  are the only other group besides The Beatles to sell 1 million album units. They recently swept the MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs), and their single “Dynamite,” landed them the No. 1 spot on Billboard Hot 100. In a major victory, they received their first ever Grammy nomination for their song “Dynamite.”

Korean girl group BLACKPINK have the most subscribed to YouTube channel of any female popstar or girl group with currently 54.5 million subscribers. Their single “How You Like That” (which earned 86.3 million views in just 24 hours), shattered five Guinness world records. Their first album “THE ALBUM” (which sold more than 1 million pre-order copies) quickly reached no. 1 on the U.S. iTunes sales charts in at least 57 different regions.

During the opening week for their new documentary on Netflix “BLACKPINK: Light Up The Sky,” the film about the four women became the second most-watched Netflix movie in the world. They have been named the biggest music act in the world by Bloomberg.

Luxury brands such as Chanel, Dior, and Prada seek out Korean celebrities to be their global brand ambassadors, due to the power of their endorsement. American superstars such as John Legend, Lady Gaga, and Halsey, vied to work with these K-Pop idols, knowing that a song with them would be an immediate international hit.

During the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, fans of K-Pop quickly matched BTS’s $1 million donation to the BLM organization, and fans were even able to hack into the websites of police departments in the U.S. and flood them with videos of their idols until the websites were shut down by the police departments entirely.

It is apparent that K-Pop holds sway over global culture. But does it have enough power to shape U.S. politics, like the Presidential election that took place in November? Does K-Pop count as foreign propaganda? Does BTS stand for “Big Time Socialists”?

If someone thinks that K-Pop isn’t socialist propaganda, is it possible that that person is just, “Conspiring with Korea to undermine the President,” and are in cahoots with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, like K.W. Miller believes? 

The History of South Korea

When one thinks about North Korea versus South Korea, it may feel like these two countries are the complete antithesis of the other. North Korea is a dictatorial regime founded on oppression and totalitarianism, which denies its citizens basic human rights. South Korea is comparatively abundant, with technology, music, television, and wealth.

However, back in 1953 when the Korean Peninsula was first split in two, South Korea was poor and undeveloped. It was only by 1974 that South Korea’s GDP surpassed North Korea’s. South Korea was an agrarian country with very few natural resources—everyone lived in extreme poverty, precluding any technological, societal, or economic advancement—but the government wanted it to be a democratic country with a capitalist economy. 

After protests, revolutions, and four transitions in power, Park Chung-hee became the new President (or Dictator, depending on who you ask). Park suspended the Constitution, dissolved the National Assembly, and cracked down on protesters and dissidents by jailing, torturing, and executing anyone who fought back. Park believed that poverty had to be fully eliminated before South Korea could become a democracy.

Under his leadership, South Korea experienced immediate economic growth, known as The Miracle on Han River. Park made a deal with the heads of the three largest businesses at the time, promising them that he would forgive their debts, exempt them from taxes, and borrow from foreign governments to keep them thriving. 

Even after Park was assassinated in 1979 and South Korea transferred to a constitutional democracy (one similar to the U.S.), Park’s economic policies continued to be in effect. Since there are only a few companies backed by the government, it’s difficult for someone to start a new business. Vertical integration is commonplace and most music production companies are often subsidiaries of these larger conglomerates known as chaebols

The Rise of K-Pop

Foreign aid from the U.S. and Japan helped launch South Korea’s economic miracle, and the West influenced South Korea’s style, art, and even music. South Korean clubs would play American pop songs for foreigners, and Koreans began to enjoy it as well.

Eventually, Korean music groups began to only perform pop music, adding their own style until they created their own genre, a genre that often mixes Korean with English words and phrases. K-Pop began to grow in tandem with Western pop, creating the two unique yet similar styles of the pop music that we hear today. 

While Park Chung-hee did create some socialist policies that allowed the economic miracle to happen, it was his distinct way of approaching capitalism that established South Korea as the country we now picture, one with skyscrapers, Samsung, and K-Pop. K-Pop’s business model could not exist in a socialist country. Its success depends on a capitalist system to sell albums, merchandise, and endorse brands.

Album sales directly impact a K-Pop group’s chance at winning awards, so fans will buy multiple albums to ensure that their idols win. And awards lead to more fans and in turn, more album, merchandise, and concert ticket sales. The business model of K-Pop is capitalism at its core: an exchange of goods for money.

Racism and Hysteria Surrounding Communism

Automatically assuming that every East Asian country is a socialist country, or implying that what is true of one East Asian country is true of all East Asian countries is a composition fallacy: a belief that what is true of one part is true of all parts. It’s the same kind of logic that allows people to lump Asians together and assume that they all have COVID-19. It’s the fallible logic that the Trump Administration uses: if it’s Asian, it’s Chinese, and if it’s Chinese, it’s communism (which is entirely different from socialism but try telling that to the Trump admin). 

An important thing to note, however, is that when it comes to socialism in Europe (which is demographically more white), there does not seem to be a wild hysteria around European people and their products. Americans do not tout worries of a coup or of a crumbling nation as reasonable fear to keep Europeans and their music and art out of the U.S.

The U.S. itself has socialist policies in effect that protect workers, consumers, and the public in general (such as welfare, labor unions, and even pension and other retirement plans). Otherwise, in an unregulated capitalist market, there would be even more hoarding of wealth by a couple of big businesses, which would inevitably result in more suffering among the working class. Just think about the early 1900s. The best way to characterize that time, according to Plan C, is in one simple word: misery. 

The fear surrounding socialism seems to distinctly come from the fact that the people who may or may not have socialist policies in place originate from Asian, Black, and/or Brown countries. The suspicion, rampant anti-socialism, and blatant xenophobia is driven by the fact that the people who are employing these practices are not from white countries.

Therefore, it begs the question: are white Americans really afraid of socialism, or are they just afraid of Asia and the people who inhabit it? If we briefly examine U.S. history—from the Internment Camps that Japanese Americans were forced into during World War II (while Italian and German Americans walked freely), to the fear of “Yellow Peril,” to the origins of the racial slur “Ch*nk”—I think we can safely assume the latter. 

Asian Representation in Media

The lack of accurate Asian representation in Western media also leads to confusion between distinct East Asian countries. Earlier this year, in a Honeysuckle interview with Korean American director and screenwriter Christina Yoon, Yoon explained that stereotypical depictions and roles in film leads to Korean actors playing Chinese characters and vice versa, further insinuating that these cultures and people are interchangeable. That they’re all the same. 

Despite what Trump and Co. believe, for many Asians around the world (including me), K-Pop is something that instills pride. It’s a cultural phenomenon, after all. There are only a handful of Asian stars in Western culture, and true representation in Western media is slim.

Seeing people who look like us be powerful, confident, beautiful, and utterly talented is nothing short of inspiring. While K-Pop does not represent the entirety of Asia of the Asian diaspora, there are idols from Thailand, Japan, Taiwan, China, and even stars with Asian or mixed Asian heritage from Australia, Canada, and the United States. 

This isn’t to say that the establishment of K-Pop as an industry is perfect; it certainly has flaws that need to be challenged and solved (like colorism, body shaming, sexism, and mental health issues that are often ignored by the entertainment companies). Despite their popularity, K-Pop stars are constantly on the receiving end of racist attacks and hatred from fans and anti-fans alike. But, overall, it feels immensely satisfying to see these Asian stars have such global esteem, notoriety, and influence. It’s novel to have groups like BLACKPINK and BTS be the universal moment. 

I’ve noticed that there is often this unspoken belief in the States, a belief stemming from the idea that the rest of the world should all know and listen to American and British pop music, but music originating from nonwhite countries (especially in languages that aren’t European) is somehow inferior. Kevin Liao writes in The New York Times that in Western culture, we are all ubiquitously taught that, “Asians are punchlines, not people.”

Either through caricature depictions and Yellowface such as Mickey Rooney’s character in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” through the hypersexualization of Asian women via Anna May Wong in films like “The Shanghai Express,” or the consistent emasculation of Asian men through characters such as Han, a Korean immigrant in “2 Broke Girls.” But thanks to K-Pop, “Maybe I, too, could be seen as a person, not a punchline,” Liao writes. Maybe eventually, we, too, can be seen as complex and unique individuals, separate from our stereotypes. 

In the end, K.W. Miller lost the congressional seat to Brian Mast, a member of the Republican party. But to satisfy Miller and his bogus claims, no, K-Pop is not socialist propaganda. If anything, it may be closer to capitalist propaganda. And BTS (sadly) does not stand for Big Time Socialists. A simple Google search was able to verify that BTS stands for Bangtan Sonyeondan, which loosely translates to Bulletproof Boy Scouts. 

Regardless of what politicians claim, these “K-Pop agents” are probably not trying to threaten American democracy. They’re not bringing in Yellow Peril, working to undermine the current U.S. president, nor will they awaken any “Sleeping Giant.” They’re just making music and acquiring a global fanbase in the process.

As BLACKPINK’s Rosé said in an interview with Elle, “Music [doesn’t] always originate from the UK or the States. It’s global, it’s Asia, it’s the most random places you can imagine.” I’d like to leave Mr. K.W. Miller with one final thought, something that I hope he does above all else, something that may clear his skin and help him to sleep more soundly after such a tiresome campaign: Stan LOONA.

 

Tags: Politics, culture