BTS: How a K-pop band made South Korea a leader in global entertainment (and soft power)

“The solitary rock rises imposingly to the heavens,

and from the placid lake, contemplate the world.

Restless, persevering, the waves hit their base,

while the branches of the trees tremble in the wind…

廻石直生空 平湖四望通


fragment of the poem Song of the lonely rock 詠孤石written in Chinese characters by the monk Chong of the Korean kingdom of Goguryeo (37 BCE – 668 CE)

“If you don’t know BTS, you’ve probably been living under a rock”: this was said in 2021 the official website of the Guinness Book. In September of the same year, he succinctly added “The boys are in the book” to announce the band’s induction into the coveted Guinness Book of Records Hall of Fame 2022, for having broken no less than 23 of them.

BTS is the music group most heard in the world. It is the first group, since the Beatles, to have, in less than 6 months, three songs at number 1 on the US charts.

But Korea is not only revolutionizing the world of music with BTS, or the quintet of girls red velvet, girls generation, blackpink and many others that make up what is known worldwide as K-pop (Korean-pop). It has also turned the entertainment industry in general upside down, and the world of the long-awaited soft powerwhich China and the United States dispute.

Hallyu: a wave that rises

K-pop is just one part (of a big tsunamionly that the wave, this time, is Korean, and not Japanese) of what has been baptized Hallyu (the “Korean Wave”). There is growing international interest in Korean popular culture, as represented in its films, television, fashion, cuisine, and music.

One more detail: the words K-pop and Hallyu have been admitted to the Oxford English Dictionaryalong with 24 other Korean words. no language in the world he had previously had the privilege of including, in one fell swoop, 26 words in the same year.

China starting point

It was the Chinese who first became aware of the phenomenon, finding their screens flooded with Korean soap operas (K-drama) during the 1990s. In this fashion, the media called it Hanliuwhich comes from They have (韩), in Chinese, means Korea or Korean, and liu (流), current, trend.

South Korea Never before it had produced an exportable and welcome popular culture, neither in China nor in any other country in Asia.

Both countries had just re-established diplomatic relations in 1992. So anything from that small Northeastern country was a curiosity to the Chinese, a fad that would soon pass. Nothing more wrong.

academic interest

One more proof of the importance that the Hallyu is that, since 2013, there is the World Association for Hallyu Studies, where the phenomenon is analyzed from all points of view. Among the academics there are those who consider that the Korean Wave is the most important and fastest cultural paradigm shift in modern history.

In 2020, the number of fans Hallyu broke the $100 million mark. The number of fans has multiplied by 17 since the first was published in 2021 Korean Foundation report.

Gangham Style, pioneer

Let’s refresh the memory. 2012 was the year that the catchy Gangnam Style by rapper Psy, when BTS was just starting out. The video of Gangnam Style entered the Guinness book because it was the first video to exceed one billion views on YouTube.

Until 2018 there were 84 million fans of Hallyu, increasing at a rate of 22% per year. That is the year that BTS definitely explodes in the USA, as the band managed to place two albums on the Billboard 200 chart.

From there, his fame has grown exponentially. Without a doubt, he has also contributed to this increase that the series the squid game has burst the world of series, placing itself at the time as the most watched in the entire history of Netflixor that in 2020 the movie parasites make historybecoming the first non-English language film to win the oscar to the best film.

A successful and deliberate strategy

How is it possible that there is so much anger over the music and entertainment industry in such a small country? Well, they had a plan, which they have been able to give continuity to.

korea had a plan to make korea a nation coolthat cool. In 1994, the Presidential Advisory Council for Science and Technology presented its Strategic plan for the growth of high-tech visual arts: in it they compared the success of the film Jurassic Park of Spielberg (850 million dollars of invoicing with a budget of 65 million) with the sales of vehicles, main export of the country. To enter the same as the American film, it would be necessary to sell 1.5 million vehicles outside its borders, many more than the 700,000 annually that it exported at that time.

From that moment on, culture came to be considered another commodity, a priority for the country’s GDP. they know that BTS’s contribution to tourism in Korea has been 800,000 tourists annually, which represents 7.6% of the total of 10.4 million tourists. Also that the korean economy enters thanks to BTS 3,670 million dollars, and that the group generates an added value of 1,260 million.

A different model from the previous ones

The Korean cultural expansion model seems be subverting the dominant cultural paradigm. Before, it was the cultural products of the great powers that were consumed by the second-tier economic countries. Today it is the big countries that are consuming Korean products at large.

Second, the Korean model of soft power is also particular, because, despite having imitated American modes of production, it does not seek, like the US, to sell its products through the diffusion of its own way of life.

But it also moves away from the Japanese model. This seeks to adapt Japanese products to the markets of the countries, which has been called glocalization (dochaku). Koreans, on the other hand, speak of mugukjeok: Products that have global characteristics, but with hints of Korean culture.

The role of fans

The music groups of Hallyu They have a very powerful network of fans, called ARMY in the case of BTS, which, unlike traditional fans, are perfectly organized and coordinated. They embark on decidedly political actions, without their stars having explicitly embraced that particular action, or a more general cause.

Donald Trump tasted it in his flesh, when, eager to resume his electoral rallies in his race for presidential re-election, he called a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the American fans of BTS mass booked tickets to attendand then they didn’t show up.

Another example: fans of Blackping and BTS they flooded the hashtags republican #ImpeachBidenNow to completely disable it.

A ‘harmless’ country

Third, Korean cultural products do not carry any kind of military hard power, as has been the case in the United States from World War II to the present day. Nor do they want to erase a shady past, as is the case with the Japanese imperialist madness of the time. Such is the strength of soft power that it is unknown South Korea is the sixth largest military power in the world..

With the numbers of the entertainment industry in hand, we have kool kool for a while. His position in the battle for global soft power will be bulletproof for a while, as if the name of the Korean icon of the moment, BTS, had been foreshadowing the success of his cultural products: BTS is the acronym for Bangtan Sonyeondan“bulletproof boy scouts”.

Felix ValdiviesoChairman of IE China Center, IE University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. read the original.

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BTS: How a K-pop band made South Korea a leader in global entertainment (and soft power)