Art by Ally Armstrong
With K-pop becoming a global phenomenon — thanks to the prominence of several Korean artists such as Psy and BTS — Korean culture has flourished in many industries. However, the ever-growing genre of music has also caused many individuals to essentially fetishize Korean culture — failing to look beyond K-pop’s triumph and into the more tragic side of Korean culture.
Since its release in 2013, the song “Gangnam Style” by Psy managed to turn the world’s attention toward the realm of Korean pop or K-pop — allowing the genre to evolve and expand into an internationally diverse subculture.
K-pop captivated the world through its flashy choreographies, beautiful idols and harmonization of multiple genres.
With the rise of BTS’ popularity in 2017, K-pop essentially reached a fever pitch, allowing South Korean culture to take the world by storm.
Although K-pop has helped the world develop a greater appreciation for South Korean culture through the increase of Korean consumerism and tourism, it has also caused people to overly glamorize or even fetishize the culture.
Consequently, a new term has emerged from this newfound obsession — “Koreanboo” or “Kboo” — which is used to define someone who is obsessed with Korean culture.
There are numerous ways “Kboos” romanticize the culture — from deciding to pursue a “glamorous” life as a K-pop trainee to even denouncing their own cultures by culturally identifying as Korean and developing internalized racism toward their own cultures.
Those who continue to idolize and admire specific parts of Korean culture — from the mannerisms to the music — must be aware of the inequity that is not only lurking within the K-pop industry but Korean society overall.
For almost 2,000 years, Korean cultural values have revolved around the unforgiving philosophical beliefs of Confucianism — which, in purest form, emphasize absolute filial piety and strict discipline. The ultimate goal of this philosophy, however, is to transform or revolutionize society by cultivating order and achievement.
Over time, this bred the highly competitive nature of Korea. Today, an extreme and aggressive competitiveness continues to permeate both the country’s academic system and workforce.
From a shockingly young age, a tremendous amount of strain is placed upon the shoulders of contemporary Koreans as the average student in Korea studies 12 to 16 hours a day. Some Korean parents indoctrinate their children to believe that the higher the level of education they receive, the higher the level of success they will achieve later in life.
With a rapidly growing population, there are not nearly enough jobs for college graduates as many companies have been raising educational and professional prerequisites.
This competitiveness fosters a significant rise in unemployment as government data show that one in every four Koreans between the ages 15 and 29 were unemployed due to the lack of jobs, according to a 2018 Reuters report.
Naturally, this competitiveness and hardship bleeds into the K-pop industry as the entertainment field becomes an oversaturated market.
To become a K-pop star, one must undergo several years of intensive training from a young age. Many trainees are forced to juggle training with school life by maintaining a certain weight, managing their public image and adopting a certain mannerism or “personality.”
Unfortunately, despite undergoing years of rigorous training, a handful of trainees fail to debut and are often forgotten. Some decide to quit willingly, while others stagnate due to a “lack of talent” or popularity.
To overcome this hurdle, some K-pop trainees resort to prostitution to obtain job opportunities and media exposure to ensure their debuts. Those who eventually debut under these conditions are forced to remain tight-lipped as K-pop idols. Female performers, especially, are often sued for defamation when they later publicly accuse their companies of sexual violence.
There exists high levels of prejudice against Korean women, which makes it almost impossible for them to obtain justice or individualism. The country continues to strongly oppose feminism as part of Confucian values.
The large gender pay gap and the large number of Korean women who have received plastic surgery in order to secure a profession at times — in both the K-pop industry or regular corporate sector — by appealing to the country’s unrealistic beauty standards demonstrate this.
Overall, the competitiveness and oppression that continue to govern Korea place it 10th in the world and first in Asia for the highest number of suicides that occur yearly, according to Voice of America.
Although Korea has managed to develop its economy immensely, its culture and standard of ethics have failed to keep pace with materialistic advancements. This is specifically proven through the country’s treatment of foreigners.
Racism is still prevalent throughout the country as 7 out of 10 foreigners will experience some form of discrimination, according to the Korean Herald. Xenophobia and racism in Korean society are largely based off of stereotypes and a supremacist attitude, especially toward immigrants from a poorer country.
Blatant racism can also be spotted throughout the K-pop industry, especially through their appropriation of Black culture. K-pop idols are regularly excused when making racist statements or adopting blackface at times. Despite K-pop producers receiving significant musical influence from Black culture, they often refuse to give credit to Black artists when they help produce a K-pop hit.
Although this problem calls for the enactment of an anti-discrimination law, there is no guarantee for justice as there is a high level of corruption within the Korean government.
An extreme, yet discreet hierarchy is engraved into the system, which only beckons the call for surreptitious “favors” and bribes. This can specifically be observed through the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye in 2017.
This incident is comparable to the 2019 Burning Sun scandal, where several K-pop idols were found guilty of procuring business partners through drug-peddling and sexual bribery.
One’s fascination with K-pop can easily overshadow these incidents and flaws of Korean culture. It’s important to remember that Korea is not a perfect country.
Rather than blindly worshipping the culture, people should try to see beyond the success of K-pop and the country’s triumphs by acknowledging the hardships K-pop idols are forced to endure offstage.
Be aware of the country’s shortcomings when learning more about its daily citizens’ lives, and appreciate the country without fetishizing the culture.
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Email Alice Han: firstname.lastname@example.org