The Surprising Politics of the Hallyu Wave

Hallyu, literally translated as the “flow of Korea,” refers to the recent explosion of South Korea cultural exports around the world. The most significant mainstays are in the realm of entertainment, spearheaded by the booming popularity of Korean pop music and trailed by the rise of beauty, food, and television. The rise of cultural popularity may not seem particularly influential, but for a small political hotspot like South Korea, hallyu is a big deal. South Korea has moved to make preparations to make it the main industry of export in anticipation of its future prosperity.

While it may appear superficial, drama in the hallyu sphere is oftentimes representative of larger quarrels between countries. The hallyu wave, while primarily a cultural movement, remains relevant in a political sphere in its ability to serve as a pacifying tie between nations, though it can also serve to exacerbate sensitive conditions in other situations. There are some dangers in the building up of hallyu as a significant cultural bridge for Korea and other nations. Already precarious international relations situations are only made worse when sentiments regarding other countries are left in the hands of pop culture purveyors, prone to fallacy as an inevitable result of their high visibility. Hallyu is a potential form of soft power for South Korea, but the nations affected by its rise have been adamant that it remains a strictly entertainment-based entity.

The junction of tension between nations and the coinciding popularity of their respective pop cultures has resulted in several uncomfortable instances of criticism, to say the least. Within the last month, a member of BTS, largely considered the biggest K-pop group of all time, was photographed wearing a T-shirt openly commemorating the atomic bombing of Japan in WWII. As a result, their appearance on a music promotion show in Japan was cancelled. Perhaps more importantly, however, the dark underbelly and huge potential for the misfire of the hallyu push in Japan was exposed. Online criticism ranged from purely antagonistic, on the belief that Korean nationalism played into an intentional choice, to sympathetic, based in the belief that fans would rather have BTS promotional activities continue in Japan than halt them to address the issue. To Western audiences, this may seem to be an out-of-proportion reaction to a T-shirt, but the precariousness of Korea’s reputation in Japan must kept in mind. The severe reaction to small missteps is made worse by the fact that they are painfully easy to bring about. For example, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish humanitarian group, recently made claims that a 2015 BTS photoshoot contained anti-Semitic imagery and that a specific stage uniform was too reminiscent of Nazi SS uniforms. The images were revealed to be doctored, and others were quick to point out that the stage uniforms were closer to old Korean school uniforms, in cohesion with the song’s themes of school rebellion, but the damage was done. BigHit Entertainment, BTS’s label, was forced to issue a public apology. Mistake or not, it’s clear that hallyu image is a notable representation of South Korea in the public eye, and missteps such as these one are hugely influential on the perception of the general populace on the state of the ROK’s international relations.

It can it be argued, though, that this kind of unawareness is acceptable, or even explainable, in the backdrop of historically rocky Japan-Korea relations. It would seem that there’s a duty for the forerunners of cultural exchange (e.g. a boy band) to remove themselves from partiality of their nationality, but the opposite, that cultural ambassadors must show some extent of solidarity with their nation, can be argued just as successfully. Lee Taek-gwang, a professor at Kyung Hee University in Seoul, also argued that the cleansing of politics from cultural exchange is impossible, using BTS as an example. “BTS insist they are a global brand, but their identity is rooted in Korean nationalism, as it is with many young Koreans. This isn’t just the case of a young band doing something stupid.” While polarizing, this perspective on the position of hallyu as a tool of Korean nationalism must be considered. But given this, is there an answer to these conflicts of national perspective other than suggesting that representatives of Korean culture must be holistically apolitical in order to continue pacifist and mutually beneficial cultural exchange?

The answer, I argue, is no. China, for one, has recognized the power of the hallyu wave as a politically influential object, and when tensions rose between the two countries, hallyu was subject to its own sanctions. Throughout 2017, South Korea and China were engaged in a continual struggle over the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, employed in South Korea by the U.S. in defense from North Korean missile activity.  When the ROK refused to back down, coercive action began. China’s infamously censorship-heavy government took this in stride, and citizens observed a “hallyu ban”, under which any Chinese promotions for Korean pop culture media were quietly ceased. For example, the K-pop industry, which had previously displayed intent of entering the Chinese market by including Chinese nationals as members of groups, now faced divisive matters of national allegiance. Some Chinese members even took extended hiatuses to avoid promotions in Korea and the ensuing potential for accusation of partiality. Coverage of the lead-up to the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics stopped. Chinese video hosting websites stopped adding new episodes of previously popular and profitable Korean dramas. The shutoff of cultural exchange was enforced by economic sanctions, which were what ultimately ended the THAAD program in South Korea, and an informal boycott on tourism. Hallyu, in this instance, held enough sway — and what the Chinese government perceived as the potential for political fallout — to result in a complete ban. In addition to taking away several more tangible power sources, the ban on Korean culture imports into China served to totally cut off the potential for political influence or sympathy from pop cultural representatives of Korea. Evidently, the rise of Korean pop culture has the capacity for use as a political tool, and in regards to this issue, outright silence was less risky than sweeping the issues under the carpet. There seemed to be no win-win resolution to the contradictory waves of hallyu and national conflict than silence, and the forced silence of hallyu stars on political topics is more significant of the astronomically high standards of the industry than the tensions of the nations they represent.

Answers other than silence on political topics have not played out favorably from the perspective of Korean hallyu promoters. China’s censorship in response to rising political tensions was not unexpected, but backlash from any misstep in regards to political sensitivities has been vicious and immediate. In 2016, a Taiwanese member of popular girl group TWICE faced backlash from China for waving a Taiwanese flag on a South Korean television show. The member was forced to issue an apology, in which she stated that “there is only one China. The two sides of the strait are one.” The sentiment reflects the Chinese government’s staunch position that Taiwan is not and will never be an independent state, despite the position of many other world powers that say otherwise. While the statement may have angered Taiwanese fans of the group, the fact that hallyu remains a profit-based industry emerged dominant, and access to a Chinese market proved too valuable for TWICE’s Korean company to lose. It would seem that the extent of cultural exchange between Korea and nations with which they have some political quarrel is simply too complex. There was no ideal outcome to the situation for both Chinese hallyu consumers and Korean producers, again suggesting the great political power of hallyu but the disastrous prospects of its utilization, intentional or not.

Comparatively, the effects of hallyu in the U.S. have been more subdued. In regards to more concrete political capacities, however, the acknowledgement of hallyu as a tool for cooperation seems to be more prominent than in Korea and other Asian nations. Barack Obama famously acknowledged the ability of hallyu to bring communities together in a speech about U.S.-Korea relations, suggesting that the clout of what may appear as an odd subculture to a mainstream audience is greater than it appears. On a basis of political outcomes, however, the U.S.’s relationship to the hallyu wave can be seen as much less politically significant and more amiable than that of other Asian nations. A relative lack of quarrel between the U.S. and South Korea paired with the friendly, non-politically charged perception of hallyu shows that the Korean wave is foremostly a tool of cooperation and exchange. Without the involvement of conflict, the rise of Korean culture faces less of a demand to remain apolitical. Until ends come to long-standing and ambiguously defined quarrels between Korea and nations affected by hallyu, most prominently China and Japan, hallyu will remain strictly restrained by cultural needs for total silence on political topics if its proliferation is to continue.