K-pop: Soft Power for the Global Cool

Governmental cultural diplomacy can sometimes come off as forced or out-of-touch, but K-pop is an authentic reflection and spectacle of youth culture that is impressively close to the pulse of the "global cool."
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From the unapologetic fanaticism that is often connected with hallyu (the recent spread of Korean culture around the globe), it is almost as if the K-pop factor just fell onto the South Korean government's lap, eagerly waiting to be used as an instrument for expanding soft power and cultural engagement with the world.

For a small country with humble beginnings, South Korea is now under the global spotlight in myriad ways. Just this week Google revealed its latest mission to set up a YouTube channel exclusively for K-pop. Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman at Google, visited Seoul to meet with President Lee Myung-bak as well as a slew of top executives at several major IT organizations in order to gain support for this project.

The K-pop sensation burst onto the already-existing Asian pop music scene years ago, but its carefully organized system of matching good looking young singers (now often bilingual in English, Japanese, or Chinese -- and chosen in order to enter those respective markets) with globally-attractive dance beats and ballads has clearly been adopted as the au courant choice of dance/pop style not only within Asian borders but in the Western sphere as well.

Distant Europe, South America, and the Middle East may be some of the genre's most surprising fan bases, but even last month's sold-out Madison Square Garden K-pop extravaganza in New York City is testament to this phenomenon. And recently on MTV.com, the most viewed article on the site was actually about K-pop group Girls' Generation -- not Jay-Z, Kanye, or Robert Pattinson. In recent years, even I have noticed the increasing amount of strangers I meet (both Asian and non-Asian) who become keenly interested in me once they confirm my Korean background: What is Seoul like? Do I watch Korean movies? What are my favorite Korean foods? Who are my favorite music groups, and have I met any of them? (Quite a big change from my early childhood in the suburban Midwest where many people would take the liberty of assuming I was Chinese!)

As an avid cultural traveler, I truly appreciate these conversations with so many individuals who are utterly fascinated with Korean culture. While I do not believe that this is the sole result of K-pop music's popularity, the initial platform of these early dialogues are usually based upon either Korean pop music or Korean films (quickly followed up by Korean food, education, and plastic surgery).

Undoubtedly there are skeptics of K-pop's global influence and utility as a soft power tool -- but I find such hesitation towards this cultural explosion to often: a) stem from a limited racial approach to the subject, and b) originate from taste levels so mainstream that there is little chance for awareness of trends and cultural currents not yet adopted by big corporations and media.

But the era of questioning K-pop's relevance is ultimately in the past, whether you are a fan or not. Once the figures at MTV and Google are on board a trend, said trend is no longer cutting-edge, obscure, nor underground or peripheral. This large scale cultural appropriation is precisely what drives the already huge K-pop machine to continue its global expansion as well as share its benefits with other South Korean enterprises, such as the nation's tourism industry.

South Korea, though historically conservative, has ultimately embraced this flashy and creative culture. The progressive utilization of this kind of soft power by a small and usually traditional government will also be a fast track pass to engage with masses of young people all over the world based upon what they are truly interested in. Governmental cultural diplomacy can sometimes come off as forced or out-of-touch, but K-pop is an authentic reflection and spectacle of youth culture that is impressively close to the pulse of the "global cool."

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