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BTS to Squid Game: How K-Pop Globalisation Is Translating Into Korean Soft Power

BTS was given diplomatic passports, while Squid Game is possibly going to be Netflix's biggest show of all time.

Published
Entertainment
3 min read
<div class="paragraphs"><p>BTS members (left to right) Jungkook, Jin, Suga, RM, Jimin, J-Hope, and V.</p></div>
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What do BTS and Netflix's Squid Game have in common? Apart from the K-mania they have sparked off, it is the South Korean pop-culture diplomacy.

At the heart of the global achievements of Korean cinema and music is Seoul's diplomatic ambitions wherein the country's growing political standing is an apparent outcome of its global soft-power dominance.

South Korea has been strategically using the historically significant and evidently expanding phenomenon of K-pop diplomacy.

The rise of Korean cinema and K-pop artists has established a firm ground for Korean soft power to flourish. And, in the last few years, South Korea's pop-culture prestige has been making a case for its global influence.
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Hallyu and the Korean Soft Power

In 2018, as part of an agreement to hold cultural concerts ahead of inter-Korean summit, internationally known K-pop stars like the girl group Red Velvet, Baek Ji-Young, and former member of Girls’ Generation Seohyun, among others, performed in Pyongyang.

This event was a testimony to the influence of pop culture and the aim of steering the interest of global fans towards the political ambitions of the governments. The cultural exchange was to set the stage for a meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-In a month later.

The entry of 'Hallyu' or the 'Korean Wave' in the global power structure is concurrent with the strategical use of K-pop by the South Korean government.

With policies that bring corporate investment in the entertainment industry, creative assistance, and favourable laws, Seoul created an ambience for pop culture to prosper.

Additionally, for tapping into the political potential of pop culture, South Korea directly involved celebrities into its foreign policy objectives. It combined the attractive pop-culture appendage such as movie stars, beauty and skincare products, tourist attractions, and study-abroad programmes to create abiding changes in how people perceive and engage with South Korea.

Gangnam Style, Anyone?

In 2012, Psy’s 'Gangnam Style' became the first YouTube music video to reach 1 billion views. Bong Joon-Ho's film Parasite became the first non-English film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.

With six Oscar nominations and one win, Lee Isaac Chung's film Minari made history for Korean cinema. Now, a Korean original drama series Squid Game is on its way to become Netflix's biggest show of all time.

According to a Guardian report, more than 20 new Korean-origin words, such as hallyu, aegyo, mukbang have been added to the Oxford English Dictionary's latest edition.

This is in contrast to Koreans learning English in order to make it in the Western world to the West learning Korean for enriching its hallyu experience.

This foreground for the making of Korean soft power was further upheld by the seven-member boy band BTS, the brand ambassadors of Korean pop culture, and their magnanimous success. Since its debut in 2013, the band has come-of-age as the most successful manifestation of the Hallyu phenomenon.

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Purple Gone Global: The BTS Effect

BTS has invariably displayed its growing brand image and the power it has garnered over the years. In June earlier this year, McDonald's launched its highly anticipated 'BTS Meal', but the fast-food chain was forced to close its outlets within minutes in several places due to high orders.

The astronomical pull of the band is a bonanza for South Korea. Their popularity is an example of the dissemination of Korean soft power through ideas and messages that resonate across cultural boundaries. Sample these:

  • The government website 'Imagine Your Korea' features a list of locations from the BTS music videos and album covers encouraging tourists to “recreate the scenes yourself, or simply bask in the knowledge that your bias [sic] was once standing in the exact same spot, breathing the same air, and seeing the same view.” A 'bias' in K-pop lexicon is your favorite member of a band.

  • In July 2021, South Korean President Moon Jae-In appointed BTS as the Special Presidential Envoy for Future Generations and Culture. Spokesperson Park Kyung-mi called the appointment "a part of public diplomacy that seeks to broaden diplomatic horizons by gathering diplomatic capabilities.”

The promotion of soft power through cultural diplomacy is in mutual interest of governmental and non-governmental actors, or private enterprises like Big Hit Entertainment, which manages BTS. They are enthusiastically producing and promoting Hallyu content, which the government incentivises.

Moreover, as the most successful Korean pop-culture producer, BTS is the foundation of 'people-to-people' diplomacy, which stands for the creation of positive outlook towards a nation or culture expanded through shared experience between people across geographical and cultural divide.

The global BTS fanbase, popularly known as 'army', has powered the band’s rise.

In the last few decades, South Korea has been able to evolve from a midsized power to a pop-culture giant, but the question is for it to sustain that by utilising the massive potential of Hallyu and the country's rising cultural economy.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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