When K-pop Gets Under Your Skin

The hottest phrase in Korea nowadays is undeniably ‘girl group.’ But girl group fever is more than just a trend: it’s symbolic of a cultural era that is embracing the expulsion of authoritarian ideology.

Korea Magazine, March 2010

Korean Idols ‘Occupy Japanese Archipelago,’ Lay Waste to Japan

The Asia Economy Daily, August 2010

Yes, when it comes to K-pop, the Korean government and media can show remarkable chutzpah sometimes—and little sense of irony. It’s enough to disenchant even the most ardent fan, let alone the Korean public.

So, when business professor Han Choong-min of Hanyang University recently denounced all the propaganda, you sense he touched a real nerve.

Speaking at a seminar on the Korean Wave hosted by the Korea Foundation for International Culture Exchange, he argued that K-pop’s global popularity is a sheer illusion created by nationalistic reports from the local media. He went on to say that K-pop has played a limited role in boosting the country’s national image, and shouldn’t be expected to increase exports of Korean products and services. Primarily, because those who go crazy about K-pop are mostly young female students in less developed countries in Southeast Asia, with such weak purchasing power that it’s hard to expect that their affection toward K-pop will lead to an extra consumption of other Korean products or services.

However, Han overstated his case when he added that traditional culture has proven to be much more useful than contemporary cultural content in promoting Korea’s national image; Korean learners, frustrated with textbooks full of the joys of palace walks and kimchi-making, would likely beg to differ on any such proof actually existing. Moreover, in an era when K-pop exports contributed nearly three times as much to the Korean economy as those of quintessentially Korean kimchi ($255m vs. $89.2m in 2013; see here for an explanation of the figures), he gives the impression of being out of touch with the times; his criticisms, not so much a coherent, evidence-based critique as a knee-jerk reaction to the young K-pop idols that have replaced his favored ambassadors of Korean culture.

Sure enough, in fact K-pop is already increasing exports of Korean products and services. In the short-term, by promoting Korean beauty ideals across the East-Asian region, resulting in almost 16,000 cosmetic surgery tourists coming to Korea last year, a fivefold increase since 2009 (with each tourist spending a minimum of $14,000 a pop).

Indirect evidence of the links to K-pop are abound, with the region awash in Korean popular culture, and barely a month going by without Asian media sources attributing new fashion and beauty trends to the popularity of Korean stars—or blaming them for it. Also, as discussed in October’s Haps, it is surely telling that Western cover models are increasingly being replaced with Korean ones.

More concretely, in 2010, so many Thai women were copying the hotpants fashions of Korean girl-groups that dengue fever cases surged, prompting the government to warn citizens to cover up to avoid getting infected. What’s more, while young Southeast Asian women may initially lack purchasing power, they do grow up and get jobs eventually. That’s when they hop on a plane to Korea, a trend Bloomberg covered last year:

Kylie Vu holds up her iPhone to display a photo of her favorite South Korean actress. I want a chin like hers, she tells a beauty consultant at the BK Plastic Surgery clinic in Seoul. Vu, 30, budgeted $10,000 for a chin implant and face-lift and traveled more than 1,600 miles from Vietnam, where she manages five kindergartens…her trip is a chance to redo a chin implant she first had done in Vietnam, this time in a more K-pop style.

Michelle Lim, a student from Malaysia, spent three weeks in July choosing a clinic in the beauty belt for jaw reduction and liposuction after being inspired by the smaller, so-called v-shaped faces of Korean celebrities, the 24-year-old said in an interview.

It is true that some patients’ motivations may have very little to do with the faces of K-pop stars (or of movie and drama stars for that matter), and everything to do with Korean surgeons’ real or perceived expertise, including: a minimum eleven years’ training; performing the most procedures per capita in the world; and their familiarity with Asian patients. Korea also has state-of-the-art facilities, and there are a variety of convenient hospital, accommodation, and sightseeing packages available, with interpreters available at every step of the process.

However, like Vu, most are quite explicit about their desires to look like their idols, mimicking their Korean counterparts who responded to the girl-group craze a few years earlier.

That said, it is important to acknowledge that cosmetic surgery patients comprise only a small percentage of medical tourists to Korea as a whole: specifically, 7.6% in 2012, which, if maintained in 2013, would have resulted in a paltry $7.6m in revenue based on the most reliable figures ($187m in total medical tourism revenues, minus $86.4m lost from outgoing medical tourists). Yet with Korean medical tourism projected to grow into a billion dollar industry by 2020, those revenues will increase accordingly.

And there are many more direct economic benefits from K-pop, often overlooked because the bulk of the profits don’t go to the music companies themselves. As outlined by Seo Min-Soo of Korea-Marketing.com, these include: the game and animation industries developing characters using K-pop content and stars; developing tourism packages centered around K-pop; blockbuster theater productions centered around K-pop stars; collaborating with K-pop stars to develop and market new products; product placement in music videos, which is already playing a huge role in dramas; and finally, and most crucially and commonly, through endorsements. For instance, when food company Daesung hired KARA to advertise its Hongcho drink in Japan in 2011, sales increased 15 times—and by no means is this an exceptional case.

Like it or loathe it then, K-pop is contributing to the Korean economy. But it took years of investment and reorganization in the industry before the current craze developed; likely, it will take just as many years to reap all the benefits, as consumers mature, spend, and develop an emotional attachment with Korea and Korean brands. So, by all means, don’t pay attention to the hype—but don’t pay attention to the naysayers either!

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