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Opinion

K-pop deaths highlight South Korea's desperation for soft power

In unpromising economy, music groups are rare financial and cultural success

Girl group Blackpink performs on stage on January 23: K-pop bears the inflated dreams and desires of a country in crisis.   © Getty Images

The propulsive beats and synchronized movements that pushed BTS, Blackpink and many other groups to the forefront of the global pop music scene are the most compelling face of South Korea to the world -- its form of soft power or global cultural influence.

Whether promoting Samsung cellphones in Southeast Asia, beauty products in China or political candidates at home -- in fact, even in political propaganda aimed at North Koreans -- K-pop is everywhere: the proof of superiority and modernity. Any intimation of its dark side, such as sex scandals or the exploitation of the stars, mars K-pop's perfectionist sheen.

But the recent apparent suicide of Goo Hara, formerly of popular girl group Kara, following that of Sulli, another star singer, in October, as well as the conviction on Nov. 29 of two male K-pop stars for sexual crimes, cannot help but cast a dark shadow on the glittery world of K-pop -- and reflect much deeper problems in today's South Korea.

What is curious about contemporary South Korea is that a gaggle of young singers has come to symbolize the nation: the mask that South Korea wears to convince itself and others of its eminence and coolness.

After all, until two decades ago, pop singers remained morally suspect in South Korea. The virtues of diligence, rectitude and seriousness that drove decades of rapid and compressed industrialization -- the broad background that spawned Hyundai cars and LG refrigerators -- militated against the frivolous and the salacious that seemed to mark mere entertainment.

Yet conservative and progressive politicians, who agree on little else, are now united in their praise and promotion of K-pop. K-pop is in all likelihood what the world now associates with South Korea. From Lee Myung-bak to Moon Jae-in, South Korean presidents cannot say enough to celebrate it.

Goo Hara, who was a member of the popular K-pop girl group Kara, was found dead on Nov. 24 in her home in Seoul: K-pop's dark side reflects deeper problems in today's South Korea.   © Imaginechina/AP

Nevertheless, it is one thing for youths around the world to cover K-pop songs and dances but another matter altogether for virtually the entire country to become boosters of a popular cultural phenomenon.

This support for soft power -- the characteristics that make France and French products, for instance, desirable, luxurious and even sexy -- is understandable.

In the globalized world where nations are as much brands as wielders of military power, there is a widespread effort to enhance the cultural prestige of a nation state not only as a good in and of itself but also as a way to promote its economy and polity.

In South Korean government ministries overstuffed with Ivy League educated bureaucrats, the notion of soft power is as sacrosanct as any belief about how to raise the nation's status. They have burned millions and millions of Korean won to promote domestic literature and food: it is not a deep secret that the worldwide success of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami and sushi is the envy of South Koreans.

Samsung may have superseded Sony in global sales or brand recognition, but almost no one ranks South Korea above Japan in terms of which country is cooler.

But the importance of K-pop runs deeper. Despite decadeslong efforts to cultivate pathbreaking products and high-value industries, the South Korean economy is in the doldrums. It remains dominated by quasi-monopolistic companies, or chaebol; there is hardly a unicorn on the horizon. Semiconductors, dominated by Samsung Electronics, account for a fifth of total South Korean exports.

Given rocky relationships with its main trading partners, China, Japan and now the protectionist U.S., it is not surprising that business leaders and economic bureaucrats worry about the immediate and long-term prospects of the South Korean economy.

Indeed, the future seems replete with dark clouds for ordinary South Koreans. Most striking is the plummeting numbers of births. In 2018 the country was a world leader in low fertility at 0.98 -- that is, less than one birth per woman -- when only a rate above two ensures a growing population. The graying, aging population faces fewer future Koreans.

The youthful exuberance of K-pop casts rare, bright rays against the dark, brooding backdrop of crisis-ridden South Korea. Politicians and bureaucrats seek the elixir of coolness and prestigious branding for a country hitherto best known for the Korean War or being confused with bellicose North Korea.

Business leaders and policymakers want an innovative export for a country associated with products inferior to Apple or Toyota. A geriatric society is desperate for a dash of youth and a hope for the future.

It would be tempting for outsiders to see in K-pop merely the usual teenybopper stuff -- all those love songs spiced by gyrating, sculpted bodies unusual only because of its East Asian provenance. But K-pop bears the inflated dreams and desires of a country in crisis.

The bitter reality of K-pop is that, despite all the superficial shimmer, it embodies almost all the legacy of South Korea's state-led industrialization, such as top-down, authoritarian management and an overexploited labor force, which it had seemed to have superseded.

The spate of suicides, then, shines light on the dark, antiquated underbelly of South Korean political economy. Far from epitomizing the cool and the advanced, then, we glimpse in these deaths grim portents of South Korea's future.

John Lie teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, and is the author of "K-pop: Economic Innovation, Cultural Amnesia, and Popular Music in Contemporary South Korea."

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