While the K-pop idol universe is busy with dating scandals, lawsuits, and f(x)’s weird teaser photos, let us spare a moment to remember that somewhere far, far away in K-dramaland, netizens are tearing Kim Soo-hyun a new one….over bottled water. (Jeon Ji-hyun, too, but in the spirit of the recent Taeyeon–Baekhyun dating scandal — in which Taeyeon has received almost all the flak for shattering her fans’ wet dream fantasies and Baekhyun has received almost none of it — let’s turn the tables and arbitrarily point fingers at the guy for once. Mostly because I have a strict one-case-study-per-mineral-water-controversy policy.)
The duo starred in the hit drama You Who Came From The Stars earlier this year, which was met with unprecedented success in China and led to both actors receiving lovecalls for product endorsements all over the mainland. Most recently, the pair were tagged to appear in a CF for Hengda Bingquan mineral water. The product tagline? “Mount Changbai natural spring water, originating from the Changshou district.”
Mount Changbai — or as it’s known in Korea, Mount Paektu — sits on the border between China and North Korea and has been a source of territorial conflict since the 18th century. Technically, China and North Korea each own almost exactly half of the mountain, with North Korea owning about 5% more of the mountain than China. However, the Korean claim to Paektu extends to the entire mountain, thus denying the legitimacy of the 1909 Gando Convention between Japan and China that recognizes China’s claim to Gando, a small region of land on the China-North Korea border that includes Mount Paektu.
The South Korean government claims that Japanese jurisdiction over Korea during the early 20th century was illegally extended to include Gando, which, following pressure from the Chinese Qing government, was then returned to China under the Gando Convention. During this time, Korea was under Japanese annexation and had no diplomatic input in Japan’s decision to sign over (what they believed to be) Korean land without their consent. Although the Chinese-North Korean border claims on Paektu were formally clarified in 1962 (splitting the mountain in half between the two countries), the South Korean government later made a statement in 2004 derecognizing the Gando Convention and, thus, any Chinese claims to the Gando region and Paektu.
Culturally, Mount Paektu possesses an immense amount of cultural significance to both North and South Koreans. This is largely in part due to the Korean origin myth that attributes Paektu as being the birthplace of Dangun, legendary founder of the first Korean kingdom and ancestral father of the Korean people.
The mineral water controversy stems from Hengda Bingquan’s reference of Paektu by its Chinese name, Changbai. News of Kim Soo-hyun and Jeon Ji-hyun’s endorsement of this product was met with intense scrutiny, with some asserting that their choice to endorse the product was paramount to an acknowledgement of the Chinese claim to the mountain (whether whole or in part) as Mount Changbai, thus indirectly delegitimizing the Korean nationalist claim to the entire mountain as Mount Paektu.
Both Kim Soo-hyun and Jeon Ji-hyun temporarily backed out of the deal following the onslaught of criticism, but ultimately decided to continue endorsing the product after issuing a statement asking detractors to “please don’t misunderstand” — AKA, the most overused and least effective damage control tactic known to man. Korean audiences bode Kim Soo-hyun good riddance and wished him well on his traitorous money grubbing adventures in China.
Putting aside for a moment Keyeast’s stupid decision to break the golden rule of being a Korean celebrity (don’t touch anything remotely political with a ten foot pole), as well as the silliness of starting a netizen firestorm over something as trivial as a label on a five-cent plastic water bottle, the main question left to assess amidst all the damage is this: Why would one politically insensitive CF endorsement lead to the near-destruction of a celebrity’s entire career? Why scrutinize a celebrity over politics when celebrities have almost no real political clout?
Obviously not everyone in South Korea has to be a nationalist — there are probably thousands of average Korean Joes who don’t care whether China calls Mount Paektu by its Chinese name or not, and who could care even less about some actor’s decision to model water bottles with the “wrong” name on the label. But things change when your face is everywhere throughout Asia and you’re being touted as “Korea’s representative” throughout domestic media. With thousands of Chinese fans nipping at his heels and numerous Korean press reports praising him for his efforts to promote hallyu, Kim Soo-hyun is no exception.
Nevertheless, the praise that Korean celebrities get for making big bucks overseas always seems to be somewhat conditional. There’s a certain brazen shamelessness attached to celebrities coming back home after getting rich off of foreign dollars (flaunting their new sugar daddy in front of the family, basically), but all wrongs seem to be righted as long as they do a good job of representing the homeland while overseas.
But being a good national representative requires a lot more than just posing with bibimbap and taking pictures of themselves wearing hanbok during Chuseok season. It, again, requires that they refrain from breaking the golden rule of being a Korean celebrity — a vital part of which is not screwing up on nationalist issues. Say one wrong thing about Mount Paektu, Dokdo, the East Sea, or the Yasukuni Shrine — and it’s game over.
It’s hard to imagine that a mineral water endorsement could possibly be a nationalist issue. But with hallyu celebrities who have been dubbed ambassadors of Korean culture to their overseas fanbases, an issue as innocuous and passive as a mineral water endorsement turns into a political crossroads because of its potential to become either a nationalist or anti-nationalist move. Celebrities are left with two options: refuse to endorse the product solely because it doesn’t align with popular Korean nationalist sentiment (e.g. using “Changbai” instead of “Paektu”), thus turning down an offer purely for nationalist reasons; or, take the offer because one missed chance to take a nationalist stand doesn’t seem to be worth the trouble and the lost money — and run the risk of being called an anti-nationalist traitor. The latter option rarely ends well — just ask Kara, who were scrutinized to hell and back in 2012 after refusing to answer when asked point-blank about their opinions on the Dokdo controversy during a press conference in Japan.
When hallyu idols go overseas, their value as soft power cultural products is to aid in increasing foreign awareness and appreciation for this nebulous thing called “Korean culture,” in the hopes that this will translate into hard political power and alliances for Korea the country. So much of Kim Soo-hyun’s overseas popularity has to do purely with the premium placed on Korean media throughout Asia today.
As a cultural ambassador with so much overseas cultural influence, Kim Soo-hyun then has a responsibility to ensure that he represents Korea “correctly.” With every Korean cultural element he carries with him — even if it’s just a selca of him in a hanbok — he immediately puts a positive spin on that element of Korean culture in the minds of his fans. But with Korean pop culture influencing so much of the cultural zeitgeist in Asia today, the Korea that is being marketed and sold by hallyu idols like Kim Soo-hyun is increasingly becoming one size fits all, nationalist accessories included.
It appears that hallyu‘s oft venerated soft power might not be all that soft. In the eyes of Korean nationalists, the responsibility of hallyu idols includes ensuring that their claims to soft power includes all three elements originally proposed by Joseph Nye: culture, politics, and policy — with an emphasis on politics and policy. With controversial issues such as Dokdo, Paektu, or the East Sea, Korean nationalists are unwavering in their belief that pro-nationalist stances are as vital, if not more, to Korean identity as cultural elements like food and music.
While it might be overzealous to think that the influence of hallyu idols alone is capable of causing massive overhauls on long-raging political conflicts, it isn’t for lack of trying. Kim Soo-hyun’s latest CF controversy reveals an important tenet of hallyu‘s evolving soft power: whether it’s pansori or Paektu, there’s no room for compromise.