A happy consequence (one would hope) of being an international fan of K-pop, K-dramas, or really, any form of K-entertainment is that one becomes more intimately acquainted with Korean culture and society through the cultural products that one consumes. The Korean Wave has been an undeniable boon in bringing a new (and young) generation of people across the globe to a healthy interest in all things Korean, and many of these individuals use their interest in K-pop as a springboard to delve into Korean history, Korean food, Korean language, Korean politics, and much more. This is, of course, fantastic; there is a serious dearth of interest in Korean studies in the United States (particularly as compared to interest in Chinese and Japanese studies), and a thriving community of dedicated K-pop fans will only help to expand the field’s potential.
Now, there’s really nothing wrong with maintaining one’s interest in K-pop while also exploring other aspects of Korean culture — we here at Seoulbeats do it every day. In fact, I’ve even written an entire series of articles that demonstrates how K-pop and K-entertainment can expose fans to awesome amounts of insider knowledge on life in Korea (if only they know where/how to spot it). But the goal of those articles is not necessarily to convince you to couch every bit of information you learn about Korea within the context of K-pop; K-pop is the vehicle, but it isn’t always a part of the end product. It is important for fans to learn how to separate the fantasy land that is K-pop from the reality that is Korea. For reals, people — a friend once told me that a K-pop enthusiast she met in a history class called ancient Korean kingdom Goguryeo’s King Gwanggaeto “hot.” How interesting, given that we have no pictures of him — because he ruled in the fourth century. Now, Bae Yong-joon, who portrayed Gwanggaeto in the drama series The Legend (Taewang Sasingi,대왕 사신기), might be hot, but let’s be real — Bae Yong-joon and Gwanggaeto are not the same person.
It concerns me, then, when I see articles about the growing tensions on the Korean peninsula that seem more concerned with the fact that some of their favorite celebrities are in the military and might get hurt (which, please — as if Leeteuk would ever be called upon to do anything real) if war breaks out than they are with, you know, the fact that an all-out inter-Korean war would be completely devastating not only to both Koreas, but to East Asia in general and would irrevocably alter regional geopolitics. It unnerves me when people exhort me to write to my local congress(wo)man and demand “Peace on the Peninsula for K-pop!” First of all, what is my congress(wo)man going to do — travel to North Korea and ask the Dear Leader’s chosen successor Kim Jong-un to stop fussing with nuclear reactors? Unless I was living under former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson‘s jurisdiction, this is a completely useless exercise. Second of all, are you kidding me? Peace on the peninsula for the sake of a largely frivolous and entirely inconsequential entertainment industry? Experts estimate that a repeat of the Korean War would result in over a million casualties in the first 24 hours alone. Where are your priorities?
And lest you think I am targeting international fans, let’s not forget how Korean fans flooded South Korea’s emergency phone lines with sincere — sincere!! — calls asking for their favored celebrities to be saved first in the event of war. The Kyungnam Police reported getting between 300-400 phone calls per day from elementary school students and teenagers when North Korea begin stirring the pot in mid-March begging them to save their INFINITE oppas from peril. Because really, even if the entire Korean peninsula went up in smoke, we could all breathe easier if INFINITE was still around to entertain us. Never mind that none of their Korean fans would be around to watch them perform — the important thing is that their comparative good looks be spared!
What is happening in Korea right now is serious — very, very serious. North Korea has engaged in heightened bouts of bellicose, war-mongering rhetoric before, but its latest round of hell-raising is accompanied by unprecedented and potentially provocative maneuvers, leading many to argue that the North has painted itself into such a corner that it cannot but make good on its threats lest it lose credibility in the eyes of the world and its own people. In the past two months alone, Kim Jong-un’s regime has tested a nuclear weapon (that they can apparently transport on a missile, no less), unilaterally nullified the 1953 armistice that put an end to the fighting of the Korean War (but importantly did not officially end the war, as it was not a peace treaty), declared that a “state of war” exists between it and South Korea, closed the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a joint manufacturing venture between North and South Korea that is an extremely important source of revenue for a North Korea that chronically lacks hard currency, and threatened South Korea, the United States, and Japan with nuclear war.
Whether or not these threats are empty noise geared principally at boosting the security of Kim Jong-un’s leadership with the North Korean people or part and parcel of North Korea’s oft-used practice of pushing the envelope to extract concessions and aid from South Korea and the United States remains to be seen; for a remarkably clear-eyed perspective, North Korea expert and Kookmin University professor Andrei Lankov’s latest piece in the New York Times is an absolute must-read. However, it is true that North Korean founder, eternal president, and supreme leader Kim Il-sung’s birthday is this week (April 15), raising speculation and concern that Kim Jong-un may be planning a missile launch or some other provocative measure to mark the occasion (which is one of very few holidays in North Korea and is often commemorated with massive military parades, a staging of the Mass Games, and Kimilsungia — one of the official flowers of North Korea — galore). Given how high tensions are in the region, one small misstep could easily spell disaster for millions of people and billions of dollars in damages and loss.
Look, I understand that for most K-pop fans, K-pop is their most meaningful connection to South Korea, thus making it easy to fall into the trap of associating pretty much everything related to Korea that one encounters with some aspect of the Korean entertainment industry. War on the Korean peninsula, however, does not just mean a potential halt to PSY‘s latest round of promotions and an end to K-pop as we know it. It could essentially mean an end to live in both South and North Korea as we know it. Forgive the hyperbole and theatrics, but it is simply ridiculous to be concerned that a war whose reverberations have the potential to impact the entire world’s greatest consequence will somehow be the upsetting of one’s favorite pop music industry. It’s really great that K-pop has given fans a reason to be invested in Korean affairs, but this investment is shallow if one cannot convert it into meaningful engagement with Korea that extends beyond the realm of entertainment.
Questions? Comments? You know what to do!