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K-pop Stars as Conscious Culture Representatives?

For Korean celebrities, there often seems to exist both a pull toward and a draw away from their home country of South Korea. While these kind of conflicting sentiments are common enough in a day and age where a number of cultures are easily open to our perusal, I don’t think I’ve seen them voiced as consciously as I have out of the mouths of K-pop figures. I have often read lines from interviews where a singer states he or she is proud to bring Korean culture to other countries, be it obviously through some sort of “Korean food highlight” segment on a TV show or simply through the fact of the entertainer being a Korean as he/she enjoys popularity in another country.

Boy band Tohoshinki, a five-member Korean group (originally 동방신기, Dong Bang Shin Gi) that went to Japan with the intent of succeeding as a J-pop group, released and performed all their songs in Japanese. For the most part, they worked with a Japanese team, including regular staff as well as music composers/producers; they also studied Japanese intently so that they could go on variety shows and conduct interviews more fluidly. Though heavily integrating into Japanese society and style, learning cultural mannerisms and humor in addition to the language itself, the group still seemed to see themselves as representative of their home country. (It’s usually rather implicit and a very strong impression I get from reading articles and interviews; it was stated more outright in a recent episode of Golden Fishery from the two members remaining at SM Entertainment.)The fact that they were natively Korean was often mentioned and employed in the show material; one Japanese show had them eat spicy foods from all over the world to test each members’ tolerance while recording their reactions.

However, the members often expressed an almost desperate want to return to Korea and perform “at home.” Each time they were allowed back, they would say things like, “I’ve missed this stage so much,” or say at fan meetings, “Thank you so much for waiting for us,” while crying. They (or their company) know that to expand their reputation and keep profits increasing, it is beneficial to venture outside the Korean entertainment market. Simultaneously, there is still some very strong draw where missing home doesn’t just mean missing family and friends and familiar places but also encompasses the home audience, songs in the native tongue/sound and even the TV show productions (YG singer Se7en also mentioned this in his 2010 Golden Fishery interview except he had ventured into the American market, didn’t do so well and advised others to be content performing on home soil, half in jest. He mentions watching Korean programs after 2:35.)

But that was a group that integrated into an entertainment industry foreign to them. Yet similar sentiments seem to exist in those who do not have to go through the same efforts of fitting in to an unfamiliar culture. Two members of Super Junior, another SM boy group which originally possessed 13 members, recently appeared on MBC News Desk to comment on their recent concerts in Paris.

A number of singers and groups under SM’s umbrella traveled to different cities to do a “world tour.” In the clip above, Super Junior leader Leeteuk stated: “If past battles were fought visibly with guns and swords, today’s battles are unseen cultural competition. As the Hallyu wave continues to spread, I believe Korea will become a powerful focal point of the world. If I were to compare this to sports, I believe we are national athletes (representatives of our country). We will spread Korea’s good music far and wide.”

Again, that conscious mindset of, “I am going to a foreign country. I am Korean. I am bring Korea to this country. I am representing my homeland, South Korea. I am promoting and spreading the strengths of Korean people and culture.” It’s almost a characteristic.

Honestly I’m not sure what to think about it all. Is it a good thing or a bad thing, more negative effects and implications or positive? (I tend to lean toward the negative, but that’s because I connect a lot of it with the shortcomings of the mainstream music industry in Korea.) Do these entertainers really mean and feel that, or is it something they’ve been led to say by their company? Inculcated through their years of training or instructed explicitly as an appropriate interview response? Is it SM Entertainment especially? Why does Korea seem to be the Asian country most intent and vigorously conscious of exporting their culture?

Added note: Oh yes. And the government plays an increasing role as well (see DBSK as Delegates to Globalize Korean Music). A lot of this fits under Korea’s cultural tourism.

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