SANTIAGO/LIMA ― On a slow Wednesday afternoon, dozens of teenage girls straggled into a public park in Santiago, their T-shirts featuring TVXQ, JYJ, Super Junior and other Korean pop stars.
Soon, music was turned up, and the group began to walk through the choreography.
The practice goes on for about three hours, three days a week. The venue has also become a hot spot for youngsters to exchange the latest K-pop-related information and products.
“We also carry out online campaigns to boost sales of TVXQ albums here so that they can visit here and have a concert,” said Nicole, a 20-year-old education student.
She is not alone. Her group is only part of what she called OurGame, a Latin American network of the boy band’s fan clubs stretching from Mexico to Peru to Argentina.
In Chile alone, there are about 20,000 members of 200 clubs also for Big Bang, 2PM, CN Blue, SHINee, MBLAQ and other artists.
Peru is another K-pop stronghold, with nearly 8,000 people participating in 60 groups.
Peruvian fans of Korean band 2PM display signs, pictures and other products during a meeting in Lima. (Shin Hyon-hee/The Korea Herald)
Two days later in Lima, more than 100 members of an even greater variety of fan clubs gathered at a shopping mall.
They regularly meet to watch live recordings of concerts, organize group purchases of CDs and other items, practice for dance competitions, try out Korean restaurants and even to volunteer for community service.
“Here the fan clubs are like family, taking care of each other,” said Genesis Buendia, a 23-year-old fan of JYJ.
“Around 150 members of our club are doing voluntary work tomorrow for the holiday season and making a donation later this month under the name of Kim Jae-joong,” she added, referring to a JYJ member.
As the Korean pop culture boom touched down in this far-off continent, diplomats are kick-starting a new public diplomacy tack by boosting outreach efforts and sponsoring cultural events.
Since its inception in 2008, the annual K-pop contest hosted by the Korean Embassy in Santiago has become one of the most popular youth events in the capital. Diplomats there aim to push up the number of fan clubs and their members to 500 and 100,000 in four years, respectively.
The goal does not appear far-fetched. In March, around 5,000 tickets for JYJ’s concerts in Chile and Peru all sold out, with some followers camping outside the theater for a week.
KBS’ show Music Bank drew more than 11,000 people to its festival in the Chilean city of Vina del Mar on Nov. 3. Ten days later, Big Bang brought together another 10,000 during its performance in Lima.
Latin America’s craze for pop groups has already spilled over to Korean soap operas, food, language and other cultural realms, prompting previously halfhearted local media outlets to rush for more content.
“The phenomenon is almost like an explosion. Compared to this new trend, J-pop was never that popular,” said Sergio Espinosa, editor-in-chief at El Mercurio, Chile’s leading newspaper.
He attributed the fresh fad to increasing trade between the two countries and Chileans’ interests in other cultures driven by the country’s geographical isolation.
“Korean communities have grown a lot over the last 20 years. They have a distinct, unique style seen through signboards and restaurants. Chileans experience Korean food like never before. It’s a discovery,” Espinosa said.
In line with a spike in cultural exchanges, bilateral cooperation in trade, investment and industry has also intensified in recent years.
Chile was Korea’s first free trade partner. The pact’s 2004 implementation has helped triple bilateral trade volume to 7.2 billion in 2011.
Trade between Korea and Peru shot up sixfold over the past six years to $3.3 billion in 2011. The free trade agreement took effect in August, 2011.
In May, Kim Sung-hwan became Seoul’s first Korean foreign minister to visit Santiago in 17 years, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the two countries’ diplomatic relations.
Now their ties are becoming even more multifaceted, officials say, covering areas ranging from resources and renewable energy to climate change and Antarctic research.
“The relationship between the two countries, which has long been tied up with the sheer distance, is shifting on economic causes,” Korea’s Ambassador to Chile Hwang Eui-seung said.
The current trade flows between Asia and Latin America are unparalleled in history, boosted by an upsurge in resources and raw material prices, he said.
“The robust popularity of Korean dramas and pop music matches the region’s interests in Korea, which has been growing along with trade and economic partnerships. We attempted to promote some soap operas several years ago but it didn’t work back then,” the senior diplomat said.
Another area of change is Korea’s landmark deal to export 20 KT-1 training jets to Peru, a step forward in the resources-focused partnership.
Seoul’s strength was on its promise to share defense technology with Lima for joint production of training aircraft and navy ships. Still winning the deal seemed nearly inconceivable in a market dominated by Brazil, said Park Hee-kwon, the country’s ambassador to Peru.
“We were like David fighting up against Goliath,” he said. “We had to sail through everything from Brazil’s lobbying to negative campaigns to politicians’ personnel connections, with its president in command of the bidding process.”
Park then turned to the people. He visited the Peruvian parliament and delivered a speech to be broadcast, met political leaders including President Ollanta Humala, and had interviews with journalists and wrote articles in newspapers.
“This contract demonstrates the importance of public diplomacy,” the ambassador said.
“Public diplomacy is somewhat abstract term and takes time to generate noticeable outcomes. Still that’s why we have to concentrate on it.”
Now pressing tasks include how to sustain the fever and diversify its audience to a broader spectrum of society. To that aim, diplomats are promoting traditional culture, primetime drama airing and Korean language schools.
The embassy in Chile targets student exchange programs as key for closer relationship between the two countries and peoples in the future.
In Peru, meanwhile, Park is envisioning a cultural center to sate surging demand in the former center of the Inca Empire boasting coveted cultural assets. He also plans to hold more comprehensive cultural events such as ones that mingle Korea’s technological prowess with Peruvian traditional culture.
To help ease their financial burden, Seoul’s Foreign Ministry allotted 6 billion won ($5.7 million) for public diplomacy as a separate item for the first time this year.
The newly allotted funds will chiefly be used to finance outreach events and expand the workforces at embassies in cities without a Korean Cultural Center, officials said.
By Shin Hyon-hee, Korea Herald correspondent