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K-pop fever grabs scholars’ attention

International gathering of Korean studies experts focuses on hallyu as well as traditional aspects of Korean society

Just on the outskirts of Seoul, away from the mile-high buildings and the hustle and bustle of city life, lies the small campus of the Academy of Korean Studies, where the landscape is reminiscent of traditional Asian culture. However, this academy, located south of Seoul in Seongnam, is not just for the study of Korea’s traditional culture, but popular culture as well.

Kim Young-in, a Ph.D. candidate at the academy, authored a paper on the global K-pop phenomenon and its meaning for Korea’s economy and national image.

“K-pop is doing so well nowadays, it’s gaining so much interest overseas as well, and people are just going crazy over it,” Kim said in an interview with the Korea Herald. “Every time you turn on the TV, no matter what program you’re watching, there is a Korean pop star.”
Seoul National University professor emeritus Cho Dong-il delivers a keynote address at the Sixth World Congress of Korean Studies on Tuesday. (The Academy of Korean Studies)
Seoul National University professor emeritus Cho Dong-il delivers a keynote address at the Sixth World Congress of Korean Studies on Tuesday. (The Academy of Korean Studies)

In a paper titled, “The correlation between the economics of Korean culture and the improvement of the nation brand image ― focusing on Korean traditional music and K-pop,” Kim explored the influence that traditional music and K-pop have on nation branding.

“I wanted to learn more about the facts of why K-pop has been gaining so much fame,” she said. Although K-pop is being exported internationally and receiving an explosive response, this was never the case for Korea’s traditional music culture.

“K-pop is now becoming a recognizable brand like Samsung,” she said. Using other countries’ music collaboration examples such as Afro-beat, bossa nova and the tango, Kim explained that if Korean traditional music and K-pop can be successfully integrated into the world while creating their own identity, they have the potential to be successful and also help promote the national image of Korea.

Mexico native Nayelli Lopez Rocha, a professor at Hansei University, is also studying the effects of the Korean Wave, focusing on the roles that Korean pop idols’ fan clubs play in Mexico. Based on the data collected during her field work and personal interviews in the Mexico City area, Rocha perceives that the influence of the Korean Wave in the country is significant.

“For me, hallyu is not a simple phenomenon created by some sector to make a profitable product. In reality, hallyu must be understood as a cultural phenomenon which has hybrid cultural elements...not only pop, culture or popular culture, but all Korean culture in general,” she said.

Despite there being many possible factors for the popularity of hallyu in her country, Rocha attributes much of the reason to fan clubs. She found that these fan clubs promote hallyu among other Mexicans through various activities such as dances in parks; parades of K-pop in Mexico City and other regions; K-pop contests; and the use of mass media to promote hallyu artists.

Rocha’s research also mentions how the Pump It Up (PIU) machines, the arcade dance machines where users dance to music on arrowed pads, contributed to the spread of K-pop fever.

“These machines which arrived in Mexico in the 1990s had Korean music software installed in them. They caused craziness among the Mexican young people because it was a mix of gaming and dancing, which is a popular way to socialize among Mexican youth and society in general.”

Her interest in studying factors that contribute to the Korean wave stems from what she claims to be a peculiar, as-yet undefined cultural phenomenon that appeals to the masses in Mexico.

“Hallyu, as in other societies in the world, has also touched the Mexican society ... and exists as a real movement in Mexico,” she concluded.

Studies on hallyu, history, politics and the culture of Korea were presented at the sixth World Congress of Korean Studies on Tuesday and Wednesday at the Academy of Korean Studies campus. There were 140 participants from 25 countries.

By Julie Jackson (