A financial crisis that began in Thailand in 1997 then spread to other parts of Southeast and East Asia, significantly impacting South Korea. As a result of the economic fallout, the country sought assistance from the International Monetary Fund. Unfortunately, the loan was not enough to restore the country’s economy. In response, South Korea’s president, Kim Dae-Jung, selected the entertainment industry as a catalyst for economic growth.
Since then, South Korea has become closely synonymous with the concept of soft power due to the immense appeal of its pop culture. The term soft power, coined by Joseph Nye in the late 1980s, refers to a nation’s ability to influence others through non-coercive means, such as culture, values, and diplomacy, rather than relying on military force or economic sanctions. In addition to boosting the country’s economy, the image of South Korea also received a boost. The allure of its pop culture has led people worldwide to want to consume Korean cuisine, learn the Korean language, watch Korean films and television shows, and listen to Korean music. While South Korea's entertainment industry undoubtedly holds a pivotal role in capturing global interest, there are occasionally instances where political tensions and its entertainment industry meet, particularly in the world of K-pop (Korean pop music).
Due to the colonization of the Korean peninsula, tensions have persisted between South Korea and Japan. Issues such as the sexual slavery of women and girls, forced labor, the whitewashing of history textbooks, the use of the Rising Sun Flag, and a territorial dispute over the Liancourt Rocks continue to be sources of contention. Known as “Dokdo” in South Korea and “Takeshima” in Japan, this group of islets in the Sea of Japan recently made the news when K-pop boy band Treasure excluded Dokdo from a map at a fan event in Tokyo. The situation drew the ire of some Koreans when fans noticed that the map included other islands but omitted Dokdo.
Other K-pop stars have faced criticism for situations involving the Rising Sun Flag, a Japanese emblem often perceived as a symbol of Japan’s imperial past. The flag is divisive in South Korea, as some believe that it glorifies Japan’s wartime actions and ignores the abuse inflicted during that period. While some people detest the flag, others remain oblivious to its controversy. Over the years, there have been multiple cases of K-pop singers being associated with the flag and facing backlash for it. For example, in 2007, rapper and singer T.O.P elicited disapproval after wearing a jacket with two Rising Sun Flags.
Additionally, in 2016, Korean American singer Tiffany Young ignited anger after she uploaded a photo on her SNS that contained a sticker of the Rising Sun Flag. To make matters worse, she posted the picture on the National Liberation Day of Korea, a public holiday celebrating the end of Japanese colonial rule. To some, her choice to share the image on this particular day was perceived as deeply insensitive, given the historical context and the intense emotions surrounding symbols like this flag.
Moreover, it is worth noting that South Koreans are not the only ones who have expressed anger over polarizing issues. In 2018, a Japanese television program revealed its decision to withdraw an invitation extended to popular K-pop sensation BTS. The reason behind this cancellation was that one of the group's members wore a t-shirt commemorating National Liberation Day and featured an image of an atomic bomb that had detonated alongside Korean political slogans. Instances such as these highlight the complex intersection of politics and the entertainment industry.
Decades after his presidency, Kim Dae-Jung’s attempt at soft power has proven successful. South Korea stands as a cultural powerhouse, celebrated for its pop music, films, television shows, and more. The Korean Wave, or Hallyu, as it is commonly referred to, continues to captivate audiences worldwide. The country’s ability to wield its soft power effectively is showcased in its recent achievements. It was not that long ago when K-pop artists would adapt their songs to cater to the preferences of Japanese audiences, as Japan’s music industry is the second largest in the world. However, as the popularity of South Korea has grown, more Japanese people have taken an interest in Korean culture, and some even aspire to become K-pop singers. As a result, a number of Japanese people have found success as K-pop artists, including three members of the popular girl group Twice.
While some individuals in South Korea and Japan are interested in each other's cultures, nationalist sentiments have sometimes hindered efforts to improve relations. Nationalism on both sides has exacerbated these tensions by fostering an “us vs. them" mentality. In recent years, South Korea’s decision to terminate a military intelligence sharing agreement with Japan and a trade dispute has further soured relations.
When an attempt was made last March to improve bilateral relations following a meeting with South Korea’s current president, Yoon Suk-Yeol, and Japan’s Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida, the Korean leader received backlash from some of his country’s citizens after they believed him to be conceding to the Japanese. He had proposed that Korean businesses, not Japanese companies, should be the ones to compensate victims of wartime forced labor, which drew the ire of some people.
Tensions between the two countries remain, but South Korea’s attempt at soft power has undoubtedly left its mark. The country’s journey from economic crisis to cultural prominence is a remarkable story of resilience. While diplomatic challenges persist, there is a sense of assurance that South Korea's soft power will continue to influence others, even though there are times when entertainment and politics intersect in an adverse manner.
Kristin Hynes is a PhD candidate in International Relations at Florida International University who primarily focuses on East Asia. She can be reached at Kristinhynes.com.