[Essay] Is Asia a Barrier for the Hallyu and K-pop?

The incident, also known as the 'sock incident' (a conflict over laundry), occurred during their time living together in the U.S. The meticulous Bang and the easygoing Park are both studying abroad in the U.S. and starting their lives as novice producers, but their paths diverge after the incident.


Author: JUNG Hojai


If there is a thrilling turning point in the development of K-pop, it might be around 2003 when two core members of JYP Entertainment, Park Jin-young, and Bang Si-hyuk, started building connections as pop producers in the United States. Park Jin-young, born in 1971, and Bang Si-hyuk, born in 1972, were in their energetic early 30s at that time. For these two top producers, who broke through their 20s in the 1990s with their genius, "United States" was the home of pop music and their ultimate goal to build connections and begin a music business.

However, those who remember the situation in Korea at that time can empathize, as it was not easy for native Koreans to bring about good results in any field, including information Techonology and Finance, in the United States. Of course, Park Jin-young had been building connections by shuttling between recording studios in the United States since the early 2000s when he succeeded with groups such as 'god'. However, most of the people at that time often scoffed, saying like that "Koreans doing black music? What nonsense!" People perceived the U.S. music market's walls as high and felt it was impossible to be invited.

1. JYP vs. HYBE

The incident, also known as the 'sock incident' (a conflict over laundry), occurred during their time living together in the United States. The meticulous Bang Si-hyuk and the easygoing Park Jin-young are both studying abroad in the U.S. and starting their lives as novice producers, but their paths diverge after this ‘sock incident’. And this split is one of the well known episode describing K-pop's early challenges.

Park Jin-young stayed in the United States, while Bang Si-hyuk decided to return to Korea. The U.S. black music scene continued to play a significant role in K-pop, and Park Jin-young, having achieved success with the Wonder Girls (debuted in 2007), which drew inspiration from Motown, immediately launched a roadshow targeting nationwide radio broadcasts in the United States for these girls. Park Jin-young's philosophy of 'globalization,' starting from the local ground and moving upward, played a role in this decision.

While Bang Si-hyuk briefly brought his own group, BTS, to the United States in the early days of their debut, it was more to infuse a global soul rather than immediately debuting them in the U.S. market. The difference between these two approaches provides an interesting comparison point. When Bang Si-hyuk later established his company, Big Hit, the slogan he promoted was 'Becoming Asia's No. 1,' which is also interesting in this context. There are many other examples. JYP, for instance, chooses to fly to the United States when shooting music videos (and even learned Japanese when targeting the Japanese market). In contrast, Big Hit stubbornly stuck to Korean members and the method of shooting in Korea.

It is not about judging who is right or wrong between the two. Both have already achieved global success. It is noteworthy to document the contrasting attitudes of these two representatives toward the market. In other words, the "Park Jin-young route" is a hierarchical, multipolar world centered around the United States; success in the U.S. is the ultimate success. On the other hand, this is not the case for the "Bang Si-hyuk way." Rather, it appears to be segmented into Korea (Asia) and the West, but fundamentally, it is closer to a unified world. If you become No. 1 in Asia, you can become No. 1 globally.

2. Is Asia Barrier?

Recently, there have been various interpretations over the success of the Hallyu, and there is a point of view that I would like to challenge. It goes something like this: 'Until the 2010s, Hallyu and K-pop was limited to being popular only in Asia regions, but with the emergence of global platforms such as YouTube, Netflix, and the Apple Store, it could expand to the world in full swing.'

This kind of argument, with its notion of overcoming limitations in Asia, is a typical example of 'media determinism' and, at the same time, narrow-minded thinking trapped in American centrism. Every time I hear such interpretations, it irritates me.

The expression 'limitations of Asia' itself makes no sense, and it is uncomfortable to see a modern societal art theory similar to 'Andy Warhol' suggesting that anyone can become a star once they climb onto the platform. Lately, it seems that Japanese broadcasting companies occasionally adopt such perspectives, urging, 'Benchmark the Korean drama system that actively utilizes Netflix.' While media determinism may work once or twice, how long can it last?

3. "Plastic Surgery"

“K-pop is created with an excessive consciousness of the West." – Matsumoto Jun, member of J-pop idol group Arashi

Whether it is K-pop or K-dramas like Squid Game, the Japanese pop culture industry might be uncomfortable because, in almost every aspect of the Hallyu, one can indirectly sense ‘Ilryu’(日流, meaning Japanese wave). Hallyu might give off the impression of being a knockoff that imitates Japan. Therefore, Japan may feel uneasy towards Korea for taking something from Japan without permission and selling it to the West.

At the same time, this is also true from China's perspective. When examining Korea's historical content closely, most are closely related to Chinese culture. Hanbok resembles the styles of the Song and Ming Dynasties, and the appearance of the Joseon royal family is undoubtedly a downgraded version of the Chinese imperial family. Even Korean cuisine, like kimchi, has deep roots in China, and the history of Korean surnames originated from the Chinese mainland.

Therefore, from a Chinese or Japanese perspective, Hallyu appears to be assimilating into the Western world by incorporating 'English' lyrics for marketability in the West, adopting blonde hair through hair dyeing, conforming to Western beauty standards via plastic surgery, and presenting stories with a somewhat Westernized romance and conflict dynamic. 'English Determinism' is easily seen as an extension of 'Media Determinism.' Hallyu is often perceived as skillfully choosing platforms and packaging content effectively rather than recognizing that the true essence of Asia lies in 'China' and 'Japan'—a viewpoint held by narrow-minded Asian nationalists.

Why does Korea have a reputation as the capital of plastic surgery? Many are aware that this is a frame attack from neighboring countries to emphasize that Korea is a superficial cultural realm without a strong foundation. It was also a counterattack asserting that Asia's roots are weak.

4. Success in Asia

What I have been emphasizing for the past few years is the close relationship between 'Hallyu and Asia.' The reason for the anger at the expression 'Hallyu was trapped in the Asian market' is because fundamentally, Hallyu gained the strength to expand into the global market through its success in Asia.

This must be viewed in connection with the failure of Japan's policy of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere and the inherent danger of China's 'Sinocentrism,' practically evaluated as traditional Asianism. While Japan promoted the noble ideology of 'Asia Liberation,' it is essential to reflect on the subsequent failure of militarism, which essentially imposed an ethical framework at the level of the medieval feudal era, specifically the era of the Daimyo period, upon the people of Asia.

At the same time, China is not unrelated to the terrifying Chinese(中華) order that imposes 'One China' on the entire global humanity. How is it possible that the copyrights of all traditional Asian cultures, including the Four Great Inventions of the world, have their roots in China? In essence, Chinese nationalism (中华主义) is not significantly different from racial imperialism and territorial imperialist ideologies, isn't that the problem? If, for the greatness of China, every Chinese person must be assimilated under a single government, then it would be an inevitable consequence that cultural products produced under such a framework flow towards 'excessive patriotism.’

5. Asian Universality

The expression 'What is Korean is what is most global' is controversial, but it is only half valid because an intermediate step is missing. When the universality of the Northeast Asia-East Asia-Asia civilization sphere is present, the subsequent step of becoming global is missing. The reason Korea stands out in the 21st century lies in the fact that Korean civilization and technology have communicated widely without being dependent on a specific country. In this way, Korea has gained homogeneity and universality in adjacent markets, realizing the method of 'communication.'

Communicating and trading products and selling dramas in China, Japan, and Southeast Asia should be possible. If this is achievable, there is no need for the composition of the members to be forcibly 'multinational,' nor for ‘English phrases to be inserted into the lyrics,’ or for music videos to be shot in 'Harlem, New York' for exotic beauty.

After the late 1990s, spreading of Hallyu to the world has significantly grown through continuous efforts to expand Asian universality. In this process, it was able to succeed in the West as a representative culture of Asia. It is about something other than whether Bang Si-hyuk is right and Park Jin-young is wrong; both directions competed, interacted, complemented each other's strengths and weaknesses, and contributed to the growth of K-pop. It suggests that until Japan and China recognize the 'Asia' platform, Japanese-wave(日流)  and Chinese-wave(華流) will not be able to globalize for a while.

They seemed to enjoy recalling the "socks conflict" during their stay in the US.

1. We need to be cautious about media determinism. English determinism is also entirely groundless. Although platforms may be powerful, dominant platform operators have existed in every era.

2. Both Park and Bang are respected super-ultra planners in K-pop. However, it is disappointing to see the recent downturn of ITZY. I intentionally avoid listening to BTS songs these days... Currently, I am immersed in aespa from SM Entertainment.

3. Acquiring regional representation is an important goal and vision. Europe's representation has changed at each period, from Venice to France, Austria to Prussia, and the United Kingdom. Korea should naturally bear the representation of Asia and responsively deal with the world.