Can K-pop stay quiet?

South Korea is a constitutional democracy in which citizens vote for the president and the National Assembly of leaders in free elections. The country enjoys “mostly” free speech, aside from their fervent criminalization of anything supporting North Korea, and significant number of blocked websites and online discussions. South Korea is a country with quick Internet connection and very “wired”, thus encouraging people to be online. However, it is said that the government exercises power over Internet content. As a global leader in Internet and broadband connection, Korean online media is integral to forming and shaping public opinion. Korean pop music is heavily supported by the government and thanks to mobile devices and social media sites, mainly YouTube, the music culture in Korea is believed to be driving social change not only for the country, but the world.

Post-dictatorship South Korea experienced relief from censorship and free expression in the late 90s when censorship on domestic and foreign music was lifted. As a collectivist nation, there are certain standards and expectations of children regarding their futures in education and careers, but there remains a spirit of rebellion. It comes in the form of K-pop (Korean pop music). Children and teens are not only changing their answers to “what do you want to be when you grow up?”, but they are being recruited into Korean pop music.

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When government censorship did not allow the distribution of pop music, distributors and producers resorted to the back alleys of YouTube to export music to foreign countries. K-pop quickly became one of Korea’s biggest export, however artists still have to go through “multi-layer censorship system”:

  • The television networks have strict guidelines.
  • The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family control pop music for lyrics and styles that are “appropriate” for listeners. They try to regulate insubordinate communication, material that seems like it would be harmful to minors, and sexual content.
  • Any government entity can find a song too sexist, political, or anti-government.

The regulations are essentially ambiguous and inconsistent in the criterion that condemns pop music to an unsuitable status. While the government does have media regulations in place, as the lucrative and expansive affects of exporting K-pop became, the government modified existing policies to accommodate. South Korea has been known to shut down or delete content that criticize the government and citizens are required by law to verify their identity by using their real names. As a result, Korean young people have resorted to using their parents identities to skirt the laws of the Internet and gain access to sites they would otherwise be banned from.

The Internet and social media allowed K-pop to freely air content on YouTube, when Korea television networks denied them or censored them. It is an interesting dynamic to examine the elements of speech and expression that are “allowed” and embraced in South Korea, but for a country that calls itself “creatively driven”, doesn’t hold much faith in their music industry, contrary to financial successes and global reach. K-pop is transforming Korean society. For example during the 2012 presidential elections, both candidates used K-pop songs for their campaigns.

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It is suspected that with the success of K-pop and television stations no longer being able to act as gatekeepers, which the government in effect will lose their control of K-pop because digital social media will no longer allow censorship to work as it had before. South Koreans exercise their access to online technology and utilize it for civic engagement and political mobilization. K-pop has been used as a strategic platform for the unofficial support of nationalist efforts, policy support, and commercial affairs with multinational corporations like Samsung and LG.  In 2013, YouTube was used as the platform for an investigative journalism project, Newstapa, that drew over six million views, the same platform used to broadcast K-pop. Also, lest we forget, Psy’s Gangnam Style was banned by a major television station due to the “public property damage”; and now one of the most watched and parodied songs ever. The video went viral with 100 million views on YouTube as of September 2012.

As I am about to visit South Korea, the global phenomenon of K-pop is intriguing in that it seems to have an extensive influence on the culture. The government, making this very thought provoking dynamic to ponder, heavily supports the K-pop culture. How long will their censorship on content last with the global presence, support, and collaboration that K-pop generates? With K-pop being a global sensation, what kind of cultural authority will the Korean government be able to establish over the vast digital and social media realm?

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