Red Velvet’s bubblegum pop fine-tunes South Korean diplomacy
The Korean Wave, or ‘Hallyu’, has washed up in Pyongyang and Beijing with the desired effect for President Moon
They pouted and pranced, and had North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on the edge of his seat, mesmerized by their flashy dance routines.
Performing two of their smash hits, including the aptly named Bad Boy, Irene, Seulgi, Yeri and Wendy from the South Korean K-pop band Red Velvet showed what soft power, and ‘girl power,’ can achieve during their landmark concert in Pyongyang last month.
Belting out their second number, Red Flavor, they tossed their hair and strutted their stuff as they crooned:
“Red flavor, I’m curious Honey / It tastes like slowly melting strawberry when I bite into it / Look for the corner candy shop Baby / What I like the most is the taste of summer / I open the door with seven rainbow colors / Your world is thrilling, it’s cool …”
The lyrics obviously hit a sweet spot with the one man in the audience that really mattered.
“There had been interest in whether I would come and see Red Velvet,” Kim was quoted in the media as saying. “I had initially planned to attend a performance the day after tomorrow but I came here today after adjusting my schedule.
“I thank you for this kind of gift to [the] Pyongyang citizens,” he added.
Just weeks later, after Red Velvet’s performance at a detente-style concert with a host of stars from the K-pop firmament, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in met Kim in the iconic border village of Panmunjom.
What was discussed in that secluded setting laid the early groundwork for the historic decision to hold a summit in Singapore between United States President Donald Trump and Kim.
While uncertainty still surrounds next month’s meeting, the concert in Pyongyang has, perhaps, helped orchestrate this thaw in diplomatic relations, which at times had looked frozen in a Cold War permafrost.
Soft power, it could be argued, had melted the ice.
If it did, it would have been a culmination of more than a decade of careful planning.
During that time, Seoul has surfed the Korean Wave, or Hallyu, across Asia on the crest of bubblegum pop, compelling dramas and a vibrant youth culture scene.
“It is not an accident that South Korea seized the diplomatic opportunity and elevated the status of pop culture to that of an economic sector, spreading K-pop and K-dramas first at the regional (inter-Asia) level, then worldwide,” the academics, Youngmi Kim and Valentina Marinescu, wrote in a paper for The Journal of Sociology, an academic quarterly publication.
“In this regional and international contest, for conquering larger audiences, the South Korean government has taken an active role since the 1980s [and later established] the first ‘Cultural Industry Bureau’, spreading popular culture [internationally],” they added.
Still, the country has taken soft power, which was coined by the distinguished Harvard professor Joseph Nye in the late 1980s, to the outer limits.
Months before the K-pop overtures to Pyongyang, Korean Wave diplomacy had washed up in Beijing after Moon included an array of celebrities in his business delegation for the visit to China in December.
Leading actress Song Hye-kyo, who starred in the 2016 hit drama, Descendants of the Sun, was even invited to President Xi Jinping’s state dinner.
At the bilateral business event, boy band EXO, the latest big-earning group from the hugely successful production line of talent agency S.M. Entertainment, were conspicuous by their presence.
Soft power was being wheeled out alongside realpolitik.
In their paper, the Korean Wave as [a] Tool for Korea’s New Cultural Diplomacy, which was published on the Scientific Research website, Gunjoo Jang and Won K. Paik outlined the ultimate goal of Hallyu policy.
“Does the Korean Wave affect the political position and diplomatic leverage of [South] Korea in any meaningful way?” the academics asked. “We tentatively conclude that the Korean Wave has a positive impact [in promoting] cultural diplomacy as a part of the soft power approach as argued by Nye.”
It has also become big business. While there are various numbers bandied around, revenue from K-pop reached a record US$4.7 billion in 2016 on the back of a YouTube audience spanning Seattle to Shanghai, Bloomberg reported.
When you roll in K-dramas and the entire culture and creative industries, the figure is hovering around the $90 billion mark.
Major corporations are also part of this phenomenon with astute product placements.
“In the annual 2017 ranking by Interbrand of the world’s top 100 brands, Samsung was listed sixth in the world with a brand value of $56.2 billion,” Martin Roll, the business and brand strategist, highlighted in a report, “while LG has transformed itself from a manufacturer of cheap products to a brand of repute.
“Hyundai and Kia brands are creating a similar revolution in the car industry. This new interest in Korea has been a great driver of Hallyu,” the report added.
Asia’s insatiable appetite for television series, from the seminal 2002 weepy Winter Sonata to My Love from the Star in 2013 and Descendants of the Sun, have only increased the impact of the Korean Wave.
To illustrate the industry’s appeal, you only have to look at the data from IQiyi.com.
The video-streaming website of China’s version of Google, the online behemoth Baidu, revealed there were more than “2.8 billion views” for Descendants of the Sun and 1.3 billion for My Love from the Star.
This, in turn, sparked a sales boom in South Korean products, such as cosmetics, which were featured in the K-dramas.
“Sales of the lipstick used by Song in Descendants of the Sun [when it was aired] reached a record,” Jung Jin-woo, an official at the Beijing division of the Korea Trade and Investment Promotion Agency, told The Korea Herald. “After the drama [finished], sales of Korean cosmetics in China kept increasing.
“Such a trend is notable for consumers in major cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou,” Jung added.
The Hallyu craze has also propelled groups such as BTS to global superstardom. The seven-strong boy band became the first Korean act to have a No.1 album in the US this week with Love Yourself: Tear. It was an epic-making event for BTS’ millions of fans from Incheon to Indianapolis.
Earlier this month, Red Velvet also saw their video Dumb Dumb pass the 100 million “views” milestone on YouTube.
It was the second time the princesses of K-pop had cracked that magical figure after the runaway success of their Russian Roulette video in 2016.
Globally, their appeal soared after the world’s media clamored to report on the concert at the East Pyongyang Grand Theater.
Kim even went backstage to shake hands with band members before staying behind for a photo shoot.
“Please tell President Moon how great an event like this is,” he told visiting Seoul officials after the curtain fell on a concert heavy in diplomatic symbolism.
Next up, could be a trip to Singapore and a date with Trump, despite the last minute hitches and glitches.
Maybe, the US president should bring over BTS and Red Velvet to break the ice before he gets down to the serious business of persuading the North Korean leader to dismantle his nuclear weapons program.