They have spoken out in support of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, humiliated Donald Trump and criticised Thailand’s Government.
- K-pop’s diverse, global fanbase is campaigning on a range of issues from the climate to racial equality
- Social media platforms such as Twitter are seeing fans of Korean popular culture band together for activist causes
- Fundraising drives to buy presents for K-pop “idols” also lend themselves to raising money for charity
A millions-strong coalition of young people worldwide united by their love for K-pop stars — also known as idols — are increasingly participating in political and social activism across the globe.
In recent weeks they have mobilised to raise money for the victims of natural disasters in Indonesia.
Nurul Sarifah, an organiser with the climate change-focused Kpop4Planet campaign, said there were 16 K-pop groups around Indonesia fundraising for the victims of a 6.2 magnitude earthquake on the island of Sulawesi and severe flooding in the province of South Kalimantan on Borneo — disasters that struck poorer parts of the archipelago earlier this year.
The groups’ members had raised about $100,000 in 10 days, she said.
“They often raise funds for their idols’ birthdays, anniversaries, among other things.”
‘Concerned about everything’
Elf Indonesia is a fan club for K-pop group Super Junior and has been raising funds for victims of natural disasters in Indonesia since its founding in 2012.
The group had raised 59 million rupiah ($5,520) from its young membership by the start of this month for the recent disasters — in a country where many earn as little as $250 per month.
Elf Indonesia member Arendeelle said they managed to collect about 12 million rupiah ($1,113) in just 24 hours.
She said K-pop fans tended to act quickly and “are concerned about everything”.
“It’s an act of spontaneity. K-poppers always act quickly, not just in donating, but everything,” she told the ABC.
Experts say social media platforms such as Twitter and Tik Tok have encouraged the cross-pollination of K-pop and politics.
“Many of them are active on platforms like Twitter, where issues like #MeToo, #BLM are widely discussed,” Sarah Keith, senior lecturer in media and music at Macquarie University, told the ABC.
During the US election campaign in 2020, K-pop fans mobilised to reserve tickets to a Trump rally with no intention of attending. The event saw a lacklustre turnout.
They have made a habit of flooding right-wing hashtags with irrelevant content.
Most recently, K-pop fans hijacked the #ImpeachBidenNow hashtag on Twitter, flooding it with photos of their favourite idols and drowning out posts critical of US President Joe Biden.
“Nope, we won’t impeach. But wow I love BTS,” wrote one user.
In Thailand, many K-pop fans joined pro-democracy protests in Bangkok throughout last year — using pop culture references to critique the country’s military-aligned Government.
Arendeelle said the focus of the K-pop fanbase has changed over time.
Korean culture obsession ‘not an overnight phenomenon’
K-pop began gaining mainstream popularity across Asia during the early 2000s.
It now commands a massive, strong following from Thailand to Texas, Seoul to Sydney.
The music, along with K-drama television shows and other aspects of Korean popular culture, are referred to as the ‘Korean wave’ or Hallyu.
Hallyu’s promotion has been a concerted public diplomacy effort by the South Korean Government.
“Hallyu is not an overnight phenomenon, its beginnings span as early as the 1990s through formats which include drama, music, film and food,” Consul-General of the Republic of Korea in Sydney, Sangwoo Hong, told the ABC last year.
The Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported that as of September 2020, there were 1,835 Hallyu fan clubs across 98 countries — comprising an incredible 104 million members.
“The Korean Government will continue to work to broaden the current interests found in mainstream content such as K-pop and dramas into an appreciation for our traditional culture, arts and literature,” Mr Hong said.
Dal Yong Jin, a media studies scholar at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, said each country had its “own unique fandom” for Korean cultural products.
For example, there is a larger fan base for K-pop than K-dramas in Thailand because Blackpink — a popular female pop group — has a member from Thailand, he said.
BTS, the ARMY and social justice
Fan clubs, which often raise money to buy gifts for their favourite group or idol, also lend themselves to fundraise for charitable causes.
“The fundraising process for natural disasters has turned out to be much quicker than our [idols’] birthday donation,” Arendeelle said.
Dr Keith said K-pop fans were building on a strong tradition of charity.
K-pop supergroup BTS had pushed charitable philanthropy into “social and even political justice”, she said.
“One of the first notable social justice causes was BTS’s donation to the families of the victims of the Sewol ferry disaster, which was bold considering the political implications of doing so,” Dr Keith said.
“Since then, BTS have focused their attention on social causes such as donating $1 million to BLM (subsequently matched by fans), as well as their youth ambassador work with UNICEF, addressing mental health, bullying, and violence.”
Professor Jin agreed, saying BTS’s fan club known as ARMY “are highly mobilised and actively participate in several major cases, including #BLM and American politics, mainly because they value social justice and global youth’s struggle.”
“In their music, BTS [lyrics] emphasise socio-cultural equality, while challenging social injustice,” he said.
BTS appeared at the United Nations in 2018, urging young people to join the global struggle against discrimination and poverty.
“BTS certainly opened the door for other K-pop groups,” Professor Jin said.
‘Family, wherever we are’
Nony Safitri is an Indonesian member of ARMY.
When floods hit the province of South Kalimantan in mid-January, Ms Safitri was stuck in her home without electricity and decided to ask for help on social media.
The local ARMY fanbase helped to arrange for “food essentials and candles” to be sent to her home.
“Social media has clearly played the main role,” she said.
Ms Sarifah of Kpop4Planet said due to the “huge influence” of the K-pop fanbase, it was “very possible” that Indonesian authorities could mobilise them to communicate information about the coronavirus.
Indonesia last month surpassed 1 million cases of COVID-19, making it the largest outbreak in South-East Asia, with the Government continuing to face criticism for its haphazard response.
“If K-pop fans are asked to campaign … they can use the kind of language that [resonates] with young people,” Ms Sarifah said.
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