Article by Mark Connor (IG: trendywendymark)
Korea is a proud and culturally rich country. With an ancient history, but a relatively modern writing system, much of this has perhaps been lost or is left relatively unknown, perhaps partly explaining the monetised and manufactured pop culture, K-pop, that exists today.
K-pop, as most will be familiar with, encompasses more than music (which is however it’s biggest manifestation), but TV drama, theatre, film and fashion. Korea’s popular culture has spread around the world to become a niche phenomenon, popular with those overseas for its flawless sheen and seemingly perfect production. This foreign surge is dubbed Hallyu (한류).
South Korea, demographically, is about 96% ethnic Korean, but to me, this is not reason enough to explain the apparent lack of people of colour (PoC) in Korean pop culture. One girl group is brought to mind when I consider Korean pop culture and racism. Chocolat was a group that debuted in 2011 and their Wikipedia page actually notes in its abstract that the group contains mixed-race members. The members are all part Korean, with Puerto-Rican and German ethnicities existing within the group. Despite following the formulaic aspects of successful K-pop, the group has failed to garner any significant success. If you read the comments on the music video for ‘Syndrome’ on YouTube, many comment on one member, Tia’s, race and mostly negatively.
That being said, non-native, but still ethnically, Koreans are hugely popular in Korea; Girls’ Generation member Tiffany, and former member Jessica enjoy enormous popularity in South Korea, despite being American citizens, and similarly Chinese, Japanese and even further afield to South East Asia (Sorn from CLC is Thai), others are relatively successful. Many K-pop groups field themselves into the notoriously tough Japanese Oricon charts to generally great success suggesting that this xenophobia extends primarily to non-Asian people, or people who cannot “pass” for Korean.
Korean beauty standards worship women who are slim, and notably, pale. Many Korean women and men, mirroring their idols (Korean celebrities), will aspire to seem as white as possible, yet looking Caucasian in anyway is not desirable. This is one of the many impossibilities of Korean pop culture, holding women against unrealistic beauty standards, which are almost impossible to achieve naturally, explaining South Korea’s position as plastic surgery capital of the world.
It is almost safe to say that almost every idol has had plastic surgery. What happens behind the doors of entertainment labels such as SM, YG and JYP (the 3 biggest in South Korea), is kept very hush hush, but fans are able to tell the obvious. Frequently I see articles that claim to show a famous person’s plastic surgery before and after debut. Eyes are enlarged, eyelids are added, noses are lifted. Idols often (assumedly) get “the works” and this again affects the public negatively, as they desperately try look like the people they idolise, the public will get plastic surgery themselves, and this is exacerbated by plastic surgeons who actually use images of idols to advertise their operations. In fact, the South Korean government is capitalising on this, offering tourists tax returns on operations they have in the country.
Weight is of huge importance in South Korea, and not just because of health reasons. Naturally, as a result of genes and traditional East Asian diets, Koreans are very slim and petite. But, as the country has westernised, so too has the Korean diet; and with weight gain comes weight insecurities. This is not restricted to the Korean pop world. A very close Korean friend of mine described recently her ridiculous diet (1 meal per day, drinking only water, the same diet rumoured to be used by many celebrities) because she was “fat”. She also noted how her mother had been calling her fat. Every day I see gossip articles regarding an idol’s weight gain, and this is usually portrayed as a bad thing, despite that fact that K-pop idols, in particular, female idols, are unhealthily skinny. This is hardly surprising considering the emphasis the entertainment industry places on beauty manifested in copious amounts of plastic surgery.
A not wholly notable, but still relevant new ‘rookie’ girl group, Pocket Girls, debuted with notably bad plastic surgery, and this demonstrates the lengths people in South Korea will go to, to look both attractive and be famous – it is as if it is a requirement for people in the entertainment industry to get plastic surgery in order to succeed. Consider too, Hyuna, made famous around the world for being the “hot Asian” in Psy’s Gangnam Style. She is hugely popular in the K-pop world, yet for her recent comeback “netizens” (the term for people who use the internet in Korea) ‘accuse’ her of getting breast implants. It is interesting how the word ‘accuse’ from the public attacks Hyuna, despite her company obviously feeling that in order to sell records she must get breast implants in order to actually be appealing.
This could all be tied in to the fact that South Korea has the developed world’s highest suicide rates, at almost 29 suicides per 100, 000 of the population. A study I found by researching suicide in South Korea discovered curiously that suicide rates increased with the death of an idol. Just last September (2014), girl group Ladies’ Code were involved in a car crash due to their manager breaking the speed limit in order to keep the group to their obviously hectic schedule, resulting in the deaths of 2 members (RisE and EunB) after which he was subsequently arrested.
It can be seen that there is an apparent cycle at work: idols who face huge public pressure to remain appealing alter themselves physically, which then affects their audiences who then copy them, in turn placing more pressure on the idols to do something different in order to standout in the industry. This leads to a few conclusions; perhaps it can be said the lack of “Asianess” in K-pop but also the obsession with cultural purity is the problem – an orientalism that South Korea isolates itself into. The irony of this becomes even clearer given its blatant formulation from American pop culture, which has then been taken to the extreme. This is exaggerated by an industry that is full to bursting with new groups debuting all the time. The fast-paced nature of the entertainment industry in South Korea could ultimately be its downfall, but until the trend of plastic surgeries slows and the public begins to reject the culture that permeates it K-pop will continue to grow and export itself the world over.
Author’s note: I appreciate a lot of my sources are from Korean-pop related websites, but I am not sure much has been written academically on this topic. I am a fan and an observer of K-pop, so I cannot say I am necessarily qualified to talk about the socio-ethnography of South Korea with necessary authority.
 A Study of the Impact of Thirteen Celebrity Suicides on Subsequent Suicide Rates in South Korea from 2005 to 2009 by authors King-Wa Fu, C. H. Chan and Michel Botbol
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