Critics call for greater cultural awareness in K-pop following slew of controversies

"Today, K-pop is not only for Koreans"

Cultural critics in South Korea have called for broader cultural understanding within the K-pop industry following several recent controversies involving K-pop idols and their perceived lack of racial and historical awareness.

Given K-pop’s growing international popularity and increasingly diverse fanbase, some South Korean commenters and industry professionals believe that K-pop stars and their agencies must endeavour to learn more about the cultures, taboos and histories outside of their native South Korea.

Speaking to The Korea Times, Lee Gyu-tag, a professor of cultural anthropology at George Mason University Korea, said: “Today, K-pop is not only for Koreans. Stars and their companies are setting their sights on the global market, so they should listen to the voices from people in different cultures.”

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However, Lee also noted that South Koreans might not be as connected to some historical events, drawing a parallel to how the Japanese Rising Sun Flag is viewed in Western countries. The Rising Sun Flag is a lightning rod for controversy in several East Asian nations as it is largely seen as a symbol of Japanese imperialism during World War II, when Korea was under Japanese occupation.

“Likewise, many Koreans tend to feel quite distanced from Nazi issues,” he said in reference to a recent controversy involving GFRIEND’s Sowon and a mannequin wearing a Nazi uniform.

Pop culture critic Kim Hern-sik echoed Lee’s call for more awareness, adding that agencies require specialised departments for such issues. “[The companies] should stay more vigilant because a controversy tied to cultural or historical issues can tarnish a singer’s reputation to a great extent,” he said. “It is also crucial to swiftly take action – such as making an apology – if a company later finds out that something went wrong.

“K-pop stars and the agencies can learn about cultures and history if there are good resources, but for now, there are no enough references for them,” he added. “More needs to be done to promote cultural and historical awareness.”

Earlier this week, Stray Kids member Han issued an apology for using racial slurs and ableist terms in a rap track that he released when he was 13. “I wrote the inappropriate lyrics with only the single thought of wanting to rap during my irresponsible, younger days.” he wrote. “I apologise for hurting so many people with the lyrics written without thinking enough.”

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Last year, BLACKPINK had been slammed for misappropriating an image of the Hindu deity Ganesha in their music video for ‘How You Like That’. The four-member girl group was accused of exploitation for using the likeness of the Hindu god, which has great significance in the Hindu religion and in many Indian cultures.

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