Since 2012, Korean pop culture has captured the imagination of people across the Middle East: from K-pop and K-dramas to Korean language classes and even to Korean fried chicken. It’s everywhere!
But how did we become so obsessed with a culture so different from our own? And how much do we actually know about how it spread to our region?
This week on Kerning Cultures, we dive into the highly calculated forces behind the K-pop craze.
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HEBAH: Hey everyone, and welcome back to a new season of Kerning Cultures. I’m Hebah Fisher. We missed you.
ALEX: So I…this…as I said to you guys the other day, this story makes me feel about a million years old.
HEBAH: And, we’re going to start today’s episode with a conversation between producers Nadeen Shaker and Alex Atack, and Shraddha Joshi, who’s interning with us at the moment.
ALEX: And so I wanted to just kind of get you to talk me through all of the stuff that apparently is really obvious to like the rest of the world that I don’t know. So first why don’t we just start with, Nadeen, can you first talk me through how you got into the story, what got you interested in it, all of that kind of stuff?
NADEEN: Yeah. So simple answer, we just wanted to understand this obsession with Korean culture that was all around us. Personally, I am a big watcher of Korean dramas.
ALEX: Oh, you are yourself?
ALEX: Ok, cool. I didn’t know that.
NADEEN: I can’t go like two months without watching a K-drama.
HEBAH: K-Pop by the way is pop music from Korea and K-drama are the TV dramas from Korea. Undeniably, K-pop and K-drama have taken the Middle East by storm.
NADEEN: So we just like, noticed that, you know, all these people around the Middle East were, you know, getting obsessed with a culture that wasn’t their own. And in all aspects of life, like food culture, gender expression, music, language, you name it, and it seemed kind of shocking the magnitude of it and also the extreme dedication of these fans. And if you ask, you will find that at least one person in your circle of friends is either a K-Pop fan, watches K-Dramas, or like loves or is obsessed with Korean culture in some way.
ALEX: Okay. Wait. So, and then Shraddha, like, you also are like a big K-Pop fan, which I only realized this weekend when you posted your Spotify Wrapped and it was like everything was K-Pop or like a lot of it was K-Pop?
SHRADDHA: So, that was honestly a surprise to me because I used to have some friends in like high school and middle school, who were really into K-Pop and I kind of judged them because I was like, why are you just like, you know, it’s like, it was kind of this like crazy fandom that I didn’t understand, but I got introduced to BTS this past year. And next thing you know, it’s my top played artist. And like, that was honestly a shock to me.
ALEX: Can one of you explain what BTS is?
NADEEN: Shraddha since you’re the fan, you go for it.
SHRADDHA: Sure. Basically, they are a boy band. They’re are seven members. They kind of just took the world by storm and became really popular and their songs have been dominating Spotify charts and stuff worldwide.
ALEX: Are they like the biggest K-Pop band around at the moment?
NADEEN: I think so, pretty much.
SHRADDHA: Yeah. So I am definitely not what they call ARMY.
ALEX: Wait, but what is ARMY? Sorry I might have to stop you a lot – but yeah, ARMY, what is that?
NADEEN: ARMY is the name BTS fans use to describe themselves. It is the name they give themselves.
FADHELA: Yeah, we’re the BTS ARMY. And especially the Algerian ARMY, we have a special nickname. We’re called our Armenians.
NADEEN: So this is Fadhela Mezmaz; she is a fourth-year dental student, and is now 22 years old.
FADHELA: Armeria is a purple pretty flower. The color purple is the color that represents our fandom. And because Algerian armies are so fun and so lovely, we’re compared to flowers. So Armeria, Armerians, Algerian ARMY.
NADEEN: I had to google it to find out that it actually stands for: Adorable Representative Master of Ceremonies for Youth. They exist in countries all over the world and their fandom pages are usually started by harcore fans.
FADHELA: I update about their news, their everyday news, anything that revolves about ARMY and BTS in my country. For example, a TV report in Algeria and in an Algerian channel, a radio, a passage for their song, or an article or something that is BTS related to happening in my country.
NADEEN: They put up billboards and manage gatherings and giveaways… They run birthday events for the band members’ birthdays.
This is the Algeria ARMY singing Happy Birthday in Korean to BTS member Jimin.
FADHELA: We also do streaming parties for their music. We also do group pre-orders for their albums. Like it’s really, really a full-time job.
NADEEN: When Fadhela started managing the BTS Algeria ARMY in 2016, they only had around 700 followers.
FADHELA: It was really tough at the beginning because they were really unknown. People didn’t know them much.
NADEEN: It took her years of planning and working around the clock to grow the fanbase to the 20K followers it has now.
FADHELA: It just brings me happiness whenever I take out my phone and just take up their news, see their pictures, see the new videos, see their performances, or watch their concerts. It just brings me some kind of happiness and, and I feel at ease and I feel a little less stressed out than I was. So it really became a part of me. And I really love what I do.
NADEEN: And the first time she discovered Korean pop culture was on a relatively unknown TV channel in Algeria called Korea TV.
FADHELA: At that time, I was trying to escape my reality because it really sucked at that time. Sorry for the word, but it was really hard. School was so difficult and it still is, but K-pop and Korean culture, Korean dramas, were my escape.
NADEEN: Anyway, at some point around this time, her friend introduced her to BTS, or the Bantang Boys.
FADHELA: My friend came by and was like woah you have check this out. This music video, and this group is so good. You have to check them out. I just remember it so vividly right now we were in this classroom and she had her phone out and showing us the music video. And I was like blown away right away. Right away, we fell in love.
HEBAH: Today, BTS is huge; their albums chart for weeks on end, some songs for several months at a time. This year, they filled half of the spots on the Top 10 World Album chart. A recent music video, for a song called Dynamite, got 101.1 billion views on Youtube within a 24 hour-period, breaking the record for the fastest music video to go viral in a day. They’ve toured on every continent except Africa. And according to the Hyundai Research Institute, they contribute 3.6 billion dollars a year to Korea’s economy.
NADEEN: They contribute to 70 percent of the Korean music industry revenues, so that’s like…
ALEX: Wow. 70 percent? One band?
NADEEN: Yes, so, they are a big deal.
NADEEN: That is like, wow. Okay. It’s interesting because I just have nothing to compare that to like, there’s just no frame of reference for that.
NADEEN: No, that’s big. That’s big. So like, I think the Korean music industry is valued at 5.2 or 5 billion and they make up, Oh God, I’m really bad with math, but maybe like two or three of that – that makes 70%. Like 3 maybe, so they’re a big deal. Yeah.
HEBAH: On the outside, the BTS band, Fadhela’s favorite K-pop band of all time seem like your typical boy band, who name themselves after a Korean phrase meaning “Bulletproof Boy Scouts”. That’s what BTS means by the way. And they sort of look like scouts – well-dressed, some of them have vibrant pastel hair colors like platinum blue or a light bubblegum pink. They wear make-up like black eyeliner or a smokey eyeshadow and a faded pink lip. But their current look is actually quite different from how they looked when they started.
Back in 2013 they all dressed in black. They had huge gold chains around their necks. Instead of singing about self-love like they do today, back then, their first song No More Dream talked about rebelling against authority, quitting school, encouraging teenagers to follow their dreams and stop being hypocrites. It was pretty different than what we see today. But that rebel look that they started out with, that’s what Fadela loves.
FADHELA: Back at that time, I used to be a teenager and they used to be teenagers too. Back at that time, that’s the only thing they were thinking about. They were thinking about school and they were thinking about how society is restricting them, how the elders want to control them. And so they were singing about that part of their lives and because they were talking about something we could relate to, it got us or more into them, like, wow, an artist that understands you on a spiritual level, that’s the artists, the type of artists that we want.
NADEEN: But then when we go more into the meaning of that song and why it was made, we realize that there’s, you know, a special intention behind it, that the guy who put together BTS really intended them to be different from other idol groups.
He wanted them to really express who they were. So it was kind of like one of the rare times that you would find a K-pop band express like these anxieties in a song so freely, because you know, the industry is pretty controlled.
[archive of BTS at UN]
NADEEN: And so her like halfway across the world also related to that.
FADHELA: There’s something about their songs that I love so much. I don’t know. It’s as if their songs have feelings. When you hear their voice and you feel like some type of connection, some sincerity, like someone is patting your back or giving you a hug. That’s what I feel when, especially when I’m down and I listen to some songs and they get me up on my feet. I don’t know how to explain this feeling, but it’s a good feeling that someone is there for you. Something feels your struggle. Someone is there for you and to help you. They really like my comfort zone.
[archive of BTS at UN]
HEBAH: Today, we’re diving into the story of how the Middle East became so influenced by a foreign culture on the entire opposite end of the world, and the highly calculated forces behind the K-Pop craze. A little warning to K-pop fans out there: your souls may be crushed by the end of this, so good luck. Nadeen’s gonna take it from here.
NADEEN: To understand any of this, you need to understand this thing called the “hallyu” or the Korean wave. Since the 1990s, Korean pop culture has been spreading across the world, mainly through K-Pop and TV dramas, but also through fashion, food and online gaming. In the Middle East, the hallyu hit around 2012. And millions of people went crazy for it.
In 2019, Korean cultural exports as a result of the Korean wave brought an estimated 12.3 billion dollars to the Korean economy.
K-pop alone is a 5 billion dollar industry; Spotify has 93 million K-pop playlists, and over 2 billion and 550 million hours have been spent streaming K-pop music.
But this trend that took the world by storm was no coincidence.
NADEEN: And you told me last time that you were a fan yourself and that you watch a lot of K-dramas.
DONYA: Oh, big fan. Yeah, slightly obsessed, but I’m trying to control it and make it a healthy habit. But yeah, I’m a huge fan of Korean drama.
NADEEN: This is Donya Saberi. She is a lecturer at Middlesex University in the UAE, specializing in soft power.
DONYA: Basically, as I fell in love with Korean series, and I was trying to understand that how someone who studies the society as in myself, how am I falling in love with a culture that’s quite far from my own. You know, how is it suddenly the Middle East is falling in love with this Korean culture. I see young students, young people trying to learn Korean, which is again, a language that’s very far from, you know, Arabic, Turkish, Farsi, like, which is more similar to our languages.
NADEEN: Donya basically came across this Korean government policy.
DONYA: That was introduced by the government in 2013, where it was to introduce Korean culture internationally in a sense that the Korean government wants their culture to be introduced with all its allies, with all its trade partners, so it’s not necessarily a coincidence that, you know, we’re eating Korean noodles and we can find it in the supermarkets.
NADEEN: Right after the policy was released, Donya says that 987 hallyu-related events suddenly sprung up across the world – those ranged from the opening of cultural centers to holding bigger events that had anything to do with Korean culture.
DONYA: So basically it’s six steps, where the policy involves first expanding the scope of Korean culture. They do that through increasing trade. So at very basic level, so this could be whether governmental level or, you know, just buying Korean products.
NADEEN: We won’t go through all the steps but here are some of the more important ones. The second step for example is
DONYA: strengthening Korean uniqueness – that showing that Korean culture and Korean values are very different and unique.
NADEEN: And the third step in the policy is about ….
DONYA: building an ecosystem of creativity. So that means the Korean government giving a platform to their artists where they can show their creativity as long as it brings Korea out in a positive light.
NADEEN: I didn’t quite understand this point about presenting Korea in a positive light, until I spoke with Mohamed Sadiq about Korean dramas and celebrity culture.
MOE: Also known as Moe: M-O-E
NADEEN: Mohamed Sadiq is known to his fans as Mo Sadiq. He knows his K-stuff very well. He studied Korean culture and lived in Korea while hosting a K-pop celebrity show at a Korean radio station called KBS Arabic.
MOE: If you watch any Korean drama, you will never see someone smoke. You will see someone who holds a cigarette, you will see someone who is trying to light a cigarette, but the lighter doesn’t work or he lost the lighter, but you will never see someone actually take a puff. You could never see like someone get like slashed by a knife or something like that
NADEEN: Of course, that’s not true across the board in Korean films and TV – plenty of them are super violent and gory, but overall, K-dramas generally tend to present this image of a clean, safe society.
MOE: And I think this is a prime example of how production uses these perfect images and idealism, to toss out these cultural elements to promote Korean society in a very ideal and perfect way.
NADEEN: And that clean-cut and ideal image Korea wants to present extends to celebrities as well.
DONYA: They need to maintain this image, right? That as soon as, let’s say, a Korean artist is involved in, which is rare, not that it doesn’t happen, but it’s very rare for you to hear about a Korean singer or actor getting involved in any drug or alcohol-related scandal.
And as soon as one of them appears in one, it is completely shunned by the entire industry, by the society themself. So that is one way where they make sure that the Korean uniqueness and their value is at the forefront and does not get sabotaged.
NADEEN: At KBS, Mohamed told me about how he wasn’t allowed to ask celebrities questions about their personal lives when he was doing interviews on his radio show.
MOE: I think because it’s again a corporate decision how the image of the group needs to be out to the public. They are perfecting this image of K-pop idols to the audience as if the audience is having a relationship with the idol themselves. So any other news would disturb that dynamic. That’s why, like there will be always an internet rage when there’s a rumor about like a K-pop idol dating someone.
Even if you ask them, like, what’s your type? We weren’t allowed to say that. Obviously we weren’t allowed to ask any political questions or religious questions because we didn’t want to offend anybody. The interviews were supposed to be as generic as possible, but directed for Arabic audiences.
NADEEN: I’m very curious to ask you like do these bands – did they know coming onto your show that they had Arab fans, that they were that popular in the Middle East?
MOE: Some of them know; some of them have no idea.
NADEEN: Even when Mohamed interviewed BTS early in their career, they had no idea that they had Arab fans. He said he is generally surprised if any K-pop group is aware of their Arab fandoms.
MOE: I was surprised by this one interview. It’s an idol group, very rocky, very upcoming, they’re called W24. They came to the interview memorizing a letter in Arabic to the audience and they said it in Arabic.
NADEEN: The W24 members say they are happy to meet their fans in the Middle East and that they hope to meet them in the future.
I asked Mohamed whether moves like this are calculated; are the bands just inspired by their Arab fans or are they told to put on this act because it’s part of some business model?
MOE: Yeah – there has been a lot that said about the production of K-pop: is it really an expression of the artists themselves, or is it a corporate decision? And most of K-pop insiders would tell you that it is a corporate decision from the cover art to the concept of the album to their dance and singing themes…
But one group for particular, I think it’s called BIG.
They just decided that they want to do covers of Arabic songs because they are more on the indie side of K-pop; so they just want to like sing in Arabic and put it on YouTube. And it was a huge hit. Then they went on KBS radio show and they covered another Moroccan song.
NADEEN: Eventually, BIG got a huge Arab following online that they were invited to host a concert in the UAE to an audience of 800 people.
But BIG’s story and transition from being a band just playing Arabic covers on YouTube to their huge popularity in the Arab world is a perfect example of another goal on Donya’s list of cultural policies from the Korean government, which relates to using every possible platform, online and offline, to promote Korea or export Korean culture whether it is using Korean celebrities or mainly social media influencers to target the Arab world by speaking about Korea in Arabic.
NADEEN: And you can see that customization happening all across industries; for example, Korean films being shot in Morocco and other MENA countries. Some of the dialogue in one of those movies is in Darija. K-pop bands have also recorded covers of Arabic pop songs that become huge hits, and then you have Korea adopting the UAE’s Halal certification to accommodate its Muslim tourists, who last year are estimated to have reached one million.
So according to Donya, these partnerships on the diplomatic and economic levels have translated soft power or interest in Korean culture into hard power. For example, Korea is now building a nuclear power plant in the UAE. We’ve also seen an increase in demand for Korean automotive and electronic industries. Similarly, the demand for Korean beauty products in the UAE has increased by 300 percent since 2012.
DONYA: And that turns into hard power because it’s money. It’s as simple as that. And if you have money, you have other forms of control, but with Korea having soft power and hard power, so it’s kind of like you accept the hard power, like the policies in place, but you also like it because you like the culture.
NADEEN: Another thing on the Korean cultural policy list is language lessons in MENA universities.
DONYA: So within the government universities, in the UAE, such as Zayed university, the Korean government established a Korean language Institute within Zayed university where young Emiratis can learn Korean for free.
NADEEN: The King Sejong Institute, an official government-run initiative that runs Korean language centers across the world, has locations in many MENA countries like Algeria, Bahrain, the UAE, Egypt, Jordan and Iran. Some others are offered as majors at the university level such as in Jordan or just as regular courses. Most of them are funded by the Korean government.
DONYA: And usually what happens is when we know different languages, we tend to connect with those cultures on a deeper level because we understand the language, we get the inside jokes, we get the bonding, the formalities, and informalities, so language is very powerful.
NADEEN: We’ll be back after the break.
NADEEN: When we left off, we’d just heard about how soft power – in the form of Korean cultural exports like K-Pop or Korean drama – was having hard power knock-on effects in the Middle East. And it extends to the fans, too.
For some young Arab fans, life in Korea, as represented by dramas and pop culture, is an aspiration. And this is exactly what happened with Heba Khaled, an Iraqi woman whose first appearance in the media was in an Al Jazeera documentary that followed her from a Korean-built housing complex in Iraq, filming her every cultural fixation as well as her struggles with applying for studies there, to Korea, where she makes her first trip.The documentary was shot back in 2018. This is some tape from the documentary.
NADEEN: Heba is not your typical fan. She is much more than that. She has surpassed the seductions of fandom and really immersed herself in the culture and the language and can tell you in much detail why she loves Korean culture in comparison to hers.
HEBA: For example in my country women want to marry, some of the men force the women to stop working. But in Korea its your life, it’s your decision, I saw that not just for older people, but also for young people. When they get married, no one tells you, stop doing this or wear hijab, or I will pay for you, this is your personality, and this is the job you want to work, go ahead. I’ll marry you as a woman, but I will not force you to do anything I want. And this is really different from our Arabic culture, really different from our Iraqi culture.
NADEEN: Since filming the documentary, she told me she has been trying to apply for a scholarship for a master’s degree in engineering, in Korea.
HEBA: Really, I try to spread my story to everyone to get this scholarship. It’s really difficult. I found that it’s really difficult ….
NADEEN: Heba has only been to South Korea twice–both of them for a short time; once to film and the other time on a cultural exchange trip. Her goal is to live in Korea in two-years-time and has an intensive plan on how to make it happen that includes saving up whatever money is left after paying rent for the apartment she currently lives in with her mother, the bills, and living expenses.
NADEEN: Are you afraid, Heba, to be disappointed? Do you, do you expect any disappointments?
HEBA: I think, yes, I will be disappointed in some things and change my mind in other things, but I need to live there to see okay? I want to spend one year or two years to live there and see if I can live alone. I want to get more experience by myself. I don’t know if I get the scholarship or not, but I want when I go there, I need to make something that’s good for me, the same time to get a new experience. A new challenge for me.
NADEEN: It felt like every K-pop fan in the Arab world repeated similar feelings, similar attachments to either Korean pop culture, or K-pop bands, or Korean culture in general. And it occurred to me that in the end, that this trend is actually about escapism, especially for Arab youth..
I asked Mohammed whether this Korean moment the Middle East is having was just a fantasy we were getting too wrapped up in.
MO: That’s my question and that’s the thing that I always think about. Do we have the power to become as free as the content we consume within our societies?
Do our governments and communities allow us to do these things without being judged or ostracized or prosecuted? If I want to wear makeup in public, or if I want to express my gender in an authentic, non-traditional way? I don’t think so. So like this also creates this like huge gap between reality and fantasy. So whatever content we’re consuming at this particular moment in time is still a fantasy.
NADEEN: But until the fantasy wears off, there is much to admire about how far fans have come along. For people like Fadhela, she found a sense of community
FADHELA: Back at the time we were a very minority, if I may say we were like very few people from all around the world that liked a certain thing, a certain group, certain music, and people didn’t understand what we felt about Korean culture, about K-pop, so we found comfort in each other, like finally I found someone who likes the same thing as I. So at that, we built this link, this relationship that revolves around having the same interests Eventually we started doing projects together, helping each other, and, and this is our point of strength, our unity, we do wonders together.
HEBAH: This episode was written and produced by Nadeen Shaker, with reporting support from Shraddha Joshi and editorial support from Dana Ballout, Alex Atack, Zeina Dowidar, Shraddha Joshi, and Abde Amr. Fact checking by Shraddha Joshi, sound design by Alex Atack, and mixing by Mohamed Khreizat. Bella Ibrahim is our wonderful marketing manager, and Kerning Cultures is a Kerning Cultures Network production. That means we have a lot more shows under the KC network, a total of 8 in Arabic and in English, so please check out the other shows if you don’t know about them yet. Just Google Kerning Cultures Network and you’ll find them.
NADEEN: Special thanks to Fadhela Mezmaz, Heba Khaled, Mohamed Sadiq, Donya Saberi, and Maisa Alwahaibi from the Korean Cultural Center in Abu Dhabi for speaking to me for this story.
Archival tape from this episode comes from Aljazeera English, Arij Al-Soltan, KBS Arabic, and K-pop concert goers. Thank you for your enthusiasm.
HEBAH: We’ll be back next week with a new episode. Thanks for listening, until next time.
[Mashup of guests singing]