Kim Jong-Un reckons it’s a “vicious cancer”. This scourge, said the leader of North Korea in June, is corrupting his people, influencing everything from their hairstyles to the way they speak. It is smuggled into the country on flash drives; those found with it can be sent to a labour camp for 15 years.
What troubled Kim so much? K-pop, South Korea’s most influential cultural export. This blend of flawless dance routines and catchy melodies sung by coiffed, clear-skinned youths in co-ordinating outfits has found an enthusiastic audience across the globe, even managing to penetrate the North’s closely guarded borders.
Already popular across Asia, more recently K-pop has taken on the wider world, led by BTS, the most popular K-pop band. “Butter”, the group’s latest song (“Smooth like butter, pull you in like no other”), has reached the top ten in more than 20 countries. The enthusiasm for South Korean pop has also fuelled global demand for Korean cosmetics and Korean TV dramas. (RM, the lead singer of BTS, formerly known as Rap Monster, spoke at the UN General Assembly in 2018 about individuals finding their own voice; in September the band will appear there again as special envoys from South Korea.)
Along the way, this perfectly choreographed cultural phenomenon has developed an intricate lexicon. Stans (ardent fans) can be hard or soft, for example. The former like their K-pop stars to be sex symbols, the latter prefer singers cute and posing with toys. Devotees of different artists have their own lingo: supporters of BTS form the “ARMY”; fans of Blackpink, an all-female band, are “Blinks”. K-pop fervour looks like it’s here to stay. So if you don’t want to be a “local” (someone ignorant of the K-pop scene), spend a few minutes learning the language. You’ll be stanning before you know it.
1. All-out attack (noun)
2. A co-ordinated action by K-pop fans (noun)
A chongong, or “all-out attack”, refers to K-pop fans who co-ordinate to boost the profile of their “idols”, as artists from the genre are often called. Their battlefield is not a blood-filled trench, but social media.
Troops are instructed to gather at a specific time. Some then stream K-pop songs en-masse, blasting the tracks to number one in charts around the world (victory is called an “all-kill”). Others load up with hashtags and fire off tweets to make sure their favourite stars are trending.
Some K-pop fans have loftier aims, using chongong in political battles too. Last June the stan militia fought Donald Trump, when K-pop fans registered for tickets for a presidential election rally in Oklahoma. They had no intention of attending, but knew that this move would leave the arena largely empty on the day. As Black Lives Matter protests swept across America last year, K-pop fans drowned out racist posts that used the hashtag #WhiteLivesMatter by posting videos of their favourite stars alongside the same hashtag. Political strategists, take note.
1. An enforced break from the K-pop limelight (noun)
2. The life of a K-pop wannabe
Haven’t heard from your favourite K-pop star? They might be trapped in the “dungeon”. This doesn’t mean that they’re literally being kept in pitch-black, rat-infested cells – you’ll probably find them in a swanky apartment kitted out with massage rooms and access to a driving range. Their jailer is not a fearsome tyrant, but their record label.
Managers often tell K-pop stars to take time off after a big tour or album. Some fans outside Korea call these silent periods the dungeon. Idols rehearse their next releases, work on their solo careers and get a rare break. But the label determines when the stars will get let out and some singers are locked away for years.
Wannabe idols are trapped in even higher security prisons. K-pop hopefuls, some as young as nine, join live-in academies where they learn to sing and dance on an intense training regimen. Participants are banned from dating, going out or owning a phone. Even when you’ve checked out of the dungeon, can you ever leave?
The act of being cute (noun)
In any K-pop band, some stars are more equal than others. The “one-top” takes the spotlight. A maknae, the group’s youngest member, behaves like a child – by squeaking in a baby voice or creating mock dimples on her face. This performative cuteness, which is meant to help fans to relate to their idols, is called aegyo.
Many Koreans display aegyo. Talking to your loved ones as though you’re a child is a common way to show affection, even if you’re also making childish demands (“please can we order in again tonight, please?”). K-pop stars are masters of this act. In pop academies aspiring singers are taught how to make winning hand gestures and cute facial expressions.
Cuteness is most often displayed by female groups, but male stars are also joining in. The members of BTS flash cheeky winks, have posed for photos wearing corsets and often weep on stage. The group challenges stereotypes in other ways, too: band members have been spotted reading feminist novels. As K-pop spreads, its stars are storming the charts and, in some countries, challenging macho culture. Not everyone is happy about that: partly in response to BTS’s example, some Chinese parents send their boys to boot camp to train them to be “real men”.
An overly obsessed K-pop fan
Look who’s stalking
Sending letters written in blood. Breaking into flats. Installing hidden cameras in hotel rooms. These are the terrifying actions of a sasaeng, a dangerously obsessive K-pop fan who stalks the stars. The term comes from sa (“private”) and saeng (“life”), which is something sasaengs clearly don’t respect. Many sasaeng are young women who will do anything to get their “bias” (favourite star) to notice them.
Sasaengs often hunt in packs, sharing information in close-knit groups. Some fork out for “sasaeng taxis”: cabs that pursue idols at breakneck speed (drivers have caused multiple car crashes involving K-pop stars). Other obsessives work at airline or phone companies in order to steal stars’ data. A few sasaengs even drop out of school or sleep in a PC bang (internet café) to save for their habit.
In some respects K-pop culture encourages obsessive behaviour. Fans are invited to worship idols. Some agents ban K-pop trainees from dating because they know that single singers are more popular. There’s money to be made in selling fans the fantasy that they have a chance of winning the heart of a star.
K-pop idols don’t find it easy to fend off sasaengs. Until recently, convicted stalkers in South Korea could be fined a maximum of $88. In March that sum increased to $26,000, or three years in prison. Get comfy in your PC bangs, sasaengs.
1. Bare face (noun)
2. A face without make-up
Turning the other cheek
To meet Korean beauty standards, you first have to master the alphabet. The perfect body for women – as shown in adverts and on TV shows – often includes an S-line (a curvy figure) or a V-line (an angular jaw). K-pop reinforces these exacting ideals. Many male stars have “chocolate-bar abs”, six-packs as well-defined as a slab of Dairy Milk. Some wannabe singers feel pressured to “fix” their appearance in order to succeed. As many as one in three South Korean women aged 19-29 has had cosmetic surgery, according to Gallup, a polling company.
There are signs of change. It was once considered daring for a K-pop singer to appear on TV with a ssaengul (“bare face”, meaning without make-up). That now happens frequently. Stars are supporting the movement to “escape the corset”, a revolt by many Korean women against unrealistic beauty standards. Mamamoo, a well-known girl band, wore baggy sweatshirts for a recent performance. When a fan asked Hwasa, the group’s maknae, how to lose weight, she replied: “Just eat!”
Most stars still feel pressured to look a certain way. To get in shape, one member of BTS consumed only chicken breasts for ten days straight. And even when idols appear to have a ssaengul, many are actually wearing a layer of BB Cream (a popular mix of moisturiser and foundation). The corset may have loosened, but only by a notch.
A non-Korean who is obsessed with Korean pop culture (noun)
You come across K-pop, and listen to a song or two. Then a few more. Suddenly you’re an ardent BTS stan who dances choreographed routines around your kitchen. You become a fierce advocate for all things “K”: K-dramas, K-food, K-beauty products. You start using Korean words in casual conversation. Congratulations! You’re now a fully fledged Koreaboo, a non-Korean who is obsessed with Korean pop culture, and annoyingly vocal about your passion.
Koreaboo emerged from weeaboo, a similar term that appeared in the early 2000s for insufferable mega-fans of Japan. The phrase is often used by non-Koreans as an insult to those who fetishise or appropriate Korean culture. Koreaboos are in love with the fantasies shown in K-pop music videos, but many have little respect for, or awareness of, other Korean traditions.
Some Koreaboos take their obsession to the limit. A British social-media personality with no Korean heritage recently spent a reported £175,000 on plastic surgery to make themselves look like Jimin from BTS, and then came out as “transracial non-binary Korean”. Some people in South Korea were angry at such a reductive view of their country: there’s more to Korea than pop and stardust.
ILLUSTRATIONS: JULIA GEISER