What can recent K-Pop controversies reveal about East Asian International Relations?

There have been certain controversies that have plagued the Korean pop world recently. As Hallyu has continued to grow in popularity across the world, entertainment companies have sought to expand their market base by training non-Koreans to be part of their performance groups. As a result, they undergo even more scrutiny than usual, especially when they make a huge mistake.

Two cases come to mind – Girls’ Generation’s Tiffany and TWICE’s Tzuyu. I would argue that the public reactions and actions taken to counter are reflective of contemporary East Asian relations and histories between the parties involved.

Case 1: TWICE’s Tzuyu

The case from late 2015 would seem to be a more straightforward case to handle, so let’s start from there. Any pledges of perceived independence by major celebrities would seem to be a big issue. Huang An, the celebrity that “called” Tzuyu out for her actions, is himself an anti-Taiwanese independence musician. The repercussions of her carrying the Taiwanese flag was significant – Huawei pulled Tzuyu from its new phone commercials, Anhui TV withdrew its invitation to TWICE to appear on its show. JYP shares, the entertainment company in charge of TWICE, suffered a significant fall in value, with Tzuyu eventually being asked to apologize and to recognize the “One China” status of relations – something which the new President Tsai Ing-Wen has not herself recognized.

This is clear evidence, of course, about the new balance of power in Asia, with Chinese consumers leading the way and acting as a determining force in decision-making processes. We’ve seen several groups attempt to appeal to the Chinese market – Super Junior (Han Geng, Zhou Mi), EXO (Luhan, Lay, Kris, Tao), miss A (Fei, Jia), f(x) (Victoria) just to name a few. A separate post about Korean-Chinese relations with regards to K-pop is probably in order, but what I seek to establish here is merely the heavy consumption of KPop in the Chinese market.

Understanding the reactions above is clear: A quick history recap would tell us that as a result of the Chinese Civil War, the two states still have not technically reconciled their political differences, with the official PRC stance insisting that Taiwan is a breakaway province of the Mainland. At the same time, both major parties in Taiwan/Republic of China continue to see themselves as the legitimate government of China.

As this issue naturally revolves around the legitimacy of the government ruling in Taiwan. A recent poll conducted by the Taiwan Indicators Survey Research revealed that with regards to the statement that “one China” refers to the PRC, 81.6% of respondents opposed that concept. This result lends itself nicely to the how they view the PRC as an illegitimate representation of “one China”. This also nicely complements the election of Tsai Ing-Wen, marking a turn in the closer relations forged by Ma Ying Jeou upon his election in 2008. If anything, Tsai Ing-wen’s plummeting popularity as she tries to wean the island off overreliance on the mainland.

Case 2: Girls’ Generation’s Tiffany

The more recent controversy involved a senior K-Pop group member, Girls’ Generation’s Tiffany. On late August 14 or August 15 itself (it is unclear), she was caught on social media platforms Instagram and Snapchat posting designs (emoticons and filters) with the Japanese flag. On Snapchat in particular, Tiffany used the filter that included the words “TOKYO” filled with the colors and designs from the flag during the Imperial Japan era.

The date in question, August 15, is significant as it is one of the key national holidays in Korea – Gwangbokcheol (광복절), or loosely translated to Festival/Day of Restoration of Light – is Liberation Day, a day that celebrates Korea’s liberation from the Japanese Empire at the end of World War II.


Image retrieved from: http://www.inquisitr.com/3420823/tiffany-under-fire-for-japanese-flag-sns-post-on-koreas-national-liberation-day-netizens-want-girls-generation-k-pop-idol-off-unnies-slam-dunk/

She has since been removed from her variety show “Sisters’ Slam Dunk” and from SM Entertainment’s overseas holiday to Hawaii. While some netizens have expressed surprise at the “harsh” treatment of one of the company’s most senior stars. I would, instead, point to the need to understand general Korean-Japan relations and histories to better understand the outrage in Korean society.

Studies conducted by Pew Research may be able to shed some light on relations.

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Surveys taken from Pew Research

Surveys conducted in 2014 and 2015 reveal similar results about how the Koreans viewed Japan, with just about 22 – 25% having a favorable view of them. A separate survey about how they view their leadership is equally if not more extensively revealing. Abe, had, in 2014, taken the suggestion of an advisory panel to reinterpret the use of military force in the Japanese constitution. Abe has had a reputation of being hawkish, an inconvenient image given the history between the two countries. The fact that he is ranked even poorer than Kim Jong Un among South Koreans reveals the extreme dislike that Koreans have towards him. Howard Hensel’s book on Just War reflects Korean ambivalence towards the existing state of Article 9 – an expansion of military capabilities surely would worsen the situation. I won’t belabor the point, but SCMP has run a good article explaining why – his comments of making Japan “normal” again runs contrary to the image of what Koreans remember about the last time Japan had a potent military force.

If we were to dig back even further, then it is clear what the significance of August 15 was. Allow me to quote from a thesis which I managed to find online that I think aptly describes the situation.

“The experience of breaking free and being liberated from occupational rule, and the experience of creating a new nation for the people allowed people to rewrite their own colonial memories and recollections in a very new fashion.”

Quoted from: http://sociology.snu.ac.kr/eng/thesis/jks_4.pdf

The significance of independence lays in how the Koreans were finally able to identify themselves as a nation, breaking from the tradition of identification by class status that their traditional Confucian culture would have dictated.  Shin Chae-ho, widely regarded as Korea’s first historian, was a real nationalist that fundamentally changed the writing of Korean history. Over and above the nationalistic significance of his writing about the Tangun and Toksa Sillon, he shifted the paradigm of Korean history from one that is “lacking”, one that is “passive” and stagnant, as the Japanese would describe it (Henry H. Em, Minjok as a Construct).

It is no surprise that the representative work of Kim Saryang, Tenma, reflects this negativity in Korean history. Koreans were effectively referred to as yobo, a subordinate class despite Japnese claims of noble intent. Many have accurately argued that the period of Japanese colonization falls into this “negative” history that the Koreans possessed (Namhee Lee, Minjung); it is thus no coincidence, I think, that the darkness of the past histories, colonization period included, is finally ended by a “restoration of light”. And it is in this vein that we must view overall Japanese-Korean relations – that the colonial period had been harsh on the Koreans. Outstanding issues over the status of Zainichi, particularly on Hashima Island , as well as the lack of recognition on the status of comfort women, continue to plague the strained relations between the two nations. In light of the past historical relations, and how colonization has been remembered, the Korean people’s response to Tiffany’s incident is not that surprising.

What does this all mean?

To simply say that historical animosities is the cause of this simplifies the matter. Rather, it is essential to see this as a case of national identity and one that is harder to manage. If used merely as an instrument, then East Asian conflicts may have a path towards reconciliation.