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Stanford Korea program hosts former UN Secretary General and K-pop star SUHO

May 25, 2022, 10:50 p.m.

Community members and scholars flocked to the Stanford campus for a two-day conference that featured addresses from world leaders and an internationally acclaimed K-pop star. Throughout the weekend, the speakers shared their thoughts on North and South Korean relations and reflected on the growing impact of K-pop.

The 20th Anniversary Conference was hosted by the Korea Program of the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC) from May 19 to 20 at the Bechtel Conference Center. The first day opened with remarks from Gi-Wook Shin, Director of the Korea Program and the APARC, Michael McFaul, Director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and Gabriella Safran, Senior Associate Dean of Humanities and Arts at Stanford. Looking back on the progress of the last 20 years, “We don’t have a program on [just] Asian security issues. We don’t have a program on [just] K-pop, or what’s happening in North Korea. We have a  program that does all of that,” remarked McFaul. 

Following the opening panel on negotiations between North and South Korea, the Korea Program panel focused on the program’s history. In 20 years, it has transitioned from having just one language instructor aside from Shin, to its present-day status as a leading program.

Former secretary-general of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon delivered a keynote address emphasizing the importance of global citizenship for youth. The topic is personal for Ban, who, as an 18-year-old in 1962 at the peak of Cold War tensions, set his sights on becoming a diplomat after hearing U.S. President John F. Kennedy encourage youth to achieve their potential to make a difference in the world.

Ban also drew on his experiences as a statesman, highlighting the often overlooked significance of soft power.

“Soft power relates to various methods of communications and connection among different peoples which are less political,” Ban said. “I am of the view that soft power is now more important than ever. … Soft power does not seek hegemony. It is leadership and works side by side with others.”

Ban additionally shared his hopes for a “collective future [that] is peaceful, sustainable, inclusive and prosperous,” one where developed nations assist developing nations.

“I’m confident that insight shared at the Stanford University Korea Program 20th Anniversary Conference can help fulfill this vision and further fortify the [U.S.–South Korea] alliance,” Ban said.

The event also included a panel on the influential spread of South Korean culture that began in the mid-1990s, the Korean wave or Hallyu, that was moderated by Assistant Professor of East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto Michelle Cho — a leading scholar on the study of K-pop. The panel also featured art history professor Marci Kwon, Angela Killoren, CEO of CJ ENM America, Inc. and SUHO, leader of popular K-pop boyband, EXO. SUHO — whose newest solo mini-album, Grey Suit, claimed a swift rise to international fame — was also present at the panel.

Killoren explained that the distinct quality of K-pop in appealing to women is the key to its global success, which builds on interactions between the artist and the fan. She went on to call K-pop unique for providing female-gaze entertainment, which is historically uncommon in the entertainment industry.

 “Advertising in Korea is driven and oriented to gaining female dollars/won,” Killoren said. “In the U.S. or many other countries, the most valuable audience you can buy through advertising is a younger male audience.”

She cited cultural reasons for the difference in business decisions, saying that although the country has strong conservative values that can make K-pop’s popularity seem unexpected, “In Korea, tradition says women control the power of the purse.”

Stanford professors began the second day by reflecting on the role that K-pop figures have in wielding a political voice, and acknowledged the limitations of these artists in encouraging activism.

“It’s not clear that the structure of the industry actually offers them that opportunity,” Cho said. “Their roles are really circumscribed, and they often cannot speak on those things. … Even if they wanted to, they would be violating a contract.”

David Kang, an international relations and business professor at the University of Southern California, contended that many media and film or K-pop celebrities merely point out the issue of human rights in North Korea without going further to encourage policy change. He remarked that America’s treatment of the situation was also merely performative: “We care about it, but we don’t really care. We do not as a country. We care so that we can insult North Korea. We’re not really doing anything about it.”

Part of the issue comes down to American media representations of North Korea, which focus primarily on inflammatory rhetoric and can lead to heightened tensions, according to Kang.

“Every time the mainstream media quotes a North Korea quote, we always miss the first half of what North Korea says,” Kang said. “They always say we will not attack first, but you better not attack us. And we always ignore that.”

The problem with much of the existing analysis of North Korean politics, Kang said, is a lack of understanding of the country’s culture, history and language.

“The best way to understand North Korea is [that] they are Koreans first and foremost,” he said. “It’s not a communist country. It is a Korean country.”

In the final panel, Soo-Man Lee, founder and chief producer for SM Entertainment, one of Asia’s top music and entertainment labels, presented a keynote speech about the company’s future directions. Moving away from the previous tradition of putting the economy first, SM Entertainment’s founder wants Korean leaders to prioritize culture, strengthening soft power and influence.

Lee is also looking ahead, preparing for the spread of K-pop into the metaverse. He envisions that the company could create its own metaverse through what he calls a Play-To-Create (PTC) cultural ecosystem. The platform would have meta passports that could retain value and be passed down to future generations, evolving into non-fungible tokens.

“Going beyond just music, we would like to establish a broad alliance for the PTC ecosystem that will represent the entire culture and creative industries,” he said. “Regardless of age and experience, even a 12-year-old boy or girl, for example, can find their creativity and walk their own path.”

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