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K-pop: political propaganda at the border

word count: 2999

Approaches to Popular Music (Level 2)

University of Nottingham


K-pop: political propaganda at the border

K-pop is, today, a worldwide phenomenon. Its recent international rise and appeal

strikes as a surprise, specially in a scenario dominated for so long by american and

european pop cultures. Its idols are the incarnation of east asian beauty standards, its

aesthetics are colorful and bright, its sound is cheery and upbeat, its lyrics are somewhat

innocent and filled with english borrowed expressions, and, most impressive of all, its

fandom is viscerally passionate. And yet, behind this facade of harmless entertainment, lies

a very politically charged music, intrinsically connected with state policies and at the same

time representative of a new way of life in a prosperous South Korean society.

In this essay I will investigate this political aspect of K-pop, specifically how it has

been used as political propaganda by the South Korean government. My analysis will focus

on a particular use of K-pop as political propaganda that happened at the demilitarized zone

(DMZ) between North and South Korea, in which the South blasted the North with news,

anti-communist propaganda and K-pop songs through loudspeakers. I will provide a

timeline for these loudspeakers, identifying when and why they were used, from their first

appearance to their recent dismantling in 2018. After that, I will introduce two possible

frameworks for analysing the usage of K-pop in these events. However, to fully understand

the meaning behind them, we must first understand how South Korea’s modern cultural

industry was born and how it relates to its recent political past.

Korean War and South Korea’s culture industry

South Korea’s 20th century history is marked by its conflict with North Korea, a

ground of dispute between the opposite ideologies of the US and the Soviet Union. The

most active and violent period of conflict was that of the Korean War between 1950 and

1953. Its roots were settled during World War II, when Korea as a whole was occupied by

japanese troops. In August of 1945, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and invaded

Korea, expelling the japanese troops and occupying the northern territory that would later

be the North Korea. After Japan’s defeat one month later, the southern part of Korea was

occupied by US troops. After some negotiation, the whole territory once occupied by Japan

was divided along the 38th parallel and the two Koreas were born, each one acting as an

ideological backyard for their respective supporters. However, this division was soon to be

contested by the North in 1950 through an invasion of the southern territory, thus initiating

the Korean War. After much fight, the northern soldiers were pushed back to the 38th

parallel. The armed conflict would end three years later with the leaders of both countries

signing an armistice in 1953. Along with the armistice was the agreement on the creation of

a demilitarized zone (DMZ) at their borders to separate both countries (EDWARDS, 2006).

It is worth noting that, although an armistice was signed, technically the two Koreas

are still at war, since no peace treaty was signed. This is particularly important to

understand the aftermath of the Korean War. The constant state of warfare produced highly

militarized and dictatorial governments. South Korea’s history in particular was filled with

coup d’etats, dictatorships and civilian massacres up until 1988, when, after many street

protests, a democratic reform was made and a presidential election was held. Soon the

country became a liberal democracy, leading to an economical development which, in turn,

made possible the flourishing of a new cultural life at the country, no longer bound to the

strict censorship and traditionalism of the previous governments.

Then, by the end of the 80s, the conditions for a pop culture to emerge in South

Korea were already established. Television, along with internet’s takeover in the mid 90s,

was a crucial factor to the development of K-pop. Not only it allowed for the youth to come

in contact with western pop cultures, but it also provided the first means for exportation of

south korean cultural products, namely soap operas that became quite popular in Japan and

China at the time. This first craze for Korean culture in the 90s was called ‘hallyu’ (korean

wave), and it helped establish the mediatic routes that would later be used to promote K-

pop on these same asian neighbours, either by casting well known idols or by including K-

pop tracks on soundtracks of movies and soap operas (CHOI and MALIANGKAY, 2015).

Apart from television, another important condition for the development of K-pop

was a major shift in cultural policies that happened in 1993, when the first truly civilian

government was established. Not only did this government reduced censorship, but it also

actively promoted the growth of South Korea’s cultural industry through the creation of

deregulatory measures. A major influence on this shift was the successful revenue of the

movie industry on that year. Suddenly, government officials realized that culture could be

profitable if treated as a commodity and produced as any other industrial product. Culture

was then slowly becoming an important source of income to the Korean economy (KWON

and KIM, 2013). This process would be accelerated in the aftermath of the Asian financial

crisis of 1997. As a consequence of the crisis, K-pop, along with the rest of South Korea’s

economy, went ‘neoliberal’, fully embracing a package of policies that promoted a free-

market economy, flexibilization of labour rights, privatizations and deregulation (KANG,

2015). This introduced a certain industrial mindset that can be seen, for example, in the way

idols are selected and refined through a trainee system, in how their contracts with their

companies allow for all sorts of labour abuses, but also in how songs and music-videos are

created through multiple hyper-specialized steps, almost like an assembly line.

In 1998, a Ministry of Culture and Tourism was created with the sole purpose of

directing investments and regulating this newly born cultural industry. Along with Samsung

electronics, K-pop became one of the most cherished national products, and South Korea’s

government made sure to treat it as a matter of national identity. They did so by making

idols the face for public campaigns, and by including K-pop acts in their international

diplomatic events (CHOI and MALIANGKAY, 2015: 6). In 2012, the Ministry’s budget for

investments in hallyu - which includes K-pop - had a major increase, going from 1.8 to

257.5 KRW billion (roughly U$230 million) (OH and LEE, 2013).

The loudspeakers at the DMZ

Up to this point we discussed how K-pop flourishing was intrinsically linked to

South Korea’s economic context and government interests. The politicalness of K-pop is

already being subtly delineated. Recently, some events have brought this politicalness to the

front of the public debate. One such event, heavily noticed by major media outlets, was the

usage of loudspeakers to blast K-pop songs at the DMZ. According to these outlets, South

Korea had eleven sound systems installed along the DMZ at secret locations producing

sounds that could be heard from the distance of 10 km during the day and 24 km during the

night. They would mainly blast South Korean news, anti-Pyongyang propaganda, weather

forecasts and K-pop songs from two to six times a day at irregular intervals.

Taking on news from major newspapers during the last two decades, we can trace a

timeline for these loudspeakers, identifying when and why they were switched on or off.

Loudspeakers were first used after the Korean war in the late 50s, mainly as a tactical

weapon to destabilize the enemy through annoyance and to incite dissidence among enemy

soldiers. Loudspeakers continued operating until 2004, when they were switched off for the

first time since the end of the Korean War in respect to the anniversary of the first inter-

korean summit that happened in 2000 (BBC News, 2004). They remained silent for 11

years, only to be momentarily switched on again in 2015 after two South Korean soldiers

were injured in a landmine explosion at the border (Reuters, 2015). Although this was a

short event, a year later, in 2016, the loudspeakers started blasting once more after reports

of North Korea’s fourth nuclear test, this time with a (claimed to be) hydrogen bomb (The

Guardian, 2016). In 2017 the sound activity at the border increased after the defection of a

northern soldier to the south, mainly with news broadcasts about the health of the soldier

(Mollman, 2017). A year later, the diplomatic relationship between the two governments

saw a significant improvement. In March of 2018, for example, a huge delegation of artists,

among them K-pop artists, were sent to perform at the North, to Kim Jong-un himself, as

part of a cultural exchange event (The Guardian, 2018). One month later, loudspeakers on

both sides were switched off a few days before the summit meeting between both leaders

(Sang-Hun, 2018), and shortly after some news outlets reported that loudspeakers on both

sides were being dismantled (BBC News, 2018).


Clearly the use of these sound systems were a matter of tension at the DMZ, and

their switching on/off was conditioned by the current state of affairs between the countries.

They would start blasting as a retaliation against the North, and they would stop under the

prospect of a peaceful diplomatic development. Regardless of their efficacy, they are still a

matter worth analysing at least because their usage suggests an act of faith by both

governments on them. The next step, naturally, is to question why it is so. To analyse these

events and the place of K-pop songs in them I will provide two distinct frameworks.

Politics of loud music

The first framework is to look at music as pure vibration, devoid of any meaning.

What we are seeking with this is to understand the rationales that guide the use of amplified

sounds and the possible effects of these sounds on those who hear them. For this specific

framework we are not interested in analysing the music and what it possibly represents, but

rather the meaning of the act itself of playing loud music to an enemy.

Unlike the eyes, the ears cannot be closed when one does not wish to hear sounds.

Nor the rest of the body is immune to sound penetrating it. For this simple reason we can

already envision some physiological and political consequences of blasting loud music

through loudspeakers, specifically in the context of warfare. The tactical use of sounds in

warfare has a long history, either as a mean to deceive the enemy, or as a mean to

destabilize them psychologically (GOODMAN, 2010). To that, we could also add the use

of loud sounds in interrogation/torture tactics tactics (CUSICK,2013). All of these take

advantage of the unprotectedness of hearing, added the facts that hearing is extremely

important to localize oneself within a space, and that the sense of sound agency - that is, of

self-control of the sounds one produces - is crucial to the formation of a healthy

subjectivity. Loud sounds can obscure our sense of place by silencing every other sound

cue, and they can attack our subjectivity by silencing our own vocal utterances (CUSICK,

2013). So, the exposure to loud sounds can produce not only the most obvious

physiological effects of hearing loss, but also destabilize one’s sense of space and one’s

sense of self. Long exposure to loud sounds can go from a simple annoyance to painful

experience, one of an elusive nature because it leaves no visible marks or injuries.

Perhaps it would be a far-stretch to expect these effects from the South Korean

loudspeakers. However, as both Goodman (2010) and Cusick (2013) have suggested, these

sonic warfare tactics have been around since World War II, being safe to assume that the

rationales that guided this type of tactics back then persisted throughout the Cold War. So it

is not about the effectiveness of those loudspeakers, but rather about the government’s

beliefs in this effectiveness. Some effects, on the other hand, are easier to track because

they operate on a more political level.

Politically, loud sounds equals power. The first way of looking into this is to

consider the loudspeakers themselves. As technological devices, they cost money and they

depend on some expertise to build them. Then, being able to produce loud sounds - louder

than your enemies, at least - might suggest some sort of technological prowess.

Interestingly enough, some news articles about the south korean loudspeaker at the border

have noted that, although both countries had their loudspeakers set in place, the southern

ones were far louder than their northern counterparts, so as to suggest the technological

precarity of the North Korean regime.


But loud sounds can be political in themselves. The ability to speak, to emit sounds,

is the ability to express oneself freely. Sound agency equals autonomy. When other external

sounds impose themselves over ours, this undermines our autonomy. A power relation is

thus set in place uniquely through sound, and whoever emits the loudest noises is the one

who holds more power. Then, when South Korea blast their enemies with their sounds, they

are actually trying to assert their power.

Music as a representational medium

The second framework for analysing the political use of music is to treat it as a

representational medium. As the french economist Jacques Attali puts it, music, through its

own means, is capable of enacting and representing society’s structures and modes of

production (1977). But this poses the following question: what does K-pop enact and

represent? Even though K-pop, as a rule, never engages with any political issue either

through lyrics or music videos, it can still be said that by not being explicitly politically it is

acting in favour of a status quo, of maintaining a given social order. But K-pop does more

than that, because it actively engages in representing certain ways of life, modes of

consumption, beauty standards and even concepts of youth, fun and sexuality. Blasting K-

pop at the North equals blasting them all of these traits, either to mock or to seduce.

The discussion on representation in K-pop can lead to three distinct modes of

representation: a strictly musical one, a lyrical one, and a visual one. Few insights could be

provided for this last visual kind of representation in our case study, mainly because only

sounds were emitted by the loudspeakers at the DMZ.


The debate of whether music can represent non-musical phenomena is an old one.

Since the end of the 19th century, the stance that takes music as a pure and self-representing

medium seemed to dominate discourses on this matter. However, this view has become

quite old-fashioned. In fact, music does have the capacity represent external phenomena,

but not in the same way a painting does through denotation. Instead, as argued by Born and

Hesmondhalgh (2013), music is connotative because the meanings it conveys are not

constructed within musical content, but rather in association with other external factors,

specially identitarian ones. So, if a certain music is strongly associated with a certain

group’s identity, such music will end up representing this group’s way of life and values. K-

pop music, being indistinguishable from western pop music in general, conveys the same

values as their western counterparts, values that support a capitalist and democratic society

- both of which are not shared by North Korea’s society.

K-pop songs are also comprised of lyrics, and these are more clearly instances of

representation because they act through language. Although lyrical content for boy- and

girl-group’s songs may differ in mood, they invariably talk about situations, conflicts and

love affairs typical of a urban middle class. They tend do so in a very positive way, which

may account for their usage as political propaganda at the DMZ. Its lyrics are also filled

with english words and expressions, as well as occasional japanese and chinese terms.

When played at the border, these songs might suggest a globalized and cosmopolitan

environment in South Korea, as opposed to the closed and retrograde northern regime.

What we notice from this analysis, then, is that both music and lyrics showcase the

successes of democracy, of the capitalist world, and what it really means to have fun and to

live a prosperous, happy life. The rationale that guides its usage at the border is one of

seduction, of exposing the northern soldiers to values and ways of life that their dictatorial

regime cannot provide.


By looking at the Korean War and its aftermath, we were able to trace back the

origins of both South Korea’s culture industry and the loudspeakers at the DMZ. The

democratization of the country paved the way for the birth of a pop culture, and soon the

government itself, noticing how it could be profitable, actively invested in it. As a

byproduct of that, K-pop was born as a tool for state politics and soon became the musical

representation of a modern, globalized and neo-liberal South Korea. The use of K-pop at

the DMZ was the best possible example of this dynamic, because it brought our attention to

the unresolved conflict with North Korea and, at the same time, to how clearly K-pop was

being used as political propaganda. I analysed this issue from two distinct perspectives, one

that investigated the politics of loud music and its effects on listeners, and one that tried to

explain the particular use of K-pop by considering what it represents and its association

with democratic and capitalist values. These two frameworks that I provided to analyse this

events, however, lead us to an interestingly contradictory conclusion, for it appears that the

attempt to seduce through K-pop was in conflict with the attempt to annoy and harm

through loud music. Such contradiction could not be resolved within this essay and must be

left for future reflections on the topic. For now, it is sufficient to tackle on both of these

rationales that certainly guided South Korea’s government on their decision to blast their

northern enemies with pop songs, continuing a long history of music being used in warfare.


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