Hijacking racist hashtags or flooding US police apps with fancams, K-pop fans have made headlines. But the K-pop industry itself is surprisingly apolitical.
When K-pop fans claimed part of the credit for making Donald Trump believe his rally in Oklahoma on June 20 would be so full that his campaign built a second stage outside, the tactic of flooding the attendance register with fake names seemed novel to lovers of music from the Far East. But as Trump delivered his stump speech to a near half-empty stadium, and the exterior stage was being pulled down since no one showed up, the world woke up to the fact that online K-pop fan communities on Twitter and the TikTok video-sharing app wield potent political influence.
The global media was quickly awash with stories about what is called K-pop vigilantism. It has also been observed in the protest movement following the police killing of the unarmed African-American man George Floyd. The massive online fandoms united behind Korean pop superstars like boy band BTS donated millions to Black Lives Matter (BLM) in early June. They have since flooded police apps aimed at BLM protesters with fancams, or hijacked racist hashtags such as #WhiteLivesMatter.
In terms of media coverage of K-pop culture, it was a big shift from late 2019. Then several stars committed suicide, revealing the dark underbelly of the hyper-competitive K-pop industry. Bullying by toxic online fans was identified as a big part of the problem.
K-pop: Multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic
Some recent K-pop activism hype tends to speak generically about K-pop stans. An amalgamation of "stalker" and "fan," "stan" generally stands for "obsessive fan." But in South Korea at least, stans tend to shy away from politics.
As Hye Jin Lee explains, recent political interventions are largely associated with K-pop fans in the US. The clinical assistant professor of communication at the University of Southern California Annenberg adds that it should come as no surprise that these fans have been fighting white nationalism alongside Black Lives Matter activists.
"There's a great overlap between the demographic of the BLM movement and American K-pop fandom," she told DW. "Both are multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-generational," she says, even though mostly young.
American K-pop fans identify with a popular culture that is different from the white-dominated mainstream. "They are more open to cultural differences and have progressive values," says Lee.
Seeking to "protect and promote" an Asian pop subculture that remains marginalized due to "imperialistic, racist, and sexist ideologies," K-pop fandom has a history of online political mobilizations, Lee explains. From petitions and organizing charity events to calling out journalists who misrepresent K-pop stars — and even buying media ad space to bolster their idols — American K-pop fans have a history of battling stereotypes online.
Ongoing struggle in Black Lives Matter and other movements
Lee says it's a mistake to assume that these fans have been motivated by bands like BTS, who famously donated $1 million to BLM before their fan "Army" more than matched the amount via their #MatchAMillion campaign.
"The current political mobilization of K-pop fans can be seen as an extension of their fight against orientalism, racism, sexism and homophobia to make K-pop acceptable and popular in the US," she says.
As the biggest act in K-pop, BTS top the US and European charts and are said to be more tweet-worthy than Donald Trump. While vocal on some social issues such as mental health and economic inequality, "they have not used their platforms to urge their fans to become politically active or to fight against white supremacy," says Lee.
Moreover, the band and its Army have been promoting numerous philanthropic appeals since 2017, including UNICEF's #ENDviolence campaign and support for Syrian refugees.
Business before politics, not only in K-pop
There is good reason for K-pop's relative political reticence. "Once K-pop becomes too politicized, many fans will turn away while others may find their parents less willing to support their fandom," says Roald Maliangkay, associate professor at the College of Asia & the Pacific of the Australian National University.
What he has called a "slick, corporate" and "highly industrialised" K-pop business is ultimately protective of its bottom line.
"K-pop artists do not, of course, control how their work is interpreted politically, but the more it is, the more likely ticket sales will drop," Maliangkay told DW. "Since K-pop relies heavily on live performances and endorsements for profit, the artists and their agencies have to be conservative."
Indeed, BTS fans in South Korea have warned their brethren against getting involved in US politics, according to areport by Reuters.
The current K-pop activism points to a unique phenomena driven by a massive and very powerful fan base with complex motivations. It's a response to racism but also simply "excitement over the number of fellow community members and their ability to act in unison," says Maliangkay.
But without explicit support from its idols, the fan-driven movement may yet run out of steam. "They will shy away from overly politicizing their work," he says of the stars. "And I suspect that their agencies and many of their fans would not want them to anyway."
In the US at least, a different breed of K-pop stans seem to have emerged who, spurred by their own ongoing struggle against orientalism and white supremacy, could remain a thorn in Trump's side in the leadup to the November election.