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Taking K-pop Seriously in the 2020s


The 2010s is nearly over. What will the 2020s have in store for K-pop?

Modern K-pop began around the late 1980s, fresh off South Korea’s transition into democracy in 1987 and the successful 1988 Seoul Olympics. This means at the year’s end in 2019, modern K-pop is finishing its third decade. Each decade of modern K-pop carried its own characteristics that built up to the Korean pop music that we know today.

The first decade of modern K-pop began in the 1990s, with its bannerman Seo Taiji and Boys [서태지와 아이들] debuting in 1992. In what came to be known as the Golden Age of K-pop, the “New Generation” [신세대] of Koreans—richer, more sophisticated, and more international than ever—set off an explosion of pop culture, creating a pop music scene with a variety of genres and styles including rock ‘n roll, hip hop, R&B and electronica. The first decade of K-pop set the basic contours of K-pop’s artistic bent: a no-holds-barred mixture of genres and styles and emphasis on choreography. Embl…

On Impeachment Eve

I still need to finish the last part of the Nine Years of Darkness series. But hearing the news that Nancy Pelosi finally greenlighted an impeachment inquiry against Donald Trump, I thought it would be fitting to share an excerpt of writing by Cheon Gwan-yul [천관율]. Cheon, a journalist for a South Korean magazine SisaIn, has been the sharpest observer of the political landscape leading up to Park Geun-hye's impeachment in 2017.

To set the stage first: Cheon was writing this on November 12, 2016.  Trump had been elected four days previous, and the public sentiment against Park's corruption scandal was reaching its peak. Two weeks prior to this date, Park Geun-hye appeared on a press conference to admit that she indeed let Choi Soon-sil, daughter of the shaman who claimed to speak with Park's dead mother, review and edit presidential speeches. The Candlelight Protests had been ongoing for several weeks with an average crowd size of a million or more people. Impeachment was not…

Korea-Japan and the End of the '65 System - Part VI: Taking Stock

[Series Index]

The ’65 System is dead—but Americans are slow to wake up to this fact. Much of the foreign policy circles in and around Washington DC still think South Korea and Japan can patch things up quickly and get on as they did before July 2019. They argue: it’s about point-scoring in the domestic politics by stoking the nationalistic passion. Moon Jae-in and Abe Shinzo are being childish over ancient history. South Korea and Japan ought to be natural allies, sharing a common bond as liberal democracies to stand up against the threats of China and North Korea. 
But why would Abe Shinzo or Moon Jae-in need more political points? Abe is the longest serving prime minister in Japanese history with three re-election victories, and Moon is the most popular president in South Korean history whose approval rating at one time was over 80 percent. Abe did not begin the trade war to become more popular with the Japanese, and Moon did not say “we will never lose to Japan again” to become more…

Korea-Japan and the End of the '65 System - Part V: the End of the '65 System

[Series Index]

The ’65 System was a flawed one, based on an imperfect set of treaties that papered over the fundamental disagreement between Japan and South Korea. Yet it continued to survive thanks to opportune alignments in the domestic politics of Japan and South Korea. The ’65 System was born when Park Chung-hee, a former officer of the Imperial Japanese Army, replaced the former independence activist Syngman Rhee, negotiated the ’65 treaties, and violently suppressed the Korean people’s objections. It peaked in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when both Japan and South Korea had relatively progressive politics. Even as Abe Shinzo attacked the ’65 System in the early 2010s, Park Geun-hye’s willingness to kowtow to Abe’s demands kept the system running. And above all, the United States was there as the backstop whenever the ’65 System showed signs of wear.

By late 2016, however, the good luck would run out. Abe Shinzo continued to lead Japan, well on his way to becoming the longest se…

Korea-Japan and the End of the '65 System - Part IV: The '65 System's Decline

[Series Index]
The most hopeful case in favor of the '65 System can be stated as the following: it was the politics of the possible. No, the core historical issue of whether Japan's colonization was legitimate was never addressed—but it was not possible to resolve that issue in 1965 at any rate. Why not begin the bilateral relationship with Japan and South Korea, and build a strong tie based on economic and security cooperation? Then later, the strong bilateral tie between the two countries could be leveraged to find true resolution on the historical issues when the wound from history is less raw. 
Until around 2010, with prime minister Kan Naoto's moving statement, this hopeful case seemed to be well under way. But looking back, it was right around this time when the '65 System began running out of runway. As it turned out, Japan's reckoning with history was skin-deep, limited to a small circle of liberals who held the top offices of the government without being abl…