9 min read

BTS, Squid Game, and reclaiming Korean Identity

BTS, Squid Game, and reclaiming Korean Identity
"Go back to your monkey land!"
"Apologize for the World War, your grandparents probably killed a bunch of Koreans!"
"You're not Korean, stop kidding me"

These were some comments I heard on a daily basis when I first moved to South Korea after living in Nepal for 8 years. Although my mother taught me Korean and we regularly ate Korean food in our home, I was not "Korean" in the eyes of my new peers.

The long Japanese name I inherited from my father did not fare well on the name tags made for the typical 3 syllable Korean names. Nor did my ignorance of the slang, games, or candy that they all seemed to know and refer to help with feeling "at home".

Although these years may be seen as tough and scary, there was a part of me that desperately wanted to become "Korean". Only now do I begin to grasp at the hollowness and irrationality of that thought, but it was real. My mother loves to bring up the story of how I even was willing to bear the mandatory military service if I could get a Korean passport. Moreover, I began to introduce myself using my mother's family name of "Lee" over the Japanese "Fukuzawa".

I was caught up in what you may call: "Korean Fever"

Korea has a fascinating and incredible history. Although the landmass is small, it takes years to fully grasp the complexities of its story.

South Korea also has a fascinating and incredible culture. The small nation has taken the globe by storm many times, with the recent hits of the boyband BTS and films such as Parasite or Squid Games. The world is also caught up in "Korean Fever"

Today, we'll be critically observing the recent "Korean Fever" and the implications they may have for the divided nation.

Squid Game: Anti-capitalist Capitalist

Let us begin with the most familiar of recent Korean obsessions: Squid Game.

As I am writing this in mid-October – the seeming peak of attention this show is receiving – it almost seems ridiculous to try and explain what it is all about. But just in case people are not familiar, let me summarize.

Squid Game is a Netflix series produced in South Korea, with a rather common storyline. People who are in extreme debt are brought together to play a series of games to win a life-changing monetary prize. However, unbeknownst to them, it's a win-or-die setting. The games they play are nostalgic Korean games such as "Red Light Green Light", Tug-of-War, and more.

Squid Game (as of the time of writing) has become the most successful show the Netflix franchise has created. It is estimated that it has generated more than 900 million dollars for the streaming service (Source). Alongside this, there are countless stories where people have played the games in the show, recreated scenes, or attempted some of the challenges themselves.

This video has over 2.5 million views

Underlying all of this, as per usual for shows like this, is a social commentary the series attempts to make. The writer-director of the show, Dong-hyuk Hwang, said:

“I wanted to write a story that was an allegory or fable about modern capitalist society, something that depicts an extreme competition, somewhat like the extreme competition of life. But I wanted it to use the kind of characters we’ve all met in real life" (Source)

This allegory has struck a note among the South Korean public, quickly being adapted within the moving political power as the country approaches a new presidential election. Even the South Korean State Department has said:

“At the heart of the show’s dark story is the frustration felt by the average Korean, and particularly Korean youth, who struggle to find employment, marriage, or upward mobility—proving that grim economic prospects are indeed at the center of Korean society’s woes" (Source)

However, the question remains, has the show really brought to light this struggle of employment, marriage, and upward mobility? Or is that a mere afterthought of the massive capitalist success the show has been under the supervision of Netflix?

I argue, that the show was too entertaining and sensational to make such a statement. The success Squid Game has achieved in many ways goes exactly against the social narrative it was trying to create.

Instead of the globe responding to the dystopian society the show depicts with disgust and frustration, they respond by fantasizing and aestheticizing it.

In chilling irony, people want to play Squid Game.

They copy the clothes, they make the snacks, and even make parody versions of it within their own cultural setting. But most ironic of all, is that this grim depiction of South Korean inequality and society has brought the nation praise and admiration.

It doesn't end here.

As per the politician, the show also represented how difficult it is to get employed, climb the social ladder, and gain whatever "success" young South Korean people dream of. However, the show ended up representing the exact opposite.

The stars of the show now are dazzled with attention and praise, and their "humble beginnings" are more than often highlighted. For example, Ho-yeon Jung saw her Instagram account bloom from 400,000 to 13 million, and soon became the global ambassador for Louis Vuitton. (Source)

Regardless of the intent of the directors and editors, the dystopian depiction of the problems within South Korea was used to emphasize and even "aestheticize" the Korean culture, people, and ultimately, history. There is no one to blame; as that is the complexity of our global network.

But just one example of this "Korean Fever" and aestheticization is not enough. Next up, BTS.

BTS: Breaking Expectations to Becoming the Expectation

K-Pop has been on the international radar for a while now, yet BTS – or Bangtan Sonyeondan – has hit a new high for Korean music. Their track record is nothing but spectacular (I unapologetically use Wikipedia as my source here).

They are the best-selling artist in South Korean history, and became the fastest act to get 5 US number-one singles since Michael Jackson. Their hit song "Dynamite" was nominated for the Grammy and has won many other international rewards. Outside of music, BTS make appearances at the United Nations General Assemblies to address peace and anti-violence.

I must admit, that description is greatly lacking for this historical group. But is any description ever enough for what they have done? Regardless, this widely successful and influential K-pop group has also become a source of irony and aestheticization.

Their name BTS (or BangTan Sonyeondan), was supposedly named to "block out stereotypes, criticisms, and expectations that aim at adolescents like bullets" (Source) according to one of their members J-Hope. Yet, in many ways, BTS with their extravagant shows, good looks, and global admiration, are creating what adolescents expect each other to be like.

They have become the stereotypes, points of criticism, and expectations for the adolescents of the globe. This has resulted in cases like Oli London.

Oli London is a British influencer who has gained much publicity due to his numerous plastic surgeries to become Korean – more specifically Jimin, a member of BTS.

The influencer has been reported to have undergone 18 surgeries that made London look "more Korean" and apparently has taken on a Korean accent when speaking to fans.

London has said:

“Yes I identify as Korean. Yes I’m non-binary. Yes I look like Jimin. But none of this should be a reason to outcast me from society, to dehumanise me and shame me for being who I am, a non-binary Korean person.” (Source)

To hold my tongue (or fingers?) on the specifics of this comment, this goes to show how BTS has become the standard for many. Although London may represent an extreme – as many who may wish to undergo such surgery may not have the means to – there are countless people who see BTS as the perfect example of adolescence and beauty.

One of Oli London's videos. 

In an odd way, it has become possible to "become" South Korean. A certain style, aesthetic, or hobby has made it readily accessible for non-South Koreans to take the culture as their own. I would argue that this is not appropriation, but a global phenomenon of admiration and awe for the modern South Korean culture.

But this may not be as good for South Korea as you may think.

You Aren't Korean

To preface this section, this in no way is something exclusive to South Korea; although the recent craze for South Korean culture has made it a great example.

To expand upon the ideas discussed in the analysis of Squid Game, BTS, and Oli London, South Korean entertainment is continuously defining, altering, and narrowing down "who Koreans are".

But this is a rather interesting historical question. South Korea as we know it emerged out of the split of the Korean Peninsula in 1948; sharing the largest part of their history and culture with their now Northern enemies.

Just a thought: To put this into context, Coca Cola has invented in 1892 and the ice cream cone didn't make a public appearance till 1904; 40 years before South Korea came to be.

The name "Korea" also derives from a distant kingdom called "Goryeo", which was founded in 918. Although the bloodline of the Goryeo kingdom may flow in modern-day South Koreans, Soju – the popular Korean wine – is one of the few contributions Goryeo has made to modern South Korean culture.

Prior to 1948, the Korean peninsula was annexed by the Japanese empire from 1910 and put under colonial rule. Before this, the peninsula was ruled by the Joseon Dynasty that lasted an incredible 500 years. Much of the Korean language, culture, and more can be traced back to this powerful kingdom.

Regardless of the difficult history of colonization and becoming the early battleground of the Cold War, South Korea has quickly manifested itself into an industrial powerhouse and recent cultural hegemon. So then, how can this become problematic for South Korea?

The Diaspora.

It is estimated that there are about 7 million Korean diasporas across the globe; most are descendants of the refugees from internal upheavals in the late 19th century or forced laborers to the Japanese empire (Ministry of Foreign Affairs).

Many of these diaspora groups continue to use the word "Joseon" when referring to themselves, instead of the modern name of Korea or "Han-Gook".

Beginning in the late 20th century, the South Korean government has recognized the importance of these diaspora groups. Such concerns began as the nation was experiencing a "brain drain" as Dr. Song of the University of Aukland puts it (Song 2014).

This "brain drain" describes the phenomenon where many South Koreans immigrated to Western nations such as the US for better opportunities in the 1960s and 70s. Their close neighbors, China, also experienced a similar outflow of the workforce, scientists, and intellectuals.

However, "since the early 1990s, the number of return migrants has been rising. The Korean diaspora is doubly beneficial as it, somewhat uniquely, provides both a cheap workforce (Chinese Koreans) and a highly-skilled workforce (American Koreans). Korean return migrants from China have made a large contribution to the Korean labor market. Today, there are more than 300,000 Chinese Korean workers in South Korea, mostly manual laborers working in activities shunned by South Koreans. Return migrants from countries such as the US, with higher levels of education and English-language fluency, have also contributed to globalization of the country’s economy. Working for companies in South Korea, they contribute to the globalization and democratization of South Korea’s management culture and labor relations" (Song 2014).

On top of this, the South Korean government has been proactive in attempting to develop good relations with their relatives across the globe. For example, OKTA (Overseas Korean Trade Association) and other government agencies have been working to instill Korean pride and national identity through invitations to the country, cultural interactions, and more, so these diaspora groups can contribute to the South Korean economy.

Yet, there are some potential issues to this.

First, the majority of Koreans scattered across the Asian continent (such as Uzbekistan, Japan, China, and Russia) can trace their roots back to North Korea rather than the South (Soek 2019).

Second, many of these diaspora groups – especially 2nd generation and beyond – identify more with their birth country than the Korean peninsula. More often, however, is that they have a complicated relationship with their idea of "belonging". Are they Korean? Or are they American, Japanese, Chinese, or Russian?

Lastly, stemming from the second point, are the many stories of rejection from South Koreans. Although I have not found any structured study of this kind – which would be fascinating in itself – there are countless stories of Korean diaspora groups being rejected from "real Koreans" (Kim 2021).

There are stories where Korean American students have trouble joining South Korean Student Organizations because "they aren't really Korean". I myself, who is born under a South Korean mother, lived in South Korea, and speaks the language, have heard the same.

It is early to say, but the global boom of "Korean culture" and refinement of who is "Korean" may serve as an international headache for the South Korean government.

The government has been working hard to define Koreanness through their education system domestically and abroad (Won 2020), but these themes often go against the way Korea is depicted through its massively successful entertainment industry.

Moving forward, it'll be interesting to see if the South Korean identity expands beyond its ethnic and physical borders as the United States did, or if it will shrink and exclude even their own diaspora.