Twelve years ago, more Koreans studied Dutch than Dutch studied Korean but things have certainly changed since then: the number of enrolments at Korean Studies has risen so drastically that there are now more Dutch students learning Korean (nearly seventy students starting this year) than there are reading Dutch (forty) in Leiden, not bad for a programme that was once the poor relation of the Asian language courses.
Why is there so much interest? “You can tell that K-pop is one of the aspects that’s had the most impact”, says Joyce Trimbach (22), who started this year. “It’s the reason many people are here. Talk to other students and you’ll hear things like: ‘I’ve been a fan of K-pop for ten years.’ Everything’s perfected, it’s the perfect look: the artists are slim and good looking, they move around a lot and they can sing, they’re talented.
Other aspects of Korean culture are growing in popularity too, she has noticed. “A lot of fashion, including clothes from H&M and Monki, is inspired by whatever was already trendy in Korea. That’s how I became interested, scrolling on Pinterest and Tumblr till it drove me nuts.”
Tanuki, the club for students of Japanese, is a bit worried that Korean Studies has a reputation of being the “K-pop course”. “Most students listen to it and take an interest in it, but they’re not hardcore”, the committee said in an email. “Every year, there’ll be some fanatics who enrol but most of them drop out quickly because Korean Studies is not focused on K-pop but on more relevant things like history and international relations.”
Trimbach has faced this too. “When I say ‘I’m doing Korean Studies’ people often ask: oh, because you like K-pop, right? It’s slightly annoying, but kind of embarrassing too, I guess. There are plenty of people who are here for the programme itself. I know lots of people who are specifically interested in the political relations between North and South Korea and how it affects global politics.”
“In the first year, many people soon drop out because it wasn’t what they imagined it would be when they started”, says master’s student Amber Vermunt (23). “They think, cool: Korean and K-pop. There are still lots of subjects concerning politics and history, but that’s what I like about it.”
Nonetheless, she is a fan of K-pop too. “When I was younger, about fifteen, it was my whole life. I spent all day watching videos, looking for news, tweets, I was obsessed. It’s not so bad now. When I started this course, I realised that it’s not all fun and games” (see the box). In fact, when she first started at university, she set up a K-pop dance group and still dances with it and posts videos of it. “The numbers of such dance groups have risen steeply in the last two years, especially in the Netherlands. We give workshops which are attended by fans.”
The spread of Korean culture, led by K-pop, is also known as Hallyu - the Korean Wave - and has been a phenomenon for some time in Asia, but is gradually conquering Europe too. When the Korean boy band BTS performed in Amsterdam last year, some people, including the media, were indignant: the tickets (prices ranged from 90 to 180 Euros) sold out within half an hour and to quite young fans. The queue to the Ziggo Dome was tailed back a kilometre.
‘My God, the queue!” According to Leanna van Lambalgen (19, Linguistics), it was a “madhouse”. “I was at the front; I’d been queueing since nine in the morning. I had an exam week the following week, but I don’t regret it. I do it for the band.” She saw them again later, in Paris, and recently she saw girl band Dreamcatcher in Amsterdam. “I had VIP tickets for the concert, which cost 110 Euros. That gets you early access, some goodies and a hi-touch with the band, a kind a high five. It’s really, really short – you only have time to say: ‘Hi, I love you! Bye!’”
BTS is one of the biggest boy bands in the world. They have – estimates vary – about 90 million fans around the world. Fan culture is mainly played out online. Every band has its own fan club. BTS has the biggest one, called the ARMY, which stands for Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth.
“It really is a force to be reckoned with”, Van Lambalgen explains. “Fans are loyal, so that gives them so much power when it comes to streaming videos, getting things trending and getting song requests played on the radio. And if a feature gets a lot of clicks, other magazines will copy it. That’s how it spreads.”
The fans are actively held responsible for a band’s success. “That’s quite explicit. You get instructions on how to stream properly for more influence – there are entire tutorials on Twitter.” It has a lot to do with the K-pop industry: a bands’ success is determined by viewers’ votes on Korean TV shows where bands can win prizes and by how often their song is streamed on YouTube.
Although all the music is freely available online, fans still buy the albums. “I try and collect as many as possible,” says Michaela Fikácková (18, Linguistics). Not everything, because they’re expensive – usually between twenty and thirty Euros.” But there’s more to them than just a CD in a plastic box. Sometimes, there’s a big book, she says. “K-pop is very visual. They don’t just sing a song, it’s a whole concept, a work of art. You get a photo album with pictures of the band members and glossy photos. It’s important: people collect and swap pictures.” In addition, every K-pop band has its own colours and they sell specifically designed glow sticks to take to concerts.
The online community of fans, the fandom, is extremely active and even has its own lingo. A stan is a fan, a bias is your favourite member of the band, and a comeback means that a new album will be out. Fikácková is a “multi”: “I support several bands. I like underrated bands, ones that aren’t mainstream, but if someone attacks my band, I’ll fight back.”
Fierce tribal battles
Sometimes, you see, the online fan culture can erupt into fierce tribal battles: “Fanwars, they’re called”, explains Van Lambalgen. “It can get quite violent. People will totally trash other people online. It’s cyber-bullying, but it’s not right. There’s no shame in really liking something. Why is it acceptable to be football-mad, but not to like a band?”
Vermunt: “There’s a good side to it, too. Because of K-pop, I’ve learnt lots of things about East-Asian cultures in general. Let’s be honest: at secondary school, you learn hardly anything about the East.”
The K-pop industry is worth billions, but is not free of controversy. Only recently, two well-known stars, Sulli and Goo Hara, committed suicide, spawning discussion about the amounts of pressure on K-pop stars and about their fans’ behaviour. Sulli was bombarded with messages from angry fans because she decided not to wear a bra anymore and for a livestream where she drank an alcoholic beverage.
Every day, there are hundreds of candidates queuing to do auditions for the Korean record companies, hoping to be accepted as a “trainee” and perhaps become superstars like their idols. If trainees get a contract with a record company, they are subjected to a rigorous programme of singing, dancing and language lessons which can last up to ten years to prepare them for their debut. There is no lower age limit for trainees; some start as young as thirteen. The record companies control the trainees’ love lives, their diets, their appearance and their behaviour. Some record companies make the stars pay for the coaching once they have made their debut, leaving them with very little income.