This era of Hallyu was considered simply another candy-colored footnote to the Miracle on the Han River narrative. South Korea’s breakneck transformation from one of the poorest countries in the world during the 1950s to a model of development has undoubtedly facilitated its cultural expansion. In turn, its government financially supports cultural industries and utilises idols as national ambassadors. Ministries of Culture, Sports, Tourism and Foreign Affairs promote Korean culture abroad. Soft power, in the form of the same groups that offered me so much guiltless pleasure, is exercised to further bilateral relations.
Jumong, a 2006 historical period drama, attracted a higher viewership in Iran than in South Korea itself. Jumong’s lead actor, Song Il-gook, became a household name and was invited to tour Iran. South Korea’s LG Electronics sponsored this tour, furthering the economic interests and prominence of the Korean exports sector. International KCONs, or Korean wave conventions, are used to sell Brand Korea overseas and entice tourists. KCON Abu Dhabi 2016 (the Middle East’s first convention) was even welcomed by Seok Cho, President of Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power, for its potential to ‘‘expand nuclear power-related exports’’ and open the door for Korean corporations in the Middle East. It’s disquieting to think of our naively fostered Somali fangirl-dom as simply a by-product of the Korean state’s machinations intended to advance Korea’s various chaebols, from Samsung to Hyundai.
As I grew older, I and fellow K-pop devotees became more aware of what lay hidden under the surface of the industry’s glossy, candy-coated epidermis. Exposés and lawsuits revealed everything from ‘‘slave contracts’’ and labor violations to psychological abuse and sexual exploitation. Idols were mistreated and grossly short-changed, all while having their private lives micromanaged by profit-driven industry heads. Consider Ellison Kyoung-jae Kim, a member of U-Kiss, who was forced to keep his marriage secret and prevented from visiting his pregnant wife in hospital lest his idol status be affected. Even sanitised depictions of traineeship, as seen in the 2017 reality girl group survival show Idol School, can’t conceal the gruelling effects of factory-like production on young idols.
I sometimes think our own voracious consumption and the demands it imposed on many of Hallyu 2.0’s defining groups must have, in some way, led to their breakups and breakdowns. I have grown to witness K-pop’s slick veneer of wholesome entertainment slip time and time again. Nowhere was this more tragically evident than in the passing of SHINee’s Kim Jong-hyun. After succumbing to a ‘‘devouring’’ depression, Jong-hyun took his own life in 2017 at the age of 27. A flurry of messages from friends informed me of his death. I still struggle to make sense of it. Only a few months earlier, Big Bang’s T.O.P had overdosed on tranquilizers, an event attributed to his mental health struggles and recent military enlistment. Jong-huyn, and his generation of idols, represented more than a teenage fad. To me, they were a reminder of a frenzied youth, of knees bumped against each other as we shared headphones, of MP3 players with limited storage, of YouTube wormholes and the responsibilities of fan forum moderation. Before we were all separated by choice or circumstance. Before life happened to us. Jong-hyn’s passing, more than anything else, brought my network of Somali fangirls (an army, to use the terminology of BTS fans), past and present, together. We reminisced about how K-pop was our escapist hideaway, a drop of pure nostalgia fossilized in amber. Now, even it was corrupted by the realities of living in this world.