How South Korea Uses Psy, VIXX and All of K-Pop to Burnish Its Image

It's part of a government branding initiative that began in 1997

Last month, the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena hosted “The M Countdown,” a show featuring top South Korean pop acts like VIXX, BTS, B1A4, Teen Top, IU, G-Dragon, Jung Joon Young, SPICa, CNBlue and Girls Generation. As expected, thousands of fans stood and screamed their heads off. But what most of them probably didn’t know was that they weren’t just watching a stage show, but a crafty bit of international marketing.

Riding the wave of K-Pop (a genre characterized by a winning formula of sharp dance moves set to catchy tunes delivered mostly by boy and girl bands), the LA concert was part of a traveling road show designed to promote Korea—as a headquarters for brands, and as a brand itself.

The whole idea dates back to 1997, when Kim Dae-Jung became president of the country. As American consumers know, these days South Korea produces lots of the products we buy—from Kia to Samsung to LG. But 17 years ago, amid the Asian financial crisis, Kim decided that entertainment—not manufacturing—was the key to survival.

Kim set up something called the Korea Creative Contents Agency, tasked with exporting Korean culture to the world—and helped in no small part by its partnership with Korea Eximbank. It was the KCCA that laid the foundation for K-Pop.

While North Korea was toying with nuclear tipped missiles and marching to the Stalinist beat, South Korea was wiring itself for the future and dancing to a synthetic pop rhythm. Korean cool, hallyu, achieved its highest expression in K-Pop.

The real wonder is that it took this long. Three years ago, Korean Pop wasn't something that middle America buzzed about. All that changed with a little number called “Gangnam Style”—which has since wandered somewhere north of 2 billion views since its 2012 debut.

The Korean boy band sensation hasn’t just been good PR for South Korea, it also has arguably burnished the image of South Korean-made brands in the eyes of American consumers. The idea is that South Korea exerts a broader influence by selling its image. Indeed, that’s the premise of author Euny Hong’s book “The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture,” released by Picador last month. “Kim Dae-Jung predicted that if north and south were ever unified it would be because of Korean pop culture,” Hong told the BBC in a recent interview.

Meanwhile, however, K-Pop has emerged as a brand in its own right—one with its own talent farm, social-media strategy and marketing style. Korea Marketing even offers a tutorial on how it all works. And it is, clearly, working very well. Just for the record, the K-Pop group Girls Generation beat out both Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus in last year’s YouTube music awards based on an algorithm that ranked the most popular videos.