Korea's Entertainment Industry and Culture

Published 11/07/2022 in Scholar Travel Stipend
Written by Caroline Chiu | 11/07/2022

The first message I saw when I landed at Seoul Incheon International Airport came from a loud, in-your-face billboard. Bubble letters spelling the text “Welcome to Korea!” sprawled across a picture of BLACKPINK, a famous Korean pop (K-pop) girl group.

While my primary motivation to visit South Korea [2018-2019] was to spend time with one of my college best friends, I was also excited for the opportunity to immerse myself in the home of a culture that was playing an increasingly large role in American pop culture. Korean skin care was becoming all the rage, Korean dramas could be found on Netflix, and k-pop was shattering music records left and right. For example, the k-pop boy group, BTS, became the first K-pop group to perform on a major U.S. award show and win a Billboard Music Award in 2017. A year later, they released the first K-pop album to reach No. 1 on the Billboard 200, and the list goes on and on.  

My interest in Korean pop culture was also personal. When I was a little girl, one of my dreams was to become a pop star. Specifically, I wanted to audition for ​American Idol​ (a symbol of the decade in which I was raised), blow the judges and the country away, and eventually achieve Kelly Clarkson-level stardom. But as I grew up alongside the show, becoming conscious of my race, I noticed that no one who looked like me ever made it to the live show. And when I scoured the internet for Asian-American singer-songwriter role models, I could barely come up with any names. While there are many reasons I didn’t ultimately pursue my dream, there’s a part of me that wonders if I would have held onto it for a little longer or tried harder if I had grown up with a different skin color.

Fast forward to contemporary times, and all the sudden I ​was​ seeing people who looked like me at music award show red carpets and Spotify playlist album art. Granted they weren’t necessarily Asian-American, but they were Asian! I was ecstatic and awestruck. How did South Korea culture become so prolific and pervasive? How was this affecting the country, and in particular, its youth? I was eager to see if I could find some answers in Korea.

My exploration started on a bus ride from Seoul Incheon to the suburbs of the city, where I was staying with my best friend, Jamie. From the bus, I caught a glimpse of the headquarters of SM Entertainment, one of the largest South Korean entertainment companies known for shaping what has become known as “idol culture”. Aspiring singers and dancers audition for agencies like SM Entertainment with the hope of scoring a contract that would provide ample training and PR support to become an “idol”. As K-pop gained global popularity, the interest in becoming an idol likewise exploded. A 2012 ​ABC​ report cited that close to hundred of candidates audition per day.​2​ Almost sounds like a year-round version of my ​American Idol​ dream right?

However, I quickly discovered a darker side to the story. Because of the outsize demand of young teens to become idols, contracts can sometimes be exploitative—so much so they have gained the heavy moniker “slave contracts”. As recently as in 2017, Korea’s Fair Trade Commission investigated and called upon eight entertainment agencies, including three of the largest, to end six different unfair contractual terms. One of these terms included excessive termination fees, ranging from $86,200 to $129,000 that exceeded the actual investment a company might have made in a prospective idol. Another included prohibiting idols from signing with other companies even if their previous contract had ended.​3​ According to the FTC, these agencies have since voluntarily adjusted these practices.

Additionally, former idols have often spoken out about how aggressively their individualities and behaviors are controlled in the name of crafting an idol persona. Jay Park is a Korean-American singer/songwriter who went to Seoul to pursue an idol career for three years before returning to perform in the American music industry. In a 2017 podcast, he spoke about the double-edged sword of the agency training, stating: “It helped in a lot of ways, but it also killed my passion and creativity in a lot of ways as well. It’s kind of like programming almost. Sing it like this, do it like this. So like you lose your individuality.”​4

These discoveries left me with a more complex appreciation of K-pop. On one hand, the Korean music industry is a large part of the reason there are little Asian-American boys and girls who can now see people who look like themselves at the Grammys. On the other hand, this industry also has many skeletons in the closet. That being said, these skeletons are not unique to South Korea. Just this past year, Taylor Swift condemned music labels for taking advantage of artists​5​, and Justin Bieber spoke out about how corrupting his early induction into entertainment was for a young boy star​6​. By investing in its entertainment industry, South Korea has become an inspiring force for many. But entertainment, at least in my experience, always comes with some human cost.


Selfie with the kind elderly couple who helped us navigate back down, and were way more nimble than we were despite being three times our age.

While this trip helped spark an exploration into the complex forces that created the K-pop craze, it also introduced me to the many other attractions, experiences, and food the Korea has to offer.

For example, I learned that South Korea is mountainous, making it an incredible place to hike. On the second day of my trip, Jamie and I headed to Baegundae, a notoriously difficult hiking spot with beautiful views. To add wood to the fire (that we would feel in our thighs the next day), we accidentally wandered off the “intermediate” trail into the “expert” trail. Luckily, we ran into an elderly Korean couple who hiked the trails almost daily and helped us navigate back down the mountain safely. It was a perfect introduction into Korean hospitality. 

I also got to experience a taste of ancient Korean history. Jamie, some of her friends, and I drove out to Jeonju, a village with over 800 traditional Korean houses known as “hanoks.” We immersed ourselves completely by renting traditional Korean attire to walk around in as we explored exhibits on how ancient Koreans used to make kimchi without modern refrigeration. 

Without question, one of the highlights of the trip was the food. In addition to the incredible home cooking I experienced at Jamie’s home, we also took a road trip to the south of the Korean peninsula, stopping by famous eateries along the way. There wasn’t a single meal that I didn’t enjoy. The stews were particularly satisfying in the cold winter weather. 



1​@LoryGa on Twitter
3​https://variety.com/2017/artisans/asia/korea-talent-management-agencies-ordered-to-end-slave-c ontracts-1202005310/
5​https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/taylor-swift-scooter-braun-scott-borchetta-exp lainer-853424/