Blast from the past [3]

Came across this thread and memories flooded back.

RT @AskAKorean I’ve been pushing the “S Korean politics is a five year preview of the US politics,” but even I could have never imagined that US politics will follow S Korea’s “Kpop-ization of politics” trend. (21 June 2020)

Some pointers for the K Street types who are just waking up to this phenomenon:

The right way of thinking about “K-pop fandom” as applied to politics is “a mode of organization.” At least in this context, don’t get distracted by music, but focus on how K-pop fans organize.

K-pop fans gather online, around a shared interest over an idol star. Their organization is decentralized – there is no clear leadership or hierarchy, but they nonetheless coordinate smoothly to create high impact events both online and offline.

In Korea, this organizational behavior seeped into political organization. A politician plays the role of an “idol star”, and a “fandom” coalesces around him/her. This fandom has no discernible leadership, but will organize massive actions in favor of their “star.”

This may seem like a cult of personality, but it is not. The fans are not supporting the star just because they like the star. It’s more precise to say the fans are attracted to the star’s “narrative”, within which they play an active role. This is a crucial point to understand.

Consider BTS and ARMY, the most successful K-pop act and its fandom. ARMY doesn’t support BTS simply because they think BTS members are handsome or they like BTS’s music, although those are often necessary conditions for a fandom.

Ultimately, ARMY supports BTS because ARMY consider themselves to be a part of the “story of BTS”. To push the group from obscurity to superstardom, ARMY collectively worked to call radio stations, buy albums, reward positive coverage etc. They share the struggle with their star.

In Korean politics, Moon Jae-in has been a direct beneficiary of this type of fandom. Moon’s life story resonates: child of a refugee, former paratrooper, democracy activist, closest friend of a former president who tragically committed suicide. It’s a good narrative to join.

A politician gaining fandom based on a good life story is nothing new. What is new, however, is how that fandom behaves – this is what I mean by “Kpop-ization of politics.” Again, you have to think of K-pop fandom as a mode of organization.

Moon Jae-in’s fandom behaves very similarly to a K-pop fandom. They have nicknames for themselves – alternately Moonpa, Honey Badgers, etc. They have no discernible leadership and their activities are highly decentralized. Yet they organize effortlessly for rallies, GOTV, etc.

Just as much as DC lobbyists are confused now, Moon’s fandom confused the hell out of Korea’s old politicos. They were convinced that Moon must be secretly spending enormous amount of money to bribe them, for example, or an underground communist network was coordinating action.

Moon didn’t exactly plan for this; it’s more correct to say he stumbled upon it, but managed it well enough to carry him to presidency. But having seen the power of this, S Korea’s politicians now all try to recapture this magic somehow.

This, too, is an aspect of the Kpop-ization of politics – lots of idol groups (aspiring politicians) show up and they all try to drum up some kind of fandom. A lot of it feels awkward and forced. In the end, only a few emerge with a genuine group of fans.

I wrote my PhD thesis on Nosamo, the grandfather of digitally mediated political fandom we are seeing in Korea today. I would add some nuances to the remarks about the decentralised, self-organising character of Korean fandom, but otherwise I think the author is spot-on, especially about how and to what extent it differs from a cult of personality.

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