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D.C. Students Learn About Korea Through K-Pop

By Virginia Sciolino

Cultural diplomacy is a hallmark of international soft power as countries promote their food, art, history, music, traditions and other aspects of their identity to build bridges and spread their message. One of the most recent and popular iterations of cultural diplomacy is the phenomenon known as K-Pop – short for Korean pop – a genre of popular music originating from South Korea that has taken the world by storm.

This month, the Korean Cultural Center in D.C. is teaching locals about this musical sensation through its K-Pop Academy. The four-week training program allows students to take classes from professional Korean voice and dance teachers.

After the Korean War, cultural exchange between the U.S. and South Korea flourished. Soldiers brought American pop music into South Korean clubs and Korean musicians began to gain popularity in the United States. However, a decades-long government crackdown censoring Western influence in South Korean art ensued.

K-Pop Korean Cultural Center
Students from the 2018 K-Pop Academy perform at their final showcase.  Photos: Korean Cultural Center

In the late 1980s, South Korea saw a new constitution, the first direct presidential elections and the introduction of Korean rap music. These multitalented musical artists laid the foundation for K-Pop as a distinctive genre. Since then, Korean pop music has become the most recognizable signifier of South Korea’s growing international presence.

K-Pop has spread across eastern Asia and the United States. In 2017, the popular group BTS became the first K-Pop group to perform at the American Music Awards. 

This meteoric rise in Korean popular culture is referred to as Hallyu, meaning “Korean Wave.” The increasing popularity of K-Pop, specifically its music, prompted the South Korean government to institute K-Pop programs within its Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, hoping to spark further interest in South Korea.

K-Pop Korean Cultural Center
Before graduating from their four-week training program, K-Pop Academy students will perform for an audience, like this one gathered outside of the Korean Cultural Center.

These initiatives spawned the K-Pop Academy, which hosts programs at cultural centers from Canada to Kazakhstan.

The government wants to use the popularity of Korean pop music to generate interest in Korean culture more broadly. This is why, for the first time in the D.C. program’s four-year lifespan, they are including cultural workshops in the curriculum. 

Joon Suk Hwang, director of the Korean Cultural Center, said that the centers “did not only want to focus on modern Korean pop culture, but we wanted to make a program that could give more information when it comes to general Korean culture.”

K-Pop music is known for its complexity. The music is usually upbeat, up-tempo and packed with varying melodies and harmonies. The groups are similarly intricate, often with over five members who dance elaborate but perfectly synchronized routines.

K-Pop Korean Cultural Center
K-Pop Academy mirrors the sense of community built by K-Pop music.

K-Pop “idols” undergo extensive training. They are selected as children and take classes in language, singing and dancing. Then, the young adults who remain in the idol system are grouped into bands and perform assiduously in the public eye.

The K-Pop Academy does not seek to replicate the idol system, but it does seek to evoke the K-Pop work ethic.

Students learn under trainers who taught K-Pop idols in Korea, and their classes meet three times per week. Because of this, K-Pop Academy applicants are usually very dedicated to Korean culture. Program coordinator Hungu Lee said, “One student who came from Arizona stayed here for five weeks just for the program. Last year, one student came from Philadelphia and drove six hours per day for the program. We had one couple who met in the academy get married.” Some students go on to study abroad in Korea or to work in the U.S. K-Pop industry. 

The K-Pop Academy also aims to mirror the sense of community found in K-Pop. Director Hwang said, “We are focusing on a sense of community because the essence of the K-Pop industry is the fandom culture, not only based on the band themselves, but on all the fans and the interaction between the artist and the fans.” 

The global popularity of K-Pop music has also created a worldwide fan base, a community that the academy brings together. Lee said that, “When people apply, the most common motivation is because they want to make friends that have the same hobbies.”

The vibrant, community-based K-Pop Academy is one of the Korean Cultural Center’s many programs. In fact, there are Korean Cultural Centers based in 27 countries. Since the first Korean Cultural Center opened in D.C. in 2010, it has become one of the most active cultural centers in town, hosting programs from art exhibitions to Korean language and Taekwondo workshops. 

The center is currently showing “Open Site,” an exhibition featuring works by Korean artist Tae Eun Ahn. They are also promoting “Chaos & Liar,” a contemporary dance performance to be shown in August at the Kennedy Center, and “Portraits of the World: Korea,” on display at the National Portrait Gallery until Nov. 17, among several other events.

To read about upcoming events, visit the Korean Cultural Center website. 


Virginia Sciolino is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.



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