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[Diplomatic circuit] K-pop, soft power experts pin innovation as key to sustain momentum

Korea Foundation President Lee Geun (second from left), US Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris (third from left) and founder and chief producer at S.M. Entertainment Lee Soo-man (fourth from left) pose at a seminar on K-pop and innovation held at the Plaza Hotel in central Seoul on Jan. 14. (Korea Foundation)
Korea Foundation President Lee Geun (second from left), US Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris (third from left) and founder and chief producer at S.M. Entertainment Lee Soo-man (fourth from left) pose at a seminar on K-pop and innovation held at the Plaza Hotel in central Seoul on Jan. 14. (Korea Foundation)

Seven-member Korean boy band BTS rang in the new year with a live performance at New York City’s Times Square. Film director Bong Joon-ho rewrote the history of Korean film with his black comedy “Parasite,” which has been nominated for best picture at the Oscars. Korean culture as a whole is reaching new highs on the international stage.

To keep the momentum going, Korean creators should continue to pursue innovation, said Lee Soo-man, one of the most important figures in the K-pop scene, and soft power expert Lee Geun.

Speaking at a seminar in Seoul last week, Lee Soo-man, founder and chief producer at S.M. Entertainment, drew an even more ambitious road map for Korean pop music. He envisioned the creation of a “culture universe,” where K-pop would grow to become a signature product of Korea just as Switzerland is known for its high-end watches.

“We plan to innovate the entertainment industry by integrating K-pop with different cultures and technologies, like AI, nanotechnology and other cutting-edge technology,” Lee Soo-man said at the event discussing the future of K-pop, at the Plaza Hotel in central Seoul on Jan. 14.

“’Culture universe’ refers to the future of entertainment made on the collaboration of communication technology that cultivated in the K-pop industry with state-of-the-art technologies. Within the next 10 years, people will live in an age where they will be able to start and end their days with an avatar of K-pop stars.”

Lee’s concept of celebrity avatars entails more than entertainment purposes, as “the movement of AI will become an important criterion that assesses the value of a country rather than the number of population.”

He established S.M. Entertainment in 1995, and the agency has grown to become one of the “big three” K-pop labels. It has produced and managed K-pop boy bands SHINee and EXO, first-generation K-pop star BoA and girl group Red Velvet, among other artists.

According to Lee, seven-piece boy band SuperM, which ranked No. 1 on the US Billboard 200 last year, is a prime example of his strategy to create a culture universe. SuperM was produced and launched by S.M. Entertainment and combines key members from S.M.’s four boy bands.

Lee has previously teamed up with Marvel, CAA and Intel, among other global companies, to realize the culture universe.

“In cooperating with international companies, I plan to connect the East and West by expanding music to film and TV production and agency business. On the back of this I seek to create the ‘culture universe’ and I will work for Korea to be the gateway.”

According to figures shared by the Korea Foundation, the number of K-pop fans who have joined a related club in 98 countries tallied 99.3 million people in 2019, nearly a fivefold increase from 21.7 million in 2014.

Echoing Lee’s ambitions for a high-tech-incorporated K-pop industry, Korea Foundation President Lee Geun told The Korea Herald that “innovation” is the utmost important factor for Korean culture to leap forward. The Korea Foundation is a nonprofit public diplomacy organization under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Lee said “to become an ‘advanced creative nation’ we must work on three Cs -- creative capacity, creative culture, creative content. ... Now is the time to leave the entertainment industry to the market.”

The worldwide popularity of K-pop marks a milestone in Korean culture, but industry leaders are tasked with navigating a slew of issues, of which an increase in K-pop stars going on hiatus due to anxiety disorders stands out as an urgent issue.

Some critics have called the K-pop industry inhumane, citing the indefinite training periods that aspiring singers undergo from young ages on top of agencies’ involvement in celebrities’ private lives.

“There is no fault in the system. I take pride in (our artist management) system … we are possibly No. 1 worldwide. We think a lot about the education and character (of artists),” Lee Soo-man said, apparently on the defensive.

He went on to add that celebrities in Korea often fall victim to online hate comments and cyberbullying.

“Once again, before criticizing our system, the public, parents and teachers should tell (children) not to download illegal content. It would be appreciated if parents asked their children nicely not to write hateful comments online,” he said.

Singer and actress Sulli, who was a member of S.M.’s five-piece girl group f(x), died in October in one of the highest-profile cases last year. A month later, her friend and fellow singer Goo Hara also died by suicide.

By Kim Bo-gyung (lisakim425@heraldcorp.com)

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