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How Trump and K-pop ended up in the same headline

With election looming in US, politicization of K-pop fans accelerating

June 24, 2020 - 17:11 By Yim Hyun-su
US President Donald Trump waves to supporters during a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Saturday. (Reuters-Yonhap)
After fans of South Korean pop music enjoyed weeks of media attention as an emerging political force, the conversation is now turning partisan in the US.

On Monday’s episode of Fox News’ weekly “Fox & Friends,” one host explained the low turnout at US President Donald Trump’s rally on Saturday, then added, “And there were these reports that teenagers on TikTok and fans of the group K-pop took credit because they reserved a bunch of tickets never intending to show up.”

As the gaffe concerning the “group K-pop” was met with mockery on social media, Democrats have courted the fandoms, which largely consist of women, ethnic minorities and the LGBTQ community in the US.

“KPop allies, we see and appreciate your contributions in the fight for justice too,” lawmaker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted Sunday.

With 2.9 billion tweets related to K-pop this year alone as of mid-June, as Twitter Korea revealed to The Korea Herald, the immense community has also come onto the radar for political supporters.

Earlier this month, one grassroots group supporting Democratic president candidate Joe Biden tweeted a picture that said “K-pop for Biden” in the wake of news about the online activism of K-pop fans, as it encouraged American K-pop fans to vote for the candidate in November’s presidential election.

But DeAnna Lorraine, a former Republican Congressional candidate who has run against Speaker Nancy Pelosi, amped up the debate as she accused Ocasio-Cortez of soliciting “foreign collusion.”

“Is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez openly admitting that she solicited help from North Korean & South Korean internet trolls to sabotage President Trump’s rally tonight?” she said.

“Should she be investigated for foreign collusion?” she asked, despite that many K-pop fans are American nationals.

Lee Gyu-tag, a cultural studies professor at George Mason University Korea, says the politicization of K-pop in America might continue in the runup to November’s election.

“Both Democrats and Republicans could co-opt or blame K-pop since it’s a hot topic among young people. And using pop music for political purposes is nothing new in the US,” he said.

In February, Trump disparaged South Korean film “Parasite” during a campaign rally after it became the first non-English film to win best picture at the 92nd Academy Awards.

“We’ve got enough problems with South Korea with trade. On top of that, they give them best movie of the year. Was it good? I don’t know,” the president said.

Given Trump’s remarks, Lee says it’s obvious that K-pop fans oppose the US president who is “America-centric” and “ethnocentric.”

“In Korea, fans don’t want K-pop artists to be too political, supporting a political party for instance, as they can face backlash and amplify anti-fans. In America, however, K-pop has become a sign of multiracial culture and Trump is the antithesis of that,” he said.

Despite Trump’s campaign team boasting 1 million ticket requests on Twitter earlier this month, his rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Saturday was poorly attended, with just 6,200 people at the venue that can accommodate roughly 19,000, according to the Tulsa Fire Department.

Brad Parscale, Trump’s campaign manager, has downplayed reports linking the low turnout to K-pop fans and TikTok users. But that did not stop groups like Anonymous from declaring a victory for K-pop.

“The operation was a success, K-pop wins again,” the internet group said on social media.

Whether it was due to the pandemic or online activism, Ramon Pacheco Pardo, associate professor in international relations at King’s College London, says the lack of turnout was, at the minimum, not good optics.

“This was his first post-quarantine rally of the campaign this year. Obviously he wanted it to be full so it showed on TV and other media when pictures were shown.

“The people who follow the debate and how this happened will hear about the activists and K-pop stans, for example. But many other people will simply have seen that it’s not the big crowd he used to attract four years ago. The image is bad,” Pardo said.

As the story of K-pop fans’ alleged involvement in Trump’s rally made news around the world, boy band Tomorrow X Together was asked about the online activism against Trump during the group’s appearance on Fox 5’s “Good Day New York” earlier this week.

The show’s presenter Rosanna Scotto asked, “Do you know anything about the whole movement about TikTok users and K-pop fans getting those tickets for President Trump’s rally and not showing up?”

After a moment of silence, the boy band, who was promoting the group’s appearance at a streaming music festival, answered, “We don’t know any of it. We are preparing for KCON:TACT. We are practicing.”

The rather awkward exchange didn’t go down well with fans, many of whom felt the politically charged question put TXT on the spot -- a group consisting of four Korean nationals and one Korean-American -- prompting the host to apologize on social media.

“This is what I was afraid of,” one fan wrote on Twitter, echoing many fans’ apprehensive feelings toward the seemingly unlikely partisan elements in the media coverage of K-pop in recent weeks.

But with Trump, Pardo says the concern is justified.

“We’ve seen how Trump weaponizes anything he can. If you look at his trade wars, it can be cultural products, cars, it can be anything. To limit how much foreign culture can be shown on TV and radio stations, for example. I don’t think he’s thinking about doing that. But with Trump, it’s not really out of the question.”

Professor Lee is uncertain whether this is good news for K-pop.

“I’m not sure whether this will be a good thing for K-pop or not in the long run. The political situation in Korea and America is different and being too political will bring backlash, and artists and agencies will want to stay on the safe side,” he said.

“But if this leads to an environment in which K-pop artists can express their political views freely when they want, that will be a positive change.”

By Yim Hyun-su (