K-pop group Seventeen took center stage at the 13th UNESCO Youth Forum on Tuesday, becoming a beacon for growth through solidarity among young people around the globe.
The multinational group stepped up to the podium at UNESCO's headquarters in Paris as the first K-pop group to address UNESCO at its main hall.
Twelve members of the 13-member group appeared on stage wearing simple black suits. Member S. Coups was absent due to a leg injury.
The band hosted a special session on the first day of the forum, held during the biennial General Conference.
Six members hailing from three different countries addressed the audience in three languages, sharing their own stories of how they overcame challenges and worked together toward achieving a shared goal -- a journey which is still ongoing.
Seungkwan opened the session by talking about his childhood on Jeju Island.
"It was on this beautiful island, so far from the capital, Seoul, that I worked toward my dreams, which were to leave this treasured yet small island to get out into the bigger world to perform in front of a sea of fans -- the dream of becoming a K-pop star," the singer said. Jeju Island is the only place in the world to be designated as a Biosphere Reserve, a Natural World Heritage Site and a Global Geopark by UNESCO.
"The little boy who dreamed of a big future from that World Heritage island now stands here at the UNESCO headquarters today," he said.
Formerly a child actor back in his home country, Jun felt daunted at first at being surrounded by "a group of incredibly talented people," he remembers, especially as he spoke not a single Korean word then.
It was the members who supported him on his way. Every one of them encouraged him and tried to connect through gestures and facial expressions, to which Jun returned by giving his best shot at learning Korean, "mainly because I wanted to be able to talk to my friends with ease," he said.
"From the day we met in 2012 to today, each day has helped me to have complete faith that, as long as we're together, I'm not afraid of failure. I can't do it alone, but all of us can do it together. We share a dream," recounted Jun.
Seventeen's members are where they are today because they did not give up in the face of adversity.
"The 13 of us got here one step at a time, with full support for one another and we will continue on," he said, adding, "Where there is a friend, there is confidence and courage."
As the nation's top-selling artist rewriting K-pop's history even in its ninth year, Seventeen's success was not anticipated when they debuted at the average age of 17, member Woozi said.
"People would say that 13 members was too many for a boy band. Many also believed we were too young to get along well and to discover and build our original sound," Woozi, the band's main producer, recollected.
Despite the ridiculing voices, it was in their youth the members discovered their power. "We were too young to be discouraged. Our passion for our dream wasn't even slightly deterred," Woozi said.
The success was not immediate, yet the whole time they spent together was enjoyable. "Our group's unique approach of teaching and learning from each other, and having fun while doing so, was our own special way of growing," the rapper added.
Formed in 2015, the group gained phenomenal popularity around the world through its cheerful energy and the hopeful messages its music conveys. In 2021, all the members together renewed their contracts with Pledis Entertainment, an extraordinary case in K-pop where such a multimember band overcame the notorious seven-year mark, around the time when many teams start to crumble apart.
Woozi emphasized Seventeen's success also lies in the members' sincere efforts for solidarity. For every album, they made sure all the members' opinions and voices were heard, he added. "If even one of us feels differently about a song, it is considered incomplete. (We believed) Music that doesn't resonate with us would not resonate with the public."
"Trying to find the best ways to foster a better society while accounting for everyone's opinions is no small feat. But we have learned ourselves that diverse voices lead to impactful solutions," he added, addressing around 170 youth representatives from some 150 countries.
The group's efforts to inspire have extended beyond their work in the K-pop industry. According to Mingyu the members have been supporting children in Tanzania since 2016.
"We received our first payment as singers. It wasn't a big amount but we were happy and wanted to share the joy," he remembered.
S.Coups, Jeonghan, Joshua, Jun, Hoshi, Wonwoo, Woozi, The8, Mingyu, DK, Seungkwan, Vernon and Dino -- Mingyu called out through the mic the 13 names, which he said became the names of the 13 goats they gifted that year to Tanzanian children.
"I'll raise this goat well for my dream," one of the children wrote in a letter to the bandmates, and the phrase "for my dream" rang deeply inside him, the vocalist said.
"I was taken back to the moments when we'd worked for our dreams. In December 2015, at our first standalone gig held 6 months after our debut, less than 800 fans came. Our debut album sold 1,400 copies. Now, in our ninth year, we've become a team that sells 15 million albums annually. Over a million people watch our concerts online and in person," Mingyu said.
Seventeen's UNESCO attendance stems from the band's partnership with the body's Korean National Commission penned in August 2022. Under the deal, they launched the "GoingTogether" campaign that aims to raise awareness of the importance of education among young people.
Backed by fervent support from the group's fans, the campaign caught the attention of UNESCO headquarters, which offered to collaborate with Seventeen on taking the campaign global.
"Now we want to take on a greater share of the responsibility, reach even more regions and do even more," Korean American member Joshua said in English.
"We plan to improve educational infrastructure in the least developed countries by building schools. We pledge to work as ambassadors to UNESCO, to further raise awareness of the critical challenges in our time."
Rounding out the speech, Vernon reintroduced the group's message using lyrics from five of its songs: "_World," "Darl+ing," "Headliner," "God of Music" and "Together."
"Let's 'open up a new future.' 'I care for you, you care for me. We can be all we need.' Even a small action today 'can give people courage for many days to come. We will shine together.' 'We've just met, but we can dance together.' 'If we are together, you and I are never losing our way. You and I, we will be walking straight,'" Vernon recited.
Seventeen ended the session with a performance of those five songs and played a "God of Music" music video that was specially made for Tuesday's event.