The ‘K’ in K-pop: Research Finds Korean Language, Culture Appeals to Global Fans

SHINee in Hanbok
SHINee in Hanbok

By Crystal S. Anderson, PhD

Elon University (U.S.)

Most people identify K-pop by its use of Korean language and culture. Some see these as obstacles to the spread of K-pop worldwide.  However, 142 responses by 18-to 30-year-olds show that Korean culture, and especially Korean language, appeals to global fans.  These responses are part of a five-year study on international fans of K-pop housed at  KPK: Kpop Kollective.

The 'K' in K-pop Infographic (detail)
The ‘K’ in K-pop Infographic (detail)

To view entire “The ‘K’ in K-pop Infographic, click here.

Writers often point to the use of English as crucial to the success of K-pop in non-Korean speaking countries.  Miketastic argues:  “Many would say that the single biggest obstacle is the language barrier. . . . For K-pop artists, it’s going to be much tougher as very few of them can really speak English well enough to win the hearts and minds of America.”

Academics like Jaime Shinhee Lee also write about how important English is for K-pop:  “K-pop provides discursive space for South Korean youth, either artists or audiences, to assert their self-identity, to create new meanings, to challenge dominant representations of authority, to resist mainstream norms and values, and to reject older generations’ conservatism” (446).   In other words, Korean artists tend to use English for specific purposes. Lee also says that the use of English decreases the importance of Korean to a certain degree: “English makes K-pop less nationally marked and more regionally accepted” (447).

Some K-pop fans echo this idea.  They say that they do not need to understand the Korean language in order to like K-pop.  One notes:  “Because of the songs that can touch you, even though you don’t understand what they are singing.”  Another responds:  “I like to sing along in Korean even though I don’t always understand what the lyrics means” (Anderson).

However, research suggests that global fans find the Korean language and culture important.  A majority of respondents say that they listen to K-pop, in part, because of the Korean language.  Several like the qualities of the Korean language itself.  One respondent says, “I
 love being able to learn songs that aren[‘]t in English and I find Korean to be such 
a beautiful language,”  while another “like[s] the sound of Korean language.”  Others indicate that the Korean used in K-pop songs encourages them to learn the language better:  “I also like being able to learn small words and phrases in Korean. It is a lot more 
fun than trying to learn a foreign language in the usual way” (Anderson).

Others link K-pop to Korean culture in general, despite its incorporation of American culture:  One respondent explains:  “Moreover, I love the US influence but its remains the “Korean detail” that makes this kind of music different.”  Another notes, “I got dragged into KPop. . .  because of Korean culture. Their culture is very addictive” (Anderson).

Global fans also learn about Korean social relationships through the way members of K-pop groups interact:  “I am also fascinated by the whole Kpop culture which would refer to many things such as “stars relation” – the senior-junior (sunbae-hoobae) relationship; the start training system; some unwritten rules in the business; the variety shows just to name a few.”  Another respondent says: “Not only the music, dancing and other talent, but with this K-Pop culture it teaches audiences to respect elders and their peers – also to respect themselves because of the Asian culture.”

Others note the impact of Korean cultural products, such as variety shows, which feature a combination of language and culture:   “I also like the language more, but the 
reason I fell in love with K-Pop is the personalities of the Idols. If they weren’t all 
those variety shows, I wouldn’t have been that interested in K-Pop” (Anderson).  For example, Shinhwa provides entertainment to audiences by playing a game where knowing the words to a Korean song is key on Happy Together:

Asian American respondents also find the use of Korean language and culture appealing. One noted:  “I think that it is really relatable. I’m Asian-American, so I don’t see Asians much in entertainment. I like seeing people like me doing something cool like rapping, singing, and dancing.”  Another explained the appeal of Korean culture in K-pop as a source of pride:  “Being a[n] adopted Korean American (adopted in the 80’s) it was a way for me to discover my cultural roots when Korean people did not accept me because of my 
lack for Koreaness.’ Also in the 90’s and early 2000’s it was a way to show ‘Azn
Pride’ as we called it” (Anderson).

This research may reveal the impact of conscious efforts by the Korean government to use K-pop as a vehicle for spreading Korean culture., the official website of the South Korean government, maintains a section devoted to Korean Wave in the K-Culture section of its website. In 2012, the Korean Cultural Center in Washington DC hosted a Hallyu Camp “designed to give fans of Korean pop culture in the Washington DC region a deeper understanding of the country, people, and society from which Korean pop culture originates.” Activities included “a variety of interactive workshops, lessons, discussions, and creative projects related to Korean traditional and pop culture, led by professional instructors and cultural experts” (Han Cinema).

Such use of Korean culture represents an example of soft power, defined by Joseph Nye as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political beliefs, and policies” (x). The Korean government uses K-pop to spread Korean culture in an effort to get other populations to engage with it.  Doobo Shim also writes:  “Motivated by the phenomenal success of Korean popular cultural products abroad, the government designated ‘cultural technology’ (meaning the technologies that produce television drama, film, pop music, computer games, animation, etc.) as one of the six key technologies along with IT and BT (Bio –technology) that should drive the Korean economy into the 21st century” (28).

Global locations like the United States do not have a tendency to embrace foreign-language musical culture. This has led some to speculate that K-pop must use English to be successful. However, these findings show that K-pop has already gained success with global fans as a result of K-pop’s use of Korean language and culture.


SHINee. Digital Image. “16 KPOP Idols and Groups Dressed for Chuseok.”  30 Sept 2012. Ningin. 11 Dec 2012.

Anderson, Crystal.  Infographic. “The ‘K’ in K-pop.” 11 Dec 2012. Web.


Anderson, Crystal S.  “Data Set: Hallyu Kpop Survey 2 and Kpop Kollective KiFs Survey 2, 18- to 30 Year Olds.”  Korean Popular Music International Fanbases Project. 29 Apr 2011 – 15 Apr 2012.

Crystalis0324. “(Eng Sub) 040930 [H@p py][T0g 3th er]- Shinhwa (4/5).” 26 Sept 2010. YouTube. 11 Dec 2012.

“Hallyu Camp 2012: Exploring Korean Pop & Traditional Culture.” 22 July 2012.  Han Cinema. 7 Dec 2012.

Lee, Jamie Shinhee.  “Linguistic Hybridization in K-pop: Discourse of Self-Assertion and Resistance.” World Englishes 23.3 (2004): 429-450.

Miketastic.  “[OP-ED] Will K-pop Make It in America?” 23 Jul 2012. allkpop.  11 Dec 2012.

Nye, Jr., Joseph.  Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics.  Cambridge: Perseus Books, 2004.

Shim, Doobo.  “The Growth of Korean Cultural Industries and the Korean Wave.” In East Asian Pop Culture: Analysing the Korean Wave.  Ed. Chua Beng Huat and Koichi Iwabuchi.  Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2008.  15-31.

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