SPICE Releases Free Lesson, “Korea Gone Global: K-Pop and Technologies of Soft Power”

Stanford’s Center for East Asian Studies and SPICE release new video lecture and discussion guide.
Stanford professor Dafna Zur speaks with members of K-Pop group NCT during a visit to SM Entertainment in Seoul, South Korea in 2022
Stanford professor Dafna Zur speaks with members of K-Pop group NCT during a visit to SM Entertainment in Seoul, South Korea in 2022; photo courtesy SM Entertainment

By traditional measures, South Korea is not a large country. It ranks 28th in the world in population and only 107th in land mass. Its language is not widely spoken outside the Korean peninsula, and it does not have a large diaspora. Yet since around 2005, it has arguably become the major producer of youth culture in the world. How did this happen?

Stanford professor Dafna Zur has filmed a video to answer that complicated and important question. Dr. Zur is an Associate Professor of Korean literature and culture in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures of Stanford University. She specializes in Korean literature, cinema, and popular culture. As part of her research, Dr. Zur has interviewed the main architects of South Korea’s popular culture wave, including SM Entertainment founder Lee Soo-man and many K-Pop stars.

Stanford’s Center for East Asian Studies and SPICE collaborated on a discussion guide to bring the lessons from Dr. Zur’s video to high school and university students. The video and discussion guide are available for free on SPICE’s Multimedia page. They address the following questions:

  • What is popular culture?

  • What is soft power, and why is it important?

  • How did South Korea become such a successful producer of popular culture in the past 20 years?

  • How can we measure South Korea’s success in becoming a popular culture powerhouse? 

  • How did South Korea’s popular culture evolve in response to the COVID-19 pandemic? What’s the next stage in its development?

  • How easy would it be for other countries to replicate South Korea’s soft power success? 

Because the main vehicle for South Korea’s rise as a soft power giant has been Korean pop music, known as K-Pop, Dr. Zur directs viewers to several music videos that illustrate how K-Pop has evolved since 1997 and where it might go in the future.

She provides deep insight into the building blocks of K-Pop’s success, which she identifies as support from the national government, the kihoeksa (entertainment conglomerate) system, technology, timing, content release strategy, and fan communities. In particular, Dr. Zur explains how the kihoeksa are able to produce high-quality entertainment at a low cost and how their scale has allowed them to invest in new technologies that keep them at the forefront of pop culture production.

The discussion guide provides context for students to understand the complexity in Dr. Zur’s video. In preparation for the video, students take and then discuss a quiz on South Korea’s popular culture. The teacher then defines key terms such as popular culture and soft power and displays charts that show how South Korea’s soft power has increased since 2000. 

Students view Dr. Zur’s video and the accompanying K-Pop music videos as homework and respond to a series of questions on the main themes of the video. During the next class period, they work in groups to develop a plan for another country to elevate its soft power by drawing on what they learned about South Korea’s success. This complex activity requires students to clearly define the factors that have led to the popularity of Korean popular culture, distinguish between the factors they believe are replicable and those that are not, and then adapt this analysis into a set of recommendations for another country that hopes to achieve the same success as South Korea. After groups present their findings to the class, the teacher concludes the lesson by asking students to predict whether South Korea will be able to maintain its soft power dominance into the future. 

The discussion guide contains a complete transcript of the video and is appropriate for advanced secondary students and university students. 

The video lecture and guide were made possible through the support of U.S. Department of Education National Resource Center funding under the auspices of Title VI, Section 602(a) of the Higher Education Act of 1965.

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