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When China Banned Korean Boy Bands

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When China Banned Korean Boy Bands

Back in 2017, when South Korea opted to deploy the U.S. THAAD system, one response from China was to ban K-pop acts from touring the country. It was a reminder of the salience of soft power.

When China Banned Korean Boy Bands

South Korean boy group BTS perform during their fan meeting in Shanghai, China, Sep. 2015.

Credit: Depositphotos

Missile defense systems are currently all the rage with an increase in tensions in the Middle East and the continuing war in Ukraine. Iran claims to have shot down Israeli missiles with its new Bavar-373 system and Israel neutered Iran’s April 13 attack with its Iron Dome and Arrow 3 systems. Through all this it is important to remember the stellar capability of the United States’ Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system and how its deployment to the Korean theater pushed China to ban K-pop boy bands. 

Yes, boy bands.

After the 2016 missile tests from North Korea highlighting increasing range and capability of their ballistic missile system, the South Korean government took steps to protect themselves from any potential attacks from their northern neighbors. This led to the agreement and eventual deployment of the U.S. THAAD system in late 2017 just under 150 miles south of the capital city, Seoul.

As the New York Times reported at the time, the Chinese news agency Xinhua warned that THAAD “will bring an arms race to the region,” noting that China will now have to develop “new spears.” 

Why did this simple action to increase protective security measures upset China so much?

The THAAD system is designed to use its hit-to-kill method of countering threats in short, medium, and intermediate ranges, boasting a 1,000 km radar system that can counter threats within a 200 km range. In comparison, Iran just revealed an advanced version of their Bavar-373 system that claims to have an extended range of over 300 km and monitoring capabilities for over 100 targets. 

THAAD’s mobility and ability to increase its radar to 2,000 km gives South Korea a superior and unparalleled asset to protect their territory. With the U.S. giving South Korea the THAAD capability, China’s first- and second-strike options are limited, if not eliminated. This curbs China’s ability to threaten and coerce its regional rival. 

An orthodox threat sometimes requires an unorthodox response. China first issued demarches to the U.S. and South Korean ambassadors. For China, this meant taking matters into their own hands by banning performances of K-pop artists in the country as well as barring the showing of any Korean television content without proper prior approval. China also restricted imports from large Korean cosmetic companies and video game providers. This in turn would not only hurt South Korean exports but also cause the domestic Chinese opinions of Korean products and celebrities to decrease dramatically. 

In implementing the ban, the National Radio and Television Administration noted that “media companies should boycott immoral and overly entertaining stars as well as sissy idols who go against correct beauty standards.”  

Why Ban Entertainment Bands?

That coercion is difficult might be one of the grossest understatements in international relations. Persuading another state to change their behavior is rare. Think of the difficulty in pushing an individual to do something that might even be in their interest, and scale that to the state level with a dash of nuclear weapons thrown into the mix.

In reacting to the deployment of the THAAD missile system in South Korea, China had a large portfolio of options at its disposal to both signal displeasure and try to force South Korea to roll back the decision. It could leverage economic tools to push Seoul to make a different choice. After all, exports from South Korea account to around 40 percent of the country’s total GDP, with China being its largest trade partner. Beijing could arm North Korea with more advanced defensive weapons including their own missile and anti-aircraft defense system. 

Beijing could have done about anything, and did engage in economic coercion; yet China also chose to ban “sissy” boy bands.

K-pop is big in China, with companies earning significant revenue from album sales and concerts in the country. This all was disrupted by the ban on K-pop acts performing in China, which lasted until 2023, when the Chinese government began accepting applications for foreign acts to return. During that six-year span, the big companies like JYP Entertainment, SM Entertainment, and YG Entertainment and other parts of the entertainment sector saw significant drops in revenue, estimated by 2019 alone to have dropped from $520 million to $270 million.

Was the ban effective? It depends on the intentions of the Chinese government. For South Korean and entertainment industries, many of them recognized China’s regulations as an opportunity and allowed for their Chinese artists to establish bases in their home country. For the Chinese, there was a shift in consumption of South Korean products. Some citizens are now convinced they could happily live without the imported Korean products and will alternatively enjoy homegrown entertainment sources. In many ways, the domestic efforts from the Chinese government worked to grow the home market. Yet, THAAD remains. 

Underestimating Soft Power  

The ability to influence countries and their citizens is often expected to take shape through hard military power. However, soft power might be just as, if not more, effective as a means of influence. Through different spheres of influence like K-pop and other exportable forms of foreign media, such as dramas and movies, forms of cultural influence are becoming effective in influencing domestic trends. 

Controlling domestic politics and the narratives spread through society is generally the goal of Chinese influence operations. Social media is a prime example of a non-physical venue perfect for shifting dispositions on issues by gathering interaction and drumming up conversation in favor or against multiple ideas. There is a reason politicians look to sports figures and celebrities to back their political campaigns. Most of them are aware of the ability entertainers and non-political actors have to influence citizens into agreement with their goals.

China views anything with influence over its citizens as a potential threat and disrupter to the current party system, and therefore seeks to centralize any potentially influential cultural phenomenon. Chinese politicians understand that soft power could be an effective route toward coercion. The problem is that they do not have current exportable domestic entertainment like K-pop to proliferate globally. Perversely, China’s efforts to limit the cultural reach of K-pop only ended up kicking off the global Hallyu wave, with K-pop now a massive worldwide phenomenon. 

Historically, China has been bad at leveraging soft power and influence, so there is doubt that even in the future China will be able to use it to convince and persuade. However, we should not underestimate the potential for future Chinese influence or future moves to limit the reach of foreign culture influence within China. 

We can debate endlessly the capabilities of new missile defense systems and hypersonic launch options to defeat these advances, or we can focus on the true power in this world: boys who wear makeup. While flippant, such statements represent the true reality of international politics. Our devotion to hard power and the military distracts us from the true means of social power: popular culture. 

While most humans tend to fear weapons, China does know one thing: the fandoms of the BTS Army, ATEEZ’s Atinys, Stray Kid’s Stays, and TXT Moas are a whole lot scarier than any advanced missile system. The true geopolitical weapon is cultural influence through pop culture.