The History of Kpop (and Korea)

Click on the image to use the interactive timeline.

Click on the image to use the interactive timeline.

To have any understanding of the significance of contemporary South Korean culture and Kpop music let alone South Korean pop culture, you must understand how the South Korea of today came to be. South Korea has had an incredible journey over the past 60 years. It had been literally burned to the ground in a vicious civil war, and now today its a top 15 world economy and Asian pop culture heavyweight.

This economic success is often called the Miracle on the Han River (the river which runs through Seoul). Yet this was no miracle–it was the consequences of specific historical events, policies, and actions unique to that place and time. Land reform in the Korean War, military regimes, the Yushin era, state-run enterprises and control, the protection of infant industry, the shadow of Japanese colonialism and Japanese development,  cheap labor, and more created the Miracle on the Han.

Yet as the timeline above attempts to show, and is possibly the most important question to ask, is at what cost this came to the Korean people. Please explore the timeline above to see a number of significant economic and societal events in Korea’s development to see the memories and experiences of the South Korean people. The timeline borrows heavily from John Lie’s Han Unbound, a fantastic read on Korean Development, not just about how it happened, but what it did to the Korean people.

Kpop sprung from new found economic surplus, and thus the ability to develop entertainment and cultural products. Yet, does Kpop serve the needs of the Korean people? How does it fit into the history of struggle, pain, and hard work of Korea’s Development.  Below I will list the contents of the timeline if you find it to be distracting.


Korea Then and Now This is a brief look at major events and era’s in South Korea’s rapid, record breaking 30 year development and the rise of Kpop thereafter. Called the Miracle on the Han, the development of a devastated post War Korea to one of the top 15 economies in the world has shocked many. It should have been impossible they said, and many countries search for the elusive South Korean model. Yet, as we see here this Miracle is no Miracle at all. It has risen from many specific, historical events that cannot be replicated by another state. These are the events and the experiences of the Korean people during development. Unless otherwise stated, all information on general Korean history comes from “Han Unbound: The Political Economy of South Korea” by John Lie. Information about the Rise of Kpop comes from Shim Doobo’s “Waxing the Korean Wave” and given wikipedia pages–data on Kpop is quite elusive.

8/10/1945 A Country Torn Apart The division did not just split apart geography and a state, but families and thousands of years of history. The North was under Russia’s sphere of influence, the South to the United States.

9/2/1945 Surrender of Japan After the August bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki Japan formally surrenders to the Allied forces, effectively ending World War II.The image depicts Japanese prisoners in Manila stunned as news of Japan’s surrender is read to them by an interpreter with the 38th division of Lujon.

1948 Yi Seungman Elected Selected by the United States for his staunch anticommunist views, he is the President of South Korea for 12 years through the Korean War. He has been regarded as a corrupt dictator.

1949 Land Redistribution The South Korean National Assembly passes a law capping the amount of land per individual. President Yi and landlords opposed the law and it is not properly executed until the Korean War. This will serve as the foundation for Korean development by breaking down the socioeconomic status quo of Korea’s agrarian economy.

1950-1953 Korean War A half Civil War half Proxy war held between the Cold War powers of the Soviet Union (aligned with North Korea) and the United States (aligned with South Korea) that kills 2,000,000 Korean civilians (mostly from the north). The Chinese (fighting for North Korea) and South Korean soldier death tolls reach around 1 million. South Korean infrastructure is destroyed and (the newly made) south Koreans are left in an existential crisis after decades of Japanese rule and a decade of brutal war.

1954 Land Reform at Last Although the war has devastated much of the countryside, by now the Land Redistribution Act has been executed and large landowners disappear and tenancy dropped to 7%–from 49%. This fundamentally changes Korean social structure by reducing income inequality, which lays the foundation for Korean development.

1959 Triple Aliiance Up until this point the US, President Yi, and South Korean elite have been obstacles to Korean development via US aid and the grafting of that aid between the government and dependent capitalists (could not survive without the governments bribes). Surplus is not used to invest but is spread out amongst the elite.

4/19/1960 Student Revolution (4-1-9) On April 19th a student demonstration in Seoul is violently repressed. 186 people are killed and 1,600 injured. This leads to a wave of other protests that contribute to the fall of President Yi. By April 26th Yi has lost US and domestic support and resigns. He flees to Hawaii where he remains in exile until his death.

1961 Military Coup A relatively unopposed military coup installs Park Chung Hee and his military regime as the governing body of South Korea. Although credited with leading Korean Development, Chung has more impact on the social structure of Korea with his repressive and highly anticommunist regime.

1965 The Big Tiger Awakens The Japanese economy begins to soar and its business with Korea, enabled by historical ties in colonialism, helps jump start the South Korean economy. Park Chung Hee normalizes relations with Japan in 1965, with much Korean public opposition.

1966-1971 War and Wealth (This span is the peak of the war) Korea provides not only soldiers to the US in the Vietnam War but also export products. The Korean economy booms from the export of concrete, fertilizer, and petroleum product exports to Vietnam. The war develops ties with the US and develops the economy, albeit by devastating Vietnam.

1970-1979 The Yushin Era Begins… In 1972 Park Chung Hee declares Martial Law and the next 5 years will be one of the most repressive regimes of Modern Korean. At the same time South Korea development moves beyond light industry (textiles, cement, fertilizer) to more profitable heavy industries (chemicals, metals, ships). The government protected South Korean industry from foreign competition, developed public enterprises, and maintained cheap labor. Massive conglomerates, or Chaebols, come into being and dominate Korea to this day (Samsung, Hyundai,  Daewoo). The government pursues anti-labor and anti-farming campaigns. This economic miracle is built on an exploitation of the working class Korean people.

10/26/1979 …And Ends With A Bang Park Chung Hee is assassinated by a close confidant and a massive call for democracy from the working class begins. The motives of his assassin and how planned the event are still unclear. The President’s Last Bang is a notorious film portraying the assassination and aftermath.

5/26/1980 Kwangju Uprising Chun Doo Hwan rises as a new military strongman when he suppresses a pro-democracy movement, most famously the May Kwangju movement where 2,000 people are killed. Yushin had brought economic success but social devastation and working class Koreans were tired of military regimes.

1980-1989 The 80’s: Debt, Democracy, and the Miracle on the Han Debt is a huge concern in the turn of the decade. Political unrest is rising, and the service sector is beginning to emerge. Many said it would take Korea until 2020 to get to where they are in the 1980’s, finally able to open trade and be competitive with rivals markets of Japan and the US. The world is slightly stunned.

1988 The Seoul Olympics In 1980 debt is a major concern for South Korea. However the triangle of trade between Japan and the US that had developed in the 70’s, along with industries that had been able to develop without brutal foreign competition, cheap labor, and state administered economic policies ensured that Korea’s development is not fleeting. By 1988 Korea has started down the road to Democracy, is hosting the Summer Olympics, and is now a modern, developed nation on the world stage. The question in the end is at what cost. An official poster for the 1988 Summer Seoul Olympics.

1989 SM Entertainment Lee Soo Man founds what would become the largest and most successful Kpop company to date.

1992 Kpop is Born Seo Taiji and The Boys became a wildly popular group, implementing American rap, rock, and techno into its music. A dance group, Korean pop music is still dominated by dance groups to this day.

1997 JYP Entertainment Kpop artist Park Jin Young founds JYPE which would house mega star Rain and acts such as 2PM, 2AM, and Miss A.

1997 Asia in Financial Crisis The 1997 Asian Financial Crisis that spread from Thailand to Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, and eventually South Korea put the financial world in a state of high alert. South Korea received the single largest IMF loan in history at $58 billion and after painful economic times rebounded. The IMF loan and issues of debt would continue to be held in negative regard by the Korean public.

1998 Kpop Rises An SM group, H.O.T. tops Taiwanese charts. Kpop, along with Korean dramas and film, begin to gain international fanbases.

1998 YG Entertainment Yang Hyun Suk, a former member of Seo Taiji and the Boys, founds the second largest Kpop Company YG. It would house Psy, Big Bang, and 2NE1.

2001 Japan Enters the Fray Another SM artist BoA tops Japan’s Oricon chart and begins the trend of Kpop groups moving on to do large volumes of work and press in Japan after developing popularity in Korea. Japan will prove to be the largest market for Korean cultural products.

2011 The New Triple Alliance The “Big Three’ companies and other Entertainment corporations come together and form United Asia Management.

2/18/2012 La musique de Corée Kpop finds its way to Paris as the popular show Music Bank holds a massive concert in the Bercy Stadium. The 10,000 tickets sold out within minutes.

7/15/12 Gangnam Style What can be said. It is the most viewed video on Youtube (thus arguably the internet) and has entranced the world and everyone’s grandmothers.