K-Pop Embrace of Nazi Symbolism Defames Our Collective Past
Recently, the popular K-pop singer Sowon of the group GFriend posted a photo of her cozying up to a Nazi mannequin. Here’s why it’s so dangerous.
Last month, K-pop singer Sowon of GFriend posted on Instagram a photo of her hugging a Nazi soldier’s mannequin. She immediately came under fire, the posts were deleted, and GFriend issued a profuse apology. Apology accepted? Negative. The problem with K-pop’s embracing Nazi symbols is broader and runs deeper.
GFriend is managed by Big Hit Entertainment—the same South Korean mega-entertainment group that manages BTS, the biggest K-pop group of all time. BTS is a global cultural phenomenon. Pre-COVID, they filled stadiums all around the world. Starting with the boy band H.O.T. in the mid-’90s, K-pop “idol” culture took off in the early 2000s. K-pop has taken the world by storm, creating a vast empire of hearts and minds among teenagers and young adults worldwide.
Success aside, K-pop management corporations have a serious issue: embracing racism and neo-Nazism to boost ratings. Sowon of GFriend rightfully came under fire for the Nazi Instagram postings, but Sowon likely didn’t come up with that move. Every aspect of a K-idol’s life is controlled by upper management, lower management, road managers, creative personnel, and many others. Under the draconian management of a mega-cultural force that is mainstreaming its K-pop stars and music, it is hard to believe that any public posting is ever random. Every social media post is part of global marketing campaigns. K-pop management corporations are the Samsung of the entertainment industry. They bring massive cash inflows into the Korean economy. Whenever a pro-Nazi incident occurs, there is a creative food chain that came up with the idea, not just the K-Pop star. Putting Sowon on the spot allows other potential culprits to evade responsibility.
A corporation such as Big Hit Entertainment runs a humungous multinational money-making enterprise, an ATM machine called K-pop—and an empire of hearts and minds, with over 100 million fans worldwide, according to 2021 Korea Foundation data. With that comes big responsibility. For starters, that is the responsibility not to denigrate six million Jews murdered in the World War II Nazi death camps. The responsibility not to boost today’s racist neo-Nazis.
Even BTS has stirred controversy. BTS member Jimin circulated a picture of him in a T-shirt featuring a patriotic message celebrating Korean liberation, that also displayed a photo of a nuclear mushroom. A BTS show in Japan was swiftly cancelled, although the band has a very significant Japanese fan base. Hundreds of thousands died in the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and many more as the result of radiation sickness. While the Japanese occupation of Korea (1905-1945) has left deep scars that have yet to heal, the Japanese people have similar tragic memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Again, it is hard to believe that Jimin’s stunt hadn’t been at least vetted by the higher-ups of Big Hit Entertainment.
Every time K-pop embraces Nazi symbolism, there is another potential casualty, besides the seemingly endless struggle against anti-Semitism. There is general global sympathy for the Korean people’s efforts to get the government of Japan to fully own up to Imperial Japan’s atrocities against the Korean people during World War II. This is precisely why the callousness of flirting with Nazi imagery, and everything it implies, is shocking. Tragically, Nazi symbols are still motivating young people and even political movements all around the world. In certain places in Europe, it would not be advisable for young ethnic Koreans to walk into a neo-Nazi gang at night. “We were not the victims of that crime, the Holocaust” is a senseless, heartless stance when you create a global phenomenon called K-Pop.
Here’s the rub. The Simon Wiesenthal Center delivered all these points with a slide show and presentation in Seoul to creative and management personnel after the BTS controversy.
Empty apologies then and having a sub-vocalist apologize now only add salt to wounds. And we are confronted with behemoth cultural influencers who see nothing wrong with mocking the suffering of another people who suffered unspeakable atrocities during World War II.
The swastika is not a joke, a marketing tool, or a fashion accessory. It is a symbol of pure and unadulterated evil still motivating hate crimes against Jews and people of color. K-pop can play an unprecedented role in warning young people to learn from the crimes of the past or help set the stage for future trampling of human rights by inuring its fans to the reality of evil.