Beyond a K-Pop Group: BTS and South Korea’s Public Diplomacy


Illustration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in and members of K-Pop boyband BTS. Photo: Yonhap via REUTERS

South Korean President, Moon Jae-In appointed the K-Pop Supergroup BTS as the special envoy for public diplomacy. As reported by Yonhap News (2021), BTS will attend major international meetings as a special presidential envoy for future generations and culture. The Blue House speaker stated that BTS is scheduled to attend the 76th session of the UN General Assembly in September. The appointment is not happenstance as BTS is currently the biggest K-Pop group with US$ 50 million worth per 2021 and many notable awards and achievements. For instance, their single ‘Butter’ has swept nine cumulative first rank on Billboard—making them the first Asian act capable of reaching such kind of record. Accordingly, President Moon noted that with such popularity and notability, BTS would be able to promote South Korea’s role and initiative on various global issues such as sustainable growth, poverty, environment, inequality, and diversity (Yonhap News, 2021). 

Tracing Back Hallyu and its Perception

Questioning BTS’ popularity and impact would be a rhetorical question. But how exactly did BTS and K-Pop in general gain such power? It can be traced back to the late 90s where the Ministry of Culture and Tourism used the term Hallyu for the first time to promote Korean music in China. Since then, the term Hallyu or Korean Wave gained wide popularity and expanded its meaning. Korean Wave is not only limited to songs, but also movies, TV drama, culinary, lifestyle, and so on  (Yoon & Jin, 2017). Before 2010, the Korean Wave was relatively only popular in East and Southeast Asia. Comparatively, the Korean Wave—especially K-Pop now has broken many boundaries. Even in the stereotypically conservative countries in the Middle East, K-Pop has made groundbreaking interest. K-Pop is also able to overcome other barriers such as languages and accessibility. In its recent release, BTS put sign languages as part of their choreography and has gained positive responses from the disability community.

Consequently, the Korean Wave has spread like a wildfire and is almost inevitable. 

While most countries welcome Hallyu warmly, there are also some rejections. For instance, North Korea has warned its citizens from consuming and adopting anything from the South, including their culture. Kim Jong-Un labelled K-Pop as a ‘vicious cancer’ that corrupts the youth and is more dangerous than armed enemies. Anyone who got caught for consuming foreign culture will face the death penalty (BBC News, 2021). North Korea’s war on foreign culture is part of Juche political ideology. Juche is a philosophical principle that stresses the idea of man as the master of their own and determines everything (Kurbanov, 2019). This ideology has become a firm foundation for the regime’s propaganda. Consequently, curbing foreign culture is one way to achieve a great level of independence, autonomy, and self-reliance. Hence, such rigorous measures and warnings are taken to protect the regime’s legitimacy and pride. After all, Korean War basically has not yet ended. 

While the North keeps using nuclear weapons as leverage, the South along with the U.S. has deployed a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea in 2016. Unfortunately, this initiative has worsened the regional security volatility. China has expressed its opposition and dissatisfaction with THAAD as it would potentially threaten China’s security. As a result, China has banned Hallyu and spread anti-Korean sentiment thus plummeting Korean entertainment agencies’ stocks as many shows and artists schedules are getting cancelled (Jun, 2017).  

Understanding South Korea’s Public Diplomacy Strategy

Despite various positive and negative responses to Hallyu, South Korea is still confident to use Hallyu as part of South Korean public diplomacy strategy. Public diplomacy is the state’s practice of communication with foreign publics and is related to the use of soft power (Huijgh, 2016). Public diplomacy transcends beyond traditional secret and state-centric diplomacy as the state is no longer the exclusive target nor actor of diplomacy. Berridge (2015) noted that public diplomacy is basically a rebranded propaganda. Because in a democratized and globalized world, persuading others should not only be done through coercion but attractiveness and information (Cho, 2012). 

In South Korea’s case, the public diplomacy strategy is laid out in the Public Diplomacy Act (2016). With the vision of ‘fascinate the world with Korea’s charm’, five goals are set to be achieved: sharing Korean culture, deepening understanding of Korea, gaining global support, strengthening public diplomacy capacity, and promoting public-private partnership (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2016). To carry off such goals, several strategies are employed, one of which is by utilizing Hallyu. Korean Wave helps construct and depict Korean images and reputation and it has successfully produced a high profit to relevant stakeholders. For instance, sales of Hallyu-related products such as K-Pop merchandise, cosmetics, and foods keep increasing even during the pandemics (Yonhap, 2020). High demand usually comes as the result of fans bandwagoning K-Pop artists for wearing or endorsing such products. 

What Makes BTS Special?

However, as mentioned earlier, the appointment of BTS as the special envoy for public diplomacy is not a mere arbitrary choice. As a public diplomacy actor, BTS goes beyond what K-Pop or Hallyu would normally be perceived to be. So far, prejudice against K-Pop is heavily due to their considered ‘shallow’ content. 

However, BTS is unique. 

Their discography and campaign include universal messages such as ending violence, loving oneself, consolation, and hope. As the envoy for future generations and culture, these messages are very important. In their speech on the launch of Generation Unlimited at the 73rd UN General Assembly 2018, BTS claimed that their ‘Love Myself’ campaign in partnership with UNICEF has helped many people overcome their hardships. The appointment of BTS, therefore, has proven to have reached and resonated with a wider range of people. This is an important aspect of public diplomacy, where an actor must be able to convey their message well and influence people to act. 

President Moon also mandated BTS to spread positivity worldwide considering the prolonged pandemics hit everyone hard. As one of the leading countries in handling pandemics, President Moon believes that BTS can promote and enhance South Korea’s image on the global stage (Yonhap News, 2021). Through their latest single release, ‘Permission to Dance’, BTS optimistically imagined the end of the pandemics and cheers everyone who is trying to recover from the situation. I think it perfectly reflects South Korea that is also trying to help other countries through their COVID aids and cooperation. 


To conclude, public diplomacy plays an important role to connect the state and foreign public, hence influential private actors are normally sent to represent the state. Even though the state doesn’t completely lose its authority over diplomacy, the involvement of notable private actors is a sign of a democratized and globalized world. In South Korea’s case, as Hallyu become their primacy, they strategically utilize BTS’ popularity and distinctive presence to advocate South Korea’s initiative on global issues faced by the young generation. Their capability to reach and influence people is their exclusive point as to why they are chosen as the special envoy for public diplomacy in the first place. 

In this case, therefore, BTS is an icon and legend and that’s indisputable. 


Ministry of Foreign Affairs, (2016). Introduction of the Public Diplomacy. Retrieved from

BBC News (2021, July 18). North Korea Warns Young People Against Using Slang from the South. Retrieved from

Berridge, G. R. (2015). Diplomacy Theory and Practice, 5th Edition. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Cho, Y. Y. (2012). Public Diplomacy and South Korea’s Strategies. The Korean Journal of International Studies, Vol 10. No. 2, 275-296.

Huijgh, E. (2016). Public Diplomacy. In C. M. Constantinou, P. Kerr, & P. Sharp, The Sage Handbook of Diplomacy (pp. 437-450). London: SAGE Publications.

Jun, H. (2017). Hallyu at a Crossroads: The Clas of Korea’s Soft Power Success and China’s Hard Power Threat in Light of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) System Deployment. Asian International Studies Review, Vol. 18 No. 1, 153-169.

Kurbanov, S. O. (2019). North Korea’s Juche Idology: Indigenous Communism or Traditional Thought? Critical Asian Studies, 1-11.

Yonhap News. (2020, April 14). Exports of Korean Culture Products Soar 22.4 Pct Last Year. Retrieved from

Yonhap News (2021, July 21). BTS Named S. Korea’s Special Presidential Envoy for Public Diplomacy. Retrieved from

Yoon, T. J., & Jin, D. Y. (2017). The Korean Wave Evolution, Fandom, and Transnationality. London: Lexington Books.

Himmalia Dewi Alya Rahmah is an International Relations student at Universitas Airlangga. She can be found on Instagram with the username @himma.r

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