Turkey’s K-pop craze sparks fear of cultural invasion

Pro-government news outlets in Turkey have been obsessing over Korean pop groups for months now, with the Islamist paper Yeni Akit taking the lead in warning young people, families, and the authorities about the infiltration of Korean culture.

Yeni Akit wrote about the wildly popular K-pop group BTS, saying that with male members who look female, it intended to promote the idea of a sexless society. The newspaper linked the issue to gender equality and the prevention of violence against women and domestic violence

A few days later, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency also warned of the dangers of K-pop. Experts urged state institutions to take steps against the cultural invasion, which they said had targeted young people from conservative backgrounds. The experts also said families were not equipped to struggle against the menace, as these groups were from the East, rather than the West, so parents had assumed they were harmless.

It is not the first time a worldwide music trend has been targeted by Turkish media. In the mid-1990s, Turkey’s mainstream media outlets argued that Western heavy metal groups encouraged satanism. The main difference today is, while earlier concerns mostly focused on young people from secular families, K-pop has triggered concerns among conservatives. 

K-pop has become fashionable in Turkey in recent years, with young people communicating about various bands through Facebook groups, using a language of their own, with specific images and symbols. Turkish K-pop fans are mostly conservative girls in secondary or higher education. K-pop is widely popular in Islam-friendly imam hatip high schools and among theology students. 

K-pop group Super Junior in Istanbul concert.
K-pop group Super Junior in Istanbul concert.

Young Turks became aware of Korean music via the Korean TV series that have become popular in Turkey over the last decade. Nineteen-year-old Rüveyda started watching Korean series as she saw them as closer to Turkish culture than the country’s own productions. 

“Our series do not reflect our culture!” she said with frustration. “Have you ever seen [Turkish] people walking with their shoes on when they are guests inside another person’s home? Have you always eaten your dinner at the table, never at a floor table? Have you ever witnessed any father thinking that it is normal for his daughter to have a boyfriend?”

Enjoying Korean TV led Rüveyda to explore Korean music. She began following Korean bands, saw their mastery on stage, their dances, and started appreciating what she called their excellence. In time, she learned enough Korean to understand some television series without subtitles. 

Now she has made Korean friends via Facebook and her biggest wish is to visit the country of her dreams, South Korea. “All K-pop fans know the prices of plane tickets from Istanbul to Seoul. If you do not, your are either in your early stages of becoming a Korean fan or you are not a fan at all,” Rüveyda said.
Sevgi and Irem , both 16, identify with their favourite Korean bands and that influences their lifestyle. “I am now learning Korean for them. I like Korean culture so much. I believe travelling there is a religious duty for me. Besides, there are advantages of knowing two or more languages,” Irem said. 

K-pop’s popularity has boosted demand for Korean language courses, as a basic knowledge of Korean has become a must for every loyal fan.

Participants of a Korean language course in Turkey.
Participants of a Korean language course in Turkey.

Hümeyra is another fan. “I was sometimes labelled as crazy, sometimes they made fun of me,” she said about studying Korean. “I wait for the subtitles of the latest episodes of television series. Sometimes I cannot stand waiting and translate them myself. Among our friends we speak Korean.”

She said the Korean series taught her about love in its purest form, and that young people can chase their dreams. She opposes a common criticism of K-pop fans, which argues that their appreciation of Korean culture means they are giving up their own culture. 

“This is an admiration that is based on the similarities between two countries,” Hümeyra said. She denounced the negative reactions of some families and social circles. “It is so wrong, there are so many people who want to go to Korea and so many that make their dreams come true, your mockery cannot break the hopes of those people,” Hümeyra said. 

“While this trend has not been found odd anywhere else in the world, why is it found odd in Turkey? Do all people have to listen to the same kind of music,” asked Ahmet. Becoming a K-pop fan helped young people make new friends, he said. 

“You suddenly find something in common between yourself and someone you do not know,” he said. “We learn about each other through those groups, have conversations, sometimes meet and have fun together. Our country really needs such conversations.”

Twenty-year-old Kübra has been listening to Korean music for six years. She said it would be impossible for someone with a strong religious background to be negatively influenced by Korean culture. 

“Thank god, we are smart, religious people,” she said, convinced that “not only Muslims but also Christians, Jews and those believing in other religions, who have a strong background, would be resilient to the imposition of other cultures”. 

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.