A few weeks ago, I accompanied a group of friends to Iron Age Korean BBQ in Centreville, Virginia.
It was my first time at a Korean BBQ restaurant, and I enjoyed the hell out of it. I drank beer after beer while crushing one platter of delicious meat after another, all of which appeared before me at my slightest whim, as if by magic. I had some good conversations with my friends, but I spent at least half my time staring at the K-Pop music videos that were being projected onto every wall of the restaurant, granting me an inescapable panopticon view into another culture.
I liked what I saw. Before that night, I’d had no experience with Korean pop music, but I was immediately fascinated, especially by the all-female groups. The choreography was attractive without being crude, and the girls were nubile yet wholesome, capable of assuming a “hard edge” that offered a toned-down version of the overt, mercenary sexuality of American pop stars like Rihanna and Cardi B. The lyrics, peppered with English words and phrases, were playful and mostly chaste, and the beats seemed like a distilled version of their American counterparts—formulaic to the point of blandness while still being catchy and danceable. The videos featured a number of recognizably Western locations, from the deserts of the American Southwest to the gothic cathedrals of Europe, and the performers were decked out in modern and retro American fashions.
As I watched and listened, I felt a swell of patriotic pride.
While their neighbors to the north sing vapid paeans to the supreme leader, the South Koreans have created their own vibrant musical style, which draws on American pop while adapting it to their more conservative and disciplined culture. With American blood, we secured their freedom, and in turn they did us the honor of adopting our musical forms. Indeed, K-Pop has frequently served as a symbol of South Korean liberty. Until last year, giant speakers and screens on the southern side of the DMZ played K-Pop songs and videos to show the communists on the other side the joy and beauty of South Korean culture. It’d be enough to make me defect. The K-Pop blasts were suspended shortly before last year’s summit, but smugglers continue to sneak the music into North Korea on USB drives.
In 2012, the surprise hit “Gangnam Style” introduced mainstream American audiences to K-Pop and briefly held the title of the most viewed video on YouTube. This year, the girl group Blackpink will become the first K-Pop group to perform at Coachella.
It’s a neocon’s dream come true. American boys die to secure their freedom, and 60 years later American boys dance to their Westernized music. And K-Pop, of course, is only a synecdoche for America’s relationship with South Korea. They check every box: democratic institutions, large Christian population, multinational corporations like Samsung and Kia that provide high-quality consumer goods, and a continued U.S. military presence. According to the Pew Research Center, 75 percent of South Koreans view America favorably (down from a peak of 84 percent in 2015).
Neoconservative military historian Victor Davis Hanson has suggested that, if Obama hadn’t withdrawn American troops in 2011, Iraq might be well on its way to becoming another South Korea. Public policy scholar Bruce Herschenson argues that America had won the Vietnam War until the Democrats sold the South Vietnamese down the river. Presumably, if the U.S. had provided Saigon with the military support it needed to resist communist aggression, it too would be a wealthy, democratic state in the mold of South Korea today.
It is, of course, difficult to make these counterfactual claims with total confidence. South Korea itself went through several coups and strongmen, and there’s no telling whether Iraq or South Vietnam would have been able to make the same hard climb out from the mire of authoritarianism that didn’t bring South Korea to full democratic stability until the 1990s. Even assuming that those two nations would eventually have become stalwart, westernized American allies, it is important to remember that South Korea has survived and thrived only under the umbrella of a massive U.S. military presence.
So, at the cost of an indefinite garrison of tens of thousands of U.S. troops and billions in military aid, it’s possible that any country could (after decades of instability and authoritarianism) come to love America like South Korea does while enjoying their own versions of K-Pop, Kia, and constitutional democracy.
In Roald Dahl’s children’s book George’s Marvelous Medicine, a farm boy accidentally creates a concoction that causes the farm animals to grow to 10 times their normal size. His father, seeing dollar signs, urges him to make more, and George spends the rest of the book trying unsuccessfully to reproduce the original formula.
If South Korea is the first batch of medicine, then hawks like John Bolton are like young George’s father, insisting that if only we keep tinkering with the ingredients, we can recreate the magic. They assert that the right combination of air strikes, regime change, counterinsurgency, military presence, and foreign aid will turn any nation into an oasis of democracy and pro-American sentiment.
Thanks to America’s willingness to fight for South Korea and to remain committed to its preservation, generations of South Koreans have been spared the terrors of communism, and generations more will (almost certainly) continue to enjoy the blessings of prosperity, freedom, and stability. A total of 36,574 Americans died for K-Pop. But our failure to reproduce that success suggests that maybe we should stop trying.
Grayson Quay is a freelance writer and M.A. student at Georgetown University.