Less than a month before Chile’s presidential election on December 19, 2021, Constanza Jorquera, an associate researcher at the Chilean Korean Study Center at the University of Santiago, Chile, feared that her country’s future—and her own rights—hung in the balance.
The right-wing candidate, a 55-year-old former congressman named Jose Antonio Kast, had won the first of two rounds of voting on a platform advocating corporate tax cuts, a border wall to deter immigrants, restrictions on abortion, and an end to gay marriage and the Women’s Ministry. Kast drew comparisons to Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, then the far-right populist president of Brazil.
Analysts warned that the election could tip Chile into a spiral of political and economic collapse following several years of political uprisings similar to the events that underpinned Bolsonaro’s ascent.
“I had a panic attack, anxiety,” says Jorquera, at the thought that “this fascist is going to win.” She knew she had to do something. So she thought: “What do I have? K-pop fandoms.”
Jorquera, now 33, is a scholar of Korean pop culture and also a “Kpoper,” the local spelling for the term describing fans of K-pop music—a catchy genre emphasizing choreography and elaborate performances that originated in South Korea in 1992 and has since exploded around the globe through bands like Girls Generation, EXO, BTS, and Blackpink.
In South Korea, K-pop groups or “idols” debut weekly on network television shows, battling other bands to win media play. Fans campaign online for their favorites and research how many Spotify streams, YouTube views, album sales, or social media mentions a group needs in order to have a song top the charts or win an award. They have also long donated to charities, often to commemorate an idol’s birthday, a group anniversary, or an album release, but both performers and fans largely avoided politics.
Jorquera believed she could mobilize this same dedication to affect the outcome of Chile’s election. She rounded up five other fans from Twitter and her social circle to rally—not around a new song, but around Gabriel Boric, the 36-year-old former student leader and left-wing candidate who was running against Kast.
With three weeks until the election, the newly organized “Kpopers for Boric” launched digital campaigns, threw community-building events, and ran voter information drives. To drive more votes to Boric, they deployed tactics they’d learned from years of campaigning online for their favorite music idols.
“K-pop fans are global citizens. We have the power to make idols and groups popular. We should use that same power for our political issues and causes,” Jorquera says.
K-pop fans in the US had made headlines in 2020 when they reserved tickets for one of Donald Trump’s rallies and then neglected to show up—leaving the president to face a nearly empty auditorium. During America’s civil unrest after Minnesota police killed George Floyd on camera, BTS donated $1 million to Black Lives Matter; its fandom, known as BTS Army, matched the donation in 24 hours.
“K-pop fans are global citizens. We have the power to make idols and groups popular. We should use that same power for our political issues and causes.”
Fans have also foiled white supremacist attempts to spread hate speech on Twitter, hijacking the White Lives Matter hashtag with K-pop GIFs and memes. When the Dallas Police Department asked the public to submit videos of protesters through an app, fans bombarded it with clips of their idols; it was shortly taken offline for “technical difficulties.”
And that’s just in the US. Around the world, K-poppers have organized acts of civil resistance, often campaigning against the creep of increasingly authoritarian regimes. Fandoms have learned how to quickly and effectively use their digital skills to advocate for social change and pursue political goals.
How K-pop fans organize
BTS started as a hip-hop-based crew of underdogs and became a global pop sensation, evoking comparisons to the Beatles. The BTS Army—an acronym for “Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth”—is a phenomenon in and of itself, seemingly unprecedented in reach and influence.
It’s hard to measure exactly how big the fandom is, but some estimates say between 50 and 100 million. Army is, in other words, about the size of Germany—easily the largest fan group in K-pop. It was powerful enough to turn seven young men who mostly sing and rap in Korean into the best-selling band in the world in less than a decade.
When BTS debuted in 2013, their independent label, Big Hit Entertainment, couldn’t afford them the conventional Korean entertainment industry’s paths to success. So they got past the gatekeepers of the media establishment by embracing social media. Without pressure from an established company, they were able to challenge traditional power structures with their lyrics. In songs like “No More Dream” and “Baepsae [Silver Spoon],” they attacked the pressure cooker of the Korean education system and critiqued Korea’s neoliberal social structures for diminishing opportunities and fostering socioeconomic inequity.
“People need anthems, and BTS has lots of anthems,” says Jorquera.
The group’s songs and public statements urged tolerance, equality, and diversity. That message resonated with K-pop fans, who are often women, LGBTQ, people of color, or from other marginalized groups.
Fans were also drawn to the camaraderie and relationships between the BTS members. Unlike K-pop groups formed through the major music labels, which projected an image of perfection, BTS was candid, its members showing their daily lives and struggles through livestreams that could go on for hours. No one else built such close relationships with fans. And their presence online meant the group cultivated those fans all over the world.
In 2022, the group announced that it would take a break so its members could focus on solo projects and fulfill their country’s mandatory military service over the next two years. But so far, fans have remained loyal, showing up to stream, purchase, and support that solo work. With seven individual careers now taking off, it’s possible the fandom could continue to grow.
Though BTS Army is the largest in number, other K-pop fan groups now engage in similar social and political activities. Jorquera, whose favorite groups are BTS and EXO, emphasizes that Kpopers for Boric was exactly that—a coalition of K-pop fans who follow different groups.
The Chileans riffed on what they learned from other successful K-pop campaigns: how to create viral social media posts, host events to build community, and connect people on the basis of a common interest. They also used iconography familiar to K-pop fandoms. Every K-pop group has a logo, and every fandom gets a name and a special light stick that changes color or displays messages synced to the music via Bluetooth. Some groups also have a designated color (BTS is purple). Kpopers for Boric created a logo for the politician and adopted green as his signature hue.
They used images of K-pop idols in social media campaigns to gain traction. They sent an Uber to Boric’s campaign headquarters to deliver a cake decorated with the candidate’s face, a “Koya” keychain (featuring an animated koala who represents BTS’s leader RM), and K-pop-inspired photo cards of Boric, documenting it all in a TikTok video. The video spread, earning 387,000 likes.
As they organized events at cafés, printing 200 coffee-cup sleeves with QR codes linked to voter information sites, Boric began incorporating K-pop into his campaign videos. The group even arranged rides for voters on election day.
In December 2021, with record voter turnout, Boric was elected as the country’s youngest president. He’d promised to cancel student debt, tax the rich, lower health-care costs, revise the country’s social security system, and fight climate change. After the election, Jorquera thought, “Oh my God, we did this.”
It wasn’t only K-poppers, she acknowledges: “Everyone was using what they cared about the most for supporting this campaign.”
In Brazil, where K-pop is extremely popular, BTS fans used similar tactics to reach apolitical fans. The group Army Help the Planet originally formed to fight climate change but turned its attention to registering voters ahead of the October 2022 presidential election. At the start of its voter registration campaign, 16- and 17-year-olds (for whom voting is optional, though it is mandatory for most citizens 18 and up) were turning out at the lowest level in 30 years.
When BTS’s “Permission to Dance” concert in Seoul was broadcast in movie theaters in March 2022, Army Help the Planet handed out 4,000 BTS-themed voter cards to viewers across Brazil, with a QR code directing people to campaign and voter registration sites. A month later, the group projected BTS lyrics onto billboards in six cities. They included lines such as “If what you see in the news is nothing to you, you’re not normal” and “Tomorrow will keep coming and we’re too young to give up.”
The campaign helped contribute to a record-setting level in the number of young people registering to vote. In October, Bolsonaro was defeated for reelection by the leftist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
For Jorquera, the message is clear: “People should know they have the power to change an election. Everything is free. You don’t need resources. What you need is solidarity.”
It’s not all hits
K-pop-led political campaigns don’t always win the day, though.
Last July, in a lecture hall at Hankuk University in Seoul, three Filipino academics spoke about BTS Army’s efforts to support Lena Robredo in the recent presidential race in the Philippines. She lost to Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. (whose campaign also used BTS images and memes online)—a devastating result for the presenters.
Allison Anne Atis, a researcher at the University of the Philippines Diliman, said she might be “red-tagged,” or labeled as a Communist sympathizer and face persecution by the Marcos administration, for delivering the talk. She told the audience: “Please do not elect a dictator in your countries.”
Even successful K-pop campaigns tend to focus on achieving a specific result rather than encouraging public engagement over a long period, says Tom Carothers, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC. That can limit their impact. “Their strength is their ability to reach large numbers of people at a low cost,” Carothers says. “Their weakness is that they are only trying to get citizens to do one very discrete thing at a particular moment.”
I thought about Atis and her colleagues when I was in Busan, South Korea, in October for a BTS concert. In the days leading up to what many worried would be the last performance by the group, at least for a while, fans from all over the world arrived in the beachside city, sporting BTS luggage tags, pins, and hoodies from previous concerts. I spoke with fans from Germany, India, Indonesia, Australia, Japan, and the US. The show was free, but many did not have tickets, and 100,000 visitors had come to the city for a concert with a capacity of 50,000.
Outside a pop-up exhibition, I spoke to three fans from the Philippines and asked about the recent election there. They were Marcos supporters and said they did not approve of campaigns mixing politics with K-pop.
campaign to encourage young people there to register to vote.
A week after the concert, I went to Magnate, a café owned by the father of one of the BTS members. I offered to take a photo for three women, all 30-year-old engineers living in Singapore, who were on a BTS-themed pilgrimage through South Korea. They were originally from Myanmar but couldn’t go back to their own country, they said, because they’d been flagged as pro-democracy supporters by the military junta currently in power.
As two more of their friends joined us for cake and tea, the women told me about their exiled life, relating how BTS had helped them cope with depression. For BTS members’ birthdays, they organize events with other fans to send money to orphanages, nursing homes, and the pro-democracy party in their country.
Like other fans I had interviewed, these women said they were not partisan and didn’t want to conflate their love of BTS with politics. They just wanted democracy.
Afterward, I wondered why they had talked so openly to me, knowing I was a journalist. They let me record the conversation and answered all my questions, despite having been flagged by their homeland’s government.
The answer, I concluded: BTS. If we were all at this particular café in Busan, we shared a love for the band and, therefore, a lingua franca.
Earlier, Jorquera had told me, “The reason we became bonded with K-pop idols is global. We share the same struggle. Maybe we can use that experience to have more empathy around the world.”
Soo Youn is a freelance journalist who worked at Reuters and ABC News and contributes regularly to the Washington Post, the Guardian, and NBC News.