From Oppression to Modernity: Positive Innovations in the use of Western Symbols in South Korean Pop Music and Culture

Authors: Michal Schwarz (Masaryk University, Czech Republic)
Speakers: Michal Schwarz
Strand: Semiotics and Semiology
Session Type: General Session


As railway or train became the symbol of modernity in Europe (Weber 1976), it was also adopted as a sign of progress under the oppressive rule in South Korea (Han Seung-Mi 2004) when diesel locomotives and their sound represented negative control of people (Han Youngsue 2020).

With more positive development at the end of the 20th century, this optically same motif has lost its negative value and now is a positive sign of shift to better future (e.g. Twice: Likey + I can’t stop it) or symbolic gate to another space (BTS: Run). Similarly the Biblical parable of knowledge (= snake or eating of an apple) was adopted by South Korean Christians. Despite their original motif of punishment (Gain, Paradise Lost), these symbols are also used in different way and I would connect them to East Asian feminine modernity (cf. Lin & Avin 2008) and strength, when knowledge is equal to desire for a better future (e.g.: Twice: More & More).

The analysis allows to conclude that these symbols are gradually disconnected from their original or moral content (GFRIEND: Apple; Gain: Apple; in secondary moments e.g. in Twice: Yes or yes; Blackpink: How you like that; Hyuna: Red). This semantical shift correlates with economic success of South Korea and analogicalreception of these symbols in post-colonial Asia.).

Selected References:

Han, Seung-Mi. 2004. The New Community Movement: Park Chung Hee and the Making of
State Populism in Korea. Pacific Affairs, 77(1), 69-93.
Han, Youngsue. 2020. Films for representing acoustic control of people under the yushin
dictatorship. The 5th International Conference of Semiosis Research Center, Seoul,
Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (online), 29. 6. – 5. 7. 2020.
Lin, Angel & Avin Tong. 2008. Re-Imagining a Cosmopolitan „Asian Us“: Korean Media
Flows and Imaginaries of Asian Modern Femininities. In: East Asian Pop Culture.
Analysing the Korean Wave. Ed. Chua Beng Huat, Koichi Iwabuchi. Hongkong:
Hongkong University Press, 91-125.
Weber, Eugen. 1976. Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France 1870-
1914. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
1: All mentioned music videos are available on Youtube.
2: This paper is an output of my K-pop lectures at Masaryk University.

Keywords: Symbols, changes, Korean pop, East Asian modernity