South Korea's K-pop spreads to Latin America

News of the arrival of South Korean boyband JYJ prompted hundreds of fans to camp out on the streets recently to get closer to the trio. But this wasn't in Seoul or even Tokyo: it was in Lima.

Having taken Asia by storm over the past decade with bubblegum hooks and dance moves infused with military precision, South Korea's K-pop phenomenon continues to defy language barriers and find fans around the world.

As South Korea continues to export its culture, K-pop's polished fusion of influences ranging from hip-hop to dubstep is winning a growing number of passionate followers in Latin America.

JYJ has held sellout concerts there and a Colombian TV station is airing a K-pop talent show.

Latin American fans have posted hundreds of videos on YouTube showing flash mobs emulating K-pop dance moves and urging their favourite stars to visit the continent, despite many not having officially released songs outside Asia.

Promoters are using the power of the Internet to lure distant fans and organise concerts in Europe and North and South America.

"Korean acts are not only monitoring but also monetizing their Twitter trends, Facebook likes, and YouTube views," said Bernie Cho, president of DFSB Kollective, a Seoul-based creative agency providing digital media solutions to more than 350 K-pop artists.

"More Korean bands have multilingual members who can sing verses, carry choruses, and conduct interviews in English, Chinese, and Japanese. Language is no longer a barrier, it is now the carrier."

Music videos and footage of the stars' private lives are posted on Facebook and YouTube -- often live or before being released on TV and elsewhere.

"They've got the sound right, they've got a supportive government that invests very heavily into the development of the arts, and they are all very good looking," said Ruuben van den Heuvel, executive director of GateWay Entertainment, a music consultancy firm. "They're a complete pop package."

The popularity of the genre in Asia remains undiminished -- 7,000 Japanese fans will flock to Seoul this month to "meet" JYJ at a major event that has booked out 3,500 hotel rooms around Seoul.

But in Latin America, fans are taking note: JYJ in March performed in both Chile and Peru as part of a world tour of 15 venues including Berlin and Barcelona.

Hundreds camped out for days in Santiago and Lima as they tried to get closer to the trio during their first concerts in the region, said June Oh, a spokeswoman for the band's agent C-JeS.

"We were so stunned seeing hundreds of tents lined up in front of the Explanada Sur del Estadio Monumental," she told AFP, referring to the venue in the Peruvian capital where JYJ performed.

Savvy marketing and production tie-ups have also helped.

JYJ broke away from another K-pop act TVXQ in 2009 and the following year released an English-language album in collaboration with US rap star Kanye West.

"Since then we started to get more fan letters from Latin America and to see more Spanish-language sites (dedicated to JYJ). Now they are the most active and passionate ones in the band's global fan base," Oh said.

She acknowledged that attendance at the concerts -- 5,000 in Chile and 6,000 in Peru -- was small compared to the tens of thousands whom JYJ attracts in South Korea or Japan.

"But it's too early to try to stage such a mega-concert in Latin America," she said.

JYJ member Kim Junsu has described the response to the Latin American concerts as "utterly surprising, and the most enthusiastic".

Seoul's top music talent agency SM Entertainment has held concerts featuring its flagship groups such as the 13-member boyband Super Junior and the nine-strong Girls' Generation in Paris, New York and California since 2010.

Colombian TV network Caracol has since April aired a talent show for K-pop fans. Winners were offered a six-day trip to Seoul to meet their idols.

Some 2,000 participants from across the country sang and danced to the songs of K-pop bands such as Big Bang and 2NE1, with South Korean boyband U-KISS acting as a judge by watching video clips.

Song Chang-Woon, PR manager of South Korea's Arirang TV which has partnered with Caracol, acknowledged K-pop's popularity in Latin America is still limited to a relatively small circle of young devotees.

"But our partners in Caracol TV certainly saw potential and wanted to test the market with 'K-pop reality'," he told AFP, referring to the show also being aired on South Korea's Arirang TV station this month.

K-Music, a Colombian music cable channel, has also started to air a K-pop music segment imported from Arirang, Song said.

Typical K-pop stars -- trained since early or mid-teens -- offer a mix of good looks, powerful choreography and accessible tunes that give an alternative to Latin America's music scene, he said.

"The K-pop boom has just landed in Latin America and there's no way back from here," said Song.

Prominent music critic Kang Hun and others rejected suggestions that promotions by the Seoul government had helped sell K-pop overseas as its home markets become more saturated, saying it jumped on the bandwagon belatedly.

Kang added that K-pop offered a new cultural experience, particularly for trend-conscious teenage girls and women in their 20s in Latin America.

And the language barrier does not matter. "Ask anyone about the last song they heard on the radio and they'd struggle to tell you what the lyrics mean," said van den Heuvel.

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