When South Korea bombarded North Korea with K-pop music broadcasts across its border in 2016, the broadcasts were described as “a peaceful version of the nuclear bomb.” If a country’s entertainment industry is properly invested, it might well be a powerful weapon of influence.

The K in K-pop may stand for Korean, but the music genre has surpassed its niche and reached global status. More K-pop groups, like BTS and Blackpink, are having world tours and songs charting high on the Billboard. When physical CD sales dropped globally, it was the opposite in South Korea; there was an 11-percent increase in CD sales in 2012 due to creative marketing strategies such as adding collectible items like photo cards and a raffle ticket giving fans the chance to attend a meet and greet.

As K-pop is no longer a niche market, many foreigners are heading to Korea to pursue their dreams of stardom. East Asians still make up the majority in the K-pop scene, with more Taiwanese faces on the rise. Whenever a Taiwanese person debuts in Korea, he or she would often make the entertainment media’s headlines being referred to as "Taiwanese pride.”

With K-pop’s tremendous growth potential in the international stage, perhaps more Taiwanese would consider exploring the opportunities of sharpening and showcasing their talent in Korea, where entertainment agencies provide rigorous training as well as the promise of a much larger stage. As of now, the most distinguishable Taiwanese K-pop artists are Amber Liu (劉逸雲), Chou Tzuyu (周子瑜), and Lai Guanlin (賴冠霖).

Amber Liu

Amber Liu is a 26-year-old Taiwanese-American singer, rapper, and songwriter who rose to popularity as one of the five members of f(x). Liu first discovered K-pop in middle school when she was in Taiwan and fell in love with the genre despite not understanding any Korean. After being cast at a global audition in Los Angeles, she went to Korea to train under SM Entertainment, one of the largest entertainment agencies producing K-pop icons such as Super Junior and Girl’s Generation.

Liu’s androgynous style and sleeve tattoos make her stand out amongst the women in K-pop. A vocal supporter of the #metoo movement, Liu often uses her social media platform to discuss sexual harassment and body shaming.

Chou Tzuyu

Chou Tzuyu, a 20-year-old singer from Tainan, was trained under JYP Entertainment, also one of the largest entertainment agencies responsible for creating hit groups like Wonder Girls and 2PM. She is now a member of the popular girl group Twice.

Tzuyu sparked controversy when she introduced herself as Taiwanese while waving the flag of the Republic of China on the Korean variety show My Little Television (마이 리틀 텔레비전). She faced heavy criticisms as the airing of the episode happened to coincide with the Taiwanese presidential elections in 2016. Chinese netizens were furious and accused Tzuyu of profiting from her Chinese audience while openly supporting a pro-independence stance. The incident resulted in the dropping of Tzuyu’s endorsements with Huawei and Chinese TV barring anything pertaining to Twice.

Nevertheless, Tzuyu has bounced back with Twice’s most recent song “Fancy”, which made Twice the best-selling Korean girl group of all time with 3.7 million sold copies.

Lai Guanlin

One of the most recent Taiwanese-born K-pop artists to emerge is 17-year-old Lai Guanlin from Taipei. In 2017, he participated in the second season of Korea’s boy group survival reality show, Produce 101, where the public audience called “national producer” produced an 11-member boy band via online voting. Through the series, Lai was able to secure a spot in the boy group Wanna One under YMC Entertainment.

Since the disbandment of Wanna One in 2019, Lai continued to prevail in both China and Korea. In China, he became a brand ambassador of Dr. Jart skincare and starred as a male lead in a Chinese drama titled A Little Thing Called First Love.

Will Taiwan Retain its Music Talents?

A study from the University of London estimated that South Korea has seen a return of US$5 for every dollar spent on K-pop, not only in music but also in marketing. The Korean government is also dedicated to constructing a 20,000-seat arena to maximize concert and tourism revenues, according to the study.

Taiwan’s music industry, although subsidized by the government, still has a lot of room for improvement. For example, the Taipei Dome project, a 40,000-seat stadium was recently suspended with no solution in sight. The government’s lack of direction for the local entertainment industry has partially and inevitably contributed to the stagnation of Taiwanese pop.

Rather than replicating K-pop strategies, Taiwanese artists and music agencies can take away a few lessons from the K-pop boom. K-pop becoming an international sensation is proof that a language barrier is no longer an excuse for the lack of international interest and marketability. Korean music agencies are very active on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and V Live, a Korean video streaming service which allows the idols to stream and live chat with fans. Many posts are written both in English and Korean in order to promote the inclusion of international fans. V Live streams are available with subtitles in 17 different languages. BTS’ worldwide success can be attributed to their almost absurd volume of social media activities, a prime example of why social media strategy is so vital in the digital age.

In Taiwan, indie singers and bands have gained popularity over mainstream music and the idea of a pop icon has taken a backseat. Taiwan’s recent reality TV singing competitions like Jungle Voice (聲林之王) have placed emphasis on scouting indie singer-songwriters that would add diversity to the current music scene.

Will the younger generation of Taiwanese singers pursue their stardom in South Korea, or will they explore their potential in Taiwan?

READ NEXT: How Can Taiwan's Pop Music Enter the Global Market?

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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)