Korean Popular Culture and Historical Sensibilities in East Asia

Jooyoun Lee
Associate Professor
Department of Global Studies and Political Science, School of Behavioral and Social Sciences, St. Edward’s University, USA
doi: 10.18278/aia.3.1.5


This article draws on the 2016 “Tzuyu Incident” involving a K-pop girl band, Twice, and its Taiwanese member, Chou Tzuyu, to examine the intensity of political-cultural reactions to the incident in Taiwan and South Korea. It aims to reassess the role of popular culture in International Relations (IR) by exploring the way that popular culture makes, remakes, and dissolve borders. I argue that popular culture entails contradictory processes of crossing and delimiting borders, as a site where an individual’s world-historical sensibilities are evoked in a way that makes borders not only dissolved, but also, at the same time, demarcated by reinforcing nationalistic sentiments. These seeming contradictions are not fixed, however. By demonstrating that popular culture in East Asia flows multi-directionally and evokes local agency as a way to articulate identity, this article highlights that popular culture generates political processes of mixing and de-mixing subjectivities.



Popular culture in International Relations (IR) has typically been analyzed as a tool of the state to enhance its status in the international arena or as products of culture industries to pursue their profits. This view is manifested in Joseph Nye’s notion of soft power. He notes that popular culture, as an effective instrument of the state’s soft power, establishes preferences in a way that influences international audiences (Nye 2004:12; Nye and Kim 2013:5). These understandings entail the idea that culture is the sheer product intended for the interests of the state or business. From this perspective, culture is located in a fixed binary relationship between the state and its audiences or between business and its consumers.[1]

On the other hand, popular culture has also been examined in the large framework of culture, as a way to challenge a state-centric approach. In this view, as generators of “non-isomorphic” patterns, culture fluidly interplays the political with the economic (Appadurai 1990:301, 306). Unlike propaganda, popular culture does not come from the top-down only or in one direction. And given its multiple flows, popular culture dissolves binary categories of Self vs Other, creating “third spaces” (Appadurai 1990; Bhabha 2004) or “hybrid/syncretic/mixed/creolized” forms (Pieterse 2009:86). Popular culture thus comprises a political process, not just a source of entertainment or a tool for state power.

This study aims to reassess the role of popular culture in IR by exploring the way that popular culture makes, remakes, and dissolves borders. I pay primary attention to what L.H.M. Ling calls “multiple co-existing emotional worlds” (Ling 2014:579): that is, multiple, mutually-interactive worlds transcend binary structures. An awareness of their emotional worlds helps us to realize how each world or society can affect others. Additionally, emotional worlds have a potential to articulate and promote domestic sources of agency. With South Korea’s popular culture focusing on the 2016 “Tzuyu Incident” as an interpretive case study, this article shows how popular culture crosses borders to generate the intensity of political-cultural reactions in Taiwan and South Korea, disputing the notion that presumed borders become fixed and permanent.[2] It also demonstrates that the process of dissolving borders does not necessarily lead to permanent opening of boundaries nor preventing nationalistic feelings from emerging. The “Tzuyu Incident” thus serves as a useful cultural case as an instance of the border-making process of popular culture, which could contribute to filling a “space” in understanding workings of popular culture in IR.[3]

This finding allows me to suggest that multiple emotional worlds include nationalistic sentiments and memories, breaking down binaries while invoking them at the same time.[4] I argue that popular culture entails contradictory processes of crossing and delimiting borders, a site where an individual’s world-historical sensibilities are evoked in a way that makes borders not only dissolved to bring people from different nations together, but also, at the same time, demarcated by reinforcing nationalistic sentiments. These seeming contradictions are not fixed, however. Popular culture makes borders ever-changing, constructing and reconstructing identities of people inside and outside the nation with its multi-directionality. The process of dissolving and demarcating boundaries is important because popular culture permits us to recognize political processes that take place across borders beyond state relations as well as the operations of nationalistic sentiments within borders.

This article first provides an overview of the conceptual intersections of popular culture, identity construction, and making and remaking borders. Then, it introduces how the Tzuyu Incident erupted. Next, I examine how the incident generated salience of discourses of Taiwanese identity in Taiwan during its presidential election in 2016. The following section surveys South Korean netizens’ discursive reactions to the Tzuyu Incident. Then, I assess how popular culture enacts the contradictory process of inscribing and loosening borders by drawing on historical sensibilities and emotions. I conclude with the implications of the findings by rethinking the role of popular culture in IR. It allows us to understand the working of “multiple co-existing emotional worlds” as a site that generates political processes of making and re-making borders. By demonstrating that popular culture in East Asia flows multi-directionally and evokes local agency as a way to articulate identity, this article highlights that popular culture generates political processes of mixing and de-mixing subjectivities.

To review the case, I use newspapers. These constitute what Weldes (2006) refers to as “high data”; and comments posted on them via Internet, “low data.” High data refer to “official or semiofficial sources circulating among elites and from elites to various public” including policy documents, speeches, and newspapers (181–182), while low data denote “the everyday, mundane representations that make meaningful and commonsensical, and sometimes challenge, dominant representations” such as film, advertisements and the Internet (182–185). Mainstream IR typically marginalizes popular culture; it tends to focus on “high politics” defined by diplomacy, security, and international economics (Weldes 2006:177; Rowley 2010:309). In this view, popular cultures would be deemed important so far as it could be demonstrated to “have caused some kind of effect within these formal sites of activity,” such as policy outcomes (Grayson et al. 2009:155). Official policy documents thus serve as the main credible evidence or data for understanding world politics (Weldes 2006:177–178). However, this focus neglects how understandings of world politics are produced “in and through the mundane cultures of people’s everyday experiences,” particularly popular culture (Weldes 2006:178). I seek to examine how such understandings are generated by    examining both newspapers as high data and interviews and comments posted on them via Internet as low data. This permits us to investigate people’s quotidian experiences, thoughts, and ideas about themselves and others as well as their views about their nations and the world.


Popular Culture, Identity Construction, and Border-Making

Popular culture circulating in the media space, such as YouTube, involves texts and images including textual, auditory, visual, and discursive properties. These representations produce values, conceptions, and meanings (Orgad 2012:17–18). Production, consumption, and dissemination of popular cultural products are enmeshed in transformative processes of meaning-making and identity-making (Weldes and Rowley 2015:20–21). Popular culture shapes identity by delineating who we are and how we should feel about “us” and “them” (Duncombe and Bleiker 2015:36, 41; Nieguth and Wilton 2015:11). Importantly, the process of identity construction entails demarcating the boundaries between the self and the other, which is inherently unbounded (Neumann 1999:36). Dissolving and demarcating borders is a political process, and boundaries that delimit the self vis-à-vis the other is constructed and reconstructed by ongoing relationships between them.

Discursive borders delineating self and other are historical contingencies (Hall 2001:104). Shared perceptions of the past constitute a crucial component of identity and nationhood by offering the vision of “who we are” as well as an idea of “who we were” (Ray 2010:140; Lee 2018:10). Remembered past generates “emotional bonds, solidarity, and trust” (Langenbacher 2010:22). Popular culture operates as a site where reflections on the historical relations between self and other take place.

Emotions play a crucial role in this process. Visual imaginaries of popular culture serve as “sites where politics and political subjectivity are constituted and where the politics of affect, emotion, feeling and reaction challenge cozy assumptions about rationality, rational political actors, and the decisions said to flow from them” (Grayson et al. 2009:157). By engendering emotive reactions, visual images of popular culture play a crucial role in activating collective voice and constituting people’s identity. This process is important because popular culture shifts our attention from state relations to transborder practices, allowing us to see “the sub-national/regional and hyper-local” practices “as globally and politically implicated” (Weldes and Rowley 2015:24).

The following discussion of the Tzuyu Incident and the reactions to it from constituents in Taiwan and South Korea demonstrates how multi-directional flows of popular culture activate historical sensibilities and emotions to dissolve and reinforce borders between “us” and “them” and how these borders are loosened and inscribed simultaneously. The case highlights the way that popular culture enacts the contradictory process of making and remaking borders.


The Tzuyu Incident

In January 2016, Chou Tzuyu, a 16-year-old Taiwanese member of the K-pop girl-band, Twice, unexpectedly caused an international crisis. Twice is composed of nine members: five from South Korea, three from Japan, and one from Taiwan. The crisis occurred when Chou appeared on a South Korean Internet variety show called “My Little Television.” It asked the girl-band to perform a skit: that is, for the non-Korean members of the group to hold the flags of their birthplace. The three Japanese members—Momo, Sana, and Nana—waved the South Korean and Japanese flags. Tzuyu held and briefly waved the South Korean and Taiwanese (Republic of China) flags.

The incident caused an immediate outcry in hallyu or the Korean Wave.[5] Right after the show aired on 8 January, Taiwanese singer Huang An, who mainly operates in China, posted a message on Sina Weibo, accusing Tzuyu of waving the Taiwanese flag, arguing that Chou is a pro-Taiwanese independence activist. While Huang is Taiwanese by birth, he developed his career in the late 1990s in China and opposes Taiwanese independence. He has often informed the Chinese government and netizens about individuals who support Taiwan’s independence and their activities (Chung 2016). Huang’s post about Tzuyu quickly spread on the Chinese Internet (Horwitz 2016). Chinese netizens demanded that Chou and her group be banned from performing in China (Buckley and Ramzy 2016).

To mainland China (People’s Republic of China), Taiwan is a “renegade” province.[6] Its flag signals activism for an independent Taiwan (Horwitz 2016). Huang’s claim that Chou Tzuyu is a “pro-Taiwanese independence” activist subsequently prompted the Chinese Huawei Technology Company to demand that LG Uplus[7] drop Chou from endorsing Huawei’s Y6 chain of cellphones (Chung 2016). Huawei happened to partner with LG to promote sales in South Korea. A boycott campaign spread quickly in China and the stock value of the girl-band’s owner, JYP Entertainment, plunged 5%. To contain the controversy, JYP announced on 13 January that Tzuyu would stop performing in China. JYP China posted on Weibo, emphasizing that neither JYP nor 16-year-old Tzuyu had any political motive or position (Gibson 2016). Still, the storm did not subside.

On 15 January, JYP Entertainment posted a video on YouTube. In it, Tzuyu appears in a black turtleneck standing against a gray wall. She bows then reads from a prepared text in Chinese: “There is only one China. The two sides of the Strait are one. I have been proud of being Chinese. I, as a Chinese person, made a mistake when promoting my activities in Korea. This has caused some damage to my company and hurt the feelings of people in Taiwan and China. I am very sorry and guilty for this. I have decided to stop all current activities in China to examine my own actions. I am here again to apologize to everyone, I am sorry.”[8] Park Jin-young, head of JYP Entertainment, also issued an apology on the company’s official homepage. He emphasized that he apologizes to Chinese fans who were hurt, stating that he learned the importance of respecting sovereignty, culture, history, and people’s feelings of different countries he worked with (Buckley and Ramzy 2016). Tzuyu’s video went viral, hitting more than 2.6 million views within one day of its release (Wang 2016). Within three days, the video had been watched more than 5.7 million times (BBC 2016). The apology video aimed to resolve the controversy, but generated another stage of debate that swept Taiwan and South Korea.


Reactions in Taiwan

To many in Taiwan, the video’s images and texts attacked their national pride. Taiwanese netizens blamed JYP Entertainment, noting that Tzuyu must have been forced to apologize. They compared her apology video to hostage clips posted by a terrorist organization, ISIS (Chin and Chung 2016; Yonhap News 2016).

Newspaper interviews recorded some of these reactions:

“The Chou Tzu-yu incident makes Taiwan people realize they are not the same as Chinese people” (Liu Che-lin, 34, a musician).[9]

“People in Taiwan are very angry about this. This sort of oppression from China really upsets people. If you are abroad and can’t show your flag, can’t represent your country, that makes Taiwanese people very afraid” (Hsiao Yi-ci, 29, a painter).[10]

“She is just being used. We are proud to be Taiwanese. No one should be forced to say they’re Chinese. We are not” (Liu Chao-chih, 70, retired).[11]

Some karaoke in Taiwan decided not to carry Huang An’s songs. Taiwan’s news channel TVBS asked 10 Taipei citizens to read Tzuyu’s apology text, but nine people gave up before completing it (Yonhap News 2016). It could be interpreted that many resisted the unjust and coercive apology. In addition, as noted earlier, her apology text includes the statements that there is one China and that she is a Chinese. These statements are profoundly contested in Taiwan (Chen 2013). In effect, a growing number of Taiwanese, particularly the younger generation, held the attitude of “non-Chinese” rather than “anti-Chinese.” Younger people embraced “a firm sense of being distinctly Taiwanese,” as a forerunner of consolidating Taiwan’s national identity (Lin 2016:31).[12]

Importantly, the video was posted on the eve of Taiwan’s presidential election on Saturday, 16 January 2016. Outgoing President Ma Ying-jeou, a pro-China politician from the KMT who pursued closer ties with China stated that Chou did not need to apologize. He added that holding a ROC flag by any Taiwanese national should be supported (Chin and Chung 2016). Although he himself and his party, KMT, held a pro-China stance, the massive national wave of cheering Chou prompted Ma to support and sympathize with her. The KMT presidential candidate, Eric Chu, criticized Huang and JYP Entertainment, stating that the situation was too cruel for a 16-year-old (Horwitz 2016). He added that the hearts of Taiwanese people were united to support Chou (Chin and Chung 2016). The presidential candidate of the People’s First Party (PFP), James Soong, commended Chou Tzuyu for holding the ROC flag, endorsing the idea that Taiwanese people should support the continued existence of the nation (Chung 2016). Tsai Ing-wen, candidate from the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), stated that the incident deeply damaged the feelings of Taiwanese, calling on people to come together in solidarity (Chin and Chung 2016).[13]

Tsai won a landslide victory as Taiwan’s first female president. She received 56% of the vote, while the KMT candidate, Eric Chu, secured only 31%. This was a significant jump from Tsai’s 2012 performance, when she garnered approximately 45% of the vote (Gibson 2016). Once elected, Tsai referred to the Tzuyu Incident as a reminder of the importance of Taiwan’s status and unity to those outside the nation. It will serve as one of the most vital responsibilities for her, she announced, as the next president of the Republic of China (Gibson 2016).

The Tzuyu Incident served as a significant factor that triggered debates on Taiwanese identity during the election, bringing people to confirm and buttress Taiwanese identity. In fact, the incident became an unexpected rallying point for Tsai-supporters in Taiwan (BBC 2016). Tsai used “Taiwan’s First Female President” as her main slogan during her presidential campaign in 2012, challenging the KMT’s male candidate, Ma Ying-jeou, but women voters then were still more likely than men to vote for Ma (Yang and Lee 2016:465, 484). Yao Li-min, chairman of the Citizen’s Congress Watch, noted that, in the 2016 election, those who did not plan to cast a ballot might show up to support Tsai and subsequently China-friendly candidates would suffer (Horwitz 2016). People chanted on election day, “We are Taiwanese. We are Taiwanese. We are Taiwanese.” These chants also targeted President Ma’s China-oriented policies and China’s boycott of Tzuyu’s performance (Loa et al. 2016). Taiwanese identity has increasingly been solidified in recent years in the island, particularly among the younger generation, as indicated in the recent survey of Taiwan’s national identity (Lin 2016:32). Survey respondents often don’t vocally express their own opinions on identity in normal settings. The Tzuyu Incident generated salient and outspoken affirmation of Taiwanese identity during the presidential election, making the dormant sentiment of Taiwan’s majority that they considered themselves Taiwanese visible above the surface.[14] The next section will investigate the reactions to the Tzuyu Incident in South Korean society.


Reactions in South Korea

Koreans ended up joining the Taiwanese in rebuking JYP Entertainment, despite the centrality of hallyu in their lives. South Korea’s news and social media widely covered the Tzuyu Incident. One of the news articles posted on 17 January 2016 on Daum, the country’s one of the most popular news portals, was “The Spread of the ‘Tzuyu Issue’ in Taiwan: 10,000 People Willing to Participate in an Anti-Huang An Protest” by Yonhap News. By 19:21 (South Korean Time) on 17 January 2016, 1,185 Korean netizens had responded to the comment that Tzuyu’s apology video resembled an ISIS hostage video.

Comments from Korean netizens massively supported Tzuyu. A dominant stream of reactions was that she should not have had to apologize at all, as the following examples show. To Korean netizens, Tzuyu had been coerced into doing so:

“Poor Tzuyu. Don’t use her any more!!” (Uni, 어니, 644 likes, 11 dislikes)

“Cheer up, Tzuyu!” (Let’s Cheer Up, 힘을 내자, 550 likes, 12 dislikes)

“Why does she have to read a text of apology when there is nothing wrong with holding a flag of her birthplace? I am so sorry. I can’t imagine how distressed she was when she was reading the apology text. Cheer up! Tzuyu!” (Ginger Cookie, 생강쿠키, 54 likes, 1 dislike)

“I am so sorry to Tzuyu as a Korean person. JYP should have made an official apology. Tzuyu did nothing wrong. She was used simply for business” (moon, 37 likes 4 dislikes).

Netizens felt that Tzuyu was simply instructed to hold the ROC flag to show that the members of Twice came from different places outside of South Korea. Netizens were frustrated with and saddened by the circumstances that put her in such a difficult situation and led to her innocent act. For this reason, another wave of comments criticized and registered disappointment with JYP Entertainment. For example:

“Park Jin-young is the worst. He forced her to apologize to make profits… What’s wrong with a person from Taiwan to hold a Taiwanese flag? Answer, JYP!!” (Stone Rock, 돌바위, 471 likes, 20 dislikes).

“Huang An was the problem, but I was more disappointed by JYP. 16-year-old Tzuyu did nothing wrong at all. Despite this, JYP forces her to apologize because he is concerned about restrictions on his business by China” (A Mole Goes, 두더지가 간다, 383 likes, 17 dislikes).

“Why did Tzuyu have to apologize when she did not wave the flag in China? The one that forced her to do this is deplorable” (Angel, 천사, 129 likes, 3 dislikes).

“JYP is responsible for protecting minors. JYP’s action cannot be accepted” (Sharwhina, 샤르휘나, 145 likes, 5 dislikes).

“I am not interested in Huang An. I am frustrated with the JYP’s handling of this issue. Cheer up, Tzuyu… I began to support you through this incident” (Toward the Pinnacle, 정상을 향해, 35 likes, 1 dislike).

Apology is “a truthful expression of remorse and includes the unreserved acceptance of moral responsibility for an act while also paying tribute to the perspective of the victim” (Daase et al. 2015:14). To many in South Korea, Chou’s act of holding her nation’s flag is nothing to be reprehended, an act which she did not have to apologize for. Moreover, given that the status of the apologizer matters (Daase et al. 2015:12), to Korean netizens, the head of JYP Entertainment, not the 16-year-old girl, had to apologize for the controversy caused.[15]

JYP Entertainment is one of South Korea’s major cultural enterprises, pioneering the hallyu boom in Asia and other regions. Park Jin-young, or J. Y. Park, established the company in his name in 1997. Park himself is a cultural artist who developed his music career as a singer-songwriter, record producer, and actor. He also famously served as one of the three judges of the music audition program called, “K-Pop Star,” aired by SBS.[16] His principles of how to sing, such as using “half air and half sound” as a method of abdominal breathing and “sing as you tell a story,” have become well known among South Koreans. The company produced popular hallyu bands, including Wonder Girls, 2PM, 2AM, miss A, and GOT7. Twice is not the only band that includes foreign members. A girl-band composed of four girls, miss A, includes Wang Feifei, who is originally from China. Korean netizens’ overwhelming criticism of JYP Entertainment demonstrates that an appropriate apology issued by the head of the company and subsequently doing justice to Tzuyu should be put ahead of business interest.

Korean netizens’ support for the Taiwanese K-pop star, also, reflected Korea’s historical experiences with Japan. The fact that Tzuyu had to apologize for holding the flag of her country reminded some netizens of Japan’s colonization of Korea, when Koreans were not allowed to show any national identity. The symbolism of the flag associated with national identity brought back the memory of the time when their identity was stripped and holding their own flag was not permitted:

“I am not a Taiwanese person, but I came close to getting tearful. Our ancestors would have faced the same kind of repression in the past” (Yupiyu, 유피유, 395 likes, 11 dislikes).

To another netizen, “Carrot Bat,” the Tzuyu Incident evokes Sohn Kee-chung, a Korean athlete during Japanese colonial rule. The netizen speculated on how Sohn felt when he had won the gold medal in the marathon at the Berlin Olympic in 1936. Although Sohn was a Korean, he had to participate in the Olympic as a member of the Japanese delegation:

“This reminds me of Sohn Kee-chung who was standing firmly on the podium with his head down. It’s not that I don’t understand at all JYP’s position to choose China due to business interests, but it’s so cruel to force a 16-year-old girl to openly reject her identity. I hope that the issue gets resolved well without forgetting our painful history of long oppression under Japan” (Carrot Bat, 당근빳따, 17 likes, 0 dislike).

Other netizens expressed similar laments about a lack of historical consciousness in contemporary Korean society[17]:

“While Taiwanese punish Huang An so forcefully, Korean people in the TK region[18] are too generous to pro-Japanese collaborators” (A Bowl of Dongchimi, 동치미 한사발, 690 likes, 47 dislikes).

“It’s so disappointing that JYP forced her to apologize. As a Korean, I am so sorry to Tzuyu. It’s not normal that she has to apologize. We are not under Japanese colonial rule now. Cheers, Taiwan. Independent activists fought strenuously for Korea’s independence, but now pro-Japanese collaborators prosper, sadly” (Sarapina, 사라피나, 193 likes, 9 dislikes).


Emotions, Historical Sensibilities, and Contradictory Processes of Border-Making

The Tzuyu Incident generated the intensity of political-cultural reactions among people in Taiwan and South Korea. Tzuyu’s apology video elicited immediate and strong emotional reactions from people in these two locations by evoking an ISIS video. Duncombe and Bleiker note that visual images of an ISIS video with a hostage and the subsequently triggered emotions caused an instant public and political response worldwide (2015:37). Although the apology video was not intended to emulate an ISIS image, viewers overwhelmingly drew a parallel between the two, and this caused emotions to flow across national borders to share their support for Tzuyu.

In Taiwan, the incident served as a factor that sparked open support for and affirmation of Taiwanese identity among people as well as presidential candidates from different political parties. The incident played a crucial role in awakening Taiwan’s historical relations with China and the island’s long-held internal struggles between mainlanders and islanders. Taiwanese responses speak to the core dimension of identity processes, given that the debate centered around whether they are Taiwanese, Chinese, or both.

Similarly, Korean netizens reacted to the incident by supporting Chou’s Taiwanese identity. Korean society increasingly respects the hallyu industry. The term hallyu has come to entail a nationalistic sentiment that Korean cultural products are successful not only in Asia but also across the globe (Kim 2007:55). Cultural projects that can be considered as part of hallyu are those that have been exposed to and accepted by foreign audiences (Kang 2005:221–222). That is, “not every Korean drama, film or pop song, no matter how popular in Korea, will be labeled Hallyu—only those that have been exported and done so successfully” (Kim 2007:50). This tendency is closely related to the way that Korean society regards more highly those who have gained some sort of recognition overseas for their achievements than those who have done so domestically, whether it be selling Korean products or winning sports competitions (Oh and Lee 2013:115). The respect for, and pride in those, who achieve recognition in foreign countries can be seen in the changing views of respected careers among children. To become a hallyu star has become the most popular career aspiration among young South Koreans (Lie 2012:360).

But the Tzuyu Incident has prompted South Korean netizens to cross hallyu nationalism. Overwhelming support for Tzuyu and public condemnation of JYP, as seen in Korean netizens’ discursive reactions to the Tzuyu’s flag controversy, shows that the content of nationalism is not necessarily static nor does it always coincide with national borders. Even though JYP Entertainment was respected and played an important role in an industry that has elicited national pride by creating the hallyu phenomenon, the South Korean people aligned with the people of Taiwan in condemning the company. Popular culture creates a third space where people connect to others beyond national boundaries, transcending the binary relationship between culture industry and its consumers.

Ironically, the very process of popular culture that triggers South Korean people to cross the line of conventional hallyu nationalism, at the same time, accompanies another mode of nationalistic sentiments whereby boundaries elsewhere are demarcated. The visual images of flag and the texts of the apology video reminded Korean netizens of their colonial past to develop connectedness with a Taiwanese K-pop star and Taiwanese people. The sensibility of sadness stemming from shared experiences of historical colonization serves as a powerful driving force that connects people across borders (J. Lee 2017:180). Korean netizens’ nationalistic memory operated to drive them to transcend hallyu nationalism as a contradictory process.

The ways in which a sense of national consciousness was evoked can be seen in the relationship between Taiwan and China and between South Korea and Japan, thereby inscribing borders. Such an inscription of boundaries, however, is neither permanent nor static. Flows of culture and people continue to come and go across borders in multi-directional ways, making borders ever-changing. As of January 2017, Koreans visiting Japan hit a record high (D. Lee 2017). Twice made their debut in Japan by holding their first showcase held at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium on 2 July 2017, attracting 15,000 fans. Their Japan debut album released on 28 June 2017 before this showcase topped the Japanese iTunes albums chart (Yoon 2017). Also, although Taiwanese national identity is becoming more consolidated, people in Taiwan are “open-minded about how to interact with China socially and economically” (Lin 2016: 31), indicating ongoing openness in forging relations with China (Lin 2016:214–215). In addition, while JYP Entertainment was condemned by the Chinese public, the company signed a contract in February 2016 with China Music Corporation, China’s online music giant, to distribute digital music exclusively, intended to step up mutual relations between these two companies and between JYP Entertainment and Chinese audiences (Park 2016).



The meaning of culture includes “contradictory forms of ‘common sense’” (Hall 1996:439). Culture consists of “potentially contested codes and representations” (Weldes 1999:118). In effect, popular culture entails contradictory processes of crossing and delimiting borders. The Tzuyu Incident epitomizes such contradictions. Its complex and contradictory roles construct and reconstruct people’s relations with others in their everyday lives. By evoking historical sensibilities and emotions, popular culture makes borders delimited and loosened at the same time.

Some critics would suggest that Korean netizens’ support for Chou’s Taiwanese identity is the result of the anti-Chinese sentiment. Indeed, one of the challenges that case study methods encounter includes rival interpretations (George and Bennett 2005:91). Cho and Park note that while the presence of anti-Chinese and anti-Japanese sentiments is an important factor in East Asian politics, such sentiment “has been more fluid than commonly believed” rather than “being etched in the public psyche” (2011:289). In other words, oppositional sentiments are not necessarily permanent and rigid. The low data examined in this study suggest that the main driving force that led Korean netizens to support Taiwanese identity stemmed from their disappointment with the JYP Entertainment’s inappropriate apology and the reflections of their own historical experience, similar to situations encountered by the Taiwanese K-pop star. This historical awareness and sensibility could still be seen as a nationalistic sentiment, but such a sentiment operated as a factor that built connectedness with the Taiwanese people, ironically. Certainly, the question of anti-Chinese sentiment offers avenues for future research regarding its intersections with popular culture and border-making.[19]

In addition, this study has crucial implications for rethinking the role of popular culture in international relations. The field of IR has remarkably prioritized the production and consumption of Western culture and its implications as it relates to non-Western world. For example, culture has been conceived as a resource to promote Western dominance or as a site of non-West to resist it (Said 1978, 1993). While a significant share of popular culture is currently produced and disseminated in Asia, this phenomenon has not been seriously incorporated into analysis in IR specifically and political science broadly (Otmazgin 2016). This article, by focusing on East Asia, demonstrates that non-West is not a simple consumer or resister of Western culture. Rather, popular culture in East Asia evokes local agency as a way to articulate identity and reflexivity. In this way, we may begin to decolonize international relations (Ling 2002, 2014).

Second, the analysis demonstrates the multi-directional nature of popular culture. Korean popular culture is flowing to other countries, including China and Taiwan, and the reactions emerging in these countries flow back to the Korean society. Flows of popular culture can never be a one-way street. It is also important to note that the Tzuyu Incident involves diverse modes of everyday practices including production, consumption, and dissemination of popular culture and reactions to it, such as an Internet variety show featuring Twice that aired in Korea, China’s boycott of products advertised by Tzuyu and Twice’s performance, JYP Entertainment’s apology statements appeared on their website, and Tzuyu’s apology video posted on YouTube. Information of these sets of cultural practices is flowing multi-directionally across and within national borders through non-governmental social media as well as elite messages such as newspapers. This multi-directionality bears crucial potentials for the flowing of historical sensibilities and emotions in various directions, which in turn makes borders demarcated or loosened at the same time.

This leads to the third implication of this article’s findings regarding popular culture’s role in breaking down and reinforcing binaries and boundaries. Popular culture is more than the tool or products to enhance interests of the state or business. It creates a third space where people act to articulate their agency rather than operating as simple targets of state power or mere consumers seeking entertainment pursued by business interests. By evoking historical sensibilities and emotions, popular culture is where people can connect to others beyond national boundaries. As Ling notes, “emotions are not just multiple but also transgress cultures and reconstitute politics within and across bordered worlds” (2014:582). This includes “an intimate mixing of subjectivities, where the Self’s boundaries begin to blur with those of the Other” (Ling 2002:144). Equally important is that popular culture reinforces nationalistic sentiments and reinstates borders as well. The flow of popular culture across national borders includes de-mixing of political subjectivities by sparking historical sensibilities and intense emotive reactions. As shown in this article, these contradictory and fluid processes that popular culture engenders to spur mixing and de-mixing of subjectivities across and within national borders suggest that a serious attention needs to be paid to the workings of popular culture for understanding global politics.



This article was presented at the 58th Annual Convention of the International Studies Association in Baltimore, 22–25 February 2017. The author would like to sincerely thank L.H.M. Ling, Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, anonymous reviewer, and the editorial team of Arts and International Affairs for their helpful comments and suggestions on the earlier versions of this article.


Jooyoun Lee (Ph.D. in Political Science, Syracuse University) is an Associate Professor of Global Studies and Political Science at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. Her main research interests include international relations theory, international/Asian security, historical memory and identity, and popular culture. Her work has appeared in peer-reviewed journals including Asian Politics & Policy, The Korean Journal of Defense Analysis, and Pacific Focus—as well as in an edited volume, Asia in International Relations: Unlearning Imperial Power Relations. She is currently a board member and Vice President of the Southwest Conference on Asian Studies (SWCAS), America’s regional conference of the Association for Asian Studies.



[1] For limits of this view, see J. Lee (2017) and Ling (2017).

[2] An interpretive case study interprets an event and shows that “one or more known theories can be extended to account for a new event” (Odell 2001:163).

[3] George and Bennett note that a study of each subtype of a general phenomenon “fills a ‘space’” in the overall development of theory (2005:78).

[4] I appreciate L.H.M. Ling’s inspiration for this idea.

[5] Hallyu refers to a widespread surge of Korean popular culture abroad. Over two decades, K-dramas, K-pops, K-entertainment shows have spread to other Asian countries, including but not limited to, China, Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, as well as to other regions beyond Asia, including Europe, the Middle East, and North and South America. For more information, see Kim (2013) and J. Lee (2017).

[6] China and Taiwan have been estranged as governments since 1949. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) defeated Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party or Kuomintang (hereafter, KMT), but the Truman Administration allowed the KMT to seek refuge on the island of Taiwan. Chiang Kai-shek withdrew to Taiwan with two million Chinese mainlanders. The US 7th Fleet has “kept the peace” ever since.

[7] This is a South Korean telecommunication company owned by LG Corporation, the country’s fourth largest conglomerate.

[8] YouTube, “TWICE Tzuyu Apology Explained (ENG),” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=juYhFRGDVZI, accessed 17 January 2016.

[9] Buckley and Ramzy (2016).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Chin and Chung (2016).

[12] In the 1990s, Taiwanese became less likely to think of themselves as “Chinese,” but continued to consider themselves as both “Chinese” and “Taiwanese” as often as “Taiwanese only” (Chu 2000:304). A 2013 survey of national identity by age group showed that nearly 90% of respondents under 34 identified themselves as “Taiwanese” (Lin 2016:32).

[13] The evolution of political parties in Taiwan has been intimately connected to its democratization process and struggles of identity. While the KMT has advocated a China-centered identity, the DPP has promoted a Taiwanese identity. From the early 1950s, the KMT enforced marshal law, reinforcing mainlanders’ control over politics, society, and a Chinese identity. The DPP was founded in 1986 by members of the group called dangwai (outside the party) as opponents of the KMT (Hughes 1997:38). Marshal law was lifted in 1987 in the wake of democratization in the mid- to late-1980s, and a KMT-dominated one-party system transitioned to a multi-party system (Chu 2000:304; Chen 2013:232–233). Li (2014) notes that democratization in Taiwan consolidated a Taiwanese identity. He argues that democracy in Taiwan and the continued one-party rule in China have fostered two distinctive social experiences, forming two different identities.

[14] Steven Phillips notes: “Whether one supports unifying with the mainland, maintaining the current status of the ROC on Taiwan, or becoming an internationally recognized sovereignty, that stance is entangled with the question of whether one identifies oneself as Taiwanese, Chinese, or both” (2006:59). For more information on the historical relationship between China and Taiwan and the struggles between mainlanders and islanders in Taiwan, see Chen (2013), Chu (2000), Hughes (1997), and Lin (2016).

[15] Issuing an appropriate and acceptable apology is one of the key aspects of resolving conflicts in the East Asian context. See Dudden (2008) for the centrality of political apology in East Asian international relations.

[16] SBS (Seoul Broadcasting System) is a South Korean national television and radio network.

[17] The issue of collaboration with Japanese colonial rule was not tackled seriously under the authoritarian regime of South Korea, when conservative collaborators disguised as patriots in the context of national division and the Cold War (Chung 2002). Although the issue has become one of the recurring themes of Korea’s memory of Japanese occupation since the 2000s (Feffer 2009), it has not been completely resolved.

[18] The TK region refers to the area of Taegu City in Kyongbuk province, located in southern South Korea. That area is known to largely support conservative politicians, some of whom are descendants of those who collaborated with the Japanese under colonial rule.

[19] George and Bennett suggest that the researcher examine “different parts of a complex longitudinal development” or “different turn points” (2005:92).



Appadurai, Arjun. (1990) Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy. Theory, Culture and Society 7 (2 and 3, July): 295–310.

BBC. (2016) Taiwan Election: How a Penitent Pop Star May Have Helped Tsai Win. BBC, January 18. <http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-35340530> (Accessed 23 July 2017).

Bhabha, Homi K. (2004) The Location of Culture. London and New York: Routledge.

Buckley, Chris, and Austin Ramzy. (2016) Singer’s Apology for Waving Taiwan Flag Stirs Backlash of its Own. New York Times, January 17. <https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/17/world/asia/taiwan-china-singer-chou-tzu-yu.html> (Accessed 17 January 2016).

Chen, Rou-Lan. (2013) Taiwan’s Identity in Formation: In Reaction to a Democratizing Taiwan and a Rising China. Asian Ethnicity 14 (2): 229–250.

Chin, Jonathan, and Jake Chung. (2016) Elections: Singer’s ‘Forced Apology’ Angers Nation. Taipei Times, January 17. <http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/front/archives/2016/01/17/2003637387> (Accessed 21 January 2017).

Cho, Il Hyun, and Seo-Hyun Park. (2011) Anti-Chinese and Anti-Japanese Sentiments in East Asia: The Politics of Opinion, Distrust, and Prejudice. The Chinese Journal of International Politics 4 (3): 265–290.

Chu, Jou-Juo. (2000) Nationalism and Self-determination: The Identity Politics in Taiwan. Journal of Asian and African Studies 35 (3): 303–321.

Chung, Youn-tae. (2002) Modernity and the Issue of Pro-Japanese Collaborators in Korea. Korea Journal 42 (3): 18–59.

Chung, Jake. (2016) Chou Tzu-yu Deal in Jeopardy after Huang An Tip-off. Taipei Times, January 15. <http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/front/archives/2016/01/15/2003637244> (Accessed 17 January 2016).

Daase, Christopher, Stefan Engert, and Judith Renner. (2015) Introduction: Guilt, Apology and Reconciliation in International Relations. In Apology and Reconciliation in International Relations, eds. Christopher Daase, Stefan Engert, Michel-André Horelt, Judith Renner, and Renate Strassner, 1–28. Oxon and New York: Routledge.

Dudden, Alexis. (2008) Troubled Apologies: Among Japan, Korea, and the United States. New York: Columbia University Press.

Duncombe, Constance, and Roland Bleiker. (2015) Popular Culture and Political Identity. In Popular Culture and World Politics: Theories, Methods, and Pedagogies, eds. Federica Caso and Caitlin Hamilton, 35–44. Bristol: E-International Relations.

Feffer, John. (2009) East Asia’s Sorry Politics. Georgetown Journal of International Affairs 10 (1): 175–181.

George, Alexander L., and Andrew Bennett. (2005) Case Studies and Theory Development in the Social Sciences. Cambridge and London: The MIT Press.

Gibson, Jenna. (2016) A K-Pop Star, a Flag, and a Political Imbroglio. The Diplomat, January 31. <http://thediplomat.com/2016/01/a-k-pop-star-a-flag-and-a-political-imbroglio/> (Accessed 22 January 2017).

Grayson, Kyle, Matt Davies, and Simon Philpott. (2009) Pop Goes IR? Researching the Popular Culture-World Politics Continuum. Politics 29 (3): 155–163.

Hall, Stuart. (1996) Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. In Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, eds. David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen, 411–440. London and New York: Routledge.

Hall, Rodney Bruce. (2001) Applying the “Self/Other” Nexus in International Relations. International Studies Review 3 (1): 101–111.

Horwitz, Josh. (2016) A 16-year-old Pop Star was Forced to Apologize to China for Waving Taiwan’s Flag. QUARTZ, January 16. <https://qz.com/596261/a-16-year-old-pop-star-was-forced-to-apologize-to-china-for-waving-taiwans-flag/> (Accessed 17 January 2017).

Hughes, Christopher R. (1997) Taiwan and Chinese Nationalism: National Identity and Status in International Society. London and New York: Routledge.

Kang, Jin-seok. (2005) Hanryu is the Cultural Code of East Asia. Journal of International Peace 2 (1): 221–228.

Kim, Jeongmee. (2007) Why Does Hallyu Matter? The Significance of the Korean Wave in South Korea. Critical Studies in Television 2 (2): 47–59.

Kim, Youna. (ed.) (2013) The Korean Wave: Korean Media Go Global. London and New York: Routledge.

Langenbacher, Eric. (2010) Collective Memory as a Factor in Political Culture and International Relations. In Power and the Past: Collective Memory and International Relations, eds. Eric Langenbacher and Yossi Shain, 13–49. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University.

Lee, Do-Youn. (2017) Yonhap News, February 17, <http://www.yonhapnews.co.kr/bulletin/2017/02/16/0200000000AKR20170216194300030.HTML> (Accessed 20 July 2017).

Lee, Jooyoun. (2017) The Korean Wave: Korean Popular Culture at the Intersection of State, Economy, and History. In Asia in International Relations: Unlearning Imperial Power Relations, eds. Pinar Bilgin and L.H.M. Ling, 166–177. Oxon and New York: Routledge.

Lee, Jooyoun. (2018) Yasukuni and Hiroshima in Clash? War and Peace Museums in Contemporary Japan. Pacific Focus 33 (1): 5–33.

Li, Yitan. (2014) Constructing Peace in the Taiwan Strait: A Constructive Analysis of the Changing Dynamics of Identities and Nationalisms. Journal of Contemporary China 23 (85): 119–142.

Lie, John. (2012) What is the K in K-pop? South Korean Popular Music, the Culture Industry, and National Identity. Korea Observer 43 (3): 339–363.

Lin, Syaru Shirley. (2016) Taiwan’s China Dilemma: Contested Identities and Multiple Interests in Taiwan’s Cross-Strait Economic Policy. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Ling, L.H.M. (2002) The Fish and the Turtle: Multiple Worlds as Method. In Critical Perspectives in International Studies, eds. Frank P. Harvey and Michael Brecher, 141–147. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

Ling, L.H.M. (2014) Decolonizing the International: Towards Multiple Emotional Worlds. International Theory 6 (3): 579–583.

Ling, L.H.M. (2017) Beyond Soft Power: Cultural Power from India and China Today through Film. China Report 53 (2): 172–187.

Loa, Iok-sin, Stacy Hsu, and Abraham Gerber. (2016) Elections: Madam President. Taipei Times, January 17. <http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/front/archives/2016/01/17/2003637385> (Accessed 17 January 2016).

Neumann, Iver B. (1999) Uses of the Other: “The East” in European Identity Formation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Nieguth, Tim, and Shauna Wilton. (2015) Popular Culture and the Study of Politics. In The Politics of Popular Culture: Negotiating Power, Identity, and Place, ed. Tim Nieguth, 3–16. Montreal, CA: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Nye, Joseph, Jr. (2004) Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. New York: Public Affairs.

Nye, Joseph, Jr., and Youna Kim. (2013) Soft Power and the Korean Wave. In The Korean Wave: Korean Media Go Global, ed. Youna Kim, 31–42. London and New York: Routledge.

Odell, John S. (2001) Case Study Methods in International Political Economy. International Studies Perspectives 2 (2): 161–176.

Oh, Ingyu, and Hyo-Jung Lee. (2013) K-Pop in Korea: How the Pop Music Industry is Changing a Post-Developmental Society. Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review 9 (December): 105–124.

Orgad, Shani. (2012) Media Representation and the Global Imagination. Cambridge and Malden: Polity.

Otmazgin, Nissim. (2016) A New Cultural Geography of East Asia: Imagining A ‘Region’ through Popular Culture. The Asia-Pacific Journal 14 (7) <http://apjjf.org/2016/07/Otmazgin.html> (Accessed 20 July 2017).

Park, Sae-jin. (2016) JYP Entertainment Signs 5 Billion Won Deal with China’s CMC. Aju Business Daily, February 22. <http://www.ajudaily.com/view/20160222095455858> (Accessed 20 July 2017).

Phillips, Steven E. (2006) Identity and Security in Taiwan. Journal of Democracy 17 (3): 58–71.

Pieterse, Jan Nederveen. (2009) Globalization and Culture: Global Mélange. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Ray, Larry. (2010) Mourning, Melancholia and Violence. In Memory, Trauma and World Politics: Reflections on the Relationship between Past and Present, ed. Duncan Bell, 135–154. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Rowley, Christina. (2010) Popular Culture and the Politics of the Visual. In Gender Matters in Global Politics: A Feminist Introduction to International Relations, ed. Laura J. Shepherd, 309–325. London and New York: Routledge.

Said, Edward. (1978) Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books.

Said, Edward. (1993) Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage Books.

Wang, Amber. (2016) Taiwan K-pop Star Flag Row Escalates after Apology in Midst of National Election. Asia Times, January 16. <http://www.atimes.com/article/taiwan-k-pop-star-flag-row-escalates-after-apology/> (Accessed 17 January 2016).

Weldes, Jutta. (1999) Going Cultural: Star Trek, State Action, and Popular Culture. Millennium: Journal of International Studies 28 (1): 117–134.

Weldes, Jutta. (2006) High Politics and Low Data: Globalization Discourse and Popular Culture. In Interpretation and Method: Empirical Research Methods and the Interpretive Turn, eds. Dvora Yanow and Peregrine Schwartz-Shea, 176–186. New York: M.E. Sharpe.

Weldes, Jutta, and Christina Rowley. (2015) So, How Does Popular Culture Relate to World Politics? In Popular Culture and World Politics: Theories, Methods, and Pedagogies, eds. Federica Caso and Caitlin Hamilton, 11–33. Bristol: E-International Relations.

Yang, Wan-Ying and Kuan-Chen Lee. (2016) Ready for a Female President in Taiwan? Journal of Women, Politics & Policy 37 (4): 464–489.

Yonhap News. (2016) The Tzuyu Incident Spreads in Taiwan: 10,000 People Expressed to Participate in an Anti-Huang An Protest. Yonhap News, January 17. <http://www.yonhapnews.co.kr/bulletin/2016/01/17/0200000000AKR20160117062200074.HTML> (Accessed 17 January 2016).

Yoon, Min-sik. (2017) Twice Tops Japanese iTunes Album Chart. The Korea Herald, June 28. <http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20170628000755> (Accessed 20 July 2017).

YouTube, TWICE Tzuyu Apology Explained (ENG) <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=juYhFRGDVZI> (Accessed 17 January 2016).