Of the three big record labels, all launched by former musicians as the Korean economy was rebuilding itself post-crisis, SM is credited with building the K-pop Leviathan we know today.

Inspired by MTV, Lee Soo-man, also known as “Chairman Lee,” founded SM in 1989 with a view to replicate American entertainment in Korea. A year later, he had his first hit: Hyun Jin-young, a hip-hop singer whose star fell as quickly as it rose when he was nabbed for drug use. Lee almost lost SM in the wake of the scandal but learned an important lesson: finding and honing talent was not enough, labels would have to be mercenary about controlling their stars.

SM set up a ruthless studio incubation system, accepting one trainee out of every thousand applicants, on whom they would spend an average of $300,000 over a five-year period to train.

Lee’s christened his precise and terrifying formula for success Cultural Technology. CT, as it’s known, allowed SM to design and strictly monitor every aspect of their incubees’ life. It is the first thing SM executives study when they join the firm and is credited with building Korea’s pop industry from scratch.

The manual is confidential and can’t be taken out of SM offices. Its mythical status is owed to the fact that CT is constantly updated on how exactly to achieve K-success down to agonising details such as “when to bring in foreign composers, producers and choreographers; what chord progression to use in which country; the precise colour of eyeshadow a performer should wear in a particular country; the exact hand gestures he or she should make and the camera angles to be used in the videos,” according to John Seabrook of the New Yorker.

“Nearly every aspect of K-pop is functional, intended to satisfy the market,” John Lie, a professor of sociology notes, adding that the K in K-pop “has more to do with Das Kapital than with Korean culture or tradition.”

For example, there is no lip synching because Korean audiences find it fake, and trends are scientifically tracked to see whether a potential boy band should debut as gangster tough “beast-dols” or feminine, lip-glossed “flower boys.” In the early days, before “socials” changed the nature of fandom, record labels cultivated an almost sinister mystique around their debut stars – who were not allowed to own their own phones, speak in public or use public toilets.*

*Side note from across the border: Kim Jong II’s official biography states that he has never made a bowel movement.

Fatima Bhutto
Author Fatima Bhutto | Image credit: Jessie Craig

Isak Kim sits in a Gango-sil café, surrounded by plastic surgery clinics and K-beauty shops. She wears a long, flowing summer dress and cartoonishly large eyeglasses, reminiscent of anime exaggeration. “I was one of the first halfies to come into SM,” she tells me with a blush of pride. At the time Kim debuted in a K-pop duo there weren’t many Korean-Americans in the business. She was auditioned by SM Entertainment’s founder Lee Soo-man himself in 1999 when SM held their first international auditions in LA.

Kim, like all K-pop aspirants, signed a suffocating ten-year contract and was moved from California into a Seoul condo where she lived with a label chaperone, studying and training from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. She was put on a diet, given dance, singing and language lessons and invited to have a nose job, which she refused.

A manager told me, with the secrecy used to convey nuclear codes, that standard K-pop trainee contracts now include seven to twelve non-negotiable surgeries from double eyelid surgery— which involves cutting the eyelid skin to create a crease—to jaw shaving. Some boy-banders undergo leg breaking surgery to add a few centimeters of height while others, bending to the Korean aesthetic of skinniness as the height of attractiveness, inject poison into their necks in order to atrophy their muscles. Sure, it’s hard keeping your head upright with those muscle – free, delicate, swan-necks, the manager supposed, but a bit of physiotherapy goes a long way.

In 2019, the Ministry for Gender Equality and Family warned local broadcasters that K-beauty standards, by which all stars “have similar appearance such as skinny body figure, light skin colour, similar hairstyle, body conscious clothes and similar make-up” may lead to unhealthy perceptions of beauty. The ministry had gone so far as to issue guidelines as to how to approach what they called a “serious problem” but were forced to withdraw them after an immediate outcry from fans screaming censorship and oppression.

“In Korean they’re not called ‘artists,’” Ashley Choi, a Korean-American music executive told me in Seoul. “They’re called ‘celebrities,’ they’re called ‘entertainers’ because they don’t create music. They call them ‘idols’ because they want them to be gods, they want them to be untouchable.”

Korea’s two military dictators often banned Korean songs for “thoughtlessly following foreign trends” but today it’s precisely this thoughtlessness that can be credited with globalizing the K-pop industry. The substance and style of K-pop is blatant mimicry of the West, safeguarded by good old Asian values. Though he’s notably not thought of as K-pop, months after “Gangnam Style” became a worldwide hit, the stock value of Psy’s father’s company doubled. Such a successful son could only have been raised by an equally impressive father, the logic went.

K-pop videos are nowhere near as sexually suggestive as J-pop or American music videos; thanks to an album rating system similar to movies, even the lyrics are squeaky clean. It’s the ultra-sanitised version of rap, hip-hop and pop, scrubbed of any sex, drugs or rock and roll. K-pop celebrities spend more time cultivating their “airport style,” outfits carefully curated for waiting paparazzi, than engaging in scandalous behaviour.

Like Bollywood or dizi, K-pop songs are safe for family listening. There’s no public dating or swearing – Amber Liu, a Chinese origin star formally of girl group f(x) and now a solo artist trying to crack America, told me she can’t curse as “it’s a public image thing.” Aside from more recent scandals, involving K-pop stars investigated for procuring prostitutes and sharing clips of young women filmed without their consent over WhatsApp, for the most part, K-pop stars behave.

No music industry in the world invests so much in their singers before they debut; recoup is simply the price of business. Only when entertainers pay off their debt, returning what was spent on training, housing, and feeding them during their incubee days, do they start to earn a living as pop stars, though industry percentages are notoriously stingy.

In other countries, record labels take 20-30 percent of album sales and the artist gets the rest. In Korea, the equation is flipped. Not even dodgy accounting is enough to slow K-pop from breaking distribution barriers all over the world. But not all would attribute its astounding global success to the mythic severity of CT. “I’ll put it in one word for you,” Ingyu Oh, a co-founder of the World Association of Hallyu told me. “Glocalisation.”

Glocalisation is the musical version of the Emperor’s new clothes. You import Western music, Oh explained, Koreanise it, localising it to such a high standard that people in the West hear the music as fresh and unique, and quickly re-import it back to their countries. K-pop’s triumph isn’t globalising music, he says, but localising it. Oh defends “glocalisation” against charges of being a sly bait and switch. “The process to Koreanise it is very delicate,” he insists, “the beat is faster but also very soft, a feminine fastness. I don’t think any other country can duplicate this stuff because it’s very military, very strict in some sense, but also very affectionate.”

Excerpted with permission from New Kings Of The World: The Rise And Rise Of Eastern Pop Culture, Fatima Bhutto, Aleph Book Company.