K-pop has dominated the Asian music market for several years, making South Korea seem like the perfect place for any young artist dreaming of producing a mega-hit.
South Korea was ruled by a dictatorship in the 70s and 80s and music was frequently banned as subversive if it could be seen as challenging of authority or the status quo. With democracy came the lifting of bans on both Korean and foreign music, which led to an explosion in creativity and eventually the mass export of K-pop.
But in spite of the relative freedom enjoyed today, even artists represented by big record labels face considerable hurdles navigating South Korea's multi-layered censorship system.
First, there's the television networks. They have strict guidelines against artists performing too sexually or “controversially”.
Second, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family will randomly pick songs on the market and label them as “dangerous for impressionable young ears.” Even the most innocuous lyrics are sometimes singled out.
And finally, a song can suddenly be found too ‘sexist', ‘political', ‘anti-government’ or ‘pro-North Korean’ by any government body according to their own logic. Even songs that have been played for decades sometimes run afoul of the authorities.
The vagueness of regulations intended to protect children and the public morale makes it possible for the government to censor music they simply dislike.
In April of last year, South Korea made global headlines when a new music video by Psy, the artist behind the international phenomenon Gangnam Style, was banned by a major TV station as “un-airable” for the laughable reason that it depicts public property damage.
On a talk show [ko], Korean teen idol Lee Joon made fun of the guidelines he was given by TV producers before a dance with the famous boy band MBLAQ.
“One nip’ slip is okay, but two nip’ slips at once are not. I find it so confusing,” he said.
The TV guidelines are always good for a laugh on talk shows. It is the form of censorship that affects artists most directly, but it is luckily also the most manageable.
In an email interview, Lee Youn-hyuk, an independent artist and a manager at the Record Label Industry Association of Korea (L.I.A.K) says he doesn't always understand the TV regulations, but that he respects their right to chose what they want to air.
“Their judgements are based on their identity as TV station and it is their editorial right,” he says, adding that he is far more critical of the censorship performed by government authorities.
The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family took over the task of censorship in 1996, a year after a pre-censorship system on music and cultural contents was finally abolished.
The censors of the ministry are notorious for accusing several thousand songs of being “hazardous” whenever they notice references to liquor, cigarettes or sex in the lyrics. Once a song is labeled as “inappropriate for youth under the age 19″ it can only be broadcast after 10:00 PM, and children are forbidden from buying it as well as from listening on the internet. Many young people get around this by using the IDs of their parents to login to Korean portal websites or watch on YouTube.
Music industry people, such as Lee, say it is troubling that the censorship is applied only to some randomly selected albums after they have hit the market, and not universally to every album. Many people see this as part of a new reality where the South Korean government is tightening control over citizens and free speech.
Recently, several unpopular decisions to censor music by various government bodies have been mocked. Part of the ridicule stems from how randomly the targets appear to be chosen.
Last month, it was a decade-old, famous children's song that was labeled as “hazardous” for being too sexist [ko] by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.
In December, the South Korean Military, which is known for banning books, films and songs which they find too “controversial”, removed the nation's most historically important song, ‘Arirang‘, from karaoke machines supplied to Korean army bases. The Defense Ministry later explained [ko] that that particular version of the song was once sung by North Korean artists and that wouldn't boost army morale.
Culture critic and writer Park Ji-Jong says by email, “Back then [during the dictatorship] censorship was strictly politically motivated, but now it has evolved and they wield standards such as too ‘explicit', ‘unethical’ or ‘immoral’ based on arbitrary decisions.”
Today there may be more money and more glamor in the world of K-pop, but a long history of censorship and regulation still affects the music markets of today.
Watch a video interview with the author of this article, Yoo Eun Lee: GV Face: Beyond Gangnam Style – Censorship and Korean Pop Music