Recently, President Biden met with the world-renowned K-pop music group BTS. At the White House, they talked about the importance of tackling anti-Asian racism and showing respect for the Asian communities. This was against the backdrop of having a flux of racism incidents in the US.
However, the invitation of the South Korean group raises questions as to the underlying strategy and motives. Logically, President Biden could have sought the same assistance from local Asian American stars who belong to the affected communities, or, e.g., British Asian stars who have similar first-hand experience with the issue. In fact, many celebrities from Hollywood and other fields have already voiced against the rise of the anti-Asian cases. The US government has also taken a number of notable measures, such as introducing the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act. It can therefore seem a bit puzzling as to why President Biden had to ask for help from foreign citizens – who may be perceived as slightly less representative for the domestic Asian American situation.
The intuitive explanation for the collaboration would be that the US wishes to utilise the overwhelming star power of BTS and the Korean Wave (“Hallyu”). It is not an overstatement to suggest that BTS can potentially be even more appealing and impactful than domestic celebrities to certain specific groups of audience. The BTS holds a few World Guinness Records for their popularity, such as being the music group that has the most followers on Instagram. Moreover, the BTS has demonstrated their capabilities in public diplomacy. They previously appeared as South Korean diplomatic envoys in the UN General Assembly in 2021, where they raised awareness over the UN’s Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs). In the UN’s YouTube channel, it can be seen that the clip with the highest number of views is the one where BTS appeared.
However, the above explanation does not fully capture the benefits that can be derived from the collaboration. Also, by comparison, having the BTS at the UN easily makes sense because South Korea is part of the UN and has member state responsibility to implement the SDGs.
The better explanation is that President Biden did not only have the domestic racism problems in mind. Rather, his tactic also targeted Asia, especially Southeast Asia. According to some surveys, BTS’s fan base comes predominantly from the Asian regions – with India, Indonesia and the Philippines ranking top – which even outnumbers the fans from South Korea and the US. To put this into context, President Biden is very keen on establishing closer relations with the regions, as discerned from recent developments such as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) and the US-ASEAN Special Summit in May. The collaboration with BTS builds on top of these initiatives, and is a gesture of President Biden showing friendliness, care and solidarity to Asian groups and communities beyond the US border. This form of celebrity diplomacy sends political messages transnationally and directly to the general public, as compared to traditional diplomacy which exchanges at the governments’ level.
Besides, the selection of BTS further shows that President Biden is eager to get the attention of young people. By confessing to be a “fan” of BTS, Biden draws himself closer to younger generations. It was surveyed that 50% of BTS fans are below 18 years old, and with another 40% belonging to the 18-29 age group. Getting the support of young people – who generally have high engagement with social media – can easily multiply the local and global reach and impact of any political message.
This highly skilful move connects the US and South Korea together by co-curating this latest addition to the diplomatic arsenal for global good. Ultimately, this strategy sheds positive light on President Biden, showing that he is a leader who is willing to go beyond the borders and explore non-traditional means in order to resolve problems.