South Korea has become a leading player in utilizing cultural products as part of its public diplomacy strategy, particularly in East Asian and Southeast Asian regions. However, a recent controversy involving K-pop superstars, Blackpink, related to their scheduled concerts in Vietnam on 29th and 30th July, highlights the need for more careful implementation of public diplomacy tools at the grassroots level. This article examines the journey of Blackpink’s concert in Vietnam, showcasing the excitement it generated initially, followed by a series of setbacks resulting in public backlash. It emphasizes the importance of considering political contexts and avoiding hasty execution in public diplomacy endeavors.
K-pop concert as a public diplomacy initiative
On June 26th, Blackpink surprised Southeast Asian fans, particularly those in Vietnam, by announcing that they would select Hanoi to conclude their “Born Pink” world tour in Asian territory. Given Vietnam’s large K-pop fan base and high viewership in worldwide ranking, the country seldom receives visits from K-pop artists on their world tours. Consequently, the announcement not only thrilled Vietnamese fans but also garnered extensive coverage in Vietnam, including a feature on Vietnam’s national TV report and a warm welcome message on the official social media channel of Vietnam’s government portal page. The Hanoi Department of Culture, Sports, and Tourism swiftly granted a permit for the live concerts to take place at Vietnam National Stadium My Dinh. This music event was also publicly recognized as a “cultural event that fosters people-to-people diplomacy between South Korea and Vietnam” further strengthening the recently upgraded Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between the two nations. Notably, the announcement coincided with the conclusion of the state visit of the President of the Republic of Korea to Vietnam, highlighting the willingness of Seoul to engage with the Vietnamese public and the warm reception from Hanoi towards this cultural product.
The watershed moments
Between 4th and 5th July, events took a turn for the worse. Alongside the local authority’s approval on the 4th, the setlist for the upcoming concerts was posted on the Official Vietnamese government Facebook page. Disappointingly, the seemingly verified list only included 13 songs, triggering accusations of unfair treatment by YG Entertainment, the management company of Blackpink. Although YG Entertainment officially confirmed that more songs would be performed, the negative perception persisted. Adding to the problem was the revelation of ticket pricing, which was perceived domestically as exorbitant compared to other Born Pink concerts in Southeast Asian countries. Unfortunately, the complex pricing formula for live concerts, influenced significantly by sponsors, was not widely known to the public. Consequently, accusations that YG Entertainment and Blackpink were attempting to exploit Vietnamese fans gained traction. However, it is essential to note that such claims are unfair due to the intricacies involved in calculating ticket prices.
On 5th July, another bombshell was dropped when it was reported that the official website of the concert organizer, IME Global Group (the website has been under maintenance since the news outbreak), displayed a world map featuring the controversial nine-dash line in the South China Sea. The nine-dash line, also known as the “cow’s tongue line” in Vietnamese, is a highly sensitive issue for Vietnam, as it signifies China’s territorial claims over an area where Vietnam and some other ASEAN states assert their sovereignty. The accusation primarily targeted IME Global’s Chinese origin, suggesting their nationalistic support for China’s narrative. Vietnamese sensitivity toward this geopolitical matter was evident because the “Barbie ban” incident has yet died down. An illustration of the nine-dash line map was found in the movie “Barbie” resulting in an official ban in early July.
While the Vietnamese government took a firm stance on the “Barbie ban” declaring it a violation of Vietnam’s laws, its response to the IME Global and Blackpink concert was notably different—a more lenient approach. After conducting an investigation, Vietnamese authorities refrained from issuing harsh criticism, allowing the concert to proceed while accepting IME Global’s apology. This reaction implies that the Vietnamese government viewed the Blackpink concert as a diplomatic act, in contrast to “Barbie,” which was perceived as a cultural product driven solely by commercial motives.
The public divide
While the Vietnamese government did not flag the K-pop sensation, certain segments of the Vietnamese audience quickly voiced their discontent. Reports of the nine-dash line controversy led Vietnamese netizens to flood IME Vietnam’s Facebook page, bombarding it with 1-star ratings and patriotic remarks asserting Vietnam’s territorial sovereignty, such as “Paracel Islands, Spratly Islands belong to Vietnam” (“Hoang Sa, Truong Sa la cua Viet Nam”), or “Do not support Cow’s Tongue” (“khong ung ho duong luoi bo”). Comments criticizing overpriced tickets and accusing IME of taking advantage of Vietnamese fans were also prevalent.
Unfortunately, amidst this commotion, Blackpink found themselves caught in the middle, as blame for the mishaps shifted from the concert organizer to the performers themselves. Online observations indicate a significant divide within the Vietnamese public: on one hand, some criticize Blackpink for allegedly violating national sovereignty, calling for a boycott of the group; on the other hand, some defend Blackpink, considering them innocent victims of political turmoil. These divisions often lead to heated exchanges, with supporters and ticket holders labeled as “nation betrayers” or accused of not loving their country. This is not the first time such disputes between nationalists and K-pop fans have occurred, as seen in the case of Hanni, a Vietnamese-Australian member of a rising K-pop group – New Jeans, who faced boycotts in Vietnam due to her family’s alleged support for South Vietnam during the 2nd Indochina War.
Complicating matters further, the incident sparked renewed debates on “fandom and idol culture” in Vietnam. Cult followers were portrayed as deviating from societal norms or blindly supporting their idols. Supporters of Blackpink and K-pop, in general, were demonized for prioritizing their idols over national interests. Moreover, discussions on the economic aspects of being a K-pop fan portrayed fandom as an expensive and potentially misleading activity, accessible only to those with financial means. These ongoing social debates have further complicated the reception of South Korea’s public diplomacy tools. As the writing of this article concludes, debates over Blackpink concert tickets, fandom culture, and the nationalist campaign against the concert continue to rage on.
Haste makes waste
The entire plan to bring Blackpink to Vietnam was hastily executed, leading to troublesome repercussions. The most concerning aspect is that it took decades for K-pop to reach its peak, years for Blackpink to captivate global audiences, but only a few days to damage their reputation. Within less than two weeks, Vietnamese public opinion shifted from regarding Blackpink as global stars to perceiving them as potential threats to national security, leading to social divisions between their supporters and nationalist patriots. While public diplomacy campaigns should focus on long-term effects and relationship management, they must also address and rectify short-term mistakes that can cause lasting damage. K-pop is undoubtedly a valuable tool for South Korean government deployment, but it should not be wasted through hasty execution.
For policy implication, the incident serves as a reminder of the middleman problem in cultural production industry that can damage the cultural relation between the initiator and the recipient. Additionally, the political context of a particular region should be attentively considered ensuring that public diplomacy initiatives contribute positively to international relations. For theoretical development, the complexities involved in public diplomacy implementation signifies the blurred boundaries between high politics and everyday practices, highlighting the importance of incorporating social theories into the study of public diplomacy.