Swinging Seoul

 Through ethnomusicological perspectives, it can be asserted that Cold War foreign policy and ideologies refracted through authoritarianism, acutely shaped everyday popular music culture in South Korea; this article will analyse the influence of Cold War U.S. cultural diplomacy and military strategy on it. Additionally, internal hybridisation, modification, and Americanisation of popular music in line with South Korean modernisation. Further, the flourishment and suppression of popular music and youth culture within authoritarian Cold War frameworks. Through the lens of everyday life, Korean popular music culture was born and matured through Cold War national and global politic-social forces, centred on Americanisation, contested modernity and democracy. 

Cold War foreign policy profoundly shaped the popular music culture of everyday life in modern Korea. With American constructions of the nation as a frontier state, South Korea became a beacon of anti-communism under Cold War politico-military expansionism. Following the Korean War in 1953, 150 U.S. military bases and satellite ‘camp-towns’ were established, with 325,000 troops decreasing to 85,500 by 1955 but remaining over 50,000 into the 1970s. The institutionalisation of these military enclaves, as a feature of Korean everyday social reality, provided hotbeds of American popular music culture. Indeed, with the Armed Forces Korean Network (AFKN) circulating American popular music in South Korea during the Cold War; technology moulded engagement and representations of music culture. For example, a radio station was established in 1951 followed by AFKN-TV in 1957 and by 1961 there were approximately 950,000 receivers tuned into 33 broadcasting stations, reaching around 5.5 million listeners. This vast broadcasting infrastructure provided the foundation for development of a domestic popular music industry in Korea, engendering an everyday audience and culture for Anglo-American musical styles. Shin and Ho paint a compelling view of the U.S. military base as the ‘cradle of Korean pop [music]’. With 70 per cent of the Korean population residing in rural areas and U.S. military camps being an urban phenomenon, their role as loci of popular music culture was largely divorced from the everyday lives of Koreans until the 1960s, when economic development produced an everyday cultural efflorescence. Nevertheless, during the Cold War, the U.S. military presence became inseparable from the everyday urban nightscapes and popular music culture of Korea. Fundamentally, the growing omnipresence of American music culture and styles through Cold War foreign policy and military strategy produced an internalisation of these popular music cultures in the everyday life of Koreans.   

With the shifting Cold War military trajectory in the 1960s, there was a simultaneous transformation in popular music culture in South Korea, as American modernity became the framework of authoritarian modernisation. In February 1964, The Beatles commenced their U.S. invasion, six months later Park Chung-hee committed South Korean troops to the escalating Vietnam War. Because of this, Cold War politico-military dynamics undergirded the appropriation of Americanised modernisation into a commercial culture industry. As South Korea developed economically, catalysed by Cold War conflicts and the normalisation of relations with Japan in 1965, popular music culture diffused throughout the everyday experience. Music nurtured a sense of self and other, differentiating South Korean experiences from the North, cementing the Cold War dualistic antagonism of anti-communist state ideology. Framed as an ideological ‘civil religion’ by Mung, a religion preached through the lyrics and scenes of popular music and received by a willing congregation across the radio airwaves and in the urban clubs of South Korea. From 1961 to 1964, three private broadcasting companies and the state-controlled Korean Broadcasting System (KBS) emerged alongside AFKN, while LP records were introduced in 1962. Not to mention that the Korea Entertainment Association from 1961, despite primarily constituting an extension of authoritarian apparatus, critically facilitated the integration of a music culture born in the landscape of U.S. militarism into Korean life. Thus, generating a competitive everyday music consumer culture. Cold War militarism and Americanism made an indelible impression on everyday popular music culture in Korea.   

The pervasive climate of Cold War authoritarianism and U.S. militarism uniquely incubated the emerging Korean youth counterculture movement. In 1971, the three-day Ch’ŏngp’yŏng Festival captured thousands of youthful spectators, comparable to Woodstock in 1969, marking the arrival of the global youth counterculture in Korea. The soundtrack to this long-haired, bell-bottom-wearing, recreational drug-using and anti-authoritarian movement was ‘rok’ and the ‘modern folk movement’. American folk or t’ongit’a (acoustic guitar) music imbued with protest towards Cold War conflicts became politically engaged in Korean affairs from the 1970s. For instance, the American folk singer Mary Travers acknowledged the socio-political ‘currency’ Bob Dylan’s song ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ had when played to political prisoners in South Korea. To that end, music became the battleground of youth culture, associated with movements for labour, human rights, and democracy. Go-go clubs and the transgression of midnight curfews became sites of defiant pursuits of freedom amongst the youth, metastasizing from downtown Seoul throughout urban everyday life of Korea. Simultaneously, universities became an epicentre for musical, cultural, and political energy, illustrated by the founding of the National Alliance of Youth and Students for the Protection of Democracy in April 1971, organising nationwide demonstrations. Music culture became intrinsically bound with swelling critiques of Cold War systems and left-wing political activism, opposing state anti-Communism, pro-Americanism, and capitalism. Musical youth culture developments and protests were fundamentally influenced by socio-cultural developments in America, revealing the relationship between the Cold War and the Korean experience.   

The ‘Korean Summer of Love’ as a time of pro-democratic resistance towards Cold War authoritarian tensions was short-lived. Chung-hee implemented harsh authoritarian repression towards ‘decadent culture’, at the hands of which popular music culture suffered its violent, coercive, and disciplined fate. In 1971, as students were strategically drafted into the Korean military forces engaged in the Vietnam War, the streets of Korea became ‘theatre[s] of the absurd’ as police officers implemented the long-hair and mini-skirt crackdown. The result was a dismantling of the youth culture inextricably associated with Americanised popular music within a cultural landscape of Cold War militarism. As arrests rose from 100,000 in 1973 to 600,000 in 1976, even harsher suppression followed the Yushin Constitution in 1972. Between 1965 and 1975, 223 Korean songs and 261 Western songs were purged through censorship by the Korean Arts and Culture Ethics Council. In fact, the regime’s consolidation of ‘national culture’ was profoundly influenced by Japanese imperial military control of culture. Korean popular music culture was systematically driven underground following the declaration of Emergency Measure 9 in January 1975. Notably, this authoritarian action was catalysed by the capture of South Vietnam by communist forces in the same year. For this reason, authoritarian suppression of popular music and youth culture – fostered and consumed in the everyday lives of modern Koreans – was determined by Cold War geopolitical paradigms and cultural exchanges with America. 

In the wake of the Korean War, American popular music transuded from U.S. military camps through AFKN media into Korea. This transfer of music created a vibrant youth culture from the late 1960s engaged in pro-democratic resistance towards Cold War systems as inspired by American individualism and freedom. In response, the Korean authoritarian regime ruthlessly suppressed threats to the national structure based upon Cold War antagonisms and ideologies. The relationship between the Cold War and popular music in Korean everyday life highlights the undernourished desires of Korean society and undermined criticism of the intrinsic role of the United States during this period. Within the communicative nexus of militarism, modernisation and ideology, popular music culture in South Korean everyday life was intrinsically born and sculpted by the Cold War. 

Written by Jack Bennett 


Armstrong, Charles. “The Cultural Cold War in Korea, 1945-1950,” Journal of Asian Studies 61, no. 1 (2003): 71-99.   

Hyunjoon, Shin and Ho Tung‐hung. “Translation of ‘America’ during the early Cold War period: a comparative study on the history of popular music in South Korea and Taiwan”, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 10, no. 1 (2009): 83-102.    

Hyunjoon, Shin and Sŭng-a Yi. Made in Korea: Studies in Popular Music. Abingdon: Routledge, 2017.   

Park, Hye-jung. “From World War to Cold War: Music in US-Korea Relations, 1941-1960.” PhD Diss. Ohio State University, 2019.    

Son, Min-Jung. “An Odyssey for Korean Rock: From Subversive to Patriotic.” Asian Music 43, no. 2 (2012): 47-70.    

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