On #BTSDontGo and Capitalism Versus Economic Nationalism

12 September 2019 ☼ K-popArtist:BTSCommentary

I’m not enough of a BTS fan—or in possession of enough free time—to want to spend much time circulating hashtags related to the group, but #BTSDontGo is embedded enough in a larger issue to warrant an exception.

To sum up: BTS is currently scheduled to play a concert in Saudi Arabia in early October, after their current break from activities, and some ARMYs are objecting on the grounds that by doing so BTS is essentially endorsing the Saudi Arabian government’s recent dismal human-rights record–and that of all groups, the group that prides itself on having addressed the United Nations and promoted messages of nonviolence ought to have their feet held to the fire on this case.

The Twitter user AustralianSana, who’s been arguing the #BTSDontGo case vigorously on Twitter, recently explained in further detail in a recorded conversation with Kpopalypse. (She also linked to this very good overview of the issues on Seoulbeats.) I apologize for not listening to the entire conversation–I skipped around a bit–so it may be that the point I’m about to raise got addressed and I just missed it.

To be clear: I support #BTSDontGo. At this point BDS has left me sort of reflexively skeptical about boycotts, but I think it’s perfectly fair to point out the discrepancy between the group’s brand and the use of torture and detention of political prisoners in Saudi Arabia. (And since you asked: no,  I’m not happy that Ninety One apparently performed in Xinjiang a second time earlier this year. I don’t have a lot of information about that concert, but I’m not sure how their going didn’t play into Chinese claims that Uighurs and Chinese Kazakhs aren’t being detained en masse.)

My one point is about the question of why BTS is performing in Saudi Arabia, and whether #BTSDontGo will make a difference–since if I’m right, it won’t. Kpopalypse and AustralianSana spend a couple minutes talking about this, and both of them seem to lean towards Big Hit having been given a boatload of money by the Saudi Arabian government. It’s just capitalism,” AustralianSana sighs a couple times. I don’t think it is, though. I think money is at the heart of this, but not necessarily Big Hit’s or BTSs money.

To make some general background points:

Given all that, here’s my hypothetical: if BTS were to agree with #BTSDontGo and cancel the concert, MBSs government would not regard this as a BTS decision, or a Big Hit decision, but a slap in the face from South Korea, their growing trading buddy, and get accordingly miffed.

Let’s further imagine that South Korean government officials can imagine this too. They’re already managing bad economic news as it is. They’re in the middle of a growing trade war with Japan. Exports are down to China, and China has shown its willingness to punish South Korea economically for what China considers overreach. The United States is increasingly erratic and tariff-happy, and US-Korean trade relations were not entirely smooth even under the Obama administration. And now here’s this one bright spot on the trade horizon; you think they’re going to let some boy band express some human-rights-inspired queasiness and mess it up?

If (if) I’m right, then the problem isn’t how much money Saudi Arabia is or isn’t paying Big Hit. It could even be that Saudi Arabia isn’t paying Big Hit beyond the costs of the concert and accommodations. What’s at stake wouldn’t be the direct payment, but Korean-Saudi relations, and in turn Big Hit’s relationship with the Korean government. If Big Hit employees or the members of BTS themselves did privately protest the concert, their concerns could either be outright overruled or met with appeals to their patriotism.

You could counterargue that BTS is at this point big enough that Big Hit can and should take the risk. Again: that’s a fair argument. And it’s also fair to try and raise the costs of performing in Saudi Arabia by publicly criticizing the group. I personally don’t know how informal pressure works in South Korean business/government relations. I don’t know who might tell Bang Si-hyuk what he can and can’t commit to, and what the penalties would be if Bang doesn’t comply (and they may well be to Bang personally, not Big Hit or BTS), and whether such conversations take place. I just find them very easy to imagine, given what we do know.

So here’s my final point: if (again, if) I’m right, then capitalism isn’t the problem. If anything, more capitalism would help! If Big Hit were free to simply be greedy capitalists, then it could weigh the costs of doing business in Saudi Arabia against the potential benefits and plan accordingly. They might not still choose to cancel, but at least there would be a chance for #BTSDontGo to raise the costs enough to influence the proceedings. But if economic nationalism is driving the decision, then all the tweeting in the world isn’t going to make a dent. Having made its fortune in a state-driven industry, financed largely as a political PR move, Big Hit may simply not be in a position to make decisions independent of state input.

I know BTS are nationalist pawns” isn’t any more appealing a narrative than BTS are company pawns.” And, like I said, I could be wrong, and it could be that Big Hit is driving this train. I’d just be more confident in criticizing Big Hit, and more hopeful about changing the situation, if its relationship to its central government were more like that of an American firm.

Edited to add: after I originally posted this, AustralianSana responded on Twitter that her definition of capitalism” included the state-sponsored type on display here, and I apologized in return; I had assumed that her anti-capitalist sympathies were the more common style of greater state intervention, whereas on Twitter she seemed to agree with my stating that state funds were a poisoned chalice. Unfortunately, since then her Twitter account has been suspended and I’ve abandoned mine, so there’s not a good record of our back-and-forth, but do keep in mind that the assumptions I was working on when I wrote the piece specifically with regards to her point of view weren’t quite right.