South Korea’s punk scene and the rest of the country
In October 2014 I had the opportunity to check out the South Korean punk and indie scene. How and why I got there, you can read later in another article.
The first big surprise was how much the Koreans can drink. And I’m from Germany. In the same time I put away a bottle of beer (5-6%) the others tossed down a bottle of soju (20 %). But the second big surprise helped with the first: after the shows the bands and their audience went eating (and drinking) together instead of (just) drinking in a bar. That was quite nice. Jeff Moses, an American who works in Seoul as an English Teacher, told me that they once tried the “western way” and met in a bar after the show, but everybody kept complaining and asking for food, so they never did that again.
After telling that my people at home the first question was “how big was the restaurant that all the people could fit in”? Okay, first of all, not really all of the people came, but it also says a lot about the size of the Korean punk scene. These days it’s obviously difficult to draw more than 30 people to a punk show, even on a weekend. Of course that can happen in Europe as well, but it also happens in Korea with popular Korean bands playing. That’s sad, because the quality of the bands is usually quite high (the Korean work ethics obviously also reach the punk scene).
The scene is really small and was threatened with extinction from the beginning, but like everywhere there are people who believe in what they are doing and keep the scene alive. I met a bunch of those people at a two-days-fest in the Club Spot, a punk venue in the trendy district Hongdae. Club Spot opened in 2007 and unfortunately had to close at the end of 2014 again. Korean and American members and friends of bands like Rux, …Whatever that means, Skasucks or Combative Post organize punk shows and refuse the Korean mainstream and conformity.
Hats off to them, as it’s not easy to be (and stay) a punk rocker in South Korea.
Punk rock music has a much shorter history there and also never was a real movement like in Western countries.
Michael Berry wrote about the history of Korean rock music: „It hasn’t been easy establishing a singular starting point for the Korean indie rock scene; there have always been bands in Korea’s modern (post-Korean War) history that have tried to do things their own way, whether in the more popular styles like trot and early 60’s rock & roll, through the repression of the 1970s when government repression seriously censored anything not „approved“; the folk and „ballad“ sounds of the 1980s; and the beginnings of the real „rock“ sounds of the 1990s, including hard rock, early punk (with great venues like the late Skunk Hell – R.I.P.), hiphop/rap, dance, and metal. If the indie of today had a genesis, it would have been the 1990s, and the last 15 years or so have seen an eruption of rock styles that could all be labelled „indie“!“ – 10 Magazine
Under the military regimes there wasn’t much music from outside. In the 1990s the young people were introduced to several decades and genres of music at once. Rock’n’roll, blues, punk rock, heavy metal and hip-hop all came at the same time. Perhaps this is why many bands mix a lot of different styles, what feels sometimes unfamiliar (to me) but is also exciting.
Because there was no „natural development“ or punk movement, many Korean punks adopted the punk attitude and music without the associated background. In western countries punk means to live a different lifestyle and many people dedicate their whole lives to the subculture. Going to punk rock shows or playing in a band is only one part of it.
The oldest punks you’ll find in Korea are around 40 and the „movement“ reached its peak only about 15 years ago. Bands like Crying Nut or No Brain were amongst the first punk rock bands. They called their style “Joseon Punk”, which means that they play punk in a Korean way and not just copy their idols. Punk rock was quite popular for a short time, and then the small scene divided into even smaller scenes, what obviously cannot work. In the end there were more bands and clubs than people who came to the shows.
Most Korean bands also don’t have the possibility to tour (in Korea or elsewhere), because it’s not easy to get enough time off from the job. It’s anyway hard to find enough energy for having a punk rock band as working hours in South Korea are much higher than in other industrial countries.
Most young Koreans prefer to go with the flow with listening to K-Pop or go to Karaoke bars, just because that’s what all the others do. Again, that is not fundamentally different than in Europe for example, only there’s a much bigger subculture and many more people who oppose the mainstream. The tendency to conformity isn’t exactly a fertile ground for a punk rock movement. Individualism is not generally valued like in western societies (not that people valued punk rock in its beginnings…), a result of Korea’s convulsed 20th century history.
After the Japanese colonization, the division of the peninsula into north and south occupation zones and the Korean War, the new South Korean government pushed rapid industrialization and tried to eliminate any real or perceived disturbance against the goal of nation-building. Uniformity was the key, protecting Korean national identity became an obsession.
Indeed South Korea is still one of the world’s most ethnically homogeneous countries, what even leads to more collectivism. There is a high pressure to achieve certain standards, which also extends to the external appearance. The pressure to conform to the national beauty standard seems to be far more intense than in western countries. South Korea has the highest cosmetic surgery stats in the world; it’s for example not uncommon for people to get plastic surgery in preparation for a job interview. I guess, you have to be much stronger in Korea to withstand the common believes and norms.
Another problem for the punk scene is the mandatory military service, many bands disappear for two years from the scene and perhaps never start again after the service is over.
Obviously all that pressure affects the people, but psychological illnesses like depressions are ignored and taken for weakness by others, what makes it understandable that the country’s suicide rates are among the world’s highest. The chance to escape the pressure together with like-minded people makes the punk rockers feel even more like home in their scene, same in Korea like everywhere else.
Considering all this I can understand why the Korean punk scene is so small, on the other hand I think therefore it should be massive.
– Mary –
Korean punk and hardcore
Facebook page, weekly information about concert listings.
Korean punk and hardcore
Our Nation: A Korean Punk Rock Community
Documentary about the Korean punk scene from Stephen Epstein and Timothy R. Tangherlini.
Our Nation: A Korean Punk Rock Community
Blog from „Broke In Korea“ punk magazine creator and scene photographer Jon Dunbar.