Ju Oak (Jade) Kim ’09
Ju Oak (Jade) Kim ’09 was a few years out of her M.F.A. in television production and working on her Ph.D. in mass media at Temple University when she came upon a YouTube video of a high school athletic game in San Francisco. The South Korean native can’t remember if it was volleyball or basketball, but she says she will never forget seeing a screaming throng of American students when the song “Wedding Dress,” by K-pop singer Taeyang, came on over the loudspeaker at the event.
“It was visually shocking to see so many American students reacting so passionately to that song,” she says. “That they were finding this connection to Asian culture.”
It was one moment among many that would give shape to her thesis, and ultimately her career, on the Korean wave that has boosted the nation’s cultural exports to a global phenomenon.
Then, Kim specifically looked at how music programs on Korean television became the center of the movement to expand K-pop. She has gone on to probe the industry more broadly now as an assistant professor of communication at Texas A&M International University, where she specializes in global media industries, production studies, and East Asian media culture and practice. She is currently working on a book—an expansion of her Ph.D. thesis—that explores the production culture of Korean television and pop industries at the heart of the explosion.
Recently, she was highlighted as an up-and-coming scholar on Korea when she was selected by the Center for Strategic and International Studies Korea Chair for their 2020–21 U.S.-Korean NextGen Scholars Program. The initiative is also sponsored by the University of Southern California’s Korean Studies Institute and is aimed at helping to mentor a new wave of Korea specialists in the United States.
Kim started out working in South Korea, where she received a bachelor’s and master’s degree at Seoul National University. In between those degrees, she served as the writer of the award-winning Korean Broadcasting System documentary series China, about the history of porcelain, which was intended to be sold in foreign markets. It was while working on that project that she first came to understand the potential of Korean productions.
“That was, for me, enlightening,” she says. “Our country was so small, but some Korean television journalists became a huge sensation in China because of it. That’s when I started to see the possibilities for the industry.”
Realizing that if she might want a future in this burgeoning business, Kim decided she should study in America.
“The U.S. is the standard of the global market,” she says. “New York is the standard for the global media market. I wanted to be exposed to the real thing.”
At that time, she wasn’t necessarily planning on staying, but after completing her M.F.A. and then going on to the Ph.D. program, she kept watching K-pop blow up in America.
“Now K-pop has really become the national brand,” she says.
In fact, the Korean government had begun investing heavily in the arts and culture, funding hundreds of culture industry departments at colleges and universities and investing in start-ups, among other initiatives. At the same time, explains Kim, social media and other digital platforms were starting to explode, giving Korean stars greater access to more global markets.
On the back of that phenomenon, Kim settled into academia and realized she had found her niche there.
She just published an article about BTS, the seven-member K-pop sensation that has taken the genre to new heights, in which she argues that they are the counter-culture fueled by the network society we live in, which has all kinds of repercussion for cultural exportation throughout the rest of the world.
“K-pop and these global media platforms like YouTube and Spotify are democratizing the production and consumption of pop music,” she says. “It’s breaking down language barriers and opening minds. It’s a fascinating thing to see.”