With tensions rising over North Korea’s nuclear program, you might expect panic in South Korea — air raid drills or schoolchildren climbing under their desks, Cold-War-style.
But I found an altogether different scene in the capital, Seoul, when I arrived last week: parade floats and pop music.
Ahead of Tuesday’s presidential election, dancers have been riding around on huge parade floats, belting out Korean pop songs, with lyrics changed to support one candidate or another. They wear their candidate’s signature color, with matching hats, umbrellas and even clown wigs and fake animal ears. There are signature dance moves to go with the songs, and even YouTube videos to help voters learn them.
The campaigns have altered the lyrics to popular Korean songs — K-pop, as it’s known globally — to mention the candidates. The K-pop song “Cheer Up,” by the girl band Twice, is now an anthem for the front-runner Moon Jae-in — a 64-year-old lawyer in a gray suit who may be the antithesis of a K-pop star.
“I changed the lyrics to mention political issues of interest to youth, and also older people,” says Jeong Min-hong, 27, fresh from the South Korean army and volunteering for Moon’s campaign. Jeong is unemployed and considering going back to school.
“About North Korea, the provocations are so frequent that people have grown numb to it,” he says. “Youth unemployment is a bigger issue for me and my peers.”
During this election season, morning commutes mean ducking past rival campaign floats blasting K-pop at one another.
“It’s part of Korean culture and community spirit,” says commuter Hong Young-rae. At 60, even he knows most of these teen beat songs, though he says he’s able to tune them out when he needs to.
Easy for him to say. Covering an election in South Korea has given me a pretty acute case of earworm.
Come Wednesday, this country will have a new president. But the streets of Seoul may seem eerily quiet.