Korean pop group BTS (방탄소년단) made history on November 3rd when their song “Life Goes On” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 songs chart. “Life Goes On” is the first song sung predominantly in a foreign language to debut at No. 1 in the chart’s 62-year history, and only the third foreign-language song that has topped the chart since 1996. The group’s accomplishments span beyond the Hot 100 — BTS earned a ‘Billboard All-Kill’, reaching No. 1 on all major Billboard charts, with their new album Be simultaneously debuting at the top of the Billboard 200.
Their record-breaking week is one of many achievements in the group’s storied foray into the American market. BTS recently became the first K-pop act to receive a Grammy nomination, and is currently in contention for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance at the 63rd Grammy Awards. If the band wins the award, it will become the first South Korean artist to win at all three major US music award shows, following a string of victories at the American Music Awards and Billboard Music Awards.
Thanks to the band’s unprecedented success, BTS plays a key role in boosting cross-cultural exchange between the United States and ROK. The group has capitalized on its popularity to promote Korean culture, serving as ambassadors for tourism to Seoul, and launching the ‘Learn Korean with BTS’ initiative earlier this year. Their efforts have reaped significant dividends. The Korea Foundation’s 2019 Hallyu White Paper notes that BTS singlehandedly drove substantial amounts of tourism to the country. The white paper cites a report by the Hyundai Research Institute, which found that a 1% increase in recognition for BTS is correlated with 0.45% growth in foreign tourism. Many of these visitors are US citizens; the United States is the fourth-largest source of tourism to South Korea, with the number of American visitors exceeding one million for the first time in 2019.
The group’s contributions to US-Korea relations have not gone unrecognized. This year, the Korea Society awarded them the Van Fleet Award in honor of their impact on cultural ties. US Ambassador to South Korea, Harry Harris, and State Department Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus both tweeted to acknowledge BTS’s support for bilateral relations.
On the other side, South Korea responded to the group’s accomplishments by amending a longstanding law regarding military conscription. Notable K-pop artists are now able to defer enlistment by two years, until age 30. The law passed on December 2nd—just two days before BTS’s eldest member, Kim Seok-jin, would have been required to enlist.
BTS’s success is buoyed by hallyu, or the ‘Korean wave’ of rising interest in South Korean culture. Along with fellow acts such as BLACKPINK and Girls’ Generation, popular K-dramas, and Academy Award-winning film Parasite, the group is bringing South Korea’s soft power to new heights. In fact, hallyu is so influential that the Foreign Ministry-affiliated Korea Foundation deemed it a critical asset of the country’s public diplomacy.
Nonetheless, it is impossible to overstate BTS’s impact. Their record-setting Billboard achievements prove that music can transcend language barriers. The group’s universal messages of hope, humanity, and love resonate deeply with the US-ROK relationship, which continues to grow through cultural and economic ties. Meanwhile, BTS will continue paving the way for the hallyu wave.
Michelle Huang is a Research Intern with the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a final-year undergraduate studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at the University of Oxford.