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K-pop for the planet: Fans of South Korean stars take up climate activism

Fans of the mega-band BTS (pictured), known as ARMY, have planted tens of thousands of trees in recent years, from South Korea to the Philippines in the name of their celebrities. Screengrab of BTS’s music video “Idol”

From petitioning to save forests to raising cash for disaster victims, a growing army of K-pop fans worldwide has emerged as the latest force in the global fight against climate change. 

Young and tech-savvy, K-pop lovers have used their social media power to take up political causes, including mobilizing funds for the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States last year and supporting Thailand’s pro-democracy protests. 

But the group is now increasingly vocal on climate change, shining a youth spotlight on environmental issues that get relatively little attention in some parts of the world. 

“K-pop fans are mostly millennials and from the Gen-Z generation—we want to fight for our future,” said Indonesian student Nurul Sarifah, 21, who set up the Kpop4Planet movement in mid-January. 

Using social media, it aims to become a platform for like-minded K-pop fans around the world to discuss and raise awareness on climate-change issues affecting their home cities, said Ms. Sarifah, a fan of top South Korean boyband EXO. 

“Every day we are experiencing these effects: pollution, heatwaves, floods, wildfires. We can change this by doing good, just like how our idols did, so we can enjoy K-pop on a liveable planet,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone. 

The movement is just one of the latest campaigns by K-pop fans seeking to make a difference for nature and the climate. 

As K-pop became a global phenomenon in the last two decades, the philanthropic efforts of its South Korean stars—from donating to orphanages to planting trees—have pushed fans to adopt similar approaches to social and environmental problems. 

Climate change has become an increasingly important issue and was highlighted in December when K-pop global sensation Blackpink released a video to raise awareness ahead of the UN climate summit, Conference of the Parties (COP) 26, due to take place in Glasgow in November. 

In it, the girl band told their nearly 60 million subscribers on YouTube it was not too late to act on climate change and urged their fans, known as BLINKs, to learn more. 

The COP26 talks are widely viewed as a make-or-break moment for the 2015 Paris Agreement, with governments under pressure to submit stronger climate action plans to limit global warming to “well below” 2°C above pre-industrial times. 

Fans of the mega-band BTS, known as ARMY, meanwhile have planted tens of thousands of trees in recent years, from South Korea to the Philippines in the name of their celebrities. 

They also raised funds for flood-hit communities in the Indian state of Assam last year. 

“K-pop fandom does great things beyond borders and generations,” said South Korean activist Kim Na-yeon, 15, from campaign group Youth 4 Climate Action, which last year sued the Korean government for being slow to tackle climate change. 

Awareness is low in South Korea, she said, adding that she connects with other fans through their shared love for K-pop and taps into the network to advocate for climate action. 

“As I have been a K-pop fan for a long time, I know how people are gathering and moving online, so I am using my skills for our campaign,” said Ms. Kim, a fan of boyband NCT Dream. 

The diverse backgrounds of K-pop followers—from North America to Asia—are seen as key to engaging fans in deeper discussions on a range of contemporary issues. 

“K-pop fans are generally open-minded and outward-facing in their approach to the world. If they weren’t, they’d listen to music from their own country in their own local language,” said CedarBough Saeji, an academic who studies K-pop fan culture. 

“It shouldn’t be surprising that they also share their views on their own local political, social, and environmental issues,” added the assistant professor in East Asian languages and cultures at Indiana University Bloomington in the United States. 

John Lie, a sociology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who authored a book about K-pop, said the phenomenon was driven by fans seeking to show the genre is “not mere mindless entertainment” and is “rare in idol music.” 

In Indonesia, K-pop fans mobilized quickly to raise nearly $100,000 in January for those affected by floods in South Kalimantan and a powerful earthquake on Sulawesi island that killed about 80 people and displaced more than 30,000. 

With climate change expected to fuel extreme weather disasters including in Indonesia, a sprawling archipelago of 270 million, Arendeelle, a K-pop fan who helped initiate the recent fundraising effort, said she was prepared to do more. 

“We care about the environment. We are inspired by our idols who have shown us their utmost concerns about society,” said Arendeelle, who goes by one name and is a coordinator of ELF Indonesia, the local fan club of K-pop group Super Junior. 

Indonesian K-pop fans last year also helped boost an online campaign to highlight rapid deforestation in Papua, by sharing the #SavePapuanForest hashtag on social media and making it a trending topic on Twitter. 

Such momentum is what Ms. Sarifah of Kpop4Planet seeks to spur in her push for more debate on climate change and its impacts. 

“Deforestation is one of the reasons why these natural disasters happen,” she said. “It is relatable to all of us.” 

Ms. Sarifah said she hoped EXO and other K-pop stars would lend their support to her green campaign. 

“The K-pop fan movement is big and if our idols also help (on climate justice), it will become even bigger,” she added. — Beh Lih Yi/Thomson Reuters Foundation

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