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Opinion – Why BTS leader RM’s thoughts on colonialism are so important

‘In the West, people just don’t get it’, Kim Nam-Joon, leader of world’s biggest music group, BTS, exclaims when asked if the cult of perfection and over-achievement are Korean cultural traits. Here’s our attempt at an explanation.

‘Korea is a country that has been invaded, razed to the ground, torn in two. Just 70 years ago, there was nothing. We were getting aid from the IMF and the UN. But now, the whole world is looking at Korea. How is that possible? How did that happen? Well, because people try so fucking hard to better themselves.’

RM’s powerful answer comes to a question posed by a reporter for a recent interview of the rapper, producer, and artist, on behalf of the Spanish newspaper, El País.

Not backing down on calling out the repercussions of colonialism, the 29-year-old continues, ‘You are in France or the UK, countries that have been colonizing others for centuries, and you come to me with, ‘oh God, you put so much pressure on yourselves; life in Korea is so stressful!’ Well, yes. That’s how you get things done.’

‘And it’s part of what makes K-pop so appealing, although, of course, there’s a dark side. Anything that happens too fast and too intensely has side effects.’

The whole interview and these parts, in particular, have made rounds across the world, not only inside the boundaries of K-Pop fandoms and stan Twitter but also to a much wider audience.

Many, especially from the nations mentioned as colonizers in the reply, have offered alternative views. Others meanwhile, including the author of ‘Pachinko’, Min Jin Lee, have shown their praise for RM’s impassioned answer.

Nam Joon’s response rings true to a larger stratum of people for the bitter truth it carries: the aftermaths of colonialism and why acknowledging it even today after years is so important.

Being from a country like India whose tryst with British colonialism lasted for more than 400 years and only ended mere 75 years ago, the horrors of colonialism remain and it is clear that we suffer from it.

From anglicized education to a work culture where the West demands a kind of perfection that we must achieve, from colonial law structures to social mindsets like queerphobia, there are wide-reaching consequences that any colonized nation bears for hundreds of years since independence.

Nam-Joon’s answer resounds with people who know how detrimental being placed under the colonial thumb was for South Korea, from the brutal era of Japanese colonization to being separated into two, from being ruled under a heinous period of dictatorship to being forced into becoming a puppet state for America and the West to have a foothold in the region.

Nam-Joon’s courage to answer in such a way is also commendable as it touched upon something even western musicians fear to speak about, especially considering how Korean artists still navigate the industry under the ‘label company and employee’ relationship, contrary to the artistic freedom western artists have.

This finds its roots inside BTS’s discography, where the line between personal and political is often blurred.

To catch up with the level of western-imposed perfectionism that our colonizers now relish in, thanks to the centuries of time and coerced wealth that was available to them to build on it, work culture in prior colonized nations still navigate around hustle, midnight oil burning, moonlighting, unpaid internships, and rush hours.

Looking at how the media and general public see this, it is funny how parts of the West still has undeniable arrogance to look down on nations that are working through the destruction caused by their actions just decades ago.

When the work culture of colonized nations is criticized or scrutinized, like how the West looks at Asian parents and schools being very strict on the education of their kids and declaring it bad without understanding the nuance behind it, it reeks of supremacy.

The definition of ‘work culture’ is still based on Western and Euro-centric traits and ideologies without the say of other nations and identities on whom it was enforced, much like how the controversial BMI was created. Take a ‘perfect’ White male and describe the world through their lens.

When Nam-Joon’s answer to the risqué question was scrutinized, it was evident that there is still a gap in understanding of how the bones of colonization do not rot easily.

It is wrong to criticize the K-Pop work culture – which includes very long work hours, often for idols in their teens, preparing for content to be pushed out very frequently and less space for vacations or breaks – without understanding the cultural, social, and historical context behind it.

Much of the criticism for RM is tone deaf because the West too at one point pushed for ‘perfection.’ To call other systems of work ‘outdated’ fails to acknowledge that many had to stop running so western nations could run.

In essence, some are only now picking up the pace and making up for lost time while overcoming traumas of the past.