Not long ago, a Chinese man who lives in Dubai told me about a survey conducted by Zayed University to determine what foreign language young people in the United Arab Emirates were most eager to study. “Can you guess which language came first?” he asked. When I supplied the correct answer without hesitation, he was dumbfounded: “How did you know it was Korean?”
In truth, it is becoming increasingly difficult to overlook the astonishing global potency of Korean culture. In the United States, the rise to prominence of the boyband BTS, also known as the Bangtan Boys, which in May became the first Asian group to top the Billboard chart, has catapulted “K-pop” into the spotlight. But the allure of South Korea also extends to seemingly less likely audiences in countries with little tradition of engagement with East Asia—including, most intriguingly, in the Arab world.
I first noticed the attractiveness of Korean culture when I taught at a Moroccan university in 2013. My students often came to my office eager to discuss their dreams of studying abroad. The United States and France were invariably their preferred destinations, but South Korea was the surprising third choice. In many cases, I soon learned, their interest sprang from the Korean television series they were watching in their dorms.
Devotees of Korean culture are a small minority among the overall population of Morocco. As a former French protectorate, it doesn’t lack for exposure to foreign culture, but Korean music and television competes with more entrenched entertainment from Europe and the United States. Even so, Korean media appeals to a growing segment of ardent fans. Moroccans interested in Korea hail from all regions of the country, but the average fan fits a reliable profile: urbane, educated, young, proficient in English—and female.
In Morocco, as elsewhere, Korean fandom is a creature of the internet, which makes it possible not only to watch foreign television shows and listen to foreign music, but also to connect with like-minded peers. As often as not, a young Moroccan’s first entrée into the world of Korean culture is YouTube. YouTube has even produced a Korean celebrity, Naelle Song, who caters to a Moroccan audience. Since she began posting videos about K-pop and Korean culture in July 2017, Song has accumulated 50,000 subscribers. Though she’s Korean, she spent her childhood variously in the United States, Canada, Morocco and Kenya. Speaking mainly in French, but mixing in some phrases of Moroccan colloquial Arabic, she holds forth each week about a different aspect of Korean culture.
When she posted a video in July saying she was planning to host an in-person meet-up in Casablanca or Rabat later in the year, the comments section filled up immediately with entreaties for her to visit Marrakech, Tangier, Oujda, Laayoune and dozens of other cities. But many of her young, mostly female subscribers would be unable to undertake an intercity journey to attend an event. The comments section also revealed how many of Song’s viewers would not be able to attend because they were not in Morocco at all—instead, they are part of the Moroccan diaspora in Europe. In the 21st century, a YouTube celebrity hoping to reach as wide an audience of Moroccans as possible would need to hold events in Paris and Amsterdam in addition to Casablanca and Rabat.
The internet has also enabled young Moroccans to form their own groups to share their love of Korean culture, without the direct participation of any Koreans. A case in point is the Moroccan fan club of BTS, which now goes by the name BTS Morocco.
The driving force behind BTS Morocco is a 23-year-old named Maha. She first stumbled across Korean music five years ago during an evening of aimless clicking around on YouTube. It was a video by the American YouTube celebrities the Fine Brothers, titled “Kids React to K-pop,” that piqued her interest. Immediately drawn to the “bubbly” style and sound of the Korean band Super Junior, Maha was an unlikely convert—by her own admission, her favorite genres at the time were hard rock and thrash metal—but K-pop exerted an irresistible pull.
As Maha’s appreciation for K-pop grew, she found that it was sometimes difficult to share her new passion with other Moroccans. The concept of a dedicated “fanbase” for a particular band, she says, is largely unknown in Morocco. Undeterred, Maha threw herself into evangelism. She tells the story of how, when she offered a ride in the midst of an unexpected rainstorm to a friend from college who listens only to rap, she put on the mixtape by the Korean rapper J-Hope. The friend, who had previously mocked Korean male artists for wearing makeup, was so impressed that he refused to believe the rapper was Korean. Sensing an opening, Maha began sending her friend links so he could discover more Korean music.
Elsewhere in the country, other young Moroccans were also finding that their friends regarded their passion for K-pop with skepticism. In Casablanca, a girl named Hiba showed up ebullient at her high school on the Monday morning after BTS won album-of-the-year honors at the November 2016 Melon Music Awards. That award was the first major grand prize (termed a “daesang”) for BTS, and it helped catapult the band to superstardom. Conversing between classes with her best friend, Hiba found herself unable to talk about anything other than BTS’s triumph, but her friend could only laugh, shaking her head in bewilderment and repeating the line, “You’re a really dedicated fan.”
Soon after the launch of BTS’s I Need You album in 2015, Maha became active in the BTS Morocco Facebook group. That experience proved a rough introduction, as she puts it, to “how hard it is to run a fanbase.” When the founders of the group left their roles, Maha soldiered on for a year as the solo impresario of an operation that included a Twitter account, a YouTube channel, and a Facebook page that provides a forum for more than 2,000 active members. In due course, she was joined first by Hiba, then by two other young Moroccans named Malika and Aya. Thanks to the considerable distances between Morocco’s main cities, several of the four administrators have never met one another in person. None of the four has ever set foot in South Korea.
In Maha’s retelling, the most significant boost to the profile of BTS Morocco came in late 2015, when the group partnered with a similar fan organization in Tunisia to mark the passage of 1,000 days since BTS’s official debut. The budding connection between BTS supporters in Morocco and Tunisia is a reminder not only that K-pop enjoys similar popularity in many Arab countries, but also of how easily cultural phenomena can cross borders. And the revelation that theirs was just one of a global network of fan clubs opened new doors for the Moroccans, who were awed by what they perceived as the “professionalism” of other fan clubs.
Maha, Hiba and the other proprietors of BTS Morocco talk often about the need for professionalism. As young women coming of age in a society that values business acumen, they view their roles running a BTS fan club as apt preparation for participating in the 21st-century economy. Malika, who studied graphic design in college, created the group’s official logo. Maha and Hiba arranged to bring Aya on board mainly so she could handle the task of translating information about the band from English into Arabic.
The administrators of BTS Morocco have designed their organization to function like a business. Since most K-pop fans in Morocco are in high school or college, many do not have access to credit cards. After a new album hits the shelves, BTS Morocco facilitates bulk orders from Korea, offering a way for fans to acquire the latest CD by sending cash through the domestic postal service. Even in a world of smartphones, the hyper-connected youth of Morocco’s upper middle class still need to work together to get their hands on physical albums by old-fashioned means.
This kind of grassroots ingenuity exists alongside more centralized efforts to promote Korean culture in Morocco. South Korea’s Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Foreign Affairs have poured resources into staging concerts around the world, on the assumption that raising K-pop’s profile also advances South Korea’s geostrategic interests. And while the Arab world has not been a major focus of such campaigns, the impact of Seoul’s outreach to the region has nevertheless been noteworthy. In fact, the largest annual Korean cultural event in Morocco, a K-pop singing and dancing competition, is part of a scheme directed from Seoul. The contest, held each summer in Rabat, is organized by local members of a group called the Moroccan Fans of Korea, but the event is a national-level qualifier for the K-pop World Festival, an annual extravaganza in South Korea sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
As K-pop’s popularity has enhanced South Korea’s prestige, other Asian countries have begun to envy its potential for influence. Chinese leaders, in particular, are well aware that their own country’s cultural output has failed to attract the same level of global devotion. After then-president Hu Jintao declared in 2007 that China should make a concerted effort to bolster its capacity to project “soft power,” Chinese pundits began looking for models for how to develop their country’s cultural appeal. South Korea was an obvious choice. By 2012, when “Gangnam Style” by the Korean rapper Psy became an international sensation, the Chinese state media was openly looking to South Korea as an example of how government support could help a country export its culture.
In Morocco, the Chinese government has tried to imitate South Korea’s successful blueprint. In April 2017, when the head of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee Propaganda Department visited Casablanca to sign a deal bringing Chinese content to one of Morocco’s main television channels, he announced that the first Chinese program to be dubbed into Moroccan Arabic would be a romantic drama titled “We Love You, Mr. Jin.” That show, which chronicles the lives of young lovers dealing with disapproving parents in contemporary Beijing, is exactly the sort of lighthearted fare about city life that has made Korean streaming services so popular.
It remains to be seen whether Chinese serials can match the popularity of their Korean counterparts, but it is easy to identify some inherent disadvantages that any Chinese effort at cultural promotion must overcome. Contrary to the judgment of Chinese state media, the Korean government’s support for popular culture is only part of the formula that has turned K-pop and Korean television into such a global phenomenon. The other part of the equation is free and uncensored access to the internet.
One need only remember how Maha, like so many other young Moroccans, had her first fateful encounter with Korean culture: by messing around on YouTube. And with YouTube languishing on the wrong side of the Great Firewall, prospects for the discovery of a Chinese Naelle Song seem distant.
Even though so much interaction between Moroccans and Koreans occurs online, Moroccan interest in Korean culture has led to direct, meaningful engagement. Since 2009, Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, the Moroccan university where I once taught, has signed agreements to start exchange programs with 10 different Korean universities. To date, 110 of their students—two thirds of them women—have spent a semester studying in Morocco.
Among those 110 was one of my students. I remember listening to her talk about her love for Korean television dramas and her interest in traveling to South Korea. The following year, when she first arrived in Seoul for an exchange program, she found that it was nothing like she had imagined. Her time in South Korea was, as she describes it, a “marvelous, eye-opening experience.” When her program ended, she took a leave of absence from the university, remained in Seoul, and spent another 10 months working odd jobs to support herself while she studied Korean. And when she finally returned home, she wrote her senior capstone paper about prospects for cultural cooperation between the Moroccan and South Korean governments.
Kyle Haddad-Fonda is a fellow with the Foreign Policy Association and an associate producer for the upcoming season of its PBS show Great Decisions. He has worked at universities in China and Morocco, and he is a frequent commentator on China’s relations with the Middle East. He holds a DPhil in Oriental Studies from the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar.