Parade Floats And Altered K-Pop Songs Mark South Korea's Coming Election

May 4, 2017
Originally published on May 5, 2017 6:53 am

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.

Jihye Lee contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Tensions may be rising over North Korea's nuclear program, but South Korea remains outwardly calm. A presidential election comes next week, and the scene in the capital, Seoul, includes parade floats and K-pop. NPR's Lauren Frayer is there.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Presidential election season in South Korea is when Korean pop songs like this one, "Cheer Up" by the girl band Twice...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHEER UP")

TWICE: (Singing in Korean).

FRAYER: ...Get turned into this.

UNIDENTIFIED MOON SUPPORTERS: (Singing in Korean).

FRAYER: Moon Jae-in, the name of the frontrunner in next week's election. Freelance film producer Lee Eun-ji, a volunteer on Moon's campaign...

LEE EUN-JI: (Speaking Korean).

FRAYER: ...Explains how they've changed the words to insert their candidate's name. Each campaign has its own set of songs drawn from what the world knows as K-pop.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Korean).

FRAYER: For weeks, dancers have been riding around the South Korean capital, Seoul, on huge parade floats, belting out K-pop in favor of one candidate or another. They wear their candidate's signature color with matching hats, umbrellas, even clown wigs and fake animal ears.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Korean).

FRAYER: So just in case you thought South Korean youth were cowering under their desks Cold-War style because of the nuclear threat from North Korea, meet volunteer K-pop dancer and lyricist Jeong Min-hong, fresh from the South Korean army, a people's soldier, he says.

JEONG MIN-HONG: I am a people's soldier. Army - army, yeah Korean army, and now no job.

FRAYER: No job.

JEONG: (Speaking Korean).

FRAYER: "Never mind North Korea's provocations," he says. Youth unemployment is his generation's issue in this election. And he wrote it into the Moon campaign's alternate K-pop lyrics, along with care for the elderly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Korean).

FRAYER: Morning commutes during election season here mean ducking past rival campaign floats blasting K-pop at one another.

HONG YOUNG-RAE: (Speaking Korean).

FRAYER: It's part of Korean culture and community spirit, says 60-year-old Hong Young-rae. 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Korean).

FRAYER: Covering an election in South Korea has given this visitor a pretty acute case of ear worm. Come Wednesday, this country will have a new president, and the streets of Seoul may seem eerily quiet.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GANGNAM STYLE")

PSY: (Singing in Korean).

FRAYER: Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GANGNAM STYLE")

PSY: (Singing in Korean). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.