KCON LA: K-pop expands, and takes other K-goods along for the ride

G-Dragon, current King of K-pop, lays on your lap and flashes you that boyish grin of his before leaning in for a kiss on the cheek – wait, is this real life?

Well, kind of – it was a part of a Virtual Reality experience showcase inside KCON Los Angeles this weekend, one of many rewards for those patient enough to brave the long lines that formed behind the three-day convention’s plethora of activities, from fan meet-and-greets to panel discussions, dance contests and workshops.

From 10,000 to 40,000 in 2012 to 2014, and from 40,000 to 75,000 from 2014 to 2015: These are the fast-rising attendance numbers for the K-pop convention, which has evolved from a Hallyu market test to a cultural fixture in four short years, and which as of last year expanded to conventions in New York, Tokyo, Paris and Abu Dhabi from its roots in Southern California.

This year’s event, which was expected to draw another 70-plus thousand, gathered stars, fans and vendors to the Los Angeles Convention Center and Staples Center for the country’s largest exploration of Korean pop culture and its ever-growing exports, from beauty products to technology and food.

KCON LA 2016 featured a Beauty Block showcasing Korean-brand makeup booths. (Tae Hong/Kore Asian Media)

And while the promise of live performances by fans’ favorite musical acts (those would be boy bands like Block B, BTS, ASTRO, Monsta X and SHINee, girl groups Girlfriend, I.O.I., Twice and Girls’ Generation’s TTS, and solo artists Dean, Eric Nam and Amber of f(x)) still act as the main lure, the convention has seen an increasing shift toward the promotion of K-culture and goods.

One convention-goer, Ai-Lin Sui, called the genre “a gateway drug” into Korean products. “In my everyday life, I’m pretty frugal, but when it comes to K-pop, I’m just like, ‘Here’s all my money,’” Sui said. “With K-goods, I end up buying a lot of Korean beauty products and a lot of Korean food because of K-dramas. Any time I see some cool new thing [in a drama], I really want to try it.”

Sui said she sees the effort South Korea puts into pushing its creative content to a wider audience. “Korea has done a really good job of marketing globally and really getting themselves out there, and I think that’s really great,” she said. “It’s really easy for people to jump in and get really into it.”

Now the country looks to introduce other kinds of goods – technology, science, lifestyle, health – to an American audience through the phenomenon that is K-pop. One of the event’s most ambitious set-ups this year was Creative Korea Roadshow, which brought in 91 Korea-based start-ups and their creations to display and demonstrate to attendees and potential business partners.

In 2013, South Korean president Park Geun-hye’s administration announced it would throw money and support behind “creative economy,” which in part focuses on capitalizing on the country’s pop culture explosion through innovation and the fusion of culture with industry.

Korea National Research Council of Science & Technology’s Kim Tae-soo, pictured with the robot iJini, represented 25 technology companies at KCON LA 2016’s Creative Korea Roadshow. (Tae Hong/Kore Asian Media)

The Roadshow was hosted by South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, its Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning, and its Small and Medium Business Administration. “We wanted to connect K-pop to the consumption of the rest of Korean culture, so that’s why we’re here at KCON,” said Hyun-ji Yang, a representative of the initiative. “We want other Korean content to grow alongside K-pop, which is already known to so many in America.”

The aforementioned VR showcase was one of the Roadshow’s exhibitions. “We were worried that no one would be interested in non-K-pop goods, but what we’ve seen is a lot of people going to our booths and trying out these products, and experiencing our technologies like the VR showcase,” Yang said. “Through this convention, we’ve been encouraged to show more of what Korean businesses have to offer.”

The event’s breadth of home-grown merchandise grew this year, too, with art vendors being invited to participate for the first time.

For promoters like Powerhouse, a marketing and PR company that helps bring K-pop acts to American venues, KCON is as useful a tool as any. It set up a booth for the second year in a row, this time selling merchandise and getting the word out about a coming Korean rap concert. “So many people come here from such different places, with a variety of experiences and interests, so this is a great place to be,” said Amy Hah, booth manager. “They kind of, in a sense, make KCON what it is.”

Angela Barandino, a local and repeat convention attendee, said she began listening to K-pop about five years ago. (Tae Hong/Kore Asian Media)

That they do – and fan enthusiasm remains at the heart of the convention. Dimilana Koleva, 16, flew from Bulgaria to see her favorite group, SHINee, perform live. She said she previously attended the event in 2014. “It’s impressive. I thought it was so big back then, but now it’s gotten so much bigger,” she said. Until last year, the convention was held at a smaller venue, the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena. “I first got into Korean culture, then Korean music. And now I want to study in Korea.”

Another repeat convention attendee, Los Angeles local Angela Barandino, said she has been a fan of K-pop for five years. “It’s so great that [KCON] brings Korea to us,” she said. “It makes us feel like we can know more about the culture, and you get to share you love with the people around you. You like K-dramas? I like K-dramas. You like (SHINee member) Taemin? I like Taemin!”

SHINee at KCON 2016 red carpet (Kore Asian Media)
SHINee at KCON LA 2016 (Ami Park/Kore Asian Media)

I.O.I. at KCON LA 2016 red carpet (Ami Park/Kore Asian Media)

Actor Lee Min-ho at KCON LA 2016 red carpet (Ami Park/Kore Asian Media)

Barandino is another fan for whom K-pop has acted as a “gateway” of sorts. “I watch a lot of Korean variety, and I even like mukbang (people eating food on camera, a popular Korean trend),” she said. “Through K-pop, I’ve expanded, because why stick with one thing when the entire culture interests you a lot?”

Shin Hyung-kwan, KCON organizer CJ E&M executive vice president and head of Mnet, said at a press conference that Hallyu as it is today in the U.S. was unimaginable even 10 years ago.

“For a long time, people in America associated South Korea with the Korean War,” Shin said. “Things are different now because of K-pop and K-dramas, with more people gaining interest in Korean language and Korean customs. One of our goals with KCON is to see that, in the future, they think of Korea and want to dress like Koreans, and to live like Koreans.”