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South Korea: Pop Music Censorship Meets with Strong Opposition

South Korean society is buzzing with anger over the government’s ban on numerous popular songs. More than 2,600 songs have been banned in the past two years after being flagged for ‘hazardous media content’ by the South Korean Ministry of Gender Equality and Family.

Most singers had no options other than to accept the decision and adjust their lyrics to meet the government's standards. One entertainment agency, however, filed a lawsuit against the government that deemed its singer’s album as “inappropriate for youths” and won the case on August 24, 2011. The decision was widely welcomed by South Koreans who have expressed frustration over the government's regulation of their favorite songs.

“Inappropriate content”

Image of censorship. Created by user tefan-Xp, Wikipedia Commons (CC BY NC 3.0).

Image of censorship. Created by user tefan-Xp, Wikipedia Commons (CC BY NC 3.0).

When a song is blacklisted it is banned from being aired at certain times, and being sold to children aged below 19 years. This month, 24 songs have been banned as a result of their references to alcohol – 160 for this year alone.

Examples of the problematic lyrics identified by the Ministry have included: “Drunk on alcohol so that I don’t miss you” and “If you fall asleep drunk, you dream” (lyrics from the Ballad's album), and “After I drank lots of Soju [Korean liquor] yesterday” (rock band, Jang Kiha and Faces’ song).

After boy band B2st's lyrics “I must be drunk. I think I need to stop drinking” were banned, one member of the group tweeted [ko] “I may need to only sing children songs”.

Both South Korean musicians and the general public have strongly criticized the ban as a restriction on writers’ freedom of expression. The government has stressed that they need guidelines to protect young people from negative cultural influences.

Blogger Kwon Tae-woo points out [ko] that the banned song lyrics are nothing compared to other racy and violent media available online:

정말 한심하다. 인터넷 시대에 무슨 가사에 술이 들어 갔다고 노래를 금지시키나? 컴퓨터만 켜면 그보다 더한 내용과 장면들을 얼마든지 접할 수 있는 것을… 왜 아예 인터넷을 '19금’ 으로 하지? […] 겨우 가요가사나 심의하려고 1년에 2194억원(2011년 기준)의 예산을 쓴단 말인가?[…]노래 가사에 술이 들어가면 청소년들이 음주를 한다? 진정 대한민국 청소년들을 단순한 존재로 보고 있구만. 차라리 가출 청소년들에게나 신경을 써라!

This is pitiful. We are living in the internet era and they forbid songs due to their references to liquor? One can easily access to more hard-core stuff online… Why dont you just block the internet, deeming it inappropriate for kids below age 19. […] They spent about 21 billion 940 million Korean Won (approximately USD 200 million) of government money this year in censoring these songs! [This refers to the Ministry's yearly budget, not the total amount of money spent on the censorship alone] Will songs about liquor (exclusively) prompt kids to drink alcohol? The kids are not that simple. Why don't you, the Ministry, focus on taking care of runaway kids rather than doing this?

A Korean language instructor in Canada, Jin Choi (@dragoncj) tweeted [ko]:

술이란 단어가 들어가 유해물 판정을 내릴거면 그냥 술 생산과 판매를 중지해야지 왜 애먼 좋은 노래들만 잡나? 그거 들으면 애들이 취하나? 참 알 수없는 잣대와 논리로세.

[If the ministry were really serious about the underage drinking issues] They could just halt the overall liquor production and distribution (for kids), rather than cracking down on benign songs. Will kids get drunk just because they listened to those songs? Their logic and evaluation process is ridiculous.

Lack of guidelines

The Korean public have also blamed the Ministry's unclear standards and inconsistency in censoring music. While the aforementioned songs were categorized as “hazardous” due to references to drinking, Nam-jin’s “Empty Glass” and Lim Chang-jung's “A Glass of Soju”, whose major themes are alcohol, escaped the regulation [ko].

These inconsistencies prompted citizens to post complaints on the Ministry's website, to the extent that the homepage crashed for several hours on August 25, 2011, due to heavy traffic.

Numerous net users, mimicking how the Ministry place bans on cultural contents, have posted funny messages requesting it to ban random objects. Some examples read [ko]: “Ban ice creams, since the process of eating/licking it evokes a rather erotic image”, “Ban Apple (the electronics company), since its logo reminds people of a woman’s buttocks”, and “Ban USBs [ko], since sticking it into the computer reminds me of sexual intercourse.”

Choi Ji-wong, after detailing the appearance of alcohol in highly esteemed Korean literary works, requested [ko] the Ministry to treat pop songs as similar pieces of art:

[…]문학 작품 속에 등장하는 술입니다. 중고등학생들이 깊이있게 감상하는 작품들이지요. 묻겠습니다. ‘유해’합니까? 부탁합니다. 예술은 예술로 봐 주십시오.

[…] These are the appearances of alcohol in Korean literature. These literary works are being studied and thoroughly viewed by junior high and high school kids. I ask you: Are these ‘hazardous’? I beg you, please dont read any other things from the artistic work other than the art itself.

Kim Jin-joo, a female student wrote [ko] in a local youth community site:

이에 대해 청소년 보호 위윈회측은 문제 된 단어나 표현 하나만 바꾸면 되지 않느냐는 입장이다. 그러나 미묘한 느낌이 생명인 노래에서 단어 하나를 바꾼다는 것은 결코 쉬운 일이 아니다.19금 판정을 피하고자 억지로 바꾼 가사는 앞뒤 문맥이 맞지 않을 뿐만 아니라  음악의 ‘feel’을 잃어버린다. […]한 고등학생은 무심히 들어왔던 가사에 대해 선정적 해석을 되려 조장하는 것 같다고 비판하기도 했다.

[Regarding opposition to the Ministry's censorship] The Commission on Youth Protection argues “You can just simply change controversial words or expressions, then the problem is solved. (No big deal)”. But changing a word in songs, which are one of the most delicate artistic works, is not a simple matter. Songs that begrudgingly alter lyrics just to escape from being judged ‘inappropriate for school kids’ often don't sound right. They are out of context and lose the unique emotions evoked through out the song. […] One high school student criticized the Ministry’s decision as actually inviting listeners to find and listen to the inappropriate versions of the songs. The songs would just sound normal if there was no such censorship.

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