From Oppression to Freedom: Changes in the Use of Western Symbols in K-pop and East Asia

Author: Michal Schwarz (Masaryk University, Faculty of Arts, Department of Vietnamese Studies)
Speaker: Michal Schwarz
Topic: Semiotics and Semiology
The (SCOPUS / ISI) SOAS GLOCAL CALA 2022 General Session


This paper analyzes East Asian modernity in the use of Western symbols accommodated in Korean culture, their gradual semantic as well as pragmatic shift and contemporary spread.

As railway or train became the symbol of modernity in Europe (Weber 1976), it was also adopted as a sign of progress under the oppressive rule in South Korea (Han Seung-Mi 2004) when diesel locomotives and their sound represented negative control of people (Han Youngsue 2020). With more positive development at the end of the 20th century, this optically same motif has lost its negative value and now is a positive sign of shift to better future (e.g. Twice: Likey + I can’t stop it) or symbolic gate to another space (BTS: Run).

Similarly the Biblical parable of knowledge (= snake or eating of an apple) was adopted by Korean Christians. Despite their original motif of punishment (Gain, Paradise Lost), these symbols now changed and I would connect them to East Asian feminine modernity (cf. Lin & Avin 2008) and strength, when knowledge is equal to desire for a better future (e.g.: Twice: More & More).

The analysis allows to conclude that these symbols are gradually disconnected from their original or moral content (GFRIEND: Apple; Gain: Apple; in secondary moments e.g. in Twice: Yes or yes; Blackpink: How you like that; Hyuna: Red). This semantical shift correlates with economic success of South Korea and analogical reception of these symbols in post-colonial Asia.


Han, Seung-Mi. 2004. The New Community Movement: Park Chung Hee and the Making of State Populism in Korea. Pacific Affairs, 77(1), 69-93.

Han, Youngsue. 2020. Films for representing acoustic control of people under the yushin dictatorship. The 5th International Conference of Semiosis Research Center, Seoul, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (online), 29. 6. – 5. 7. 2020.
Lin, Angel & Avin Tong. 2008. Re-Imagining a Cosmopolitan „Asian Us“: Korean Media Flows and Imaginaries of Asian Modern Femininities. In: East Asian Pop Culture. Analysing the Korean Wave. Ed. Chua Beng Huat, Koichi Iwabuchi. Hongkong: Hongkong University Press, 91-125.
Weber, Eugen. 1976. Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France 1870-1914. Stanford: Stanford University Press.



1: All mentioned music videos are available on Youtube.

Keywords: Symbols, changes, Korean pop, East Asian modernity