How a K-Pop Festival Celebrating All Things Korean Started in SoCal
KCON — the annual K-pop and Korean culture extravaganza — celebrated its 10th anniversary last year. Excitement reverberated through the Los Angeles Convention Center in August as thousands of K-pop fans bustled around stages blasting music and vendors offering Korean food, beauty products and clothing.
This is the sixth story in a series of articles looking at the surprising history of K-pop, pegged to the release of K-Pop Dreaming, the new podcast series from LAist Studios.
The convention, held annually in Los Angeles, is a multi-day event that centers around K-pop concerts. It boasts a packed itinerary of panels, workshops and fan interaction opportunities over the course of several days. For many fans, the convention has become a site of pilgrimage to celebrate Korean music and culture in community.
The creation of KCON a decade ago — and the event’s continued success — parallels the global explosion of popularity in Korean culture that’s been brewing for decades.
Early Korean Wave
“Hallyu,” or the Korean Wave, is a term that started being used by Asian media outlets in the '90s to refer to the growing popularity abroad of Korean music, dramas, movies, beauty, food and fashion.
One example of this was K-pop's first idol group, H.O.T., which grew to become popular in China in the late '90s. By the early 2000s, K-dramas like “Winter Sonata” took Chinese and Japanese audiences by storm.
But while Hallyu was taking off in Asia, it was still relatively unknown in the U.S. in the '90s and early 2000s.
L.A.’s Koreatown as hub of investment
At the same time, Los Angeles’ Koreatown was in a period of recovery after the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising, which erupted across the city following the acquittal of the white policemen charged in the beating of Rodney King, a Black motorist. Over 2,000 Korean-run businesses in Koreatown were burned down and destroyed during that time.
“Koreatown after the Uprising is, is a lot different from Koreatown before the Uprising,” says Shelley Sang-Hee Lee, author of the book “Koreatown, Los Angeles: Immigration, Race, and the ‘American Dream'.”
In the aftermath of the destruction, the neighborhood applied for a special redevelopment status from the city, from the Community Redevelopment Agency, or CRA, in an attempt to get new investment into the area. It was a status that Koreatown leaders had long sought for to bring jobs and economic development into the neighborhood.
But, Lee says, “they didn't have success in doing that before 1992.”
[A]fter the, the Uprising,” Lee continues. “Koreatown went through a period of just severe decline … but, in 1995, Koreatown gets what's called CRA status.”
Lee says the CRA designation, coupled with the a1997 Asian Financial Crisis that kneecapped the economies of countries in Asia — including South Korea’s — contributed to Koreatown’s recovery.
“One of the consequences of the Asian economic collapse and the kind of measures to shore up Asian economies was the infusion of South Korean capital into places like Koreatown,” says Lee. “Koreatown was depressed after the Uprising, but investors recognized the potential for property in the area to bounce back.”
In the 2000s, Koreatown became the site of new development, such as commercial buildings and high-rise condos. Companies in South Korea started thinking about building their presence in Los Angeles.
One such company was CJ Group, a giant South Korean conglomerate that produces a range of products like food, health and beauty, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. The company later devoted a division to entertainment and mass media, called CJ ENM.
In 2003, CJ’s American headquarters in New York was relocated to Los Angeles.
“We chose L.A. because Hollywood [is] here,” says Sang Cho, co-founder of Kai Media, a K-pop content company in Los Angeles. Cho used to work for a subsidiary of CJ ENM in 2010.
“[But] obviously the biggest Koreatown, outside of Korea, frankly, anywhere around the world” is also in L.A.
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The birth and growth of KCON
At the time, Cho was charged with bringing K-pop content, through CJ’s L.A. subsidiary, to audiences in America. He was witnessing the growth of a strong, dedicated fan base, and an interest in K-pop extended beyond geographical borders. Cho saw a huge opportunity in America.
So when Angela Killoren, another executive at CJ in Los Angeles, proposed the idea of a K-pop fan convention in L.A. in 2012, Cho was all ears.
The concept, Cho says, was to have “fans be able to meet and interact directly with artists in meet-and-greet sessions, [along with] panels and workshops and things like that — just like any other pop culture conventions, right?”
“We kind of developed this idea of really, how do we super serve the K-pop fan? What is it that they would love?” says Killoren, who is now CEO of CJ ENM America. “If you're a K-pop fan and your dream would be to go to Korea, why don't we bring Korea here?”
By early 2012, many second-generation K-pop groups had been making strides to enter the U.S. market, but with limited success. PSY hadn’t yet come out with “Gangnam Style,” the viral sensation that would introduce K-pop to the masses. Killoren says the idea of a K-pop convention was met with some pushback.
“Like, are you sure you want to take this huge risk to create this event?” says Killoren.
Eventually, the idea was approved by executives, and the team started working day and night to prepare the event.
“There wasn't enough of a lead time to promote. We didn't have the budget,” says Cho. “So it was all just kind of social media, just on the strength of some tweets.”
The inaugural KCON was held on Oct. 13, 2012 at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre in Irvine. Despite the lack of promotion, Killoren says it was a surprising success, bringing in nearly 10,000 attendees.
The following year, KCON was moved to a more central location in Los Angeles, and each year, KCON continued to grow in size and scope — adding more events, panels and workshops. It’s extended concerts to take place over multiple days. KCON has expanded to other cities in the U.S., and it’s also gone global, traveling to cities like Tokyo, Bangkok and Abu Dhabi.
KCON has brought in some of K-pop’s biggest artists over the years, including BTS — who made their KCON debut in 2014, and returned in 2016 and 2017.
Last year’s KCON drew 90,000 attendees, nine times larger than the first KCON in 2012. Much of KCON’s massive success is a reflection of the explosion of Hallyu today.
Hallyu has continued to explode in recent years as Korean TV, film and music dominate pop culture discussions. The wave has expanded to Western audiences in more recent years — with the Netflix series “Squid Games” and the film “Parasite” sweeping awards shows.
As for K-pop — it’s reached a level of unprecedented success. While the genre has been making inroads into Asian audiences for years, the genre’s appeal continues to grow with Western audiences — from Grammy nominations for BTS to BLACKPINK headlining this year’s Coachella festival.
All leading to the tens of thousands of fans who gather at KCON every year — celebrating their shared love for Korean culture.
Listen to all of LAist Studios’ new podcast, K-Pop Dreaming. Host Vivian Yoon follows the rise of K-pop through the perspective of the Korean American diaspora in Los Angeles.
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