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Riding the Korean Wave

Ashley's thesis topic was a "happy accident!"

With a (working) thesis title like “Pop Idol Culture and Abuse: The Dark Side of the Korean Wave” you might think Honors student Ashley Chase has had a long-standing appreciation for Korean culture and K-Pop. In reality, Ashley describes the way she landed on a thesis topic as a “happy accident.”

Hailing from Austin, Texas and enjoying activities like road trips and hiking, Ashley never thought she’d find herself deep in a research topic surrounding the ins and outs of Korean-Pop culture, but that’s exactly where she finds herself now. She explained to me that she had a difficult time landing on a topic. “It was getting close to the thesis proposal deadline, and I was trying to find something. I knew inspiration would strike when I needed it, not when I wanted it.”

As Ashley looked at her schedule for Summer 2022, she wasn’t sure when she’d have time to work on her thesis, considering she’d be spending five weeks in Korea on a global communications study abroad. That’s when it clicked for Ashley. After talking with a professor about centering her thesis on Korea, she found herself interested in the discourse surrounding K-Pop Idols. After some research, Ashley explained that she was instantly attracted to the topic, and she knew this is what she wanted her thesis to be about. “I don’t have much of a history with K-Pop, which is both embarrassing and awesome.” For Ashley, the entire process was a rollercoaster from start to finish, but that’s what made the entire thing so exciting.

From the get-go, Ashley knew she wanted to make a documentary. As a journalism major with an emphasis in broadcasting, Ashley had some experience with cameras, but she wasn’t super comfortable with film. She explained to me that a documentary was completely out of her field of expertise - and that’s exactly why she wanted to do it. “It was very intimidating because I’d never done anything like it before. But I wanted a challenge, and that’s why I wanted to just go for it.” With a thesis topic, a medium, and a summer in Korea looming, Ashley was ready to hit the ground running.

Once she arrived in Korea, Ashley was ready to dive in. Her goal was to learn more about the darker side of K-Pop and explore the intense and sometimes secretive culture that surrounds it. To Ashley, there was no better way to find out more than to ask Korean natives themselves, but from the start Ashley experienced roadblock after roadblock. Because of the language barriers, successful interviews proved difficult. Pair that with the technical difficulties that come from faulty equipment, Ashley could tell she had her work cut out for her. “Really, anything that could go wrong went wrong,” Ashley told me. Despite all of this, Ashley powered through, and she was finally able to make some connections at a K-Pop conference she attended while there. At the conference, she was able to interview a professor who specializes in K-Pop, and a woman working in the industry as a dance coach. Finally making some leeway, Ashley started getting some traction. “While in Korea, my main goal was just to film as much as possible. My motto was to film everything and see if I can use it later.” Hauling her camera around everywhere she went, Ashley captured as much as possible. Ashley explained to me she was able to film at conferences, in broadcasting studios, on the streets, and in the entertainment district.

Five weeks later, Ashley returned to the states with hours of camera footage and plenty of new knowledge surrounding K-Pop culture. With not a lot of background knowledge of K-Pop myself, I had Ashely fill me in on what she’s learned. “There’s definitely a dark side to the K-Pop industry. There’s an intense pressure for idols to perform at a certain level and getting to that level can take a huge toll.” Ashley explained that K-Pop idols can be recruited as young as six-years-old and spend the next 10-12 years in intense training that is extremely mentally and physically taxing. She also explained the concept of “slave contracts” and how record companies have K-Pop recruitments essentially sign their lives away, agreeing to excessive hours of training and low levels of privacy in their personal live. Luckily, Ashley explained that because of media exposure and support from fans, the industry is improving. “I don’t want this documentary to vilify the K-Pop industry,” says Ashley. “I just want to make people more aware that these things that they love often have a darker side to them that should be acknowledged.”

With her research and filming almost complete, Ashley is looking forward to finishing off this project and being able to spread awareness about everything she’s learned. While the process has been challenging, Ashley is grateful she got to do it, as well as participate in the Honors Program. “I’ve been able to meet so many different people from so many different backgrounds, and therefore learn about so many new perspectives.” Ashley describes herself as an “overachiever” and being a part of the program has been especially fulfilling. Wherever life takes Ashley, we’re sure that her ambition and eagerness to try new things will lead her to many more happy accidents.