In 2023, K-pop sensation Blackpink embarked on their “Born Pink” world tour, which included concerts in Vietnam.\South Korea’s public diplomacy strategy often employs cultural products to strengthen ties with East Asian and Southeast Asian nations, making Blackpink’s performances in Vietnam an essential part of this approach. However, what was anticipated to be a harmonious cultural diplomacy activity turned sour due to a controversial incident involving China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
The inclusion of a contentious map on the concert organizer’s website triggered public backlash and led to a series of challenges for the group and the event organizers.
The controversy erupted when the organizer of Blackpink’s concert in Hanoi featured a map displaying China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea on its website. The map included the infamous “nine-dash line,” representing China’s expansive and disputed claims in the region. This move sparked immediate social media backlash and even led to a threat of boycotting the concerts by Vietnamese fans. Vietnam’s Cultural Ministry initiated an investigation into the matter, raising concerns about the potential ramifications for both Blackpink and the event organizers.
Warner Bros., the distributor of an upcoming “Barbie” movie, had recently faced a similar issue and received criticism for showcasing the same map, resulting in the film’s ban in Vietnam. The use of such a map is seen as controversial because Vietnam firmly contests China’s claims and considers it a violation of their laws and territorial sovereignty. This incident underscored the sensitivity of political contexts in diplomacy efforts, especially concerning contentious geopolitical matters.
The apology issued by the concert organizer did little to quell the public outcry. Vietnamese fans, disappointed and angered by the map incident, expressed their frustration on various online platforms, raising concerns about the potential tarnishing of the concert’s image and the group’s reputation. While iME, the Beijing-based company managing the concert, acknowledged the mistake and pledged to replace the inappropriate images, it was clear that the damage had already been done.
The incident also raised questions about the role of South Korea’s cultural diplomacy strategy in Southeast Asia and highlighted the challenges it faces when controversies arise. It became evident that public diplomacy initiatives should be executed with more thoughtfulness and sensitivity to the political context, as they can have far-reaching implications for bilateral relations and cultural exchange.
Amidst the controversy, some experts viewed Blackpink’s concerts in Vietnam as a gateway to a thriving music tourism industry in the country. Dr. Daisy Kanagasapapathy, an RMIT Lecturer in Tourism and Hospitality Management, highlighted the potential of music tourism and its positive impact on the economy and employment opportunities.
The strategic choice of the prestigious My Dinh National Stadium as the concert venue played a crucial role in attracting diverse audiences and promoting music tourism in Vietnam.
Despite the controversies, Blackpink’s concerts in Vietnam generated immense excitement among fans in the country. YG Entertainment’s announcement of the performances at the My Dinh Stadium in Hanoi sparked a frenzy on social media, with fans eagerly preparing for ticket bookings and planning special outfits and fan gear. The anticipation was so high that many fans were already making travel arrangements to attend the much-anticipated concert, further highlighting the potential impact of music tourism in the region.
Blackpink’s concerts in Vietnam were intended to be a cultural diplomacy activity to strengthen ties between South Korea and Vietnam, leveraging the popularity of K-pop and its potential benefits for music tourism. However, the controversial incident involving a map displaying China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea had a significant impact on the event. It served as a reminder of the importance of carefully considering political contexts and executing public diplomacy initiatives thoughtfully.
While the controversy posed challenges for Blackpink and the event organizers, the enthusiasm displayed by Vietnamese fans underscored the potential of music tourism in the country. Going forward, lessons learned from this experience can guide future cultural diplomacy efforts, ensuring they promote cross-cultural understanding and mutual respect between nations. As for Blackpink, they will undoubtedly remain an influential force in the world of music, and their journey continues beyond the boundaries of any one concert or controversy.
Researcher at the University of Pisa, Italy.