K-pop to the rescue? S. Korea all-in for scout jamboree closing concert

TOPSHOT – Scouts prepare to leave the campsite of the World Scout Jamboree in Buan, North Jeolla province on August 8, 2023. Organisers of the World Scout Jamboree asked host South Korea on August 7 to “urgently” evacuate tens of thousands of children from their campsite ahead of a typhoon, just days after a heatwave caused mass scout illnesses. (Photo by Anthony WALLACE / AFP)

Tens of thousands of scouts are set to gather for a massive K-pop festival in Seoul on Friday, as South Korea seeks to salvage a problem-plagued jamboree with “the power of Korean culture”.

But even as the government throws millions of dollars in emergency funding into fixing an event that has been a public relations disaster, criticism — from K-pop fans to public sector employees — is mounting over Seoul’s approach.

The quadrennial world jamboree gathered 43,000 scouts in North Joella province, but an unprecedented heatwave prompted mass illnesses, US and UK contingents left early amid reports of dire campsite conditions, and a tropical storm finally forced a full evacuation this week.

The scouts have since been dispersed across the country and sent on government-sponsored cultural tours, but the “K-pop Superlive” concert — featuring major acts including NewJeans and The Boyz — is set to reunite all jamboree participants for a grand finale.

“Top-level artists will strongly showcase the essence and charm of K-culture” at the concert, Seoul’s culture minister Park Bo-gyoon said in a statement this week.

But criticism has mounted after it emerged that a popular TV music program, set to feature some acts now performing at the jamboree, was abruptly cancelled for undisclosed reasons.

Lawmaker Sung Il-jong faced backlash from K-pop fans after saying the army should let megastars BTS — on hiatus while two members serve mandatory military terms — reunite and perform for the jamboree.

– ‘Totalitarian idea’ –
K-pop columnist Isak Choi said the plan betrayed “a terrible totalitarian idea that the state owns K-pop” she said on X, the site formerly known as Twitter.

The Yonhap News Agency reported that around 1,000 employees at public institutions — such as the Korea Development Bank and the Korea Electric Power Corporation — had been “mobilised” to help out with the concert.

“Although the words used are ‘request for cooperation’, it’s almost at the level of forced conscription during wartime,” the Korean Financial Industry Union said in an angry response.

The venue — Seoul’s World Cup Stadium — is also proving controversial, as wildly expensive “hybrid grass”, ideal for sporting events, will be damaged by the concert stage.

“Idol fans are shedding tears as their favorites are being pulled out at the last minute. Football fans are also shedding tears as the expensive grass in the stadium is getting destroyed,” one disgruntled person wrote on X in Korean.

“Who exactly benefits from this Jamboree concert?”