By Kang Aa-young
Before she became a K-pop fan, Christina Duran, 23, was no different from any other American girl her age when it came to her world view.
As a millennial born and raised in Arizona, United States, in an era of peace and affluence, she didn't know what had happened in East Asia during World War II.
After joining the global fan club ― better known as 'ARMY' ― of superstar South Korean boy band BTS, Duran, a recent university graduate, came to broaden her understanding of world affairs. After learning about hunger and wartime crimes in Korea, she joined hands with a transnational charity to make the world a better place.
Duran sent money to the PayPal account of the South Korea-based House of Sharing, a shelter for former "comfort women" who are now mostly in their 90s.
"I am glad to donate to the House of Sharing who gave a home and a voice to these survivors," she told The Korea Times.
Duran said she was shocked when she learned about the wartime crime.
"As terrible as it is to learn that the women of the House of Sharing were victims of sexual slavery during World War II, it is important to remember these moments in history; remembering means never letting it happen again," she said. "I think that is one of the reasons the House of Sharing exists ― to share with others and educate others on these atrocities that should never be forgotten."
Duran is one of nearly 300 overseas BTS fans who have sent money to support South Korean comfort women since the K-pop band was implicated in a controversy for one of its members' T-shirts featuring the atomic bomb mushroom cloud and another wearing a Nazi hat earlier in November. BTS suffered the consequences. Their performance in Japan was cancelled as the K-pop band bashing spread fast in the country.
Ironically, the incident caused some overseas BTS fans to learn about East Asia's tragic modern history as some ARMY members tried to educate the rest by posting wartime crime stories.
BTS fans said they learned a lot about East Asian history.
Laura Malki from France said the shirts' controversy was a turning point to help her take an interest in wartime crime in East Asia. "In France, schools teach us about World War II, particularly Nazi Germany. We know Japan was the ally of Germany back then but we didn't know Japan committed horrific crimes such as comfort women and forced labor," she said.
Maria Bernardez from Spain said she was inspired by the messages of love and respect BTS is delivering to the world.
"It is said that those who can't remember the past are doomed to repeat it," she said. "I donated to the House of Sharing to let the victims know that they are not alone and their voices won't fade away."
Martine Slaseter from Norway said she came to take an interest in Korean culture and history after she joined the BTS fan club.
She said the BTS shirt's controversy encouraged people like her outside Asia to learn more about the East Asian side of history during World War II.
"I had watched some documentaries about comfort women before the shirt controversy. One of the things that came across to me was that people outside Asia know little about wartime crime," she said. "It's normal to open a history book and get all the information you need, but never have I learned about or heard about this being included in war history, which shocked me."
Grettel Valverde Cordero from Costa Rica said she feels sad to know that the wartime victims suffered a lot during the war and are still fighting for their rights and reparations today.
Overseas donations have been flooding in to the House of Sharing since Nov. 16. The financial statement that the Korea Times obtained from the House of Sharing showed over 300 BTS fans from 44 countries have donated some $6,000 in total as of Nov. 29.
The nationalities of the small donors vary but many of them are North American. The United States takes the lion's share with 125 donors, followed by Australia and Canada. BTS fans from Britain, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden and Malaysia also joined the campaign to help South Korean wartime victims.
Interestingly, the House of Sharing document showed before Nov. 16, there were no overseas donations recorded in its PayPal account.
"Thanks to BTS fans, the portion of overseas donations in November made up about 5 percent of our entire donations," said Ahn Shin-kwon, director of the House of Sharing.
Emanuel Pastreich, a professor of Kyung Hee University and a literature critic, said BTS fans' participation in transnational charity is "an exciting development."
"Young people have started to work on their own to come up with solutions to the lingering tragedy of the past," he said. "I hope these fans will increasingly become global citizens and that they will address many injustices in our world."
Pastreich compared BTS fans' transnational charity to the famous 1985 campaign, dubbed "USA for Africa."
"We have had efforts like the 'We are the World' campaign to link music and ethics ― if that can happen now we may see a new stage of K-pop," he said.
Culture critic Jung Deok-hyun said ARMY members' donations to Korean comfort women is a rare phenomenon in that foreign fans were motivated by a Korean group to make a difference for the global community. He said Korea has no similar past examples that can be comparable to it.
"It is the first of its kind. There's no doubt about this," Jung said. "I mean before BTS, there were no Korean singers who had inspired foreign fans to act for a certain cause. In fact, there were no Korean singers who had such a wide fan base overseas as BTS does now. In this sense, BTS fans and their collective action for cause are unprecedented."
Jung said overseas BTS fans' collective action is similar to what South Korean fans have done in the past.
"In South Korea, the so-called fandom was born in the 1990s. There were singers who had many fans before the 1990s. But fandom as a unique Korean culture was formed in the 1990s with the beginning of local entertainment companies as they were aware of the need to have a solid fan base for their singers," said Jung. "Some fans organized charity events and donated to scholarship funds at the alma maters of their stars."
In an article for the Global Hallyu Issue in September, music critic Kim Yoon-ha observed that as a K-pop fan club, ARMY is unique for various reasons.
For one, she said, BTS fans are well-known for their single-minded devotion to their stars.
"Being aware that non-English BTS songs were hard to go viral in the United States, they sent their stories and requests for BTS songs to local radio stations in 50 U.S. states," she wrote.
According to Kim, the Love Myself campaign raised nearly 1 million dollars in the first six months after its launch.
To mark the fifth anniversary of BTS, fan clubs in Thailand launched a successful blood donation campaign which collected 200,000 cc of blood. She says ARMY's transnational charity activities show foreign fans' unprecedented loyalty to the K-pop band.