KCON LA 2023 Showcased the Evolution of Korean Pop Culture

Every year, KCON is a battle of wits, patience, and stamina. But no one could’ve predicted 2023’s edition of the convention would include attendees braving an earthquake and hurricane for a chance to see their favorite groups. As the one-stop shop for all things Hallyu, this year’s KCON saw a number of changes, including a partnership with iHeartMedia and the loss of KCON NY. Although the organizer, CJ ENM, has not revealed why they decided to cancel the East coast leg of the event, it’s likely their focus is now on solidifying their hold on other international markets.

After expanding their concerts to three days in Japan in 2022, KCON also extended the LA 2023 edition the same way for the first time in its 11 years. By combining a plethora of veteran and rookie groups, as well as diversifying their musical artists— including virtual idols such as PLAVE and APOKI alongside non-Korean acts like XG, JO1, and INI—KCON 2023 showed attendees how K-pop is reaching the next stage of its evolution. This year gave rise to a new generation of industry guests at panels featuring surprise idol appearances, K-pop music producers, and popular competition show directors.

Outdoor Activities

Many businesses kicked off their first time partnerships with KCON in order to reach its unique group of attendees. iHeartMedia’s sponsorship with KCON turned out to be a free event right outside of the LA Convention Center, called the KISS-FM KPOP Village. Beside food trucks and a Ferris wheel, fans could catch their favorite groups for a fleeting half hour at the Village’s outdoor stage. Unlike the performances at the indoor KCON stage, the invited K-pop musicians did a quick introduction and performed a snippet of their newest song. 

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Panels and Workshops

A noticeable improvement in KCON’s programming helped to spread out crowds in the South Hall. The workshop and panel areas on the second floor featured a number of guests, including NMIXX and two members of ZEROBASEONE. Ricky and Matthew’s last minute appearance caused hundreds of Zeroses to scramble and line up for the afternoon panel. The lucky ones who made it inside were treated to an in depth discussion on the direction of Boys Planet alongside director/producer Kim Sin Young.

Kim PD chose “star” moments that highlighted the charms of each ZEROBASEONE member. For Ricky, he explained how surprised he was to hear an idol trainee refer to themselves as “young and rich” for the first time in his career. In fact, this shocked Kim so much he had to double take and confirm with staff that Ricky actually said that. Right after Kim played a clip from episode 10, Ricky spoiled fans with a short solo performance of “Over Me” as Matthew provided backup vocals. “When I first heard this song, I had a sexy image that I expected from the trainees. A classy and confident kind of sexy,” expressed Kim PD. “As you just saw, his performance was beyond my expectations.” 

Turning to Matthew, who couldn’t help but laugh at his struggle to speak French on camera, Kim was inspired by the idol’s vibrancy. “He’s charming in many ways and he’s good looking,” disclosed Kim at Matthew’s introduction. “I wanted the star trailer to show the pure and genuine energy that I felt from his audition.”

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Convention Floor Activities

Shifting gears to the chaos on the show floor—which moved to the smaller West Hall this year—crowding was exacerbated as fans crammed themselves into narrow spaces to check out all the convention had to offer. There was a smorgasbord of offerings for K-pop aficionados, including webtoon publishers, labels, and musical group appearances on the floor. Of course, the usual partners—such as Korean skin care brands and travel agencies—continued to entice weary con goers with freebies. 

Japanese boy groups, INI and JO1, had time to shine as unique guests among the list. Fans from Japan showed up with banners and posters to support the two acts as they talked about their exploration of Los Angeles and answered other fan questions. INI members danced to a select number of their songs like “Rocketeer,” “Password,” and “FANFARE.” Since this was their second time in the city, they showered the audience with fan service and shared how much they’ve improved as a group since last time.  

Meanwhile, XG served an extra special stage after warming up during the main concert the day before. Their sharp, sporty outfits shined as bright as their personalities, which they were excited to share after their slew of performances at both KCON and Head in the Clouds. The girl gang charmed fans with aegyo, showing off a cuter side to their cool exteriors.    

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For its 11th year, the convention brought back what made the experience so unique: rookies. In the past, smaller companies would use KCON as an opportunity to showcase talent and hopefully spur international interest. But this year, the convention supported these groups by providing them more face time on and off the show floor. New groups, such as RIIZE, 8turn, LIMELIGHT, JustB, and XG were given time to perform during the concert’s pre-show. This created a more elevated experience for those who came early, as well as fans who weren’t able to see them perform at the crowded KCON Stage. 

SM Entertainment surprised fans with the announcement that their newest boy group, RIIZE, would join the KCON lineup. NCTzens had a full weekend seeing Shotaro, Taeyong, and Ten all at the same event. Although Shotaro didn’t end up sharing a stage with NCT on the same night, he and his fellow RIIZE members burst on stage with a strong dance presence and gave plenty of energy to their supporters who showed up early for their showcase.   

An interesting attempt to expand and localize the participants for an American audience was the inclusion of Destiny Rogers. The rising singer garnered attention from the K-pop community when Lisa performed a dance cover of Rogers’ song, “Tomboy.” KCON has always included performers who have made a mark in the industry or fandom, and this year continued a trend from last year, which had Bebe Rexha singing alongside ITZY’s Yeji and Ryujin.  

All in all, KCON 2023 provided some welcome change to its usual routine. Given the astounding (and ever growing) attendance for the convention and concert, there needs to be better crowd control and activities for attendees. Unceremoniously leading performers through several thousand, tightly packed fans continues to be a major safety concern. Hopefully with the success of this year—barring the natural disasters—KCON 2024 gives fans even more to look forward to. 

Kalai Chik

Pop culture writer focusing on animation, music, and games. Los Angeles native, USC alumni, and contributor for Asia Pacific Arts since 2015. Follow me on Twitter, @kalai_chik.

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