YG Entertainment, one of the biggest Korean management agencies which manages stars such as Psy and 2NE1, held an overseas audition in Toronto, Canada in July. The agency expected to see Koreans or Korean Canadians, but scouts were shocked to find people of various ethnic make-ups filling the lines of aspiring young singers or dancers who hope to make it in the music business.
"Around 60 percent of those who came to the audition had no ethnic link to Korea whatsoever," one YG staffer said. "The same holds true for half of the people who came to auditions held in London, Seattle, New York and Berlin between June and August."
"We held the audition [in Toronto] seeking to recruit a wide range of talented people without any barriers, but we were very surprised at the turnout," said Yang Min-suk, CEO of YG Entertainment.
Amid the growing global popularity of Korean pop stars such as Psy, Girls' Generation and Big Bang, more non-Koreans are hoping to get signed by Korean management agencies. These companies have picked up on the latest trend and feel the time has come to create a truly multi-ethnic idol group.
SM Entertainment, the biggest talent management agency in Korea, regularly holds auditions overseas, including one a week in the U.S. and one a month in Japan.
"Since around two years ago, the number of foreigners showing up at our auditions has increased steadily," said Kim Eun-ah, a spokeswoman for the agency. "Not only Asians, but various ethnic groups turn up and sometimes make up almost 70 percent of those who come to auditions."
One scout at JYP Entertainment said, "Even as recently as five years ago, we only saw Korean Americans show up. But that has now totally changed."
Non-Koreans also flock to Internet auditions held by Korean management agencies, prompting recruiters to travel abroad to interview some of them in person.
Non-Koreans including Chinese, Japanese, Thais, Filipinos, Americans, Canadians and Australians account for 20 percent of the trainee singers at SM Entertainment, 40 percent at JYP Entertainment and 10 percent at YG Entertainment.
The agencies have already been training idol groups targeting a global audience. For example, most of EXO M's six members are Chinese. Victoria, a member of girl group f(x) is Chinese, as are Fei and Jia of miss A. 2PM's Nichkhun is Thai.
"Most of the aspiring singers are still Asian, but pretty soon we'll see more diverse ethnic groups," said an employee at a talent agency.
Experts cite Korean management agencies' rigorous training and long-term preparations for raising a star as one of the main reasons for the growing interest of foreign wannabes. Promising talent is recruited and often put through a lengthy period of training before they are given a chance to perform on stage.
"If a multiethnic idol group is created, it will lower the entry barrier to foreign markets and K-pop could become more influential," said Hwang Yong-suk, a professor at Konkuk University.