Flashback! K-pop idols of the ‘90s

Written by on December 4, 2013 in Arts

Nostalgia seems to be a popular theme for Korean entertainment these days. The most-talked-about TV drama at the moment is Reply 1994 (응답하라 1994), a look into a boarding house and its boarders in a university district. The drama is a loose spin-off (but not necessarily a prequel) of the hugely popular drama Reply 1997 which dealt with that particular year. There are many aspects of the drama which ring close to the heart, bringing about a flood of memories for those who lived through that era, no matter what age. For those who were too young; they find the “oldness” of the drama funny and interesting — life without cell phones! Can you imagine?

Many Koreans say the ‘90s was the best for “everything.” Of course, we had the economic crisis in the late ‘90s where everything seemed to come crashing down, but in a sense it brought the whole country together as well. Emotions ran high — on a personal and national level — so the ‘90s was a peak decade for the arts, including the entertainment industry, and especially music.

You can say the ‘90s established the current K-pop idol system: early recruitment and lengthy training, the dorm system for groups, the tight-knit management and image making. Although there were pop idols before the ‘90s, it wasn’t as severely “managed” and the moniker of “idol” wasn’t thrown about as easily either. We usually call the ‘90s K-pop idols the “original” idols (원조 아이돌) or the “first-generation” idols (1세대 아이돌), and they were all in groups.

Some of the groups have withheld the test of time, others have dispersed, while yet some others have dispersed and come back. Some are still active in the entertainment industry while others have completely disappeared from the public eye.

I can’t list them all (sorry, certain fandoms) – but here are some of the top idol groups of the ‘90s:


Seo Taiji & Boys (서태지와 아이들)
1st album release: 1992 난 알아요 (I Know)

You can’t talk about the history of Korean popular music without Seo Taiji. In fact, Korean pop music is usually defined into “before Seo Taiji” and “after Seo Taiji.” He changed the musicscape immensely, bringing in new beats with a unique style of rap, which wasn’t prevalent in Korean pop music at the time, all while keeping true to the Korean affinity for catchy tunes and lyrics. The “Boys” consisted of Lee Juno (이주노) and Yang Hyun-suk (양현석), who showed off their smooth dance moves and rapping skills alongside Seo.

Their first album’s success was a big shock to music experts and critics, who pedantically had put down his music as “too different” and “not suitable for popular music.” Obviously, they had not been aware of how the Korean public’s ears had evolved and how much they had been craving something new to listen to. Seo Taiji’s music and style served as the bridge which Korean pop music had to cross over in order to evolve beyond bubblegum pop and syrupy crooning ballads.

However, the group disbanded in 1996 when they were at their peak, amidst much anguish among fans and wild speculation from the media. Seo lived as a recluse for several years before resuming a solo career, Lee Juno continued doing choreography and training juniors, while Yang started an entertainment company which would become YG Entertainment (yes, that YG Entertainment).

1st album release: 1996 We Hate All Kinds Of Violence

Don’t ask me why, but K-pop idol groups have this notion that their names should be in English, English acronyms, or other foreign languages. Maybe they are thinking into the future and think it might be more “global,” but to be frank, I personally think it’s really not necessary. H.O.T. means “High 5 Of Teenagers” and maybe it was because I was no longer a teenager, but I thought the name was quite ludicrous back then (I had no idea that K-pop idol group names would still be as eye rolling now in the 2010s as they were then; I blame the huge success of H.O.T. and other ‘90s idol groups for this trend).

Again, you can’t talk about ‘90s idol groups without H.O.T. They were probably the first idol group that created huge-scale fandoms in Korea. They appeared on the scene as Seo Taiji & Boys were going out and someone had to fill in the void that was left behind. And fill it they did.

An ambitious group launched by SM Entertainment, the group consisted of Moon Hee-joon (문희준), Jang Woo-hyuk (장우혁), Tony An (토니 안), Kangta (강타), and Jaewon (재원). Their songs were extremely catchy, easy to dance to, and verging on candy pop — the top single from their first album is literally called “Candy.”

It was a formula that could not fail: five pretty/handsome/cute boy members with distinctive characters all styled up in the latest trends, dancing and prancing on stage and looking like they’re only singing to you? Plus, the agency had the “mysterious” persona going on for them in the beginning, making sure they had a top star aura going on.

The media hoopla when the group disbanded in 2001 was immense. Unlike Seo Taiji & Boys, where the split had been decided by the members, the split of H.O.T. was initiated by the ending of their contracts with SM Entertainment, and certain members didn’t get re-signed. The members went their separate ways but remained in the industry: variety shows, producing music, and management. There are constant rumors of their coming back but most are pessimistic about this prospect.
http://www.whworld.org (Jang Woo-hyuk)


Sechs Kies (젝스키스)
1st album release: 1997 학원별곡 (School Song)
Hot on the trail of H.O.T. came the six-member group Sechs Kies. The name means “six crystals” in German, but I always had the impression that they were playing upon the same pronunciation of ‘kies’ with ‘kiss.’ Korean fans usually shorten the name to 젝키 (“Jekki”) which sounds much more familiar. Launched by DSP Entertainment, they were greatly successful in their debut year, creating a friendly rivalry between H.O.T. (although hardcore stans might tell you otherwise).

The group consisted of Eun Ji-won (은지원), Lee Jae-jin (이재진), Kim Jae-duck (김재덕), Kang Sung-hoon (강성훈), Ko Ji-yong (고지용), and Jang Su-won (장수원). Like H.O.T., they had flair for dance-laced performances along with syrupy ballads, but they were deemed a bit more approachable.

The group abruptly disbanded in 2000, a mere three years after their debut, when they were at the height of their career. As usual, there was much speculation but nothing concrete has ever truly been mentioned about this decision, even till now. If there were a segment of “Where are they now?” about ’90s K-pop idols, Sechs Kies would be on top of that list. With the exception of Eun Ji-won, who has been a staple on many Korean variety shows, most of the members have been under the radar. Besides Eun Ji-won, Kim Jae-duck is occasionally talked about; he happens to be the brother-in-law of Yang Hyun-suk (of YG).
http://www.gyment.co.kr/ (Eun Ji-won)


1st album release: 1997 I’m Your Girl
K-pop isn’t always about the boys. Basking in the hot success of their boy group, SM Entertainment introduced the girl version in 1997 with the three members: Bada (바다, “Sea”), Eugene (유진), and Shoo (슈). The group name’s acronym is composed of the first letter of the member’s names. Understandably, they were a huge success. Bada had mad vocal skills, Eugene was undeniably the pretty one, and Shoo had the cute factor. Being the first girl group in the ‘90s system, they were promoted with an approachable pure and innocent look which slowly evolved during their career, but they have always maintained sweetness in their style.

The group disbanded at the end of 2002, pursuing solo activities thereafter in music and acting. Bada has found success in musical theater, Eugene established herself as an actress by starring in many popular TV dramas and also hosts a variety show, while Shoo, who has married and had a child since then, has put off her music and acting for a while to focus on her family.
http://blog.naver.com/champion811/ (Shoo)


Fin.K.L. (핑클)
1st album release: 1998 Blue Rain

Another acronym name which would’ve been better had it been not. Honestly, I don’t think they were thinking when they came up with this one. The name in Korean itself sounds cute. I would’ve Romanized it as “Pinkle,” because that’s what it sounds like, and for an all-girl group, it wouldn’t have been too bad. Apparently the acronym means “Fin Killing Liberty” but who in the heck knows what that means in that convoluted wording. Even the members themselves were baffled trying to explain it in various interviews (“Let’s put an end to all oppression against liberty” is the official explanation).

Despite their ridiculous English rendition of a name, when Fin.K.L. showed up in 1998, they shook up the scene like nothing else. Lee Hyori (이효리), Oak Joo-hyun (옥주현), Lee Jin (이진), and Sung Yuri (성유리) were the four members who made up the group. They all had very different personalities, looks, and style, which managed to cover all fanbases. They had the right amount of cute, demure, and sexy all rolled into one. They smartly promoted a song called “내 남자친구에게 (To My Boyfriend)” in the beginning of their career, probably landing them male fans for life.

The group never formally disbanded. They released their final album in 2002 and pursued separate activities. Lee Hyori, the sexy diva of K-pop, is still very much active both in music and variety shows; Oak Joo-hyun has made her mark in musical theater and continues with performing; both Lee Jin and Sung Yuri have ventured into acting and have steadily appeared in various TV dramas and movies.
http://www.theatro.co.kr/agency/agency6_intro.php (Oak Joo-hyun)


Shinhwa (신화)
1st album release: 1998 해결사 (Resolver)

Literally meaning “legend” in Korean, Shinhwa is truly a legend in the K-pop idol scene (they also have a non-acronym name, for which I’m thankful). They were formed by SM Entertainment who were encouraged by H.O.T.’s success and made their debut in 1998. They are the only ‘90s K-pop idol group who haven’t disbanded and remain the same with all original members. 2013 marks their 15th anniversary.

Shinhwa has six members: Eric (에릭), Lee Min-woo (이민우), Kim Dong-wan (김동완), Shin Hye-sung (신혜성), Jun Jin (전진), and Andy (앤디). They all have strong personalities but all are very personable, which was something fans noticed from the beginning. They started with standard K-pop style songs; catchy tunes and lyrics, all backed up with solid dancing, and experimented with various music genres on the way. The group was more approachable than the highly veiled H.O.T. and the vibe they had was more laidback, although they did maintain a highly charismatic image. They weren’t afraid to show off their goofy side and many speculate that this might have been the key to their longevity as a group — the humor and friendliness not only among themselves, but with the public as well.

Another reason cited for their success is that they have all been supportive of solo activities outside the group. Eric and Kim Dong-wan have established steady acting careers, Shin Hye-sung, Jun Jin, Lee Min-woo have strong solo music careers, Andy has been managing juniors in their music careers, and all have been great presences in many variety programs over the years. By doing this, they have managed to fill in the years when certain members would be off doing their mandatory military service.

They have all signed to different agencies during that time, but in 2011, they set up their own company called “Shinhwa Company” for their group activities while continuously pursuing their solo activities. In the ever-changing volatile world of K-pop idols, they are mentioned as role models.


g.o.d. (지오디)
1st album release: 1999 Chapter 1
I’m not sure if you can really count g.o.d. as a ‘90s K-pop idol group because they debuted in 1999, but their first album was such a success I just had to mention them. Another acronym name, meaning “Groove Over Dose” — I honestly don’t know what that is supposed to mean, but I don’t think anybody really thought much of it, not back then (although I do think they wanted to be gods of the K-pop scene and that the name was deliberate).

Consisting of the five members — Park Joon-hyung (박준형), Danny Ahn (데니 안), Son Ho-young (손호영), Yoon Kye-sang (윤계상), and Kim Tae-woo (김태우) — at their debut, Yoon formally left the group in 2004 and they continued on with the remaining four members. The group was the project of JYP Entertainment in its early days and it is very well known how hard of a time they had until their official debut. “Mysterious” and “enigma” and “charisma” were words that all got thrown out when g.o.d. was introduced. They were like the friendly next door oppas who just happened to be in a band together. Their first hit single “To Mother” really pulled the heartstrings and their appearance in a reality variety show — where they were literally babysitters — shot their popularity through the roof.

They had continuous success and are most known for being the “concert idols,” for doing a “100-day concert” following their fourth album in 2004. Their final album was in 2005. They have moved on to solo activities. Yoon Kye-sang has a successful acting career, Danny Ahn also has acted, Park Joon-hyung went to Hollywood to pursue an acting career there, Son Ho-young had solo albums and ventured out into musical theater, and Kim Tae-woo has a very solid solo music career. All are very popular guests on variety programs and radio.

There has been very recent talk about their coming back, but as with other idol groups, nothing is concrete.
http://www.youtube.com/tsoul (Kim Tae-woo)
http://www.esaram.co.kr (Yoon Kye-sang)

In addition to the groups above, there were many, many, other groups who started out in the ‘90s such as Baby Vox, Click B, and NRG, to name a few. Nearly all of the groups are gone, with some members venturing on to solo careers or switching to acting, while others have gone on to radio and variety shows. Thanks to the nostalgia boom for the ‘90s, some old stars have been showing up on talk shows and reality shows as well.

A recent variety show even starred five members from four different ‘90s idol groups (H.O.T., Sechs Kies, g.o.d., NRG) who happened to be the same age. They have dubbed themselves “HotsechgodRG” (핫젝갓알지) and even appeared on music shows with that moniker.


The ‘90s aren’t coming back but its idol system is pretty much established in the K-pop world. With the abundance of audition reality shows continuously discovering new talent, there probably will be a shift in the grand scheme of things, but I have the impression that this system, and to an extent this culture will be around for a very long time. After all, you really can’t think of K-pop’s universal appeal these days without the idol groups. It would be like bibimbap without gochujang. Okay without it, but lacking a certain oomph.

Note: I’ve only provided links to official sites.

Photos courtesy of official sites and www.maniadb.com

About the Author

Suzy Chung

Multilingual editor, writer, and translator. Coffee addict, bookworm, art junkie, foodie, oenophile, and a billion other things. I tend to talk a lot. @suzyinseoul