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Interview with two members of the South Korean pop sensation, Super Junior

Aired March 30, 2011 - 06:30:00   ET




ANNA COREN, CNN HOST: You probably wouldn't want to be here if you had sensitive hearing. But, for the hundreds of girls behind those lung- defying screams, they wouldn't be anywhere else as their idols, South Korean boy band, Super Junior, take to the stage in Seoul.

The group was created in 2005 and quickly made their mark on the country's music scene with this song:


Soon reaching audiences beyond South Korea, and released versions of their songs not only in Korean, but also in Japanese and Mandarin.

And there's more to these guys than their numerous hit songs, sold out concerts, and frequently copied dance routines. They also form the basis of four smaller groups. But, as a whole, they are one of the country's biggest musical acts. And last month were deemed national pop culture icons by the South Korean government.

This week on "Talk Asia", we're in Seoul with the K-pop phenomenon Super Junior and get the inside scoop with two key members, Siwok and Leeteuk.


COREN: Leeteuk and SIWOK from Super Junior, welcome to "Talk Asia".

SIWOK: OK, nice to meet you guys.

COREN: Lovely to have you here. Now, the group has just celebrated five years together and, for people not familiar with Super Junior, you are one of the biggest boy bands in South Korea, if not all of Asia. How did you come about? How did you form?

LEETEUK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Some of us auditioned, and some of us were cast by our management company, SM Entertainment. There are a lot of boy bands in Korea and they all sing and dance. But we wanted to challenge things and be more innovative.

Super Junior was created on the idea that members would not only be able to sing and dance, but could also be radio hosts, actors, and be active in many other fields.

COREN: Well, it certainly is an innovative band. There are a total of 13 members and you all rotate so you can go off and act, model, present, or even do your two years compulsory military service. I mean, this is a really novel and clever idea, because it means that Super Junior is always performing. Tell me how this works.

LEETEUK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): We work in groups in the band as a whole, and also work on our own because the public always wants something new and fresh. We use the fact that we have a lot of members to give them a fresh taste by rotating in and out and working in different groups.

By doing so, we hope the group will be able to last longer. Also, it's very important that, as public figures, we get as much exposure as possible through the media, which we are able to do through various groups. I believe this will give Super Junior a longer lifespan.

COREN: Well, from the original lineup, you've also created four sub- groups, which cover different musical genres. Explain to us how that exactly works.

LEETEUK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): You said there are four sub-groups at the moment, but this is not something that is completely fixed. We're expecting to have more sub groups in the future.

To briefly explain those four sub-groups, Super Junior-K.R.Y. consists of three members with strong vocal skills that usually sing ballads. Super Junior-T is made up of members who have good entertaining skills and are able to sing what is called the "Korean Trot" genre. Super Junior-Happy is literally a group that sings happy and lively songs.

SIWOK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): And Super Junior-M targets the Chinese fan base and focuses more on localizing the group by singing in Chinese. We also have two local members in this sub-group to appeal to our fans in that country.



COREN: When you formed that sub-group in China, there was a bit of a backlash from your fans. Why was that?

LEETEUK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Korean fans used to have a very strong sentiment about keeping, for example, a band of five members as it is without making changes. But Super Junior was attempting to do something that had never been done before in Korea and didn't take the full group to China.

So, we broke off into a sub-group. I think the backlash was their way of expressing their disappointment at the fact that all of us were not in that sub-group. And also, because we added two local members in China, I think the fans were sort of upset with that, but now our fans welcome the idea.

COREN: You are part of this K-pop, Korean pop phenomenon, which, for many in the West -- we don't know that much about. It spread across Asia, but do you think it will eventually spread across the world?

LEETEUK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): I think that it's fair to say that it is starting to spread across the world thanks to the internet. People not only in Asia, but in Europe, the U.S., and all across the world are watching us through outlets like YouTube. They've shown a lot of interest in Korean culture, the Korean wave, and also our music.

When I see people, not only from South-East Asia, but also from many other countries, come and support us with flags from their home countries, it makes me think that we're doing something right. And, if we continue to do what we're doing, our name will be spread across the world.

Two months ago, we performed in Los Angeles and, if we just appealed to Koreans, then I think the audience would have consisted of mainly Korean-Americans. But, around 80 percent of the audience was from other countries. The performance was very successful.

COREN: How was it received in the U.S.? And how important is it -- cracking the U.S. market?

LEETEUK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Cracking the U.S. market is everyone's dream. In terms of sports, it's like the English Premier League and the Major League in the United States. The Billboard charts in the U.S. have led the culture across the world, which is why entering the U.S. market itself is a great honor to us. The fact that we performed in America and were well received by the public shows that there is hope and the possibility for us to grow, which makes us very happy.

SIWOK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): You should also add that we want to break into the Australian market.


COREN: Very good. You will be warmly received in Australia, I can assure you.

Coming up, Super Junior invites "Talk Asia" for a special back stage look at their concert in Bangkok.



GROUP: Hello everyone, this is Super Junior.


COREN: You have made four albums and lots of hit songs. Why do you think your music is so popular?

LEETEUK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): I think, to begin with, our music is easy to sing along with. When you listen to music from other countries, such as America, Japan, or China, you don't really know what it all means. But you get it based on the feel of the song.

I think it's not only because our songs are easy to sing along to, but also because of the enjoyment that people get from watching our music videos or performances. And that's why they love our songs. But, personally, I think it might be because the band members are good looking.


SIWOK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): I think, because all of the songs reflect the character and nature of each member, our fans see the passion and the drive that we have in our singing.

COREN: Actually, I wanted to ask you, who writes the songs and where does the inspiration come from?

SIWOK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): We're very open in terms of where we get our songs. We work with our management company and welcome songs regardless of who wrote them, if they suit the character of our group.

LEETEUK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): When you asked before about why our music is liked around the world, well, our songwriters are from other countries like Norway, Sweden, Germany, and other corners of the globe. And I think that's why we have fans around the world.

SIWOK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): One of our greatest hit songs, "Sorry, Sorry" was written by a South Korean producer. But a lot of our other songs come from songwriters in other countries.


COREN: Dance is also a huge part of your performance. Is that something that comes naturally? Or do you have to work at it?

LEETEUK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): To me, dance seems to be more about the practice. I think, even with bad dancers, if they try, they can be good at it. And I think what's even better, is people who enjoy what they do.

SIWOK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): I don't know if it's an age thing, but Leeteuk, as the oldest member, is struggling a bit these days with his moves. It's a bit rough for him.

COREN: How often do you train?

LEETEUK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Siwok has a very fit body, so all of the other members were motivated by him. Regardless of how late we finish our schedule, we all go to the gym to work out in the hope of looking like him.


SIWOK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): No one is quite there yet. In the beginning, it was about carving out a nice body and more for show, but now, I think a lot of us do it to keep fit.

COREN: At what age did you want to be a singer and part of a boy band?

SIWOK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): This could turn into a long story. But I didn't really want to become a singer when I was young. I found my dream as I was preparing for something else. I don't know about Leeteuk, but I know that other members started as early as 13-years-old. And some of them auditioned from small towns to become singers.

COREN: And Leeteuk?

LEETEUK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): From my mother's womb.

SIWOK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): That's when he started dancing around.

COREN: You were born to sing?


COREN: Fantastic. Alright. Who were your idols while you were growing up?

LEETEUK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): When I was really young, there was a group that toured Korea called "New Kids on the Block". They were really cool and, just like a lot of other people who aspire to become singers, I looked up to Michael Jackson.

SIWOK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Like Leeteuk, I loved watching Michael Jackson perform. And this might sound old, but I also liked singers like Tony Bennett and Elvis Presley.

COREN: Leeteuk, you are 27 years old. You are the leader, if you like, of the band. You are a singer, actor, radio show host -- tell us about the transformation that you have undergone from being the boy next door to being Leeteuk, the star that you are.

LEETEUK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): I was just a normal guy and used to go to school, just like everyone else. I was cast by chance and that's how my life changed in just one moment, just like that. I spent five years training at SM Entertainment and experienced a lot of anxiety during that time, wondering if I would actually be able to become a professional entertainer.

Also, there is a military service that all Korean men have to undergo that presented some difficulties. Despite all that, I became a Super Junior member after getting through some rough patches. And with it came a lot of fame. While I continue my singing career, I'd also like to become a good show host. Sometimes my life feels like a dream. Sitting here now, doing this interview -- it feels like a dream.

SIWOK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Like most of our band members, I went through the same experience as Leeteuk. It feels like all of this happened overnight and we are all of a sudden receiving all of this attention and love from people. So, I'm very thankful for this. I dream of moving forward as an actor while I continue to be a good singer. And, in the future, I would like to become a missionary.

COREN: Really?



COREN: Tell me a little bit about that.

SIWOK: I don't have any specific plans yet, but my father wants to do the same thing, and he does have specific plans. I'd like to go to countries where I have received much love and personally return all of that love.

COREN: You are hugely popular here in South Korea. I gather that, when you are on the streets, you are mobbed by your fans. How do you deal with that fame?

LEETEUK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Sometimes the eyes surrounding me are a bit of a burden, and there are times when I want to be myself, but I think all of that is a sign of their interest towards us. So I'm really happy. In the past, I used to run away from my fans, but these days I just chat with them, and it seems to make things more comfortable that way.

SIWOK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Because we started at such a young age, it may sound odd to say this, but it feels like we are aging with our fans. So, when we meet them, it's more like we're checking up on how they're doing. And we'll say things like, "How are your parents? Have you eaten?" and things like that. And it's great.

COREN: I guess the downside of fame is the pressure that it places on your personal lives. How hard is it to have a relationship?

LEETEUK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): There are not that many restrictions on our relationships. It may seem like it, because we're public figures, that our private lives are managed, in a sense. But it's probably quite the opposite. If I were to say I like someone, then I'll be able to get support and advice from our management company.

COREN: Are either of you in relationships?


LEETEUK: No comment.


COREN: So, that means Leeteuk -- yes. Busted.

Coming up: how the boys from Super Junior are using their fame to raise awareness for a worthy cause.





COREN: Earlier this year, you appeared on MTV and campaigned against human trafficking. That's such a worthy and noble cause. Why did you throw your support behind this?

LEETEUK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): We went to Vietnam to participate in that event and help out there. I heard that, in Korea, human trafficking was banned back in the '70s and it caused a lot of pain for people and their families. And it was a big social problem.

We came across it when we were thinking about what help we could offer people while we still had a bit of fame and power. That's why we went over to Vietnam -- to offer our support. And we had a good time there.

COREN: There are so many celebrities and pop stars out there who don't use their fame and notoriety for a good cause. So, do you feel a moral responsibility to raise awareness and promote these sorts of things?

SIWOK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): When we chat or have meetings, a lot of times what we talk about is how we can use our influence, while we have it, to have a positive effect on people and the world. We believe that we can change the world and use our influence to create changes. So, we do try to offer help to people in countries that are struggling or others that are in difficult situations.

COREN: Leeteuk, you were involved in a car accident back in 2007. You were one of four members in the car with two of your managers. You were quite seriously injured. You had to receive 170 stitches. Can you tell me about the accident, the recovery, and whether you thought that was the end of your career?

LEETEUK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): I had a very hard time back then. It was just when we had started to get really popular, and I thought, "Is it all over already?" I was really depressed. Sometimes I'd cry when I was alone in my hospital room. But I found it pretty easy to get back to work, thanks to the other members who carried on performing. That's probably what brought me so far.

COREN: Where did you receive your stitches?

LEETEUK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): I had about 10 stitches above my right eye and about 150 around my waist. It was the first time I'd ever been in a serious accident. I do remember, though, right before the crash, I thought to myself, "I have to keep performing, I want to keep living". That particular thought was so strong. I also remember praying at that very moment. And I'm OK now.

COREN: Now, the internet is huge here in South Korea and I presume it's a very powerful tool that you both use -- social media, Twitter, Facebook -- to communicate with our fans. Tell us about the power of the internet with your fans.

SIWOK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): A lot of people tend to believe that we don't really have a life and are in some sort of cage. So, we use social media a lot to show people slices of our personal life.

LEETEUK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): We don't really have much opportunity to communicate with our fans across Asia, since we only do a tour around the region once every six months or so. So, to keep up the conversation with our fans, it's great to use outlets like Twitter. By uploading messages there, our fans can see how we're doing and we can also see how they're doing.

COREN: At the other end of the spectrum are these anti-fans. Cyber- bullying is a big problem in South Korea, I believe. And there have been some extreme cases where people who've been the target of hate campaigns have actually gone and committed suicide. How do you deal with these anti- fans?

LEETEUK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): In terms of anti-comments, I don't think it's all that bad. I see it as another form of interest in us. In the beginning, it was rough, reading those comments. But, after a while, I started to realize that they are, in a way, just a different type of fan showing interest.

I'd like to say that I actually enjoy it. If I didn't and kept focusing on it, then it becomes too hard to control. Fans and anti-fans can coexist and there are things that we can learn from those anti-fans. There are times when they make me realize my faults and I try to make improvements.

COREN: But, does it ever get under your skin and make you upset?

LEETEUK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Of course it does. I'm only human. It's OK when it's about me, but when it becomes something about my family or the other members of the group, then it gets pretty hurtful. But now, I'm really enjoying it to the extent in which I'll actually go up to the anti-sites and run a search on myself and see what they're saying.

SIWOK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): In some ways, they are like a coach putting us through our paces. We are able to make improvements because of people like them, and we have no choice but to get better for that very reason.

LEETEUK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): When there are too many anti comments, we get online and counter them.

SIWOK: Not me.

COREN: Not you. You.


COREN: Do you think there will come a time when you go your own ways and the band will break up?

LEETEUK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): A lot of young groups in Korea split up without breaking the five-year mark. And usually this was because, as you just said, it was to go their own way. But for Super Junior, it was more like we all started while we were going our own ways.

So, I don't think the expression "break up" really fits Super Junior. I expect the group to stay intact while we all do our own things. And I think the brand value of the group will continue to grow.

COREN: Well, Leeteuk and Siwok, a pleasure to meet you. Thank you for joining "Talk Asia".

SIWOK: No, we pleasure. Thank you so much.