A few days after their single "Be My Baby" earns the top spot for a second consecutive week on the TV chart show Inkigayo, Wonder Girls attempt to record something different: a song in Chinese. Two gentlemen stand sentinel on either side of the soundproof door to JYP Entertainment's in-house studio, a few inches away from crusty cubicles. Errant chunks of unprocessed Chinese-language vocals escape each time the door opens, but not much else. Every room in this cramped office space in Gangnam-gu, the Seoul financial district on the southern bank of the Han, features an amber plastic placard on the wall. It's to help remind employees of the "JYP working style" — what's expected of the company's artists, three dozen trainees, and employees, like international PR manager Mei Han.
"JYP people should always be a leader, in all the ways," she reads aloud to me in a tiny rooftop conference room. It's a business philosophy handed down from founder, CEO, and singer/songwriter/producer/pop personality Park Jin Young, better known by the giant initials above the main entrance. Though the former performer runs a smaller shop than his rivals at YG and S.M. Entertainment, he's been very active in engaging American talent and audiences. Wonder Girls, for example, were the first K-pop act to crack Billboard's Hot 100 Chart. Not far from her desk, Han motions toward a grid of glamour shots arranged on the wall. "This one," she says, nodding to a kid in a jean jacket with a devilish smile and pore-less skin, "we call 'Post-Nichkhun.'"
Nichkhun is a member of wildly popular boy band 2PM. He is also a symbolic wrinkle in the formula. Born in Southern California to a Thai-Chinese family, Nichkhun was discovered in 2006 by JYP during a Korean music festival in L.A. According to Han, the infamously charming Nichkhun had appeared only to help a friend who was set to perform that day. When he received an offer to come train for pop stardom in Seoul, he showed little interest. Then his grandmother, a huge fan of onetime K-pop star and JYP signee Rain, insisted he go. Today, he's fluent in five languages, and according to Bernie Cho, has completely altered the way Koreans view Thailand.
"I never thought I'd see a Thai kid in a K-pop band," Cho says, laughing. "But Nichkhun has shattered the misconceptions Koreans may have had about Thailand: It's gone from mysterious to fabulous." Though he's inescapable on Korean television, he's also something of a hero in Thailand, where he was recently named an ambassador to the Tourism Authority, an honor that also brought with it a single and beach-based music video titled "Let's Take a Break." Nichkhun has beguiled the Thai market so successfully that his path has become a model for gaining entree to foreign markets. Han is only willing to disclose that this young, would-be "Post-Nichkhun" is as magnetic as his namesake.