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At K-Pop Festival, Korean Stars Align With Their Superfans

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The group NCT 127 was a fan highlight of KCON at the Prudential Center in Newark.

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Krista Schlueter for The New York Times

NEWARK — That K-pop — the pop music scene that dominates South Korea and, increasingly, the rest of the world — has not yet had a chart-topping, cross-cultural “Despacito” moment in this country is vexing. The affinities are natural — the music is thick with references to American pop, hip-hop and R&B. And it’s both decadently visual and relentlessly energetic, in a way that needs no translation.

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Jung Yong Hwa, the frontman of CNBLUE.

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Krista Schlueter for The New York Times

K-pop continues to embody all of this potential, as was clear on Saturday, the second day of KCON, an annual festival — this was its third year here, and it will come to Los Angeles for the sixth time in August — that tries to make a global phenomenon feel like an intimate subculture, and underscores why that strategy is a savvy one.

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The boy band UP10TION in a red-carpet moment.

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Krista Schlueter for The New York Times

All day and night, through panels, workshops, dance-alongs and opportunities to meet stars and, finally, a concert, KCON made an effort to condense this huge scene into a series of small, consumable gestures. This was the case even in the most choreographed moments — on the red carpet, where the pop stars dutifully took turns facing each part of the room, so different swaths of screaming fans could get great shots; and during the show, where groups like Twice and NCT 127 interrupted their tightly structured sets for fan interactions (also preplanned, but still effective).

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Members of the I Love Dance troupe showed off their moves.

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Krista Schlueter for The New York Times

NCT 127, which released its debut EP only last summer, was the highlight of the concert — their hits, including “Fire Truck” and “Cherry Bomb,” are flamboyantly chaotic and unerringly entertaining. The concert also featured the boy band UP10TION and Twice, a squeaky-clean girl group. (The most intriguing artist on the Friday night bill was the singer/rapper Zion.T.)

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Twice, a squeaky-clean girl group. at KCON.

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Krista Schlueter for The New York Times

KCON is set up to take advantage of the intimacy and fluidity of this still-growing scene (in this country at least) in which superfans — the closest observers — are the real experts. Many of the afternoon panelists were YouTubers, fans themselves who were probably only a couple of years removed from being just regular attendees. On one afternoon panel, “Storytime: I Met My Idol!,” a handful of them related giggly tales of offhand conversations in elevators, or of simply locking eyes with their favorite singer. And at least a couple of the day’s panelists were also in the press pit at the red carpet, shooting photos for their websites.

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Merchandise booths offered K-pop fans cheap ways to show their loyalty.

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Krista Schlueter for The New York Times

The K-pop world has developed its own lingo: “hi-touch,” a way for artists and fans to connect quickly, a sort of extended high-five; “bias,” the member of a K-pop group that you favor; and so on. Much of KCON is devoted to efforts at fan education and inclusion, especially during the daytime part of the festival — a dance floor was set up so fans could recreate the moves from their favorite K-pop videos en masse, and at the myriad sponsor tents, teenage fans sang and danced along to hits like BTS’s “Blood Sweat & Tears.” Merchandise booths offered cheap ways to show loyalty: posters, stickers, enamel pins, bracelets with stars’ names spelled out in glittery letters.

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