When, after careful contemplation, MOKA answers a question, you can see all the consideration and curiosity in her eyes, her calm voice full of both deliberation and clarity. It’s the shining radiance of a 19-year-old finally ready to reveal to the world every meticulous step she’s taken to arrive at where she is today.

Your debut’s right around the corner.
MOKA: Even though we kept practicing, it didn’t feel real until we started doing shoots for the debut. I guess I’m nervous. Since it’s been a long time since we last saw our fans officially on R U Next?, I’m looking forward to seeing them again more than anything. My friends are super excited and curious about my debut, and my family’s really happy for me, too. There’s this LINE group chat with the women in my family: my mom, my sister, my cousin, and my grandma. Whenever a new video goes up, they’re like, “You looked so pretty. You were so cute.” They’re really excited for me.

I heard your mom is a big K-pop fan.
MOKA: It’s true. So I ended up listening to a lot of music and even went to a concert with her around sixth grade. I think she’s happier about everything than anyone else, and it feels like she thinks she’s doing all this with me. (laughs) She gets so happy whenever I do anything that it’s like she’s the one doing it.

I understand you were known for your K-pop cover dances before becoming a trainee. How did you get started with that?
MOKA: I developed an interest in dancing, so in middle school I started going to a K-pop cover dance academy. I could even feel my legs dancing during class time at school. (laughs) Then I got together with some friends from the academy and took part in some small contests nearby. One time, we did a cover dance at KCON, and that brought us all the way to Tokyo. That was my first time going there without my mom. There were four of us from the academy plus one adult. KCON’s big, and there were more people there than I anticipated. It was really exciting.

So that naturally led you to dream of becoming a K-pop idol?
MOKA: At that academy, they gave us opportunities to audition for various labels, which is when I started to get interested. Attending that academy made me feel confident enough to think that maybe I could make it too. My friends knew I went to that academy and told me I should try auditioning, but I was too shy to admit I wanted to be an idol, so I was like, “No way! No way,” and then auditioned anyway. (laughs)

What was it like when you first became a trainee?
MOKA: I spent about a year as a trainee online at the beginning because of the pandemic. I’d take online lessons and upload videos of the dances and songs I learned that day. I felt kind of bad for my sister, since dancing right next to her might have distracted her from studying (laughs) but overall it wasn’t too bad since I was living with my parents. Then, as the pandemic cleared up a bit, I ended up staying in Tokyo. Living apart from my family for the first time made me a little nervous, but of all the trainees there, I was the oldest. (laughs) That made me feel sort of like I should take care of them.

And you were still young yourself. That’s pretty impressive. Was it okay moving to a new country like Korea and competing on a reality show?
MOKA: I was interested in K-pop and really wanted to work in Korea, so I was happy to come here. I was really worried about the language at the time. It was really challenging in the beginning, but I had to do R U Next? at the same time, so I tried hard to learn a lot by speaking all the time. I used to get frustrated during interviews because I couldn’t properly express myself, but I feel like I can speak a little more naturally now. It’s gotten a lot better.

That reminds me of your personal motto: “Even if it’s hard now, if I work hard at this moment, better days will come.”
MOKA: There were so many talented people there when I was a trainee. Naturally that made me work all the harder. It was like, whenever I felt worried or anxious, I’d think about the past and the future. I’d watch performances from famous artists and think about how I wanted to be like them, and by taking control of my thoughts and tackling small tasks one at a time, things would often just start to work out.

In your SUPER REAL ME film, you talk about calling your mom or a friend before going to sleep. I’m sure times like that must have helped out too.
MOKA: I talk to my friends and my mom quite a bit. When I tell my mom about negative thoughts I’m having or things I’m worried about, she always says something positive to me. It makes me feel safe and secure when I hear her talk like that. I think I call her because I want to hear her say things like, “It’s okay. Don’t worry.” We also talk about random stuff, like any old small thing that happened to us. She’ll say something like, Here’s what happened today … Your sister was at school and … (laughs) We talk a ton. And I really do set a bunch of alarms on my phone, just like in the video. (laughs) I turn off every light except for my mood light, watch a movie, have some snacks. There’s something about spending time in bed that just makes me feel really happy. Taking time out to do that makes me feel like I had a full day.

I heard you have a tendency to misplace things. (laughs) WONHEE said, “Kim Moka always loses stuff.”
MOKA: No, seriously, I really think I need to fix that about myself. I lose things all the time! Actually, just last week, I put my wallet in the outfit I was wearing for a shoot, and then returned it without thinking … (laughs) I didn’t even notice that I lost it, but luckily they got it back to me. There was another incident with my wallet where I put it in a plastic bag after going to the convenience store and later on I threw the bag in the trash. I ended up finding it later, but I was terrified. I’ve also lost my phone way too many times ...

Who would’ve guessed that about you? (laughs)
MOKA: I seem like I’d be good about those things, but I’m actually not, sadly … (laughs)

Maybe you’re not so nervous about this way of living—more like comfortable with it?
MOKA: Yes, that’s probably true. I’m actually really candid when we’re shooting content like vlogs. I’m completely myself. During R U Next?, I was pretty shy and not very talkative, but I’m closer with the other members now and more comfortable being on camera than before.

They say you take care of them—like you’re the mom of the group.
MOKA: I never thought of myself as being motherly (laughs) but I guess I do kind of like taking care of them. It’s like I do it subconsciously. I always want to do things for them. But moms also yell at you and stuff, which isn’t me. I’m more of a caring, grandmotherly type. (laugh)

You seemed to be quite skilled at continuously stirring boiling ramyeon and at grilling meat on I’LL LIKE IT! Did you help out with the cooking at home a lot?
MOKA: Sometimes I did. But whenever I helped, it just slowed things down, so my mom would be like, “You’re too slow, get outta here!” (laughs) When I lived alone in Tokyo, I looked up simple recipes and made a lot of things that could be cooked in a microwave or that had oatmeal in them. I’m interested in cooking and watching videos about it, but I haven’t had much of a chance to do it since moving to Korea. I’d love to cook something for the other members when I get the chance, though. (laughs)

Your affection for the other members is really touching. What kind of role do you want to play for them, especially to the younger ones?
MOKA: Roha and I are roommates, and since she’s younger than me, I want to be sure and take good care of her. But she knows more about living in Korea than I do and she’s good at Korean, so I’m not too worried about her. (laughs) Actually, when we speak Japanese together, everyone else gets curious. They say it looks like we’re having some serious discussion, but we’re not. (laughs) So yes, we do speak Japanese sometimes, but we naturally end up using Korean together too. And when I’m with WONHEE, it feels like I’m back in school. Being around the younger members makes me feel younger too—like we’re the same age. I’m one of the older members, but I’m still the youngest among them (laughs) so I group myself along with the younger members.

What’s it like having other members in the group born the same year as you?
MOKA: MINJU and I were actually a bit awkward together on R U Next?, but now that we’re together 24/7, it was inevitable we’d become close. (laughs) YUNAH is really cheery, and, uh ... loud sometimes (laughs) but she lifts everyone’s spirits and has a good influence on us. She’s really good when we’re on variety shows, so the rest of us feel less pressure. Our group doesn’t have a leader, but it’s like she takes on a special role as the oldest because of her personality. And MINJU and I are the same age as her, so it’s nice that we can help her out and lighten her load when things get tough.

Was there one specific moment where you suddenly felt like you’ve really come together as a team?
MOKA: I could feel it once we had our own songs. When we were practicing the choreography, we talked a lot about coordination. At first we were all working from our own individual feedback, but when I looked at the bigger picture, it sort of felt like our coordination was off. I thought to myself that some of the parts were hard and that we should begin doing them a different way, and when we finally talked about it, we all said we were thinking the same thing. I felt in that moment that it was a good thing we all have each other, and when we were all thinking about coordination like that and started really getting in sync, that’s when I felt like we were truly a team. We set time aside to talk all together, and we decided we should say everything we want to say, and if there’s anything we’re unhappy with, we should talk about it right away and take care of it. We also said, “Let’s have a lot of fun together. Let’s have fun doing this.” That really make me feel our group can be a great one.

What was it about ILLIT getting their own songs that made you feel like a team?
MOKA: Before we had our debut song, I was curious what kind of concept it would have. But when I heard the single, “Magnetic,” it was like, Wow—this is it! This is ILLIT! It’s perfect for us! This is it! I was ecstatic. The choreography is cute but hip. And exhilarating. It was fun because it felt like I was trying something new, and I was really proud that it would become ILLIT’s image.

What was it like putting all that effort into practicing the performance for your debut song?
MOKA: It was hard at first because my hands aren’t that flexible. (laughs) This (showing hand movements) isn’t easy to do. (laughs) But it started to become fun the more I did it, and I even pictured it becoming a dance challenge. Also, YUNAH and I do a lot together in it. We’re really close for real, but it’s hard to show that through dance and have it come across onscreen. We worked on it a lot to make sure our chemistry would come across, like, “You look at me here, and then I’ll look at you.” That was “Magnetic,” but there’s another part in “Lucky Girl Syndrome” where we hug. I hope people can see that chemistry between us.

It also seems like you put a lot of thought into how to make your parts stand out.
MOKA: I often look at the early choreography and think I should do some part a certain way. During the part in the chorus that goes, “Bae Bae,” I take a step and (demonstrating choreography) do this move and pose with a really big smile. I wanted to look really pretty at that part, so I thought carefully about what expression to wear. The song takes a hip turn suddenly at that part, but I pictured doing it sort of playful and cute and also cool? (laughs) I sing parts in “Magnetic” and “Lucky Girl Syndrome” right before the chorus where I bring the energy down a notch but also build the anticipation. I did my best to stimulate people’s curiosity there, and I hope it comes across well.

On I’LL-IT Ready, you brought up something the producer said and talked about the sense of responsibility you feel toward the process of recording vocals. What was it about that message that resonated with you?
MOKA: I really wanted to do a good job, and it made me think twice about how I wanted to present myself. On R U Next?, the parts were already divided up and it was more about choosing which parts you wanted, but with the album, we sang everything first and ended up each doing the parts that suited us best. Basically, it felt like there were parts that were tailor-made for my voice and made me think they’d really bring out my vocals. Maybe you could call it feeling confident. I guess I started to think of the roles I could play in the group that would benefit all of us.

And it shows you feel a sense of responsibility towards the group.
MOKA: Doing what other idols do—doing all the things I only ever dreamed of—is amazing. But now that I’m actually doing it, I know it can be hard, and since I’m watching myself, instead of just liking what I see, I end up scrutinizing it and thinking, I should’ve done it this way. (laughs) I guess I feel more responsible right now because we all have to do well as a group. And the very fact that I’m debuting with a company as big as HYBE, where there’s already so many amazing artists, I feel this pressure and responsibility to follow that path properly.

How do you want to present ILLIT to the fans?
MOKA: I’m really grateful that they’re still supporting us and waiting for more from us even though the show ended a long time ago. Everything the fans say fills me with strength. They check in with me every day, leave messages, and watch all our videos. I can’t say thank you enough. I can’t wait to meet our fans and to talk to them up close at fan meeting events. We’re all friends in the group, and if we were a family, we’d be sisters. I hope people can sense that fun energy between us and that they’ll want to hang out with us when they see us, too. (laughs)

ArticleYoon Haein
InterviewYoon Haein
Visual DirectorMat-kkal, Lucky Park(MHTL)
CoordinatorOh Minji
Visual Creative TeamLee Gunhee, Kim Nayeon, Kim Joo hyun, Yoon Sanga
PhotographyPark Sangjun(@poishx)
VideoJo Yunmi, Seo Yujeong
ProducerPark Soyoung(@andsoyoung_)
HairPark Jihee(HOLYHAIR)
MakeupMun Jiwon, Im Hajin
StylistAhn Areum
Set DesignMHTL(@official.mhtl), Leeroy Kim(@leeroykim)
Artist Protocal TeamWoo Soohyeon, Hong Inseo, Cho Yoojeong, Yun Jayoung
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