After its quiet rise, South Korea wants to be among the powerful

South Korea is no longer the small Asian country it was twenty years ago. It was then successfully emerging from underdevelopment and seeking to reconnect with some of its imperial roots.

In 1993, before France managed to pass a contract for the construction of a TGV to Korea, François Mitterrand had visited visiting Seoul. Following a discreet request from the Korean Embassy in Paris, he took in his delegation two curators from the National Library of France (BNF) who had understood that they should show one of the 297 Korean royal manuscripts brought back. in Paris under the Second Empire. But, once there, the two BNF officials understand that, in reality, it is a question of offering the manuscript – or more precisely of returning it – to Korea. They try to oppose it, before having to leave it in a briefcase from which they take the key.

Seventeen years later, in 2010, the Korean economy has grown tremendously and the country’s democracy is firmly established. At the renewed request of Seoul, the President Nicolas Sarkozy decides to return the remaining 296 royal manuscripts. This time, this restitution does not cause a particular stir. In recent years, Korea has entered a new phase: it is located at 11e rank of industrial nations and it wants to integrate as well as possible into the circle of nations that matter. This leads it to strengthen its relationship with Europe, and in particular with France.

It so happens that, in Paris, a dialogue has been established for several years between theAsia center research institute and the Korean Embassy in France. And, this October, the institute publishes under the title Asia Trends: Korea, a review, in which various aspects of the realities of South Korea are discussed. This is the opportunity to organize, on October 13 in Paris, a meeting of academics and connoisseurs of present-day Korea. Some are in Paris, others speak by videoconference from Seoul.

Jean-François Di Meglio, President of Asia Center, explains the intention of this meeting: [Il est] necessary to reduce the tension between this desire of Korea to enter the world game and the relative ignorance in which we are in France and in Western Europe of what is happening in the country. Korea is a natural interlocutor that we tend to put in the background. ”

Soft power

South Korea is currently making important points in the field of culture. His artistic productions meet with worldwide success. This is the case of Korean pop, K-Pop, as it was, in 2019, that of the film Parasite, which won the Palme d’Or at the Oscars in Hollywood. And currently, the nine episodes of the series Squid Game were watched in a month by more of 100 million households in the world, which is a record.

Netflix is ​​broadcasting this story disadvantaged and indebted people who compete in games where they can win billions and who will be shot down if they lose. This elimination of the weakest is a reflection of a social reality in South Korea. The fight against the pandemic has slowed down much of the business and young people can hardly find odd jobs. Hence a certain craze for television connections as well as for online games.

These Korean situations provide all kinds of subjects for audiovisual programs produced in Korea. They are highly regarded in this hyper-connected country and widely exported across the world. Korea has thus become a leading producer of soft power.

Angeliki Katsarou, who works on Korean cinema at Stockholm University, contributes to the magazine Asia Trends: Korea. It details how, while broadcasts of American films have long dominated Korea and, in the 1970s to 1990s, Japanese works achieved worldwide fame, Korean professionals gradually appeared. “With a lot of vitality and creative energy. They draw their sources from a past when it was necessary to fight against the censorship of an authoritarian political regime and where the economy was unstable. ” However, today the Korean government encourages and supports the audiovisual sector.

Successful management of the pandemic

Another topic discussed at the Asia Center conference on October 13: Covid-19 and how its broadcast was limited to South Korea. Cédric Legrand, director general of the French Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Seoul, recalls that in Korea, the wearing of a mask has been widespread for a long time and that everyone knows which hospital to go to in the event of a health alert. .

For the Covid, a close and systematic investigation is carried out on any infected person detected and on his contacts. “Other epidemics have appeared in the last decades in Korea, recalls Cédric Legrand. And the country has been able to capitalize on its experience and be ready for a major health crisis. Not only was Korea prepared, but it was able to adapt quickly to the specificities and severity of this much larger crisis than previous crises. ” As soon as the pandemic appeared, an institution was reorganized, the Korean Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KCDA). This administrative authority has a wide autonomy for its organization and its budget. Four hundred and forty officials work there, with a control center open 24 hours a day.

From the start of the epidemic, South Korea impressed with its means to fight the coronavirus. These soldiers prepare to spray disinfectant on a street in Seoul on March 6, 2020. | Jung Yeon-je / AFP

The fight against coronavirus is a question that also appears in the article published by the Asia Center on “The Korean model of democracy versus eastern despotism”. It is signed Christophe Gaudin, a sociologist who lives in Seoul, where he teaches political science at Kookmin University. The author considers that there is in Asia a cultural ground common to all political, democratic or authoritarian regimes. In particular, Asian populations very quickly considered that the decisions taken by their governments to fight against Covid-19 were effective. On October 13, Christophe Gaudin specifies: “It is true that in Asia there is this state apparatus and this collective discipline which have proved their effectiveness. But what distinguishes Korean management from, for example, that of China is the degree of democratic transparency that goes with it. ”

During national holidays, when Koreans travel a lot in the country, the rate of infection has sometimes suddenly increased. The information is then immediately published. On the other hand, when citizens launch a petition on Covid, medical experts respond to it. According to Christophe Gaudin, this may explain that, unlike what we have seen in the West, there are no theories in Korea on a conspiracy that would explain the arrival of the Covid. For this French sociologist living in Seoul, the question arises of an evolution towards an Asian form of democracy in which Korea would play a leading role. Which apparently does not mean, he adds, that in the current period, “The Korean political world is up to the changes in society and the changes in the country”.

An international place

Korea’s development has led it to find a growing place in international institutions. The country has been invited three years in a row at the G7 summits. Paul André, professor in international relations at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris, analyzes the significance of this Korean presence alongside the great powers. Originally, South Korea was invited by Donald Trump. Its objective was above all to counter the weight of the European countries that are members of this economic club.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson welcomes South Korean President Moon Jae-in ahead of a bilateral G7 summit meeting in Carbis Bay, Cornwall on June 13, 2021. | Stefan Rousseau / Pool / AFP

But’innovative economy embodied by Korea fully justifies its participation in the G7, especially since the country’s GNP is close to that of Italy or Canada. So much so that Joe Biden in no way called into question the Korean participation in the G7. Last June, Korea participated in the summit hosted by Great Britain in Carbis Bay, Cornwall. And Seoul is getting used to playing a role in managing the global economy. According to Paul André, “There is an interest in Korea being in the G7. As much for the member countries of the G7 as for Korea. “ However, Paul André is careful not to say that Korea will join the G7 and that we are going to move to a G8. He thinks that “It’s premature. But the idea of ​​having Korea as a privileged partner of the group of great economic powers is an assumption that seems to be on the table. ”

“The idea of ​​South Korea becoming a partner of the group of great economic powers is an assumption that seems to be on the table.”

Paul André, teacher in international relations

Korea’s economic appeal is largely based on its modernity. This is based on innovation and technology, two terms that are almost synonymous for Koreans. Soo Min Hong, a French-speaking Korean student, explains that they are highlighted by the structure of the economy, organized in a “chaebo”, these sets of companies in various fields which maintain cross-shareholdings among themselves and which occupy three quarters of the economic space. In addition, government support for innovation and technology has helped the country become a real powerhouse in research and development.

There is originality in a lot of Korean economic behavior. In particular, this means avoiding following the solutions practiced in Japan. On the other hand, the country cannot ignore its powerful neighbor, China, but it must make sure it is as close to the United States as possible. By developing both economically and culturally, Korea believes it is acquiring strength that can make it more self-reliant. The novelty is that it begins to clearly display this objective. From Seoul, it was undoubtedly important to observe how one sees Korea in a French research institute.

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After its quiet rise, South Korea wants to be among the powerful

Hank Gilbert