The successes of South Korean soft power

Hallyu or the “Korean wave” has engulfed Asia and will soon reach the world. Since July 21, the Korean Cultural Center has been hosting an exhibition highlighting this phenomenon, which has been constantly evolving since the 1990s. K-pop, series, films, lifestyle, South Korea is attracting more and more people. the government of Moon Jae-In intends to ride the wave to put it at the service of its soft power.

Since its democratization in the 1980s, South Korea has considerably increased its economic weight, to the point of rising among the great powers and joining the G20. It has also played an important role in UN peacekeeping operations, thereby assuming its new status on the international stage. At the same time, its high-tech industries have become benchmarks, its culture has been exported and its image has improved on the international scene. South Korea has reached a level of development that seemed unachievable decades ago. His soft power was built in parallel, and as a consequence, of this success. Behind the consecration of the film Parasite by Bong Joon-ho (who notably won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2019 and the Oscar for Best Film in 2020), we also find the success of television series and Korean Pop (or K-pop), generally referred to as Hallyu, literally the “Korean wave”.

Paradoxically, Parasite is a sharp criticism of contemporary Korean society and, similarly, the term Hallyu was first used in 1999 with a negative connotation by a Chinese journalist who criticized the popularity of Korean mass culture among Chinese youth. When Hallyu appeared in the 1990s, it was only considered as a passenger, given the tradition of this country in which cultural exchanges were one-way, with the importation of foreign culture on the one hand and the development of national culture on the other hand. But above all, South Korea, wedged between China and Japan, is not a country traditionally exporting its own culture. Yes Hallyu has helped to change the image of Korea and Koreans, it generally improves relations between Seoul and other Asian countries, to the point of becoming a real strategy of soft power aimed at strengthening the influence of South Korea (1).

Why is South Korean culture exported?

Hallyu is not initially a planned success, with mass culture generally seen as too popular and of poor quality to be successful abroad. However, the Korean people are characterized by their taste for popular arts such as singing, dancing, manhwa (Korean manga) or television series, and productions have multiplied since the 1990s. Korean audiovisual companies strive to bring out the characteristics of the Korean people in their productions, which has made them original and distinctly Korean-labeled works. In this respect, the K-pop label is revealing and has developed its export capacity by being part of a process of globalization of culture and by opting for hybridization (2). K-pop thus plays more and more on access to other languages, with titles in English. Korean artists are also performing more and more abroad, including in Western countries. As a result, the Korean cultural industry is a booming market. Initially identified as a cultural phenomenon with specific characteristics, Hallyu gradually expanded to include cuisine, lifestyle and culture in general. The Korean government has recognized the value of this phenomenon, which is not only to sell more cultural goods, but also to sell the image of Korean culture and South Korea abroad. But these are initially the chaebols, the large Korean conglomerates, who have understood the interest of betting on cultural productions. Some production houses, such as that of the musical group BTS, Big Hit Entertainment, have thus become symbols of this successful business strategy (3).

The benefits are countless. Hallyu draws attention to South Korea and emphasizes sectors other than mass culture, such as hangeul (the Korean alphabet), the hansik (Korean food), the hanbok (Korean traditional costume), hanok (traditional Korean houses), hanji (traditional Korean paper) or traditional Korean music. We can also look at the impact on the tourism sector in South Korea. Since the beginning of the phenomenon Hallyu and the sports media showcase inaugurated with the Seoul Olympics in 1988, the number of foreign visitors to Korea has steadily increased. Many places have become essential tourist destinations. This is the case of the Insadong district or the Dongdaemun market in Seoul, in which we see more and more indications appearing in different languages, but the phenomenon extends to all the places associated with the shooting of series in hit or production of K-pop. Hallyu offers economic benefits in the cultural industry such as cinema, music or television series, but also in the secondary and tertiary sectors thanks in particular to the promotion of products by K-pop stars, famous actors or sportsmen. Stars and athletes can even have a much more unifying role than advertising for a particular commercial product, and we see them becoming true ambassadors of the brands they promote. The large groups thus benefit from spillover effects on their other sectors, which allows them to be competitive in the field of exports. This is why we note a very strong presence of Hallyu in developing societies, such as Southeast Asia, where young populations have gradually become accustomed to seeing drama Korean and listening to K-pop.

Between public diplomacy and commercial strategy

Academic circles were the first to look into the question of soft power Korean and the link with Hallyu. But the government was quick to follow suit to promote its public diplomacy. Korean strategy is based today on a set of characteristics specific to a middle power; it is a country with significant resources, but which, at the same time, still suffers from a little-known image. It extends in multiple sectors, aiming at the same time to promote the characteristics of the country (nation branding) and to put forward an economic and social model, or in the field of education (4).

Behind its popular culture, the image of South Korea is at stake, and its trajectory over the past decades is a major asset. This country is renowned for having achieved its democratization and economic take-off over a short period. It also quickly emerged from the financial and economic crises, particularly those of 1997 and 2008. The South Korean model is an example for countries that would like to reproduce the “miracle of the Han River”, which enabled Seoul to emerge. poverty to establish itself as one of the most dynamic and modern societies in Asia (5). The chaebols were the great architects of this success.

By partnering with chaebols, the Korean state plays a central role in the strategy of soft power, and quickly assessed the benefits of Hallyu for the image of South Korea (6). In 2001 he launched the slogan Dynamic Korea to demonstrate its dynamism in many sectors. In 2002, on the occasion of the FIFA World Cup (co-organized with Japan), the Korean government created a commission under the aegis of the Prime Minister for the improvement of the national image. In 2007, the Korean Tourism Organization launched the slogan Korea sparkling to attract foreign tourists, and does promotions in big cities like New York, Beijing, Tokyo or London. However, this commission, too focused on the government actor, did not provide satisfactory results and was replaced in 2009 by the Presidential council on nation branding. Placed under the direct authority of the President of the Republic, this new commission cooperates more with non-governmental actors. Taking into account that the soft power is at least as important as the hard power, it has two main objectives, which are to increase the country’s image to reach the average level of OECD members, and to place South Korea in the first ranks of countries with the best image in the world.

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The successes of South Korean soft power

Hank Gilbert