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Relevance Of Soft Power In Fostering India-South Korea Relations – Analysis


\The concept of ‘soft power’ and its relevance in contemporary politics as an instrument of diplomacy is being increasingly used by nations across the world in conducting their foreign policies. The manner of its application that shapes the perception of the nation that uses it entails an element of flexibility, which is why its merit is sought to be derived for maximizing the benefit stemming from such application. This useful diplomatic tool as ‘soft power’ was coined by Joseph Nye1 who explained how it is different from the application of coercion and force as against persuasion and authority yielding the same result. According to Nye, it can become as insidious as that of ‘soft’ power whereby it permeates into every aspect of human lives. As Nye puts it, ‘soft power’ is enabled through both attraction and persuasion.2


Recent global trends follow this pattern especially within the consumerist sphere, where people are influenced by commodity brand rather than with the commodity and its quality. Advertisements and promotions make up the gamut of soft power of a nation where they influence not only domestic policy but also its foreign policy. This article would like to study the same ‘soft power’ as practiced by such highly industrialized nations such as South Korea and its influence upon India. It will try to seek a better understanding of the changing dynamics of soft power in India- South Korea relationship as pertains to Korean television channels in India and the significance of K-pop or popular Korean music especially in the north eastern parts of India.

While the early pre-cable television generations in the north eastern states grew up watching television shows of the ‘Mahabharata’ and the ‘Ramayana’ on national television networks like Doordarshan, contemporary generations are more inclined towards a culture, which at first glance, might seem alien and therefore foreign. However, the very fact that Korean culture has been able to find acceptance and make great inroads into the common household of the northeast, is to be noted. Not only has Korean culture been accepted as part of everyday life in the north east, it has also added to the aspirational values of the common man and woman there. This is in direct contrast to that of the 1980s whereby pan-Indian shows were showcased and a fostering of national culture through television was attempted.

This raises deeper questions of identity and acceptance. While Korean soap opera dramas and music have become synonymous with the north eastern states of India, it cannot be denied that other parts of India are also being influenced. Tamil Nadu now has a popular Korean channel being aired. What strikes this author is that the soft power of these cultural imports can be seen in the popularity of Korean industrial products of Samsung, Hyundai and LG. On the one hand advertisements by these firms are a primary example of ‘soft power’ relations between the two countries; on the other hand, it also ensures that a newer idea of the ‘self’ is created in India based on the huge commercial prospects for their products. Yet, it also permeates within these native cultures foreign policy ideas of South Korea as almost everyday occurrences. A vivid example would be South Korean dramas having characters who are North Korean spies. To the uninitiated this cultural narrative could act as an introduction to the conflictual relationships between the two Koreas in a subtle way. At the same time the viewer is deeply influenced through the help of created aspirations and ideals within himself or herself due to the influence of these images.

The next logical extension of this approach came through increasing investment by the South Korean government in Korean language courses in the form of scholarships for students and programs for teachers to visit South Korea to augment their language skills in tune with contemporary society. This approach received institutional back up when the South Korean government opened its Cultural Center in New Delhi in May 2013, which is leaving its useful impact in the furtherance of Korea’s soft power application. Indeed, there is an upswing in the cultural impact of South Korea in India over the past decade or so. This article will also look into certain nationalistic designs that are showcased through their dramas, etc, which have got unwittingly intertwined with that of nationalistic aspiration of certain sections of Indian society.

The Korean ‘Image’ and soft power

We find that cultural and social perceptions form a significant part of the image of a country. While diplomacy had often contributed to this in earlier age, in the globalised age of faster communications and information, it is often things that are non-governmental and therefore seemingly beyond state authority, that are the initiators of soft power. While the whole notion of soft power as defined by Nye highlighted the concept of attraction (both economic and cultural) when he stated that “…in behavioral terms, soft power is attractive power… In international politics, the resources that produce soft power from the values an organization or country expresses in its culture, in the example it sets by its internal practices and policies, and in the way it handles its relations with others” (Nye, 2008). If such is the case, then South Korea has accomplished it nicely. Attraction to the country is invoked through tourism advertisements that abound in the internet. At the same time cable television channels like UTV World Movies that are meant to showcase only foreign language films have helped in promotion of Korean cinema. In December 2008, UTV World Movies premiered four Korean ‘blockbusters’ every Friday in India3.


Malone4 explains the point in his article when he states that there is a growing consensus that the power of attraction exerted by cultural affinities and shared values can greatly contribute to international credibility. India’s soft power potential lies, among other things, in its democratic credentials, secular values, pluralistic society, considerable pool of skilled English-speaking professionals, varied culture (particularly Bollywood movies), and its food and handicrafts (Malone 2011). South Korea has also a similar background. In both India and South Korea, the change in their approach to diplomacy and soft power started in the 1990s.

With the world financial crisis in the 1990s, it was apparent that countries could not depend upon the old models of market protectionism and censorship. In South Korea, former President Kim Dae-jung promoted this. He gave tax incentives for the promotion of South Korean culture through their television dramas. Government funding was given for start ups in the cultural sectors that would not only influence the domestic markets but through the internet revolution influence other markets as well. As per an article in The Economist (9 August 2014), “…in 2005 the government launched a $1 billion investment fund to support the pop industry.” This has shown an increasing influence in world k-pop industry. In fact, it has been purported that the hallyu wave (literally meaning the ‘Korean wave’ in Chinese) was the result of all the soft power initiatives to resist an economic meltdown. Promotion of Korean culture is quite apparent through the dramas as well. South Korean popular historical dramas like Faith, Chuno, Sungkyunkwan Scandal5, etc. give one an insight into a historical culture which is often deemed to be quite far from the notions of Indian history and mythology.

This is a direct contrast to that of the earlier generations of Indian television viewers who were being introduced to a pan-Indian concept of historicity. The wave of television programmes in the 1980s was meant to evoke a sense of kinship within the citizens of the country due to a shared culture based on common myths and mores. The influence of this kind of soft power is such that the viewer grows habituated to having a shared culture through the images in these programmes. On the other hand, introduction of Korean channels in the early 2000s was a foreign concept which was promoted through continual promotions by Korean Culture Center as well as private players like that of television channels like ‘Arirang’ Television managed by Korea International Broadcasting Foundation. However, the feeling of alienation is lost as viewers tend to look for cultural similarities rather than dissimilarities. Dramas depicting family values like Smile You which resonates within Indian audiences because of similar existence of the extended families within the Indian multicultural matrix. India’s diverse cultural matrix is often bemusing for people outside, yet strangely it has attracted foreign investment and has even become an advantage as it often forms a cultural and economic base with one part of the country or the other.

While Manipur was the state that had a direct impact of the Korean wave due to the banning of Hindi television and cinemas in the 2000s by the Revolutionary People’s Front, all the other north eastern states have been subject to an ever increasing influence of South Korea through this soft power import. Similarly in Mizoram it was seen that Korean dramas have been a great success as per Lalsawmliana Pachuau, owner of LPS Vision in Mizoram6. It has in turn generated local revenue as dubbing artists are required for dubbing these shows along with that of English sub-titling. The youth of the north eastern states and even their everyday requirements such as clothes, fashions as well as weddings are deeply influenced by Korean culture. This has a direct economic impact on cultural imports like television channels.

India’s Look East Policy

In India, the north eastern part of the country is the part most influenced by South Korean culture. Recent history of Indian civil skirmishes and political unrest has been considered as largely responsible for their influence. Thus, we find that the ‘soft power’ implied in these cultural exchanges are directly influenced by both domestic and international politics. While the banning of Hindi and other channels in Manipur during the year 2000 by the underground revolutionary group was the main impetus behind the Korean wave, it also cannot be denied that with the onset of economic liberalization and cable television, it has spread far and wide. Most of the north eastern states of India (especially Manipur and Nagaland) have long been accustomed to Korean entertainment that has been brought across the border from Myanmar.

Culturally, these states accepted Korean entertainment in lieu of other north Indian entertainment7. Again, India’s recent economic policy of Look East, and now Act East, policy was a conscious effort since 1991 to establish itself as a substantial power in the Southeast Asian part of the world as compared to China. This has also given a boost to trade through economic and cultural ties between India and South Korea. India’s growing emphasis on its ‘Look East Policy’ and South Korea’s ‘New Asia Diplomatic Initiative’ has helped cultural exchanges to grow in leaps and bounds8.


Soft power in India-South Korea relations is an ongoing process which involves both economy and culture. However, with time we are seeing a new phenomenon in India whereby successive generations of younger people are getting involved in cultural images that affect them. Therefore, Korean television has had a great impact on fashion and music of the younger generation. We are seeing the rise of internet blogs and groups in India where there are the younger generation is constant discussion regarding newer television imports. This in turn leads to greater interactions of images between the countries. In Tamil Nadu a television channel Puthuyugam9 dubs K-Dramas into Tamil. Other ventures are also on the rise. On the other hand, India’s soft power export to South Korea in the form of culture needs to be intensified and increased. Further dialogues and deliberations are required to increase this bilateral relation. However, it cannot be denied that soft power constitutes and important part of India–South Korea relations and the predominance of contemporary culture on both is inevitable.

*Ms. Madhura Mukhopadhyay is a doctoral candidate in the Division of Canadian Studies of the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She earned her M.Phil and M.A. degrees from the same University. She was a recipient of the Canadian Commonwealth Fellowship in 2012 for research at Concordia University, Montreal.

1. Nye, Joseph Jr (2008), “Public Diplomacy and Soft Power” in Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol.616. Stable URL:
2. Ibid.
3. Information accessed from on 30.04.2015.
4. Malone, David M (2011), “Soft Power in Indian Foreign Policy“ in Economic & Political Weekly, September 3, 2011 Vol No. 36.
5. Names of the Korean dramas have been given in English as per web resources.
6. Source accessed on 31.05.16 at 3 :45 PM.
7. For further reference look into Kshetrium, Otojit and Nongimbam Victoria Chanu article” Mapping Cultural Diffusion: The case of ‘Korean Wave’ in North East India” in Narsimhan, Sushila and Kim Do Young (ed).2008. India and Korea: Bridging the Gaps. New Delhi: Manak Publications.
8. For further details look up India-South Korea Relations: A New Beginning by Pranamita Baruah (January 2014) accessed from
9. Source accessed on 31/06/2016 at 5:18 PM

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