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South Korea’s Soft Power Struggles – Analysis

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By Roald Maliangkay

South Korea has become a powerhouse of cultural production. Its significant cultural influence in global entertainment is spread across industries in various media operating at the vanguard of cultural developments around the world. South Korean policymakers claim that the ‘Korean Wave’ is driven by the quality of its artists and products. Others have instead looked for answers in South Korea’s marketing and funding schemes.

Gangnam Style became the first music video to hit a billion views on YouTube and now sits in 10th place on YouTube’s list of most-viewed videos. A seemingly innocuous animated children’s song called Baby Shark currently leads YouTube views, also produced by a South Korean company. Earlier this year, actress Youn Yuh-jung won several international movie awards. Meanwhile, boy band BTS set five new world records in May 2021.

South Korea’s endless stream of creativity could derive from clever packaging and favourable market conditions, fostered by a government that has made considerable investments into the cultural industries since the late 1990s. Indeed, South Korea has provided a masterclass in strategising soft power in a way that Taiwan and the United Kingdom have considered adopting. This view might overlook the exceptional conditions that produced the Korean Wave. They include a major economic crisis, cultural and geographical proximity to two major powers, a unique script and language, a long history of being subjected to foreign imperialism, and being home to leading producers of consumer technology.

It might be expected that the Korean Wave would boost South Korea’s global soft power, allowing easier access to overseas consumer markets. Former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon wrote that soft power ‘transcends borders, builds bridges, and brings the world together through dialogue and mutual understanding’. Until this is achieved, soft power is more about curbing or growing influence than embracing difference, with significant involvement from netizens.

The Korean Wave has both encountered and cultivated a considerable degree of antagonism in China. Government censorship creates obvious concerns for South Korean producers. Some of the biggest challenges have been caused by eruptions of keyboard violence between Chinese and South Korean consumers. When Chinese consumers have banned or slammed South Korean products that they claim show insensitivity to, or wilful ignorance of, historypolitics or culture, South Korean netizens have retaliated. The increasing involvement of South Korean stars in Chinese marketing campaigns is likely to cause a rise in the number of such controversies.

One area where South Korea can rely on third-party moderation of disputes with China is intellectual property, including intangible heritage. The appeal of international arbitration might be why UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage has been the site of considerable competition, despite its mission to promote respect for ‘cultural diversity and human creativity’. Since 2009, South Korea has contended with China, Japan and North Korea for recognition of similar cultural items. A few listings that had limited life as local traditions in the past are now serving to define the successful applicant nation.

Both South Korea and UNESCO have added 21 Korean cultural items to their respective lists since 2008. The importance of the acknowledgement is demonstrated by South Korea recognising kimchi preparation, female divers in Jeju province, and the folksong Arirang only after it successfully pursued their listing by UNESCO. In 2009 South Korea was prompted to pursue the latter when China moved to recognise the song as part of its national intangible cultural heritage. It succeeded in 2012, but in 2014 the song was listed again as a North Korean repertoire.

The stakes are high for a country claiming ownership of the next cultural item found in different forms across the region in part because it can devalue the cultural distinctiveness of other national claimants. Soft power may not always foster dialogue and mutual understanding, but at the very least it can bring together lawyers and arbitrators from around the world.

*About the author: Roald Maliangkay is Associate Dean of Student Experience in the School of Culture, History & Language at the Australian National University.

Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum

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East Asia Forum

East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centred on the Asia Pacific region. It consists of an online publication and a quarterly magazine, East Asia Forum Quarterly, which aim to provide clear and original analysis from the leading minds in the region and beyond.

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