Going beyond K-pop and tradition

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Going beyond K-pop and tradition

How should we promote Korea to the outside world?

This is a question that comes up again and again in the media and in public life. It reared its head again recently with a rather bizarre “romantic mushrooms” campaign for Korean food in the United States. So much time and money is spent on promoting Korea and Korean culture that it constantly amazes me how counter-productive such campaigns are.

Since I am a foreigner (yawn), I expect some readers will consider this an “attack” on Korea, or at least, a “critical” article. Please do not take it that way. I am simply a person who fell in love with Korea as a tourist, and decided to stay. I want to promote Korea, so others can experience the same thing. This is why I want to openly offer my own suggestions on how Korea should and should not promote itself.

To my mind, there seems to be one basic problem: Instead of thinking what people would like about Korea, it looks as though the emphasis is on, “What do we want people to like about Korea?” This is why one tourist pamphlet I recently saw told me that Koreans were a peace-loving people who, unlike many others, had never invaded another country.

Maybe this is true. But is such a statement going to make people want to visit Korea or do business here? I might suggest that the reader would sarcastically think, “Oh I see, so Koreans are better than me.” I have also seen adverts imploring me to “visit Dokdo,” which I am then told is “Korean territory.” I agree that Dokdo is Korean territory, but statements to that effect do not belong in promotional advertisements.

Promotion of Korea also centers too heavily on safe, traditional things. Again, this is, I believe, the result of someone sat in an office saying, “Yes, foreigners should be eating gujeolpan (an elaborate Korean dish consisting of nine different foods assorted on a wooden plate), going to the Kimchi Museum and visiting palaces,” instead of asking, “What will people like about Korea?” The people who make such decisions should ask themselves: When was the last time I went to the Kimchi Museum or ate gujeolpan?

Among those in the public and private sector whose job it is to promote Korea, there is, I believe, a large cohort of people who are aware of all this. Many of them speak foreign languages very well, and cringe at some of the slogans and concepts used - “romantic mushrooms” for instance. But unfortunately, they tend to be the younger ones - the ones who aren’t able to make decisions or criticize.

Some organizations are changing; the Korean Culture and Information Service recently sent me a plan of a booklet they were preparing, which looked genuinely attractive. But there are so many different organizations promoting Korea and its culture - at different levels of competence - that I think it is time to have a national discussion about how to do the job properly.

If someone were to ask me how to promote Korea, I would suggest first asking large numbers of foreign tourists and foreign residents what they enjoy about Korea, and what they think their friends from back home would find attractive about Korea. Then, analyze: break down by age groups, by nationality and so on. Draw conclusions about what different types of people respond to, instead of lumping us all into this one meaningless category: the “foreigner.”

Of course, one would definitely detect a large K-pop fan segment. They are already being catered to a little too heavily though, to the point where non-Koreans are in danger of seeing Korea merely as “K-pop country.” But did you know that Korea’s largest cultural export market is computer gaming, which utterly dwarfs exports of pop music? I strongly suspect that computer gamers worldwide would be ready to see Korea as a “gaming paradise,” if such a message were offered to them.

Korea also has a real “fun” component. I imagine that many tourist promotion people would be ashamed to offer Korea as a place of amazing street food, drinking culture, noraebang (karaoke bar) and nightlife in general. But literally 100 percent of my English friends who have visited this country fell in love with Korean nightlife. They enjoyed it just as Koreans do, and ignored gujeolpan just as Koreans do. They make statements like, “I had no idea how much fun this country is. I certainly didn’t get that impression from tourist information.”

Many other possibilities will emerge, if one merely listens to people. Non-Korean friends of mine were amazed when I took them to Mullae-dong, southern Seoul, to see an indie music performance in one of the new art/cultural spaces that has opened up there. There is so much going on in indie art, photography, cinema and music in this country, that I am convinced global “hipsters” would love Korea.

An architect friend once told me, “Korea is a small but complete world.” He meant that Korea tends to have its own distinctive version of everything. I would agree with that sentiment. And in terms of national promotion, it is a godsend: you’ll have something to offer all kinds of different people. Korea has everything necessary to be an extraordinary destination. Isn’t it time to show the world?

*The author is a former Seoul correspondent for The Economist.

by Daniel Tudor
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