‘Soft power’ rising

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‘Soft power’ rising

Nam Jeong-ho

The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Korean entertainment has become an international sensation. After K-pop superstars BTS and the film “Parasite” impressed the world, it’s time for Korean drama series. “Squid Game” has become the most watched series across the globe where Netflix streaming is available, and a Korean crime series “My Name” is moving up the charts to become the third most popular title on Netflix.
Harvard Professor of Emeritus Joseph Nye, who coined the concept “soft power,” expounded on South Korea’s soft power strategy in a recent seminar hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C. The former dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government would have been a laureate if the Nobel Prize had a category in international politics. Soft power stems from a country’s attractiveness and credibility of its culture and values apart from its economic and military power. Nye claimed that South Korea’s soft power could influence traditional international relations including with the United States. He cited the U.S. policy on its military presence in South Korea. Former President Donald Trump accused Seoul of free-riding on U.S. security and demanded higher payments for defending it. Trump threatened to pull U.S. troops out if Seoul did not shoulder more expenses.
The plan did not work. The U.S. Congress disapproved of Trump’s policy due to improving American sentiment towards South Korea. Americans’ favorable view of South Korea hit 77 percent in 2018, shooting up from 46 percent in 2003. Hits like “Squid Game” have helped defend the country.
Still, South Korea lags behind Japan in favorable attitudes of Americans. A Gallup poll in February 2018 said 87 percent of Americans had positive views of Japan. Japan may not have BTS or smash drama hits, but is liked more by U.S. citizens.
Japan has built trust in international society through contributions and consistently pro-U.S. diplomacy. But given the international K-wave fever, international ratings of Korea could beat Japan’s some day. Soft power could be the country’s biggest pillar of security.
Flanked by members of BTS, President Moon Jae-in appears on ABC’s Good Morning America, Sept. 24, on the sidelines of a UN General Assembly meeting. [AP/YONHAP]

Flanked by members of BTS, President Moon Jae-in appears on ABC’s Good Morning America, Sept. 24, on the sidelines of a UN General Assembly meeting. [AP/YONHAP]

That is, if politics don’t get in the way. Foreign media places the Korean government’s full support as a driver behind the surge of K-wave. The government indeed provided various kinds of support to promote hallyu, or the Korean wave of popular entertainment. It also got the direction right. In outlining policy for the promotion of K-wave in July 2020, Park Yang-woo, minister of cultural affairs, called for “wise” planning so that support was made without any interference.
Still, politicians have been trying hard to ride on the international popularity of Korean entertainers. BTS accompanied President Moon Jae-in on a trip to the United Nations General Assembly in September. In New York, BTS showed up at Moon’s address on sustainable development goals and went on a UN interview. Members of the group had to accompany the first lady’s to the Art of Korea exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The septet also had to join Moon’s interview with ABC and attend an event at the Korean Cultural Center in New York hosted by the culture minister. BTS had to spend four to five days in New York entirely for a political show.
A study by Korea University showed that the economic effect from a BTS concert in Seoul in July 2019 amounts to over 920 billion won ($789.2 million). If BTS had spent its time on a concert instead of waltzing around with Moon and his political pals, the group could have done more good for the country. Politicians must stop interfering with Korean entertainers. Leaving them alone is the best way to promote the country — and strengthen our security.
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