Within the last decade, South Korea has focused its efforts on building new partnerships and expanding bilateral cooperation across sectors and regions. To this aim, public diplomacy has been embraced as a key tool for boosting Korea’s national image as a relevant international actor. While politically this has taken the form of an outspoken self-branding as a middle power, at a more general level, Korea is ever more focused onwinning the hearts and minds of citizens across regions through the active showcasing of its cultural products, with “hallyu” as the crucial piece of the puzzle.
Although hardly measurable through immediate diplomatic achievements, this emerging pattern of K-culture diplomacy responds to the intertwined goals of national branding and nurturing friendly perceptions of Korea. A third, more tangible, goal rather follows an economic rationale: boosting exports through the soft marketing of Korean goods. Overall, the utilization of cultural diplomacy thus points at a long-term vision of building a form of international social capital that will ideally help to sustain South Korea’s diplomatic and economic networks in the years to come.
While the origins of the Korean Wave can be traced back to 1997, its steady—and unexpected— globalization beyond North and Southeast Asia prompted a swift response from the Korean government, which seized the chance to surf on the tide of hallyu by supporting cultural industries as early as 2002. The close collaboration of institutions such as the Ministries of Culture, Sports, and Tourism and Foreign Affairs with some of the largest entertainment companies eventually resulted in the doubling of exports for video games, TV shows, and music between 1999 and 2012. For that year alone, the estimated value of exports in cultural industries stood at about $4.2 billion.
The popularity of hallyu artists has also created an increased demand for Korean goods ranging from food to cosmetics, both as exports and as a significant share of tourists’ purchases in Korea. This phenomenon, observed mostly in China and Southeast Asia, has driven a consistent growth in sales for leading cosmetic companies such as AmorePacific, which recently unveiled plans to expand business to the Middle East and Latin America by 2017, two regions where K-culture is increasingly popular. In contrast, for countries with limited access to Korean cultural contents, such as Myanmar, the Korean government is arguably seeking to recreate this soft marketing strategy by sponsoring the diffusion of K-dramas through the Korea Foundation for International Culture Exchange (KOFICE).
Since 2002, the Korean government has thus adopted a variety of strategies with K-pop and K-dramas at the core of its cultural diplomacy and nation branding efforts. Some of these included the creation of the Council on Nation Branding in 2009, the adoption of catchy slogans such as “Dynamic Korea,” and the appointment of hallyu stars as tourism ambassadors.
However, a more recent and most interesting innovation in these strategies has been the consistent inclusion of K-culture as an integral element of President Park Geun-hye’s summit diplomacy. For the last two years, Park’s state visits have almost invariably involved her participation in large-scale cultural events featuring both Korean popular and traditional culture. In this way, this approach has shown an ability to cater to local interests, fan-bases, and cultural backgrounds.
For instance, in April 2015 São Paulo hosted the “Fashion and Passion” festival during Park’s visit to Brazil, echoing the city’s renowned fashion week. In April this year, the K-Soul Festival in Mexico City showed a balanced combination of popular, traditional culture, and sports—with taekwondo being particularly popular in that country. There, Park expressed her desire for Korea and Mexico “to become one through sports and the arts.” Similarly, during the first ever Korean state visit to Iran on May 1-3, the “Korea-Iran One Heart Festival” was at the center of the K-Culture Week in Tehran. Featuring mostly traditional culture, cuisine, and poetry, the events also included the promotion of Korean historical dramas, which have been incredibly popular in Iran.
At the outset of each of these events, Park has strongly emphasized the importance of cultural exchanges for promoting understanding between Korea and its partner countries. In other words, K-culture diplomacy can be seen as an effort to bridge geographic and linguistic barriers by crafting cultural proximity and, in so doing, strengthening the foundations of Korea’s diplomatic partnerships in the long-run.
And, while cultural interaction between (present-day) Korea and Iran can be loosely traced back to about 1,500 years ago, this is certainly not the case with Latin America.For a region where even 20 years ago Korea was relatively unknown, the growing popularity of the Korean Wave is a most surprising phenomenon. In Peru, the rates of viewership for K-dramas now stand at around six percent, much higher than the two percent for nationally produced soap operas. There, just as in most other Latin American countries, Korean dramas are now aired through national broadcasting channels, which both reflects and promotes their widespread popularity. As for K-pop, a myriad of fan-clubs have been formed in the region and some of them even met with the South Korean president at a special event during her state visit to Peru last year.
Although unexpected at first, this phenomenon has prompted an active response from the Korean government, with most of its embassies in Latin America now organizing annual K-pop contests, frequently sponsored by the local branches of conglomerates. In Argentina, the Korean Cultural Center and Samsung Electronics partnered to host the first Latin American K-Pop Contest in 2010, drawing participants from 10 countries and for which Miss Argentina 2010 acted as the K-Pop Ambassador.
But beyond music and dramas, the Korean Wave has also sparked a general interest for Korean culture amongst young Latin Americans. Indicative of this is the opening of two new Korean Cultural Centers in Mexico (2012) and Sao Paulo (2013), in addition to the one operating in Buenos Aires since 2006. In terms of language, it is also illustrative that there are now 11 Korean language schools operated by the King Sejong Institute in seven Central and South American countries.
All-in-all, although these trends are clearly generational and could well be labeled a sub-culture, they do reflect a general increase in cultural awareness about Korea in the region within the last decade. In this sense, while the Korean Wave has served somewhat as a gateway for acquainting Latin Americans with Korean culture, its potential impact for Korea-Latin America relations goes well beyond hallyu itself.
On the one hand, this may contribute to increase demand for Korean products, which will come in handy as Korea pushes forward with several new free-trade agreements in the region. On the other, it hints at the success of an approach that combines opportunity and strategy for transforming culture into a bridging, rather than differentiating, factor. Winning the hearts and minds of citizens abroad may thus become an asset for Korea’s long-term relations with countries that are geographically and linguistically distant, be it in Latin America or the Middle East.
Yet, as frequently pointed out by critics, it remains unclear exactly what kind of national brand is Korea trying to display through hallyu—this is, besides its national brands. And, while soft power may well yield socio-political benefits in the long-run, as of now, these are at best uncertain. But in the face of falling exports, the short-term economic impact of K-culture diplomacy is definitely clear.
Anaïs Faure holds a Master in Korean Studies from the Academy of Korean Studies and a Master in Development Policy from the KDI School of Public Policy and Management, both in Korea. Her main research interests include Korea-Latin America relations and Korea’s role in international development cooperation.