Can Thailand Replicate South Korean Soft Power?

Recent Features


Can Thailand Replicate South Korean Soft Power?

South Korea’s soft power is permeating youth culture. Can Thailand follow its example?

Can Thailand Replicate South Korean Soft Power?

K-Pop Music Awards

Credit: Ahn Young-joon, Associated Press

The concept of soft power has become a hot topic in Southeast Asia of late, and Japanese stakeholders have been taken aback by the extent to which Korean soft power has penetrated Thai youth culture.

According to the Council of University Presidents of Thailand (CUPT), among the candidates sitting the university entrance examination, candidates choosing Japanese as a second language were outnumbered by those opting for Korean. Chinese was chosen by the highest number of candidates (35 percent), followed by Korean (18 percent). Japanese (17 percent) came in third, trailing behind Korean for the first time. Korean only became an official second language subject on Thailand’s university entrance examination in 2018, and yet within the short space of just four years, the number of examination candidates in Korean has surpassed the number of Japanese-language examinees.

This is evidence of the penetration of South Korean soft power, such as K-pop and Korean drama. The fact that K-pop groups in recent years have included artists from Southeast Asia has further boosted their appeal for young people from the region and sparked an interest in the Korean language. For example, Lisa of BLACKPINK and BamBam of GOT7 are from Thailand, while Dita of SECRET NUMBER is from Indonesia.

While Japan may have lost its spot as the number-two language for university entrance exam takers, its soft power is as strong as ever. Southeast Asia is still the highest ranking region across the board when it comes to the number of overseas contracts concluded for Japan’s animated works. Thailand ranks 8th in the world with 274 contracts, followed by Indonesia (12th), Singapore (14th), the Philippines (15th), and Malaysia (16th).

In addition, Japanese companies and individuals also contribute to soft power. Japanese companies are synonymous with high tech and high quality, while Japanese behaviors and values such as “diligence,” “politeness,” and “humility” are widely respected.

Did a young rapper show soft power?

Soft power is being widely discussed in Thailand. At the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival, one of the world’s largest international outdoor music festivals, which is held in the United States in mid-April, 19-year-old Thai rapper Danupha “Milli” Khanatheerakul drew attention when she ate Mango sticky rice, a Thai dessert made with glutinous rice, mango, and coconut milk sauce, on stage. The sweet was even selected as one of the world’s top 50 desserts by CNN Travel. Milli’s performance was lauded in Thailand as “a demonstration of Thai soft power.”

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha jumped on the bandwagon, claiming he was the one who had been pushing all along for Thailand to harness its “soft power” to drive growth. The term “soft power” is taking on a life of its own, with the advisor to Thailand’s minister of commerce saying that the ministry has been promoting a “creative economy” with a focus on soft power development.

What is meant by “soft power”? The term was coined around 1990 by U.S. international political scientist Joseph S. Nye Jr. and refers to the ability to influence others not by force or coercion, but through attraction. According to Nye, a country’s soft power is generated from three sources: culture; political values such as democracy and human rights; and foreign policy. Nye cites the example of the Berlin Wall, which collapsed in 1989, stating that “No barrage of artillery brought down the Berlin Wall; it was removed by hammers and bulldozers wielded by people who had been touched by Western soft power.”

Soft power resides in democracy

Thailand is characterized by the inclusive nature of its society, which respects diversity, including other racial and ethnic groups, and sexual minorities. The Thai national traits of hospitality and generosity, which embody this respect for diversity, are a form of soft power that inspires people to visit the country. Despite its comparatively small size, Thailand ranks eighth in the world (2019) in terms of the number of overseas visitors.

However, the country’s “political values” are an impediment to the development of soft power. Since the 2014 coup, the Prayut administration has used force to quash protests against the military government. Although authority was formally transferred to a civilian government in 2019, the administration has retained strong powers under a COVID-19 state of emergency declaration and the regime remains authoritarian in nature. Indeed, Thailand was not invited to the U.S. Democracy Summit at the end of 2021.

Behind the global success of K-pop is the establishment of democracy. Although South Korea was under authoritarian rule following a 1961 coup, the country held the first democratic presidential elections in Korean history in 1987, and the process of democratization that followed resulted in a cultural and artistic blossoming.

Thailand is due to hold a general election by next March at the latest. If it moves away from authoritarianism and a transfer to a “genuine” civil administration takes place, Thailand’s own flowing of soft power will surely not be far behind.

SUKEGAWA Seiya is visiting professor at the Thai-Nichi Institute of Technology and professor at the Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Kokushikan University.