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The Harmony of Tradition and Modernity
Kim Ha-jin  |  hajinkim99@hanyang.ac.kr
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[348호] 승인 2020.12.01  
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What comes to your mind when you think of Korea? The Korean government has actively participated in various efforts over the years to promote Korean culture and image to foreigners. Specific images of Korea selected by the government frequently appear on public relations media, such as tourism posters and national promotional videos, to draw global attention. However, over time, the approaches to enhance its national image have been improved. Unlike the bygone days, it has become a trend to harmonize tradition with modernity. 

According to the Korean Culture and Information Service’s 2019 National Image Survey, 12.5 percent of foreigners polled said that K-pop and K-pop singers were the first things that sprang to mind when they thought of Korea. It surveyed 8,000 people from 16 different countries including Korea from 2019 July 18 to August 22. Such as the case, Bangtan Sonyeondan (BTS), a sensational world famous Korean boy band, reflected a traditional element of Korea in the music video “Idol”. Likewise, such up-to-date trials are expected to help boost the latest country’s global image. 


Past Attempts of Promoting Korea

The late 80s and 90s were the best opportunities to promote Korea’s identity: the 1986 Seoul Asian Games and the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Shim Sungwook, Professor from the Department of Advertising and Public Relations at Hanyang University ERICA Campus, said, “ An inter national sporting event actually had a huge influence on promoting Korea. Since the 1988 Olympics, Korea has gradually become known to the world.” To hold an event, the promotional materials, including mascots, the emblem, and posters are urgently needed to distinguish Korea from other countries. Since then, images that emphasize Korea’s uniqueness, such as Taekwondo, Hangeul, and Hanbok have emerged. 

The early 2000s may prove to be a watershed moment for a changed form of public relations. In 1999, a promotional video clip for the nation named “Korea, 5000 years young” began to feature contemporary figures such as the Seoul Cityscape, where the 63 building is located, and Park Chan-ho, the first Korean baseball player to play in the United States. Over time, efforts to promote Korea have continued. However, traditional culture was still the central figure, and even content that included modern elements usually showed traditional culture first and later presented modern culture independently. 

Overall public relations of this period played a role in promoting Korea, but at the same time, had a huge impact on building a stereotypical promotional image of Korea that has continued since then. “Frankly speaking, I didn’t have much knowledge about the country other than its entertainment and a bit of Kimchi. I thought it was a rather undeveloped country and everyone rode bicycles everywhere. Now that I am here, wow, was I wrong,” said Luke Watson from Texas, who arrived in Korea around 2012, in an interview about his ideas about Korea prior to his arrival.


Modern Methods of Promoting Korea

These days, modern elements play a big role in the latest Korean promotional videos. This kind of change was caused by the craze for Hallyu. Hallyu, or the Korean wave, refers to the social and cultural phenomenon in which Korean TV dramas, music, and movies have become popular in East Asia and other parts of the world, even influencing lifestyles. When presenting modern culture, it has started to include intangible cultures such as K-pop, K-beauty, and even Korean games, not just simple concepts like skyscrapers or the city view as before. 

Besides Hallyu, the development in video platforms and Social Networking Services (SNS) have also helped build up the images of Korea. YouTube and social media have had a tremendous impact on current trends and mentalities within Korea, especially among the younger generations. In this respect, Professor Shim added, “Everyone around the globe now has access to Korean viewpoints, which helps people from other countries understand not just the pop culture of Korea like BTS, but also the slight intricate details of a country that have been hidden from the world for so long.” 

The Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) uploaded three Korean PR video series, Feel the Rhythm of Korea on to YouTube’s website on July 30, which covered the main cities of Korea: Seoul, Busan, and Jeonju. These videos gained huge popularity through word of mouth by foreigners, recording 80 million views in just two months. Including the number of hits on Facebook and TikTok, the number of views has exceeded 300 million. On that account, KTO released follow-up videos on October 13: Andong, Mokpo, and Gangneung Editions. The videos collaborated dancers from the Ambiguous Dance Company with the music band “Leenalchi”, which reinterprets Pansori as popular music. 

Among them, the most explosive video is the Seoul edition; dancers are dancing against the backdrop of various landmarks in Seoul, wearing wacky clothes. Oh Chung-seop, Head of the KTO Brand Marketing Team, said “Originally, our promotional videos are subject to potential overseas tourists, so we don’t promote them separately in Korea, but I’m happy to receive a lot of compliments from both Korean and foreign netizens.” He added, “In my opinion, the tradition that is no longer done nor enjoyed should just stay in museums. Now we need to modernize our traditions, reinterpret them, and enjoy them.”

The harmony between tradition and modernity can be also found in various fields. On October 1, BTS performed their new song “Dynamite” in a fusion Hanbok costume at Gyeongbokgung Palace. Blackpink, the most famous girl group leading the K-wave, also wore fusion costumes in the music video and programs of “How you like that”. Furthermore, Netflix and the KTO have released “Explore Korea”, a special video showing Korea’s unique beauty in Netflix’s various original content, highlighting various aspects of the country’s past, present, history, culture, and lifestyle.


Attempting to Harmonize Tradition With Modernity

By adding traditional point to modern factors, the combination of universality and distinctiveness can make our culture widely known to global society at large without aversion. Indulging only in traditional elements does not seem to keep up with the widespread attention today’s trends boast and is considered to be outdated. Harmonizing tradition and modernity is one of the key ways to preserve the characteristics and identity of Korean culture. Thereby the culture will be able to have both artistic value and popular appeal.

Along with the positive assessment, there is also a negative assessment to be aware of. Cho Keuk-hun, Assistant Professor from the Division of Liberal arts at Kyonggi University Suwon Campus, said “In terms of promoting Korea, the Korean W a v e h a s a global evaluation that combines traditional values that appreciate family ethics with modern values that emphasize individual happiness. However, at the same time, critics wonder if such a method is nothing more than an imitative culture in which Western pop culture has just been filtered to suit Asian values.” 

In addition, Professor Cho mentioned, “When I wrote a paper titled The Traditional and Modern dialectics of Korean Wave Culture, I approached from a critical and philosophical point of view about the efforts to modernize and inherit traditional culture.” He emphasized the importance of cultivating a “critical attitude”, and added, “For example, in the case of mask dance culture, our oppressed people have a critical function of expressing themselves through mask dance. Because of the commercialization of culture occurring simultaneously in the course of modernization, we should be wary of the deprivation of the critical functions of traditional culture, likewise the spirit of Korea.” Thus, it requires much effort in attempting to harmonize tradition with modernity, in order not to degenerate it into a kind of duplicate trend, which is caused by indiscriminately accepting Western pop culture.


Traditional Modernity From Now On

Overall, from promotional videos to K-pop to YouTube, the modern beauty of Korea and its popularity strongly dominate the ethos of the young generation in shaping their understanding of themselves, society, and the world in general. However, audiences need a sensible attitude of acceptance instead of watching it thoughtlessly. In other words, viewers should take the time to deliberate identifying traditional elements that have permeated into modern culture. Through this tradition and modern dialectical negotiation and practice, the current way of promoting Korea-harmonizing tradition and modernity will last for a long time. It is hoped that this trend will eventually raise Korea’s cultural status and popularity.


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