Back in the days when foreigners were asked about Korea, most responded with what they knew about North Korea. Their answers were definitely not based on positive things but they still recognized North Korea more than its Southern counterpart. In 2018, however, things are quite different. The phenomenal song Gangnam Style , sung by PSY, the megahit K-Drama Guardian: The Lonely and Great God or Dokkaebi in Korean, and the K-Pop group BTS, who are also contenders on the U.S. Billboard Chart, are just a few aspects of Korean culture that have been introduced to the world. Their reputation has succeeded in shaping a positive image of South Korea, ultimately playing a big role in helping its cultural diplomacy policies gain more momentum. But cultural diplomacy is neither just about Hallyu, nor is about creating bigger global fandoms. It is done for the sake of the country by incorporating various different domestic elements which are then used to connect to the world.
What Is Cultural Diplomacy Under Public Diplomacy?
Within the series of ongoing collective efforts, public diplomacy represents the past, present, and future developments of a “global” Korea. As public diplomatic policies promote Korea globally through aspects of culture, education, policy, and more, this article will focus primarily on cultural diplomacy, a sub-factor of public diplomacy.
While the prior focus of Korea’s diplomatic policies was on gaining hard power through military and economic measures, the goal for Korea in the 21st century is to combine both hard and soft power through cultural aspects in an attempt to intimately connect with the international society, thereby becoming a true global giant. By efficiently utilizing intangible elements such as pop culture, art, sports, and identity, they convince others to understand Korea and to foster a Korean-friendly environment globally. This new diplomatic policy goes further; it ultimately seeks respect towards universal values and issue-solutions across the world by using diplomatic relations as a “tool.”
Cultural diplomacy especially focuses on culture, as its name states. Korean cultural diplomacy would most likely be represented by Hallyu, a worldwide syndrome of fandoms for K-Pop groups and K-Dramas. Yet, audiences are changing and the strategy for targeting these audiences is changing as well. Commercial profit is not the sole priority today, and exporters are required to consider a vast range of factors to suit the ever-changing global societies. Therefore, just like how Aaron Tarver, a Cultural Affairs Officer in the Public Diplomacy Sector of the US Embassy in South Korea, emphasized, a country should “systematically identify the audience and maximize their potential as a tool.”
Hallyu at the Forefront of Korean Cultural Diplomacy
K-Pop group BTS is proudly one of the most influential Korean artists in the North-American music market. BTS’ unprecedented success overseas represents another step forward that the Hallyu has taken, not only for its commercial aspects but in how the group has also connected to the world through “tools” other than music. Topping the Billboard 200 Chart for the first time in K-Pop history, being the first-ever Korean group to perform at the Billboard Music Awards, claiming millions of views for music videos uploaded on YouTube are just fragments of their success. But how is BTS’ popularity being maintained, or even increasing over time compared to past K-Pop?
According to Mimyo, the Editorin-Chief of the Korean K-Pop webzine, Idology , it is the worldwide fandom that supports BTS’ career overseas. How did BTS manage to create such a fandom? Mimyo pointed out “consciousness towards global issues such as gender, race, and youth.” The Love Myself campaign is one example. Through their partnership with UNICEF, BTS advocates the need for a world where children and teenagers are free from violence. The campaign promotes the idea: “Love myself first, and then with this love, make the world a better place”, and practices it through donations and voluntary activities. Another example is the song Not Today, which challenges racism by voicing their support for the minority groups. The United Nations, recognizing BTS’ social contribution, invited the group to deliver a speech in a conference this September. During their speech, BTS’ group leader and rapper RM (Korean name Kim Nam-joon) spoke about the values he had as a young adult, encouraging people to bravely step up and live their lives to the fullest. The speech was, therefore, an epitome of what one could call Korean cultural diplomacy.
How Can Korean Cultural Diplomacy Improve?
What would be foreign examples of cultural diplomacy that Korea could learn from, in order to develop new ideas and objectives? To this point, Aaron Tarver spoke about the importance of setting the audience of diplomacy. “The United States, in the process of helping the assimilation of North Korean defectors into Korean society, also aims to re-educate them about the misconceptions towards the American society, learned prior to defection by providing culture programs involving mainstream culture. The long-term goal of this project is to minimize cultural clashes that will appear if unification of the two Koreas actually takes place.” he said. Since the North Korean public tends to be less enlightened about the truth, the cultural influence will aid in reconciliating differences in views toward a shared identity. Such an example targets the relatively underprivileged, bringing diversity in to the audience.
Additionally, the French invest heavily in cultural diplomacy. This is done well by Institut Français, which executes cultural policies for the purpose of distributing French art, music, and language on an international scale. It has also successfully settled in Korea by planning programs that encourage public participation such as French language contests.
But how can Korea improve on its current cultural diplomacy strategies? Investigations based on Hallyu alone show Korea does have powerful and attractive items to share. The main point is how Korea can process their gemstones into jewels. Nancy Snow, Professor of Foreign Studies at Kyoto University, said, “We are all public diplomats”, hinting that diplomats are not the only messengers and transmitters of culture across the globe. Every individual has the ability to, or the responsibility to make an effort in “teaching” and “listening” to different cultures. Especially in an era where social networks have become prominent, it has become much easier to connect to the world.
Identifying the Potentials of One’s Own Culture
In order for Korea to receive global appreciation of their culture, it is crucial that Koreans identify the potentials of their culture and cherish them. Everyday life deemed ordinary, or things done specifically as culture but not with much interest are full of potential, yet to be unveiled. For instance, Mimyo said, “Hallyu is a great cultural item, yet too harshly criticized.” Criticism on the young and heated fandom of K-Pop and bias towards its music quality could be reasons why K-Pop tends to be more underappreciated than its original counterpart. It is our responsibility, as consumers of K-Pop, to cherish and promote this culture without distortion and bias.
Moreover, a careful analysis of the audience’s preference must precede the export of culture. Individual preferences on a particular cultural item cannot be a reasonable explanation for expecting others to like it as well. The exporters of cultural content should first adjust their level to that of the audience, in order for that culture to be consumed and appreciated fully. Be it ethnicity, religion, ideology, or nationality; Korea, as the exporter of culture, must be prepared to face a variety of audiences from different backgrounds, regardless of whether it is aimed towards a minority or a majority. This way, Korea can be understood as an open-minded listener that keeps in mind all differences that exist across the globe.
Korea’s culture is full of potential and possibility. Improvement as “tools” for Korean cultural diplomacy necessitates the refinement of these items for maximum effectiveness. Such a process requires participation as a whole, rather than leaving the whole task up to the diplomats or a few celebrities. Only when Korea fully appreciates its own culture will it be ready to reach the full extent of which Korean culture can evolve.