Korean Power Beyond K-Pop

The Republic of Korea (South Korea) is well known for its audio-visual diplomacy that started in the 1980s with the end of the authoritarian regime. In 1999 the blockbuster movie Shiri earned $14million from 1.2 million Japanese cinemagoers alone shaped the South Korean interest to concern their effort to produce movies for foreign audiences.

There is this bond of Confucian values that connect East Asian countries beyond their political and historical differences. Korean soft power is linked with K-Pop which is extremely popular around the world. Two major Korean bands BTS and Exo both have a net worth above one billion dollars and many other K-Pop bands are worth millions of dollars.

South Korea is very well known for its K-Pop but as the majority of people around the world do not speak the Korean language it continues to suffer due to its linguistic barrier. K-Pop program has been organized in Pyongyang but the K-Pop remains a haunting experience for the hermit kingdom as it would destroy the legitimacy of the North Korean (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) regime.  K-Pop is powerful but this also has its limitation.

South Korea is respected for the miracle of the Han river via its ability to transform from an underdeveloped country to a highly industrialized state. The transformation from rags to riches has inspired many developing countries. South Korea’s greatest strength is its economic might as it can fund various activities.

South Korea has been heavily industrialized with companies likes Samsung, Hyundai, and LG that contribute to creating a brand image of South Korea as a reliable technological powerhouse and provide an export revenue of $617 billion in 2018.

Soft Resources could be analyzed using the five sense organs as a medium of diplomacy.
Gastrodiplomacy includes Korean cuisine including Ginseng tea, Gimbap, and Kimchi. These food and drinks are playing a significant role in spreading the fame of Korea with its flavor and aroma of food.

Kimchi is a part of the Korean identity. Kimjang the Kimchi-making process is inscribed in 2013 on Representative List for the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in UNESCO. A culture of seasoning and fermenting food has a deep cultural connection with its members and beyond its national borders.

South Korea in a total has 20 elements inscribed as intangible heritages. This includes audio-based soft resource such as Arirang lyrical folk songs, Gagok lyrical song cycles accompanied by Orchestra, Pansori epic chant and audio-visual soft resources includes Nongak community band music, dance, and rituals, Ganggangsullae where young unmarried girls sing and dance, Yeongsanjae a re-enactment of Buddha delivering the lotus sutra are to name only a few of its intangible heritage that projects Korea to be a culturally rich peninsula.

These soft power resources could attract tourism in a certain period of the year but travelers could always enjoy sight-seeing of tangible heritage which could be photographed and create a strong visual memory that contributes to its visual diplomacy.

South Korea has a large pool of 14 World Heritage Sites with 13 cultural sites and 1 natural site. The World Heritage Site includes tombs of kings, funerary monuments, palaces, artworks, literature, historic villages, fortresses, city, academy, Buddhist, and secular architecture. It provides a blend of very distinct spaces which would allow the travelers and tourist to enjoy various sites of South Korea which will indirectly motivate the visitors to absorb societal norms of Korea.

In 2018, South Korea made $19.86 billion from tourism and is ranked 16th by World Economic Forum for Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report 2019, as a result, there remains a real motivation to preserve and promote its cultural heritage which as a bonus would increase its national prestige.

One of the most powerful tools that connect people beyond borders would be Korean Martial Arts- Taekwondo. South Korea maintains the top spot in Taekwondo with 19 Olympics medals out of its total 337 medals.

In 1962, South Korea had sent trainers to train Taekwondo in South Vietnam which has helped to create a stronger bond between the two militaries and build military diplomacy.

World Taekwondo claims they have less than 1.5 million to 2 million existing members with a yearly income of around 1 million with a net profit of USD 439,570.37 in 2018.

Taekwondo in Korea is promoted in three levels first by the President, second by the three government ministries (Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs), and third-level by various institutions (Kukkiwon, WTF, Korean Sports and Olympic Committee, Korean T’aeg wondo Association). These efforts indicate that the Korean government takes soft power extremely seriously.

Taekwondo allows countries to play with developed countries in equal fields respecting the concept of sovereign equality and it even helps North Korea to open itself up by participating in sport and even collaborate with South Korea.

South Korea even has paid bills of $2.6 million for North Korea for its participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in 2018. The amount may be a big deal for North Korea but the South Korean bands are much richer than the total expenditure the North Korean authorities received in form of aid.

Taekwondo is one of the soft power resources of South Korea. South Korea has more gold medals in Short Track and Archery than in Taekwondo and in total has won medals in 26 sports.

Traditional Korean Martial Arts-Taekkyeon, and traditional Korean wrestling-Ssireum are both listed as intangible heritages that contributed to building a culture for physical sports.

South Korea’s soft power is generally surrounding the Hallyu also known as the Korean wave. However, South Korea is extremely rich even beyond the well-loved K-Pop, K-Drama, and Taekwondo.

Soft power has been seen as ambiguous, confusing, complicated, and it’s assumed to be difficult to be calculated. However, we could easily look at the net worth of each ingredient by the revenue it could produce.

Power is a very complex idea. The power which can generate revenue and sustain itself will be valued more in the long run.

Soft Power Resources such as Martial Arts can be used for both peaceful purposes such as sports diplomacy or be used even be converted to enhance its military diplomacy.

Public diplomacy should not always be a one-way flow from a viewer to the audience but a two-way flow as communication happen during the feast, martial arts tournaments that create interaction and build connection beyond the state’s borders. 

Kripendra Amatya
Kripendra Amatya
Kripendra Amatya, a media researcher of Nepalaya Productions, has contributed articles to various national and international outlets and is keenly interested in history and heritage. He could be reached at his email address: kripendra.amatya[at]gmail.com