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South Korea Masters Soft Power

By Iman

Credit is due for how South Korea transformed its standing on the international stage. It's as unexpected as it is ingenious.

From once being home to political tugs of war, the nation rebuilt itself as a cultural powerhouse.

South Korea greatly capitalised on its entertainment industry. From global household names like BTS and PSY to the plethora of K-Dramas and K-Movies at prominent Film and TV award shows, it just goes to show the impressive appeal and reach of Korean entertainment in the world.

[Image Credit: Left to Right - Seoul (1965-66) New York Times. Korean Culture has dominated in recent years (2021) The Times.]

It’s given the country leverage to insert itself in global trends and markets outside of popular culture, such as cuisine, beauty and institution-led language-learning.

This might not seem like a powerful tool but in an influencing era, South Korea mastered the influence of cultural exchange.

And through an array of avenues, has re-emerged as a prominent cultural powerhouse!

So, let’s take a quick look!

A Marker of Influence

To understand South Korea’s soft power, it’s important to go back to its beginnings. More specifically, back to the term coined to express the nations’ cultural spread.

Hallyu - a Chinese word that literally translates to ‘Korean Wave’ - is a term that refers to the growth and sharing of Korean culture with other countries.

[Image Credit: Left to Right - Swiri Shiri, (1999). Frontier Works Comic BoA’s 2002 Japanese debut album, Listen to my Heart. SMEntertainment. Right: Joint Security Area, (2000). Myung Films & CJ Entertainment.]

BoA, a prominent and industry-defining K-Pop idol, and the films Swiri Shiri and Joint Security Area were just some of the biggest players in the height of Hallyu. The works did remarkably in China and Japan and helped ease political tensions for a while.

(Without getting into the politics of it all, Hallyu even lifted a 50-year ban on cultural exchange between South Korea and Japan. Not a bad move!)

It also formed the foundation for following generations within the Korean entertainment industry to actively promote in China, Japan and other Asian countries.

Defining Hallyu as Soft Power

Joseph Nye coined the term soft power as a way to explain the insertion of influence without the use of politics.

Quote: “the ability to get others to want the outcomes that you want…through attraction” (credit: quoted in: Nye, J., 2004. Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. New York: Public Affairs)

It’s a way to avoid the risks that come with using hard power, such as foreign policies or trade, but still asserting and maintaining influence. This works especially well on the influence over people and their daily lives.

But! There’s a fine line to tread when it comes to soft power. It’s a difficult thing to master and often falls flat. Whatever vehicle used as a figure of soft power must be subtle yet enticing, active but not forceful, persuasive but not coercive.

Just look at Hallyu in Japan. (The same can be said for all other neighbouring countries too, especially China.)

Korean culture was introduced to Japan through entertainment. It was easy to consume, easy to spread and easy to become a part of daily life.

Entertainment is a secure way to activate soft power without actually needing to try so hard. But, that wouldn’t necessarily work for South Korea outside of Asia.

The global market was a tough crowd to appease, to say the least!

South Korea Stepping onto the Global Stage

Up until the last decade, I’d say Korea’s active goal of soft power had been limited to Asia. It was a safe zone, one that produced successful cultural relations between Korea and other Asian nations.

Few attempts had been made to extend Hallyu’s reach to the rest of the world, and rarely were they successful for the right reasons.

[Image Credit: Left to Right - Girls’ Generation with Kelly Ripa on Live! with Kelly. PSY performing Gangnam Style in Paris (2012)]

I’m sure we all remember PSY’s Gangnam Style completely taking over the music industry 10 years ago. The response, on paper, seemed positive with 1 billion views.

BUT… I’m sure we also all remember the xenophobic remarks made to ridicule the creativity and wit of the single and artist. Instead of looking into translations and applauding the song for poking fun at the Beverly Hills of Seoul, it was reduced to a nonsensical fad.

Unfortunately, such a reaction on such a global scale closeted many fans of PSY, K-Pop and those interested in Korean culture. (Definitely me. Took so many years to feel comfortable enough to say I liked K-Pop. A real shame!)

That was until a few years ago.

Not that the sentiment of the lyrics changed but, perhaps in almost a decade, there was a change in mindset and artistic critique. That or fans of K-Pop and Korean culture just didn’t feel the need to hide their interest anymore.

BTS (yes, the super-famous, record-breaking 9-year boy group), K-Dramas and K-Movies helped carve a way for the Korean perspective on capitalism, hypercompetitive societies and gender inequalities to be heard and applauded.

Mainly from global audiences rather than industries, until very, very recently. But audiences related to the dissection of timely issues and how it’s portrayed. The narratives aren’t always straight-forward. The stories told are thought-provoking, tear-inducing and will definitely have you thinking about the album or episode for months.

[Image Credit: Left to Right - BTS at Rose Bowl Stadium (2019) Big Hit Entertainment. BTS for GQ x Vogue Korea’s first collaboration magazine (2022). South Korean newspapers cover Parasite’s Oscars win (2019) AP-Yonhap. My Liberation Notes (2022). JTBC]

(There’s also something quite elegant about how Korean entertainment touches on such sensitive topics with honesty. One of my favourite K-Dramas is My Liberation Notes. It’s a slow-paced slice-of-life drama. It focuses on an introverts’ perspective of society, love and relationships. It’s gripping and heart-breaking, with no solid happy ending. But we’re left with contentment. It’s rare to find such a storyline in Hollywood or the likes but K-Entertainment sure does give you a shoe to fit in to.)

The mature approach to themes, in music and on screen, helped mature the image of Korea, as a country, and its culture. Audiences were persuaded by the Korean outlook, sentiment and approach to such issues. By taking an interest, K-Entertainment became a source of escapism and belonging; a cultural phenomenon rather than a gimmick or fad.

[Quote: “In its present form, however, K-culture resonates with a global audience,” Shin Gi Wook, Stanford University Sociology Professor.]

The K-Domino Effect

The popularisation of Korean entertainment fuelled an even deeper interest in all things Korean. Yes, that includes skincare and food!

[Image Credit: Left to Right - 10 Step Korean Skincare Routine by Skin Cupid, Korean Corn Dog (Gamja-Hot Dog) by popular Youtube Chef, Maangchi, Jin Go Gae Restaurant in New Malden, by Amy Yau,]

Just check out any #korean skincare or #korean cuisine tag on any social media platform and you’ll be inundated with tutorials and journeys, mukbangs and reviews. And as Korean skincare products and steps become familiar to our daily routines and as Korean cuisine becomes a familiar taste; the numbers on these tags will only keep growing!

Korean restaurants are opening their doors in cities you’d never expect to see a Korean restaurant in. Brands are releasing their own 10-step skincare lines. (Though, nothing beats the original!)

As if ticking off a checklist, Korea pulled off the most ideal cultural exchange. Korean beauty and food gave us a reason to admire and adopt its features. It subtly injected itself in areas where curiosity accepted the enticing. And before we knew it, aspects of K-Culture seeped into our daily lives!

The Fruits of Soft Power Taste Sweeter at Home

And yet, a great consequence of the mass adoption of Korean culture has really been seen in tourism.

I’ll use BTS as an example here.

According to OECD Tourism Trends and Policies (2020), international visitor expenditure rose by 14.6% in 2018 and accounted for 4.7% of total GDP!

And it was Hyundai Research Institute (2018) that reported 7% of all foreign visitors travelled to Korea thanks to BTS.

[Image Credit: RUN BTS, Episode 137 by HYBE]

(Is…is that a ‘7’, I see?!)

But it’s not only in the tourism industry that BTS-related contribution has seen exponential growth. Fortune estimated BTS would’ve brought in around $29.4 billion to South Korea’s economy from 2014 to 2023.

That includes everything from concerts to fan-held events, label-made merchandise to general consumer goods such as cosmetics and clothes! That’s an incredible feat for a cultural figure to pull off.

It’s unsurprising given their large fanbase but it is surprising how actively engaged with Korean culture, goods and the country the fanbase is.

And, it doesn’t even stop there.

The Importance of Language Exchange

It’s an age-old piece of advice but it really does hold true!

The best way to engage with a culture is to learn its language. (Easier said than done, I say as I’m in my 6th year learning Korean…)

The influx of popularised Korean-content - albeit music, dramas, food or skincare - fuelled an interest in developing a connection with the culture through language.

Not just to be able to listen and understand without subtitles but to build a personal connection with another culture - picking up nuances, practices, learning cultural differences, similarities and adopting what works for you.

Keeping with BTS, in 2020 their label Big Hit Entertainment (now, Big Hit Music/HYBE) teamed up with Hankuk University of Foreign Studies to create a textbook series, featuring BTS’ miniatures Tinytan, for fans.

[Image Credit: Learn! Korean with BTS textbook series, co-developed by HUFS and Big Hit.]

Later, Korea Foundation announced a partnership with Big Hit and Hankuk University to sponsor language classes worldwide through the Learn! Korean with BTS textbooks!

It has to be said, this initiative stemmed from BTS fans relying on fan-translations of content for years. Many fans of the group took it upon themselves to learn Korean in order to understand BTS’ lyrics, message and day-to-day content.

The desire to connect on even an equal linguistic level, was something Big Hit acknowledged. Through the textbook series, BTS’ label actively provided a means for fans to learn Korean in order to communicate with and understand BTS better. And, also to engage with Korean culture using BTS as the medium.

Ending Ment

I used BTS as an example of how subtle cultural exchanges can work as a marker for soft power. The influence of the group is seen in almost all industries, both domestically and internationally, and in various aspects of daily life.

  • Listen to BTS’ music or watch their self-produced content →

  • Learn Korean to understand the lyrics, live-content and to build a connection →

  • Enrol in a Korean language program or purchase Learn! Korean with BTS

  • Attend a couple of concerts, try a few members’ favourite foods or watch a members’ recommended K-Drama →

  • May visit Korea or attend concerts and fan-organised events in your own country.

If you aren’t a fan of BTS, just substitute any medium - food, beauty, K-Dramas or K-Movies - and the process is pretty much identical.

But, do notice how slow and gradual the process is. It’s very much a warm and welcoming journey into Korea's culture, that you hardly realise you’re even on this journey to begin with! (The rabbit-hole concept is very, very real.)

But it’s also this journey that has allowed Korea to slowly and gradually cement itself as a soft power; without intimidation, without force and really, without any politics involved.

Just sprinkling introductions of various elements of Korean culture into the global masses. Over time, the subtle insertions settled and, what was once a foreign curiosity, became a part of everyone’s culture.

(8 years ago, not a single friend would ever admit to watching a K-Drama or liking K-Pop. Now, not a single friend doesn’t swear by Korean skincare, devours K-BBQ once a week or isn’t hooked on at least 3 K-Dramas a week.

Granted, I’ve just finished binge-watching Transit Love Season 2, Penthouse and Cold Eyes this week; and have nothing but Korean skincare products…and have K-Cuisine a few…times a week?…)

For a country to have, in only a few decades, developed this level of cultural maturity and to have mastered the art of soft power on an international stage, all without compromising the very culture they’ve spread and shared - is truly commendable!

By the looks of it, Korea’s soft power will only go from strength to strength as the country continues to stand as a cultural powerhouse and staple piece in our globalised daily lives.


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