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Soft Power of South Korean Culture Term Paper

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Updated: May 22nd, 2021

Introduction

Cultural trends and preferences are the dynamic phenomena of society, and their changes often reflect the existing current political, economic, and other features of state development. In South Korea where much attention is paid to the national identity, a definite trend has been formed, which determines the country’s course towards the globalization of its cultural interests. This movement is called the Korean Wave, and today, it is one of the most significant Asian trends. National food, music, fashion, and some other aspects are part of this process.

In this regard, a special term is proposed for consideration – soft power, the form of governing activities, which implies pressure on citizens’ interests through unobtrusive attraction and the formation of sympathy in certain issues. Neighboring Asian countries, in particular, China and Japan also experience the impact of the Korean Wave, which is one of the examples of soft power. This paper aims to identify the tendency of forming cultural interests for the development of South Korea’s political and economic relations with China and Japan, two other powerful states of the Asian region.

The Concept of Soft Power and Its History

Despite the fact that soft power is not the official form of political interaction and influence, this concept of governance is quite widespread in various world regions, including Asian. The characteristics of this phenomenon and the main ways of achieving goals are not distinguished by aggressiveness or violent forms. Nevertheless, this process is of great strategic importance, shaping the impact on people’s thinking and their perception of reality. In this regard, it is required to determine the history of the emergence of such a political direction and its examples.

The Peculiarities of Soft Power and Differences from Coercion

The use of appropriate forms of influence on the mass consciousness may allow the formation of a national opinion to change people’s preferences. Nye considers “two diplomatic strategies, which are public diplomacy and soft power” (419). In the first case, specific ideas are promoted through negotiations, discussions, and the mutual exchange of experience. In the case of soft power, no agreement is made, and any impacts are unobtrusive and hidden.

Nye compares this concept with “hard command power” and argues that it is no less important today when much depends not on military capabilities but an opportunity to find the suitable ways of interaction (166). As Iwabuchi notes, the term in question was first proposed to the world community in 2004 (419). In its classical understanding, it meant the unobtrusive dissemination of the ideas of one country among others through the introduction of cultural interests and values. Thus, the history of soft power is not long; however, this concept finds its application in the modern world.

In comparison with coercion, soft power does not accept any violent means of imposing certain ideas. Hashimoto gives an example of the forced teaching of the Japanese language, which took place in the provinces of Taiwan and Korea in the middle of the last century (66). In that case, the main emphasis was placed on coercion. However, in the context of soft power, this practice is impossible, and any manifestation of aggressive behavior cannot be considered in the framework of this concept. It is the type of ideological propaganda, the method of influencing the mass consciousness through the gradual and sometimes unobtrusive imposition of certain specific values, as a rule, cultural ones. Thus, there is a significant difference between coercion and soft power.

The Key Features of Soft Power in the Context of Cultural Preferences

Based on the aforementioned facts, soft power is carried out due to the influence of one nation on others through the imposition of cultural values. To begin with, as Nye remarks, it is required to evaluate the available cultural sources of strength (168). It may be literature, music, films, and other forms of art that are designed to attract a large number of people. In order for certain genres to become popular abroad, thereby affecting the consciousness of other people, it is crucial to ensure that they contain some accents that need to be conveyed.

For instance, to form the status of strong military power, it is possible to make films where a certain country plays the role of a winner with significant resources. Any other forms of the cultural manifestation of soft power may include drawing public attention to a specific issue, forming a mass opinion about the superiority of one nation, and other methods of influence.

Soft Power in the Leading Asian Countries in Terms of Economic Development

In the countries of the Asian region, this phenomenon has existed for a long time. With the help of the aggressive policy of the Japanese language dissemination described by Hashimoto, local states sought to gain the greatest influence (66). The author also argues that the main competitors in the fight for advantage in this region are China, Japan, and Korea (Hashimoto 35). The economic development of these countries is at a sufficiently high level, and the desire to win the status of the state-leader is due to the additional opportunities offered by superiority.

As Iwabuchi notes, each of them has certain areas that are considered the most powerful, and the development of specific markets can be a priority in the rivalry process (421). For example, Japan is known for its technological innovations and quality engineering industry. The sphere of robotics in the island state is also developed significantly, which can also form the strategy for the further development of the country.

However, other countries in the region are also able to provide decent competition at the expense of cultural forces. McGray mentions a significant contribution that Japan has made to the development of the film industry, thereby rendering competition to European and American companies (45). Dominance in this area helps the island state to create certain trends and has a positive effect on its economic development.

In China, despite its rich history and long development path, there are some problems regarding the issue under consideration. Its resources “are still limited compared to those of the U.S. and Europe because of China’s lack of intellectual freedom, its political corruption, and the issues surrounding the Taiwan Strait” (Cho and Jeong 454). Despite strengths in other industries, a cultural sphere here is underdeveloped. Therefore, it is essential to take into account all these features defining soft power as a complex mechanism for controlling mass consciousness in order to achieve leadership.

The Korean Wave and Its Place Among Current Trends in Soft Power

The Korean Wave is the cultural phenomenon of the mid-1990s, representing a surge in the world interest in the culture of the Republic of Korea (Lee and Nornes 75). There are many opinions concerning what exactly caused its appearance. For instance, there is an assumption that Korean culture was a successful substitute for Japanese one that experienced difficulties at the beginning of the 90s is still in search of a new path of development. Previously popular samurai films, books filled with Zen-Buddhism and Shintoism, and animation and manga-style comics have become trivial for the audience and have lost most of their appeal.

The History of the Korean Wave

The term the Korean Wave, or Hallyu, was first introduced in China in the mid-1990s by Beijing journalists who were surprised by the rapidly growing popularity of the Korean entertainment industry (Lee and Nornes 75). Initially, this concept was used exclusively in relation to China since Korean cultural products had not yet gained any particular popularity in other countries. However, even today when the Wave has passed almost around the world, it is China that remains the main importer of Korean films, television series, and music production (Lee and Nornes 76). Since the late 1990s, this culture has significantly increased the percentage of its presence in neighboring countries and has penetrated much deeper there in recent years.

From 2000 to 2002, the Wave advanced in various parts of Asia, including Southeast and Central Asia. On the whole, the period of formation may be divided for four stages, and the last of them still continues. According to Iwabuchi, “the Korean success stirred neighbouring countries including Japan to extend their cultural diplomacy activities, thereby contributing to the soft power competition” (423). Therefore, it can be argued that an active penetration stage was achieved.

The Economic Effects of the Korean Wave and Cultural Trends Popularization

The discourse of the Korean Wave has already gone beyond the original cultural aspects and, as Lee and Nornes argue, is involved in “the realms of economics, business, science, and technology” (9). It may be expressed not only in the export of media products but also the influx of tourists who want to learn more about this country. At the same time, not only the neighboring Asian states participate in the process of replenishing the budget of Korea. Lee and Nornes note that the influence of the Wave on the global socio-political picture is also significant, which is reflected in the popularization of fashion trends, music preferences, and other aspects of life (9). Thus, both economic and social factors demonstrate the impact of soft power supported by Korea.

The Key Manifestations of the Korean Soft Power

One of the main manifestations of the Korean soft power is music. Record companies adapt to certain trends and strive to attract as large audience as possible. According to Lee and Nornes, “the Korean pop music industry in the late 1980s and early 1990s was going through a major transformation” (76). In particular, sad ballads were replaced by vivid motifs, for example, in the hip-hop genre with dance-oriented melodies.

The mainstream policy in music production has led to the popularization of contemporary songs not only in neighboring countries but also outside Asia. This cultural sphere has become key in shaping the state soft power. The profit obtained through the sale of the records of popular groups and fashion clothing is significant. Given the fact that due to the development of Internet technologies, many multimedia products are distributed online, the recognition of Korean brands is enhanced constantly.

A great influence is also felt in the fashion industry, and Korean designers are trendsetters. Lee and Nornes remark that various shows are tremendously popular all over the world, and the number of views on the Internet is estimated in millions (96). Also, the national cuisine is the important component of the overall idea of soft power. According to Lee and Nornes, “the uniqueness and healthy nature” of Korean food are appreciated throughout the world (47). Such dishes as kimchi, kalbi, daikon, and other food are well-known among the supporters of healthy nutrition. All these aspects form the national soft power that influences the world community significantly.

Reactions to the Soft Power of South Korea in Other Asian Countries

Since one of the main goals of soft power is to achieve dominance in at least a separate region, Korea implements this policy in large Asian countries, in particular, China and Japan. According to Lee and Nornes, multimedia products (series, films) are very popular in the PRC, and the share of imports of Korean content has increased significantly in recent years (80). Also, China adopts some eating habits, also taking part in the Wave. Despite the fact that Asian dishes have much in common, there are unique aforementioned Korean products, and they are popular with the Chinese.

Another sphere of influence is a pop culture that is adopted by both China and Japan. As Lee and Nornes argue, some singers’ and groups’ popularity is typical for only one region, for example, as BoA among the Japanese and H.O.T. among the Chinese, and some (TVXQ) – for both countries (80). As a rule, these performers attract a teenage audience; however, this population group forms a significant fan base. Moreover, adolescents use the Internet more often than others and quickly learning about new multimedia content. All these nuances allow speaking about the indisputable influence of the Korean Wave on China and Japan.

However, despite the stable policy of soft power, some attempts were made to stop the Korean Wave in Japan. Lee and Nornes give an example of the anti-Hallyu movement, describing the attempts of the Japanese to hamper the influence of foreign culture by publishing comics against this phenomenon (196). In the future, these comics were reprinted several times and always found interest among the inhabitants of the country of the rising sun. The topic of resistance is sometimes raised quite aggressively because the Japanese value their national culture, and many of them are not ready to give preference to another one. Nevertheless, a large number of the country’s citizens support the Korean Wave, thereby strengthening the policy of soft power.

Conclusion

The policy of soft power promoted by South Korea influences the world socio-cultural picture and has a significant impact on neighboring Asian countries, causing both positive and negative reactions. Various cultural trends formed by this state draw much attention to its modern development, and the term the Korean Wave describes the country’s course in popularizing its unique features – national cuisine, music, fashion, and other aspects. Particular influence on China and Japan causes discontent among some citizens, but in general, soft power is implemented successfully, and the significance of this country grows both locally and globally.

Works Cited

Cho, Young Nam, and Jong Ho Jeong. “China’s Soft Power: Discussions, Resources, and Prospects.” Asian Survey, vol. 48, no. 3, 2008, pp. 453-472.

Hashimoto, Kayoko, editor. Japanese Language and Soft Power in Asia. Springer Singapore, 2018.

Iwabuchi, Koichi. “Pop-Culture Diplomacy in Japan: Soft Power, Nation Branding and the Question of ‘International Cultural Exchange’.” International Journal of Cultural Policy, vol. 21, no. 4, 2015, pp. 419-432.

Lee, Sangjoon, and Abé Markus Nornes, editors. Hallyu 2.0: The Korean Wave in the Age of Social Media. University of Michigan Press, 2015.

McGray, Douglas. “Japan’s Gross National Cool.” Foreign Policy, vol. 130, no. 1, 2002, pp. 44-54.

Nye, Joseph S. “Soft Power.” Foreign Policy, vol. 80, 1990, pp. 153-171.

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