Contribution by Maxime Drake del Castillo,
3rd year student in ESSCA’s Bachelor of International Business Development
« South Korea, a country where I studied in 2019 and with whom I have a complicated love-hate relationship. »
South Korea is an emergent and attractive Asian country that has recently ramped up in terms of spreading its culture. In order to have a better understanding of how South Korea came to this position, a short recap of its history over the last decades is most useful.
During WW2, Korea was separated into two distinct territories controlled by the USSR (North Korea) and the USA (South Korea) respectively. During the following years after the end of WW2, the two Koreas were not able to find any peace arrangement and a war broke out in 1950 for 3 years (the Korean war).
Over the following decades, South Korea followed a protectionist system, and the country experienced huge economic growth during this period, becoming one of the so-called four Asian Tigers). South Korea was ruled by dictatorship based on the Ilminism ideology (not far from the Nazi doctrine of “master-race”, until the advent of democracy towards the end of the 20th century.
Because there was still no peace agreement between the two Korea, tensions had drastically increased at beginning of the 2000’s with some “incidents” (naval incident in 2009, bombardment of Yeonpyeong island in 2010…). It is only recently in 2018 that both countries signed the Panmunjom Declaration, which is a peace agreement. However, tensions remain between those neighbours even if this is a huge step forward a long-term peace.
So what about South Korea today ?
Nowadays, South Korea is trying to spread its culture around the world and to have an image of an “open borders country” following in the footsteps of Japan. To reach this global cultural recognition, South Korea uses different channels which are the seven Fine arts especially films (Korean dramas), dance, and of course music with the famous “Kpop” (which you probably have already heard about). Cosmetics and Video games have also a strong place in the Korean culture because the country is considered the cradle of video games and home to the best players of the world.
The Kpop (short for “Korean Pop”) wave is a nice example because it is the most famous one to me. It is also a good illustration of cultural added value that South Korea possesses in comparison to other Asian countries (the Japanese Jpop doesn’t reach the worldwide success of Kpop). Today, everyone has already heard at least one Kpop song.
You think you haven’t? What about Psy, with his global hit “Gangnam Style”! This international phenomenon has been the most viewed video on Youtube over years.
Today, Kpop groups are reaching out to our Western media with groups like “Blackpink” or “BTS” (second bestselling group in the international music business), which are only the 2 most famous ones. Those groups have international tours and fill stadia worldwide in only a few minutes. This has become a multi-billion-industry based on this new popular music style.
Sport should not be forgotten either: the landmark events of the Summer Olympics in Seoul of 1988 and the Football World Cup of 2002 have also given South Korea a positive reputation of openness.
Thanks to this international cultural influence, South Korea has built a very good image. From a country with closed borders in the 1980’s, it has transformed itself into a trendy destination in 2019 (three times more visitors in 2018 than in 2003).
But is this country really open to foreigners with other cultures?
In my perception, South Korea is a wonderful country that still carries deep scars from its past.
As I said, its borders have opened only recently after years of war in which occidental countries played a major role (Koreans suffer from occidental ideologies both in WW2 and during the Cold War). For the older generation, the new Korea is a real cultural shock, and xenophobia remains a widespread problem, especially among the elderly (of course, it does not make sense to generalise). This problem, however, does not only concern occidental people but also neighbouring countries like Japan or China, for example, with whom South Koreans have strained relationships.
Moreover, South Korea is still under geopolitical pressure, not only in economic competition with neighbouring countries as well as occidental countries like the USA (even the country boasts huge international companies like Samsung or Hyundai), ., but also in political and security terms with North Korea, despite the peace agreement. It is possible that these problems might frighten visitors and reduce the tourism flow.
Overall, South Korea tries to be open to the world and spread its culture worldwide, but in reality, there are some internal and external problems that are far from being solved. In the long term, the strategy of enhancing global soft power resources through diffusion of its popular culture will not be enough.
But we should keep in mind that South Korea is still a very young democracy and that its traumatic past is only a few decades away. It will take some more years to achieve a constructive reconciliation with its neighbours and a more mature openness to the rest of the world.
This student blogpost was produced within the framework of the 3rd-year module « International Issues and Challenges » of ESSCA’s Bachelor in International Management, following a course design developed by the EU-Asia Institute. The opinions expressed are of course those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the institute.