Efforts to promote Korean culture to “foreigners” have a long history that follows the contours of Korea’s rise over the last 50 years. The Korean government has been actively involved in many of these efforts, but the results have been mixed, which has raised questions about the effectiveness of the efforts.
First some history. During the military dictatorship of Park Chung-hee, promoting Korean culture was part of the competition for international recognition with North Korea. To compete, South Korea invited foreign students in small numbers and supported the publication of promotional literature in foreign languages. At the same time, South Korea wanted to attract tourist income from Japan after the normalization of relations in 1965.
Efforts to promote Korean culture, particularly to tourists, became more intense in the run-up to the 1988 Seoul Olympics. In Japan, the first “Korea boom,” focusing on food and tourism, took place in the late 1980s. Democratization and continued economic growth in the 1990s paved the way for more substantial efforts with the founding of the Korea Foundation and the wave of “internationalization” during the Kim Young-sam administration. The economic crises of 1997 forced a new turn in efforts to promote Korea as interest shifted to attracting foreign investment. Korea became more open and foreigners began to live in Korea in large numbers.
The sudden rise of hallyu and K-pop in the mid-2000s changed everything. For the first time in history, Korean cultural products became mainstream and easily available. In Japan, for example, music stores had rarely carried Korean CDs and DVDs, but made separate sections for them after the hallyu boom. Hallyu and K-pop in Japan stimulated a boom in learning Korean and another boom in Korean food. Suddenly, Korea was hot.
The financial crisis of 2008 did not hit Korea as hard as other countries, but it forced a renewed focus on economic reform. Efforts to promote Korea shifted to harnessing the energy of the hallyu and K-pop booms and “branding” became the buzzword of the day. Government bodies from the national government on down developed policies and spent money to promote Korean culture as a brand.
This, of course, created a logical problem. The hallyu, K-pop and Korean food booms were largely spontaneous. Public support for sending things overseas was no doubt helpful, but it was foreign audiences that decided what they liked. Psy’s megahit “Gangnam Style” achieved a record number of hits on YouTube because people liked the song, not because government bureaucrats decided to promote it.
The logical problem, then, is what is the role for public policy in the largely spontaneous process of cultural transmission? Efforts to promote Korean culture can only succeed if the cultural product is attractive to a foreign audience. Culture is interesting because it is unpredictable. This same unpredictability makes it difficult for Korean bureaucrats or other “experts” to predict what will be attractive to foreigners.
Efforts to promote Korean food during the Lee Myung-bak administration were ineffective. Korean food was already being self-promoted by Koreans and foreigners overseas without support from the Korean government. The creation of the Korean-Mexican fusion “kimchi taco,” for example, happened spontaneously through the mix of immigrant cultures in large U.S. cities.
Hangeul as a cultural product is also problematic. Koreans are very proud of Hangeul and culture promoters are eager for foreigners to discover its “superiority.” The idea of presenting Korean culture as “superior,” however, is the core problem with government efforts. To justify the expense of taxpayer money, bureaucrats argue that a Korean cultural product is “good for foreigners” and that promoting it is in the national interest.
The problem, of course, is that foreigners may not see the “superiority” in what the promoters are trying to push. They may be attracted to other things, but the promoters often construe this as evidence of the need for a “proper understanding” of Korean culture. The logical problem with official efforts to promote Korean culture is that Koreans want to claim ownership not only of the cultural product, but also of its reception. Claims of ownership, however, only alienate foreigners and cause interest to drop.
The solution is simple: the government should focus on efforts that create opportunities for foreigners to come into contact with Koreans and Korean culture. From the give and take of such contact, foreigners will develop their own individual appreciation of Korean culture and make it their own. Promotion will then have been achieved.
By Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser is associate professor of Korean Language Education at Seoul National University ― Ed.