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Korea’s image in the eyes of the outside world

While the image of South Korean director Bong Joon-ho posing triumphantly with his Palme d’Or trophy at this year’s Cannes Film Festival is the most popular recent image of Korea on the world stage, the country’s cinema is not as well-known among foreigners as one might expect.

When asked, “What Korean films have you watched?” over half the foreign respondents to a recent survey -- 51.7 percent -- said they had never seen a Korean movie. The survey, conducted between March 25 and May 24 by the Corea Image Communications Institute, offers insight into how Korea is perceived both by foreigners and locals.

The annual survey involved 341 Koreans and 265 foreigners who were seen as opinion leaders, including diplomats and high-ranking officials at Korea-based foreign companies. 

Delegates representing 10 countries pose at the 2018 Culture Communication Forum organized by the Corea Image Communication Institute at the Grand Hyatt Seoul in this file photo. (CICI)
Delegates representing 10 countries pose at the 2018 Culture Communication Forum organized by the Corea Image Communication Institute at the Grand Hyatt Seoul in this file photo. (CICI)

The results were announced at the CICI-Korea CQ Forum on June 4 at the French Embassy in Seoul.

The survey encompassed how foreigners and Koreans viewed the cultural aspects of Korea in areas ranging from its music, movies and dramas to its food, capital city and products.

Korean pop sensation BTS left a lasting impression internationally, it seems, as producer Bang Shi-hyuk -- the “father of BTS” -- topped the list of the first Koreans who came to mind, for foreigners, when they thought of the word “creator.” About 40 percent of Koreans picked Bang and 55.7 percent of the foreigners picked the Big Hit Entertainment CEO. This answer was followed in popularity by video artist Paik Nam-june and “the person who made (mobile messenger) Kakao Talk.”

The seven-member boy band also topped the list of Koreans that foreigners wanted to meet the most, with 65.3 percent -- edging out Tottenham Hotspur forward Son Heung-min.

Ironically, when asked which type of Korean content held the competitive edge in the international market, K-pop ranked second with 20 percent of the foreigners choosing this answer. No. 1 was Korean food, the choice of 66.4 percent of the foreign survey respondents.

This is consistent with a survey released in January by the state-run Korean Culture and Information Service, which showed that 40 percent of 8,000 respondents from 16 countries said Korean food was the first image that popped into their heads when they heard the name “Korea.”

Though over half of foreign respondents to the CICI survey had never seen a Korean movie, 30.6 percent said they had watched the zombie flick “Train to Busan” and another 21.1 percent said they had watched Park Chan-wook’s “The Handmaiden.”

According to last year’s data from the Korean Film Council, international buyers inked 292 deals for Korean films at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival.

When asked to name factors explaining why Korean films are successful overseas, 89 percent of the foreign participants said the plot. This answer was followed in popularity by the subject matter at 66 percent and sincerity at 24.2 percent. Participants were allowed to give more than one answer to this question.

When asked how Korean cultural content could attract more fans, 85.3 percent of the foreigners said it needed more variety, 44.5 percent said communication with the fans was necessary, and 29.8 percent said services needed to be provided in multiple languages. Multiple picks were allowed in this category too.

Seoul, the center of the country’s pop culture and its most populous city, was impressive to foreigners mostly because of how it encompasses both traditional and modern culture, with 48.3 percent expressing this view. But 27.6 percent expressed concern because of the fine dust particles clouding its skies. The city’s must-see places for foreign visitors were Gangnam, Bukchon/Samcheong-dong/Insa-dong, and Hongdae/Sinchon with 41.1 percent, 28 percent and 11 percent respectively.

The survey also indicated that Korean IT devices were still going strong in the international market. Cellphones and IT devices edged out cosmetics when respondents were asked what products made the strongest impression on foreigners, with 93.6 percent saying cellphones and 61.5 percent saying IT devices. Again, multiple picks were allowed.

Accessibility, price and design were deemed Korean products’ strengths while safety, quality and design were identified as their weaknesses. Design made both lists.

By Yoon Min-sik (