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The Peninsula

Does Korea Have a Branding Problem?

Published October 16, 2012

By Chad 0’Carroll

South Korea seems to have a branding problem when it comes to European perceptions of the country.  That’s according to a new poll which suggests European citizens view South Korea less favorably than do citizens from the United States.

The study, “International Trends: Korea”, suggests that a striking 52 percent of Italians hold unfavorable opinions of South Korea. At the other end of the scale, this figure reduces to 29 percent when it comes to nationals polled in the Netherlands.  However, across the board not a single European country polled holds more than a 48% positive view of South Korea.  Against the backdrop of South Korea’s increasing soft power and the continuing spread of the Korean Wave, these results seem confusing to say the least.

While European countries on average viewed South Korea in less favorable light than the U.S., the figures from America don’t give much cause for confidence either.  In the United States, 46 percent of U.S. citizens polled viewed South Korea in unfavorable terms, with only 41% seeing the decades old ally in a positive light.  Intriguingly, only in Russia did a majority of participants view South Korea in favorable terms (53 percent of the sample).

So what is going on?  Is South Korea really as unpopular as it would seem, or is something else at play?  After all, South Korea’s international prominence has grown drastically over the past couple of decades through the hosting of major sports tournaments like the Olympics and World Cup, the hosting of the G-20 and the Nuclear Security Summit, as well as a result of an increasingly diverse range of cultural output.

While many Asians and Korea watchers will have no problems identifying the two Korea’s apart, perhaps the most significant reason why South Korea is being viewed so negatively in these samples stems from  ignorance among the general public. Put simply, there is a tendency to blur much that is Korea related in the public discourse between the ROK and DPRK.

An example of this relates to our usage of “North” and “South” Korea, both informal names that have long been preferred over the use of the two country’s official names.  Should Korea, a land of one nation but two states, be viewed as separate or as one by a dispassionate general public?  This can be difficult to answer when even members of senior policy circles fail to make a distinction, referring to the ROK commonly as “Korea”.

European confusion over the two Koreas articulated most vividly at the Olympics this summer when a South Korean flag was famously draped at a DPRK Olympic soccer match held in Scotland (or should that be the UK, Great Britain, or just the London Olympics?).  But when considering that in the 2000, 2004, and 2008 Olympics the two Koreas joined together at the games’ opening ceremonies, understanding a faux-pas blamed on “human error” becomes a bit easier to realize (as shocking that such a decision could have ever gotten through so many levels without being questioned).

If people are mixing up the two Koreas, then it goes without saying that international perceptions of the DPRK might be slipping over into how some citizens think when it comes to South Korea.  And with North Korea berated by Western political leaders and ridiculed by the international media as much as it is, it’s not hard to see why negative views of Korea might affect both attitudes among average Europeans and Americans.

South Korea is on the right track to fix this problem, with its culture, food and business finding popularity in European and North American capitals like never before. However, if the lesson of the UK proves instructive, there is a strong chance that these stereotypes may not shift for some time.  As observed in a recent CSIS blog post, mainstream U.S. media has long struggled to acknowledge the difference between England and Britain – a difference many there would feel passionate about.

Chad 0’Carroll is the Director of Communications for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.

Photo by Flickr User Spamboy



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