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The Peninsula

How to Leverage South Korea’s Soft Power

Published October 27, 2011
Author: Sarah Yun

By Sarah K. Yun

Soft power is the ability of a country or an actor to obtain what it wants through attraction and charm rather than through hard power and force.  The ultimate goal of fostering soft power is to promote a positive image in order to enhance one’s ability to influence.  Like many nations, Korea has been seeking to enhance appeal in the growing international soft power order.

In recent years, China has seen an undoubted growth in soft power.  To enhance its soft power, China has mainly followed two approaches.  The first is cultural diplomacy.  Since 2004, China has established around 200 Confucius Institutes all over the world, including the U.S., U.K., and throughout Asia.  They resemble France’s Alliance Française and Germany’s Goethe-Institute.  The second approach is resource diplomacy.  China has been engaging in large-scale symbolic infrastructure projects with developing countries in Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, such as the presidential palaces in East Timor and Sudan, a highway in the Philippines, and a railway in Nigeria.  However, Chinese soft power has limitations.  Much of the Chinese soft power strategy is focused on softening its image and alleviating international concerns over the “China threat,” which ultimately hampers their effort towards a comprehensive soft power strategy.  Moreover, China lacks the strong NGO community that can support a nation’s soft power.

On the other hand, Korea has a niche in the soft power market.  Unlike China and some other countries, Korea has the ability to rally the government, NGOs and citizens to be active promoters of soft power.  Korea can also focus more on community-based projects that establish sustainability even after completion of a project.  Given that Korea is surrounded by large countries, its comparative advantage is in the niche diplomacy that fulfills needs in often overlooked areas.

The reality, however, is that Korea’s soft power is still new in the international community.  According to a 2010 East Asia Institute survey of 28 countries, many Asian and European countries answered that Korea’s role in the international community is unclear.  These countries included Pakistan, Azerbaijan, India, Japan, Germany, Italy, and Spain.  One way to improve Korean soft power is through the hosting of major international events, such as the Olympics, G-20 summits, and the Nuclear Security Summit, which Korea has already undertaken.  However, Korea needs a more sustainable long-term strategy.

Korea can employ some soft power policy tools to spur competitive advantage.  First, development aid can work to bolster its national image.  Aid strategy should combine need in the receiving countries with Korea’s strategic interest in growing its soft power.  Second, the Korean Wave or “hallyu” can be a unique tool in cultural diplomacy, especially in Asia.  Third, ethnic Korean communities should be mobilized to establish an influential mass in respective countries.  Fourth, active participation in free trade can enhance soft power and influence.  Lastly, the science and IT should be incorporated into the various policy tools to drive Korea’s soft power.  For example, the Knowledge Sharing Program with developing countries and cultural diplomacy can incorporate advanced technologies to create a multi-dimensional approach to soft power.

With the United States’ position uncertain in a changing world, and China facing backlash from its resource-for-infrastructure approach, there is an opening for Korea.  However, in order to effectively employ soft power, Korea should specify its goals and desired outcome.  Part of this process would entail looking outwards to bench-mark successful strategies from developed countries with a strong soft power strategy such as Switzerland, Australia, and Turkey.  Another part would entail looking inwards to carve out uniquely Korean ways to leverage soft power.

Sarah K. Yun is the Director of Public Affairs and Regional Issues for the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are her own.

Photo by Birger Hoppe

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