By Jenna Gibson
A few weeks ago, I published a post here on The Peninsula entitled “Trans-Pacific Love Affair,” describing South Korea’s sky-high approval ratings of the United States. But now it seems that love may be unrequited.
According to the latest Pew Research poll released earlier this month, 60 percent of Americans have a very or somewhat favorable view of South Korea. About 31 percent had a somewhat or very unfavorable view, and 9 percent said they didn’t know. In contrast, Pew found that 84 percent of South Koreans view the United States favorably.
How is it that a country which President Obama has called “one of our strongest allies in the world,” one which has the third highest approval rating of the United States in the world, only has the backing of 60 percent of Americans?
Seoul or Pyongyang?
One of the biggest obstacles to positive views about South Korea is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the looming presence of its northern neighbor. The two halves of the peninsula may be physically separated but in many ways they remain connected in the minds of foreign publics – anyone who has ever lived in Korea can tell you how sick they are of answering the question “North or South?”
This plays out both in the media and in public curiosity about the peninsula. Take a look at the Google trends search below, for example.
The blue line is Google searches performed in the United States related to South Korea, red is North Korea, and yellow shows all searches for the term “Korea.” As you can see, they all follow each other relatively closely, lending credence to the idea that curiosity about one half of the peninsula is mixed with curiosity about the other.
But looking closer, the trends, especially the search for the generic term “Korea,” are really just following the headlines. The double spikes in 2010 were the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island and the sinking of the Cheonan battleship. The large spike in early 2013 corresponds with the North’s latest nuclear test and subsequent announcement that they would reopen the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center. In April 2014 you can see the news about the Sewol Ferry disaster reflected in the blue line. Finally, the January 2015 spike shows the Sony hacking incident. The overall takeaway here is that the meaning of “Korea” can switch depending on whichever side of the DMZ is in the news.
Korea the Brand
This lack of understanding about South Korea doesn’t stop with the news. Americans also have a hard time understanding Korea’s economic power, even when they carry it around in their pocket.
Unlike Volkswagen and its German engineering, Samsung doesn’t make a point of its Korean origin. In fact, in a 2011 survey by the Korea Trade Promotion Corporation Agency (KOTRA), respondents in the Americas (including the United States, Mexico, Brazil, Chile and Canada) had a hard time identifying the origin of Korean brands. When asked about Samsung, only 36.2 percent identified the company as Korean, while 38.4 thought it was Japanese. Hyundai fared slightly better, with 49.9 percent assigning the company to Korea. Still, 31.7 percent of respondents thought Hyundai is Japanese. In contrast, 74.3 percent of consumers could correctly identify Sony as a Japanese brand.
This extends beyond just certain companies. In a 2014 Asan Institute survey, only 24 percent of Americans correctly said South Korea is a top 10 trading partner of the United States (it is in fact the U.S.’ sixth largest trade partner).
Overall, it seems Americans severely underestimate how much impact South Korea has on their daily lives. And Korea is losing out big time because of this. In a 2014 study of consumers in 28 countries, those who recognized Samsung and Hyundai as Korean viewed Korea as a whole more positively than those who incorrectly identified the nationality of these two companies.
Constantly in the news with another nuclear test, execution or provocation, no wonder the concerns about the DPRK manage to overshadow positive feelings about its southern neighbor. And without a good understanding about great Korean brands like Samsung, Hyundai and many more, there are few ways to counteract these negative perceptions.
I ran into this issue personally when I announced to my family that I was moving to South Korea after college. The response, especially from my older relatives, was concern for my safety. For them, “Korean” was often followed by “war.” And they grew up with a peninsula that was still struggling to recover from that conflict. Given how far South Korea has come, it’s hard to remember that just a few decades ago things were very different.
This is an incredibly difficult problem to solve, but South Korea is trying to chip away at it – investing millions in the promotion of Korean pop culture and food overseas, for example. But one of the most effective ways may be to take the most ubiquitous items – the phones, TVs, and cars that Americans use every day – and making them a more explicit part of their public diplomacy strategy. That way the first things Americans think of when they hear “Korea” are useful gadgets, not nuclear ones.
Jenna Gibson is the Associate Director for Communication Technology and Programs at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Songyee Jung contributed to research for this post.
Photo from Young Sok Yun’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.