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The Peninsula

South Korea’s Concern with Nation Branding Strategies

Published November 22, 2016
Category: South Korea

By Sungeun (Grace) Chung

Maintaining peaceful and cooperative international relations has become exceptionally important in a global society. There are two means that a nation can use to influence the preferences of international audiences: hard power and soft power. While exercising hard power is associated with the use of military and economic compulsion, soft power is to promote a nation’s influence through appeal, diplomacy, propaganda, and cultural attraction. Among soft power tools, a nation’s image could significantly contribute to advancing its global public image.

South Korea is very well known for its development in hard power over the decades, but many experts and citizens have criticized for the slow development of its national image. A solidified national brand helps a nation receive high respect and acceptance by other political bodies in the world, shaping a strong national brand has risen as an issue in Korea. Simon Anholt, an independent policy advisor, is the “inventor” of the measurement index of a nation’s image perceived by other countries in 2005. Using three major surveys with a panel of 30,000 individuals in 25 countries annually, the Anholt-GfK Nation Brands Index (NBI) bases its idea on several dimensions: culture, governance, people, exports, tourism, investment, and immigration).

During his keynote address at the “Nation Brands in the Global Market” conference held in Seoul in May 2006, he stated that according to the poor scores South Korea obtained in the 2005 NBI, it had “a major image problem.” South Korea ranked 25th in 2005, yet it downgraded to 33rd in the 2008 NBI even with “great advances in prosperity, stability, transparency, productivity, education” and the popularity of the Korean Wave in Asia. According to International Monetary Fund (IMF), South Korea’s nominal gross domestic product (GDP) has significantly soared from $65.2 billion in 1980 to $1 trillion in 2008, and now it is $1.4 trillion in 2016. Korea has proven that it has become one of the largest economies in the world, but its rank for NBI also proved that South Korea has not been successful in promoting its image to the world.

Anholt mentioned that many people had seemed to confuse North Korea and South Korea. Those who confused the two viewed the South Korean government as “dangerous,” “unpredictable,” and “unstable.” Luke Stanhope, a Seoul-based strategic communications professional and a former South Korea Fulbright Research Fellow, criticizes that Western media paints a negative image about South Korea: the 1950 Korean War, hyper-stressed students, a divided Korea, North Korean missiles, corruption in government and the chaebol companies, video game addiction, the Sewol ferry tragedy, and protests for the President Park Geun-hye’s resignation. Korea needs to address this problem of its lagging international reputation.

Urged to take actions on this “Korea Discount” phenomenon indicating the gap between Korea’s miraculous developments and its poor perception by the international community, Lee Myung-bak, South Korean President from 2008 to 2013, established the Presidential Council on Nation Branding in January 2009. His goal was to bring Korea’s NBI from 33rd to 15th by the end of his appointed term. In an interview with The Korea Times, Euh Yoon-dae, the first chairman of the Council, stated that the Council would focus on improving its global competitiveness through various ways. He proposed to strengthen the brands of Korean firms to attract more foreign direct investments, to increase official development assistance (ODA) for underdeveloped countries, to create a brilliant slogan for Korea, to raise awareness of internationally accepted norms and etiquette among citizens, and to promote positive images as a country with highly valuable IT technologies and the Korean Wave.

Some of these pledges have been successful. Continued efforts have increased foreign direct investments to an all-time high of $7.6 billion. Korea is the first country to go from receiving international development assistance to then joining the prestigious Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Additionally, PyeongChang was selected to host the 23rd Olympic Winter Games in 2018 through a highly competitive selection process. K-Pop, popular music, has contributed to the Korean Wave, increasing Korea’s exports to $80.9 million worth of music in 2010, a 159% increase from 2009, and to $177 million in 2011. South Korea launched the G20 Summit in Seoul in 2010, and according to the Presidential Council, it contributed to a 17% increase in terms of foreigners’ knowledge of Korea and a 3.5% increase in positive international opinion of Korea.

Although the NBI rank for South Korea went up to the 17th place in 2012, there are a few examples that represent recent PR related concerns among the public in Korea. One is a promotional video for the upcoming Pyeong Chang Winter Olympics. The Public Relations Team of the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism was responsible for the “Arari,Yo Project” to promote the Olympics. A member of a famous girl singer group, Hyorin, and a few other famous celebrities were featured in the video, using Korea’s traditional song, Arirang. Many critics and the public commented about the bizarre video, saying that they do not understand the purpose of the video and why they spent 275 million won ($235,000) on the video production. They believe that the target audience, foreigners, would not understand the video’s concept.

Another example is Korea’s capital, Seoul’s new logo, “I. Seoul. U.” Implying that Seoul is a city where two individuals can co-exist, this slogan has been selected to replace the current famous slogan of Seoul, “Hi, Seoul.” This slogan has received major backlash, not only because it does not clearly convey its meaning, but also because the city government invested an excessive amount of money for something that the international community criticizes, approximately 500 million won ($425,500) was spent on promoting the slogan and another 300 million won ($255,000) for the launching ceremony.

Korea has attempted to improve its lack of an international image for a long time, but it has not been too successful. Some experts including Simon Anholt and Fiona Bae, deputy PR manager at Hyundai Capital & Hyundai Card, criticize that it may be because Korea has focused on marketing and tourism while ignoring the opinions of their target audience, the international community. As Cho Hyun-jin from the former president’s foreign media team says, South Korea must understand that the national image should come first, then tourism and marketing. The government should be more strategic in order to be a leader for their international agenda. As Korea puts much efforts into their PR strategies, they should plan ahead to promote their image, using opportunities such as international meetings and the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics.

Sungeun (Grace) Chung is an intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America and a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Madison with majors in Economics and Applied Mathematics as well as a minor in East Asian Studies. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Eugene Lim’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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