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The Peninsula

The Korea Wave and the Japanese Wall: The Limits of Korean Soft Power

Published February 2, 2022
Category: South Korea

One of Korea’s strongest capabilities is its soft power, accrued through its exports of Korean popular culture. Whether it’s Squid Game or BTS, Parasite or Black Pink, the Korea Wave has reached every shore and boosted Korea’s profile. But while this does provide some opportunities, experts say there are limitations to what objectives the Korean government can achieve using Hallyu.

In his five year term, President Moon Jae-in has skillfully woven leading Korean celebrities into his public diplomacy. In September of last year, the boy band BTS attended events at the United Nations after he named them his “special presidential envoy for future generations and culture.” Previously, the South Korean government enlisted singers Red Velvet, Cho Yong-pil, and Lee Sun-hee to demonstrate its goodwill towards North Korea in 2018. “They were very smart about finding things that were authentically connected to the message they were trying to send,” said Jenna Gibson, a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago. “It’s been a huge priority for the Moon administration, and he has made some really savvy moves.”

These policies have paid off in other terms beyond public diplomacy. Yonhap recently reported that government data showed that sales of South Korean content rose 16.3% in 2020, compared to the previous year. The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism noted that the rise in exports was unusual because of a decrease of 5.5% in exports more broadly. In a survey by the Korean Culture and Information Service on Koreans who had positively influenced perceptions of the country, the Chosun Ilbo reported that about half of the list were Korean singers or actors. The paper further reported that a positive view of Korea rose by 2.4% compared to the previous year. More than 90% of respondents in Vietnam, Turkey, the Philippines, and Thailand respectively said they had a positive view of Korea.

By some measures, Japan is not immune to warming up to Korea through Hallyu. 35% of Japanese respondents to the KCIS survey said they viewed Korea positively, the first time such views outnumbered negative ones. Such positive views of Korea are reinforced by increasing sales of Korean products to Japanese consumers. The Chosun Ilbo previously reported last year that consumption of Korean movies, food products, and makeup is booming in the Japanese market. “Unlike their parents’ generation, they are less affected by historic squabbles between the two neighbors that inflame elderly patriots on both sides,” the paper speculated. Younger Japanese do seem to be driving this positive push for Korea. In a survey published in November 2021, Genron NPO found that 40% of Japanese respondents under 20, and 34.7% of respondents under 29 had a positive view of Korea.

But a generation of Japanese citizens raised on the Korea Wave may not necessarily mean a complete rehabilitation of bilateral relations. The Korean Foundation for International Cultural Exchange released their 2021 Global Hallyu Trends last month. There was a 33.2% negative view of Hallyu by Japanese respondents, up from 31.4% in 2019 and 29.8% in 2018. Diplomatic conflicts and historical disputes were two of the top three reasons given by Japanese respondents for this view.

Experts caution that the positive effects of Hallyu will pay limited returns in softening the relationship between Korea and Japan. “The people who like Korean pop culture don’t really care about diplomacy and don’t care about Japan-Korea relations,” said Dr. Michael Green, the Japan Chair and a senior Vice President at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. His comment is echoed by Ms. Gibson, who observed that younger people just tend not to be as politically engaged compared to their older peers. There is “a little bit more indifference to things like the relationship between Japan and Korea on that government to government kind of level,” she said.

Even if there are pockets of good feelings, Japanese politicians have little incentive to reach out towards Korea. As foreign minister, current Prime Minister Kishida Fumio was involved in bringing about the breakthrough 2015 agreement on the comfort women issue. But Korea’s termination of the deal, as well as its criticisms of other treaties with Japan, complicates the issue for him now. “I am not saying Japan is blameless,” said Brad Glosserman, a visiting professor at Tama University in Japan, “but in the recent deterioration (since the tearing up of the comfort women agreement), most neutral observers fault Seoul more than Tokyo.”

It is difficult to understate the hardening of Japanese opinion on Korea. Dr. Green says that in his conversations with younger politicians and internationalist business leaders, there is much apprehension towards reaching out to their counterparts in Seoul. They fear that President Moon will be replaced by another progressive president that will continue to move the goalposts. “The Korean side has created a wall of opposition to a compromise in Japan from left to right,” said Dr. Green, “because the Korean side has continually demanded renegotiation of agreements that Japan thought was settled.”

Experts recommend that Hallyu should not replace traditional forms of international cooperation. Dr. Green points to surveys conducted by CSIS, that show thought leaders in Korea and Japan are closely aligned on views related to dealing with China, the importance of the U.S., and liberal democracy. While soft power may be useful in setting the tone of the relationship, concrete action is harder to derail. “History is socially constructed and it is the readiness of politicians to play politics with the relationship that has created the downward spiral,” said Professor Glosserman. “When pols in both countries instead emphasize the need for cooperation then the relationship will improve.”

Cooperation may be easier in the latter half of this year. Korea will elect a new president in March, and PM Kishida’s leadership of the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan will be tested in the upper house election in July. Experts say that the lack of discussion on the bilateral relationship suggests the current period of stagnation will continue. “I think a period we’re in right now, which is not necessarily actively good in any certain sense, but not actively bad,” said Ms. Gibson. “Maybe it’s okay for now to [not] rock the boat too much until we can find a way to get an atmosphere that is conducive on both sides.”

While cautious about the merits of soft power, Dr. Green notes that popular culture has been useful in the past. “It’s worth remembering that the most significant improvement in Japan-Korea relations in the last fifty years was the Obuchi-Kim Dae-jung summit in 1998,” he said. That year saw Korea relax its prohibition on the importation of Japanese comics and other cultural products. “That just opened up a surge of bilateral, two-way culture,” Dr. Green said. “So at some point, culture and popular culture could play an important role.”

Terrence Matsuo is a Contributing Author at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons by mduangdara

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