South Korea has had a steady growth in soft power over the past decades. A country needs to maintain a good level of soft power as it helps them to influence other countries’ choices by persuading or co-opting instead of coercing like it is done with high hard power. Soft power is based on ‘positive associations with a nation’s culture, foreign policy, and political virtues to attract others to its cause. After a steady, decades-long rise, South Korea gained new soft power potential in 2020 that, if used correctly, will enhance its influence on the international stage.’ (Lee & Botto, 2020).
This paper will discuss the meaning of soft power with a focus on South Korea and its ways of using said soft power and which influence this has on a local but also global level. As an example of this soft power Korean popular culture and the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic will be discussed. It is a relevant topic as it shows South Korea’s recent growth and possible potential to grow even more in the future and build even better international relations through it than it already has.
What is soft power?
Soft power is a concept that got first introduced in the book ‘Bound to Lead’ by Joseph Nye in 1990. As an American political scientist, his book ‘explain[ed] and predict[ed] the persistence of the US hegemony during the days of American national decline in the 1980s. In its original conception, soft power was defined as co-optive behavioral power, meaning “getting others to want what you want.”' (Lee, 2009). Since then, the term’s definition expanded and now includes any actions which include culture or images as well as ‘persuasive power’ and ‘attractive power’. According to Botto (2020), Nye also identified three main components in his definition of soft power, which are culture, political value and foreign policy.
South Korea as a country and nation recently gained a boost in soft power not only through its fast modernization and democratization but also from the way it keeps trying to help North Korea with its international relations. Next to this, it also had a boom in popular culture, attracting many people to the country, not only as tourists but also as investors and workers or students (Lee, 2009). Furthermore, the country’s handling of the current COVID-19 crisis made them gain recognition from many other countries around the world and it became a role model for handling the pandemic. (Lee & Botto, 2020). This shows that South Korea has many different ways in which it built up its current level of soft power but during the current pandemic two of them stood out the most, the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic itself and Korean popular culture.
The Korean Wave
In recent years South Korea has experienced a boom in popular culture like music, drama, food, fashion or movies. Through this many individuals not only developed an interest connected to Korean entertainment content but also in learning about the Korean culture and its language as well as the desire to visit the country. This then shows how South Korea through its cultural aspects persuades individuals of other countries to their own and catches their attention which then makes them develop a positive association with the nation and country. The Korean Wave (Korean: 한류) refers to the development of the international visibility of South Korean popular culture and the way it gained popularity all over the world since the 1990s. Popular culture contains elements from media, music, theatre and cinematic content like television shows and movies. Through the Korean Wave, Korean culture gets exported it is not only a national phenomenon but also a transnational one (Ravina, 2009).
An example of the success of the Korean Wave on a national but also transnational basis is boyband BTS. BTS (Korean: 방탄소년단, Bangtan Sonyeondan) is a seven-member boyband that debuted in 2013 under Big Hit Entertainment. Since their debut, the band had a steady rise in popularity to the point where they sell out stadiums all over the world, including Wembley Stadium in the United Kingdom as the first Asian artist in history. Next to winning many awards and gaining fame and success, the band also became a very important key aspect of South Korea’s soft power. While their fans already gain a positive association with South Korea through them and the possible desire to learn more about the Korean culture and develop a wish to visit South Korea one day, it is not only the fan community aspect that makes BTS so important.
Smith (2021) reported that BTS plays a big economical role in the South Korean market. So far, they collaborated with many high brands like Samsung, Louis Vuitton, Hyundai and Coca-Cola. Their fans are known to sell out not only products they advertise but also items that the members use in daily life or post about. This makes them popular in brand partnerships, as companies know that they will most likely succeed when having them in their advertisement, making their worth in the advertisement industry very high, not only on a local but also global level. Overall, it was said that in 2020, BTS brought an estimated amount of 5 billion American dollars to the South Korean economy, which is around 0.5 percent of the country’s whole economy. One of their online concerts alone brought 70 million American dollars through tickets and merchandise sales (Smith, 2021). Considering that 2020 was a heavy year pandemic wise it is sort of astonishing that they nevertheless brought this money to the country. Furthermore, the band is part of the United Nations and held multiple speeches there as well as attended conferences. In collaboration with the UN, they also have a campaign called LOVE MYSELF, which’s goal is to act against ‘violence, abuse and bullying, and to promote self-esteem and well-being among children and young people globally’ (Haro, 2021). Just this year, shortly before another visit to the United Nations General Assembly, President Moon Jaein awarded the seven members of the band with a diplomatic passport making them ‘expected to start their activities as the 'special presidential envoy for future generations and culture' at the global event.’
These aspects show that BTS does not only help South Korea spread their culture part of soft power, as a key characteristic that was defined by Nye, in a positive way across the globe but also that the band has an impact on their country’s economy and international relations as well as how their success is not just a national one but also a transnational one.
The handling of the COVID19 Pandemic
In March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 spreading to be a global pandemic. Aforetime, in January 2020, South Korea confirmed their first case of the spreading virus. The country reacted fast to the situation and while other countries have been struggling to keep the virus on low numbers despite multiple lockdowns, South Korea is handling quite well without complete lockdowns. As of 8th October 2020, South Korea kept ‘a Covid-19 related mortality rate as low as 1.75 percent (compared to 2.92 percent worldwide), an incident rate below 50 per 100,000, and cumulative cases of 24,422’ (Cho et al., 2020). In comparison countries that are population size-wise nearly the same as South Korea had way more numbers like, for example, Italy with 333,940 cases and France with 693,603 cases (Cho et al., 2020). Due to the way South Korea has handled the pandemic, the country has gained international recognition and become a global leader many other nations look up to (Botto, 2020). The handling of the pandemic ‘could prove to be a powerful source of heightened influence and soft power on Seoul’s other policy priorities.’ (Botto, 2020). The country showed a successful way of handling the pandemic with a democratic system and while there had been criticism to their response to the pandemic, their system turned out to be one of the best around the world, public health and economic wise. While taking care of its own nation, South Korea also tried to make its pandemic model the international standard and helped others financial wise as well as by providing medical supplies and consultation if needed with foreign officials. This has a huge impact on the soft power of the country as they signal to others that they are willing to help them and hence they build international relations based on a positive narrative. Through this, the country strengthened their international image as a competent democracy and a responsible international stakeholder, building up soft power in the political values and foreign policy area (Botto, 2020).
The example of boyband BTS and the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic shows all three defined components of soft power that Nye mentioned in his definition. While these are just two examples, South Korea has many more that contribute to the level of their current soft power but these two alone make a huge impact for them right now and show how strong the country is in that aspect even during the current ongoing pandemic.
In conclusion, it can be said that South Korea currently has a very strong soft power level. This level did also not decrease during the global pandemic but even increased due to the way they as a nation handled it and became a role model for many other countries across the world. Furthermore, the spread of Korean popular culture did also not stop during the pandemic but even grew as many people were stuck at home and hence had the time to explore various entertainment contents. BTS was shown to be one of the key factors in this sector not only entertainment wise but also economically and on an international relation basis. Overall, South Korea has strong soft power right now which they can use for their own advantages not only on a local but also global level. It gives them a good reputation, which is important when maintaining international relations as well as trying to build new ones.
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