The Korean TV series, Squid Game is already the world’s most popular TV series with Netflix making almost a billion dollars from the series that’s topping the charts in over a 100 countries. The gripping drama about the negative influence of growing consumer credit in Korean society, is yet another instance of Korean pop culture attaining global scale following the Oscar winning movie Parasite, the global appeal of boy band BTS (and K-Pop in general) among others. This piece in the Foreign Affairs cites how this was achieved as a result of a conscious policy effort of successive governments since the 90’s Asian crisis. Whilst most development agendas are built around infrastructure development or manufacturing exports, it is rare that a country focused on building its cultural exports to become what the author calls a global ‘soft power’.
“South Korea’s cultural renaissance was born out of adversity. President Kim Dae-jung, who had come to power in 1998 when South Korea was still reeling from the Asian financial crisis, targeted media and popular culture as a major source of economic growth. Under the aegis of the “Hallyu Industry Support Development Plan,” his administration set a goal of increasing the value of South Korea’s cultural industry (“music, soaps, movies, animations, games, and characters”) to $290 billion in two years, larger than the country’s semiconductor sector, which was then worth $280 billion. The government also expanded the cultural industry budget from $14 million in 1998 to $84 million in 2001.
To boost the production of Korean popular culture, the South Korean government used the same public-private partnership template that Seoul originally developed to grow its electronics, shipbuilding, automaking, and other export industries. In conjunction with public relations firms, technology companies, and other parts of the private sector, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism began developing detailed business plans designed to grow overseas markets for Korean TV dramas, movies, and popular songs and offered loans to entrepreneurs and training for aspiring artists.”
The economic and political payoffs are non-trivial:
“The economic payoff of these policies has been immense. In 2019, South Korea exported $12.3 billion in pop culture (up from a mere $189 million in 1998), including computer games, musical tours, and cosmetics. By one estimate, the number of South Koreans employed in cultural fields grew to 644,847 in 2017—three percent of the entire workforce. BTS alone is an economic powerhouse. According to the Hyundai Research Institute, the band generates an estimated $3.5 billion per year in economic activity. In 2017, around 800,000 tourists—about seven percent of all arrivals in South Korea—visited because of their interest in the group.
Some of the other economic benefits of Korean soft power are subtler but no less important. Many people around the world perceive South Korea as small, unthreatening, and increasingly “cool.” Korean exports and investment have sparked little backlash among Americans, even though South Korea runs a trade surplus with the United States. Korean companies such as Samsung, LG, Kia, and Hyundai have become uncontroversial parts of everyday American life—in sharp contrast to Japanese companies such as Toyota, Sony, and Honda in the 1980s and Chinese firms such as Huawei today. A Gallup poll found that 77 percent of Americans have a positive view of South Korea, up from only 46 percent in 2003. That is far more positive than American views of traditional allies such as Australia, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom—to say nothing of other Asian countries.”
The author ends the essay with a passage on how Korea can leverage its status as a soft power to do more at the global scale, especially around human rights and development assistance.
“South Korea currently lags behind wealthy governments in the percentage of GDP that it allocates for development aid, ranking well below Japan, the United States, and most European countries.
South Korea also generally refrains from criticizing the growing list of human rights abuses committed by China, its biggest trade partner. Seoul fears a repeat of 2017 when Beijing lashed out after Moon Jae-in’s government agreed to host a new U.S. missile defense system. China canceled tourism visits, reduced purchases of South Korean goods, removed South Korean music videos and dramas from Chinese streaming services, and canceled K-pop tours of China. South Korea suffered at least $7.5 billion in economic losses, demonstrating that soft power can be a point of vulnerability as well as strength. But South Korea is quickly becoming strong enough that, while still treading carefully with regard to China, it can afford to be more outspoken in standing up for democratic values.
South Korean soft power will matter only at the margins when it comes to changing Chinese behavior, but it can be far more powerful in North Korea. Much as Western cultural exports such as McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Levi Strauss, Hershey, Elvis Presley, and the Beatles once helped to undermine the Soviet bloc and win the Cold War, South Korean soft power has the potential to challenge North Korean despotism by tempting its population with the seductive fruits of democracy and capitalism.”

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