Though 2020 has brought many challenges, South Korea’s global reputation is having a day in the sun. The country’s pandemic response has been widely praised, and its pop culture prestige has reached new heights with the film Parasite and the boy band BTS both breaking U.S. records. Clearly, South Korea’s 2020 wins are powerful additions to its soft power toolbox.
According to the scholar who coined the term, soft power is a country’s ability to influence others’ choices by persuading or co-opting rather than coercing. Instead of using a carrot and stick, soft power relies 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.
This multiauthor compilation demonstrates that South Korean soft power has promise, even though it cannot replace hard power. Chung Min Lee notes that, despite its limits, soft power can help Seoul punch above its weight class on certain transnational issues. South Korea’s effective handling of the pandemic has increased others’ respect for its policies, but leveraging that influence on other issues Seoul prioritizes will be a challenge. As Kathryn Botto shows, South Korea’s soft power gains from its pandemic response, if used adroitly, could garner the country more clout in multilateral institutions and influence on transnational issues like climate change, though such influence won’t be enough to sway the international community to support its conciliatory North Korea policy.
The impact of South Korea’s soft power will depend on how well Seoul embodies its values on the world stage and at home. As Nari Shim points out, South Korea’s pandemic response has highlighted its domestic political virtues and resilient population. But government-led attempts at national branding have sometimes fallen short. Esther S. Im details how South Korea’s push to brand itself as a multicultural nation, attract foreign migrants, and mitigate its demographic challenges has had mixed results and revealed inequities in South Korean society.
Whether Seoul’s political virtues or foreign policy attracts others to its cause, one thing is certain—South Korean pop culture has grabbed global attention. As Jenna Gibson explains, the South Korean government adeptly created an environment behind the scenes where musicians, artists, and filmmakers can thrive. While they cannot always control the messaging, South Korean officials can use this popularity to underscore their policy priorities, as they did by sending a famous K-pop group to Pyongyang in 2018 amid a flurry of inter-Korean diplomacy. But as Brad Glosserman shows, the popularity of South Korean cultural exports won’t sway consumers abroad on thornier policy issues like the historical disputes between South Korea and Japan.
As nontraditional security issues like global health and climate change promise to dominate future diplomatic agendas, the importance of soft power will grow. Particularly as China and the United States’ growing rivalry stokes tensions and breeds uncertainty, middle powers like South Korea will find soft power a valuable resource.
This project was made possible with support from the Korea Foundation.