South Korea’s global cultural clout is no longer in question. This year alone, the world has seen the popular boy band BTS smashing records and snatching awards around the world, the critically acclaimed movie Parasite carving out a space for Korean cinema after becoming the first foreign language film ever to win the top prize at the Oscars, and Korean domination in the production of video games and, increasingly, in the popular e-sports arena.
Now, rather than passively letting K-pop or Korean dramas continue to attract audiences around the world, the South Korean government wants to get actively involved in helping convert the country’s powerful pop culture and other soft resources into true soft power. At various turns, this goal has involved bringing celebrities directly into traditional diplomatic events, enlisting them to record messages of support before major negotiations, and more.
But with this more active stance, South Korean officials must be strategic in how they invoke celebrity power. Right now, this process appears to be somewhat trial and error—randomly inviting celebrities to high-profile political events in hopes of attracting an audience of interested global fans. For South Korea to really tap into the political potential of its pop culture, however, the government needs to be more deliberate in connecting celebrity influence with specific foreign policy goals.
Jumpstarting the Craze
South Korean pop culture’s global takeover has included a vast range of offerings, starting with television dramas, video games, and pop music but now increasingly branching into movies, books, and even sports. This phenomenon is known as the Korean wave, or Hallyu—a term coined in the 1990s as Korean shows began gaining popularity in China. Now Korean cultural exports are pulling in audiences worldwide.
Note: The Case for South Korean Soft Power project and the Korean language course at Middlebury featured in this video were both funded by the Korea Foundation. The foundation had no involvement in the production of this video, the content of this article, or the content of the project as a whole.
As intuitive as pop culture’s appeal is, it is important to make one distinction clear at the outset—being home to popular shows and bands is not in itself a form of soft power. There is a distinction between nation branding—a country generally promoting a positive but relatively shallow view of itself—and soft power. Soft power takes the appeal of soft resources—attractive pop culture fixtures like movie stars and pop icons, tourist attractions, and a welcoming environment for study abroad programs—and combines them to create, and solidify, new long-term changes in how people think about or interact with the country in question. After all, as the father of soft power, Joseph Nye, wrote, soft power is all about getting another party to want what you want.
Luckily for Seoul, the way Korean culture has grown in popularity around the world—with support but not direction from the government—will make it easier for the country to try to convert its deep well of soft power resources into active soft power. South Korean governmental support for the creative industries dates back to the early 1990s. Through policies like encouraging corporate investment and vertical integration in the film industry and slowly removing barriers like screen quotas for foreign content, the South Korean government laid the groundwork. This entailed providing stable financial footing while also encouraging South Korean creatives to innovate and compete with their international counterparts.
These early policies were particularly focused on bolstering the South Korean entertainment industry’s export potential—a governmental report in 1994 famously compared the revenue of the film Jurassic Park to the revenue South Korea could earn from selling 1.5 million Hyundai cars overseas. At times, this government support has been misinterpreted as the South Korean government supposedly creating the wave of popularity that South Korean pop culture has garnered as it has gained prominence all over the world. But it would be more accurate to say that Seoul created an environment in which the movie, television, and music industries were able to thrive.
Harnessing the Korean Wave’s Power
Only later—once starstruck fans in Asia, then in Latin America and the Middle East, and finally around the world got hooked on these South Korean pop culture exports—did the focus shift to the political repercussions of having millions of fans around the world eager to actively engage with Korean culture. The South Korean government does not have to, and indeed would be well-advised not to, get out in front of its pop culture superstars to push a policy agenda. Instead, government officials should work to create links between stars, fans, and foreign policy objectives.
This is easier said than done, however, and something the South Korean government is still figuring out as it transitions from a focus on nation branding to a deeper soft power strategy. When President Moon Jae-in brings famous singers and golf stars to a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, or hosts a friendship concert alongside his summit with French President Emmanuel Macron, it is unclear what policy purpose those events serve beyond generally attracting more fans to pay attention to these meetings.
One initiative that was particularly successful—likely because it was clearly attached to a specific policy goal—was when the South Korean government arranged for internationally known singers like Red Velvet and Baek Ji-young to perform at a concert in Pyongyang in honor of the first summit in 2018 between Moon and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un. The concert attracted fans around the world, not just in South Korea. This kind of event is not about Seoul lecturing foreign audiences on its policies—rather, the South Korean government is tapping into genuine interest among global fans, as clips from the concert racked up a combined 3 million views and counting on YouTube.
The government doesn’t even have to be directly involved (at least at the outset) for South Korean celebrities to keep generating deeper engagement between fans and Korean culture more broadly. Popular singers sometimes feature traditional Korean instruments, architecture, or clothing in their performances and in their daily lives. One small designer selling modernized Korean hanbok (a traditional garment) was inundated with overseas orders after the BTS member Jungkook was spotted shopping for an outfit.
One particularly notable example is the way Big Hit Entertainment and Hankuk University of Foreign Studies jointly created a series of textbooks featuring BTS for international fans to learn Korean. The South Korean government sometimes then takes notice of the potential of these organic projects. In August 2020, the government-affiliated Korea Foundation announced that it was partnering with Big Hit and Hankuk University to sponsor language classes featuring the textbooks at six universities in four countries around the world—including the prestigious Middlebury Language Schools in the United States (see video above).
But this strategy is not foolproof. Besides the aforementioned risk that government-curated appeals to pop culture could seem inauthentic, broad global popularity itself opens up a wider range of complications. As South Korean pop culture has spread around the world, it has also opened up new vulnerabilities that could impact Seoul’s burgeoning soft power. When China was angry at South Korea for installing a U.S. missile defense system, one of the first ways Beijing struck back was by restricting South Korean cultural exports and tourism. Anything South Korean stars do or say—such as waving a Taiwanese flag, supporting Korean claims to islands also claimed by Japan, or even just honoring South Korean and American sacrifices during the Korean War—can turn into foreign policy disputes.
South Korean public diplomacy has at times been able to successfully tap into fan networks and deliver positive, authentic messages to highly interested and engaged audiences. Yet once a message goes online, public diplomats no longer control it—netizens can receive it, interpret it, and even manipulate it as they will.
Riding the Korean Wave
In a way, this is the beauty of South Korean pop culture—communities of fans have united around interests that inspire them to deeply engage with each other and with their favorite singers or actors. Finding ways to tap into this authentic interest among fans, including by creating opportunities for celebrities to use their own voices to speak for South Korean foreign policy priorities such as inter-Korean détente, can be incredibly powerful.
The key will be setting and sticking to deliberate goals—by finding key South Korean foreign policy priorities like trade promotion and development, health security, or even territorial disputes—rather than merely assuming that the presence of a famous Hallyu celebrity at an event will be enough to garner support from fans.
Jenna Gibson is a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago, specializing in international relations. She is a regular contributor to the Korea column for the Diplomat and has also written about Korean social issues and pop culture for other outlets including Foreign Policy and NPR.