Distinguishing between soft power and propaganda in South Korean foreign policy
21 Mar 2023|

As a middle power, South Korea has gone above and beyond when it comes to projecting its soft power on a global level. The worldwide success of the Korean movie Parasite, the Netflix series Squid Game and K-pop bands such as BTS are just some examples. Dubbed Hallyu (한류), or the ‘Korean wave’ in English, the mass appeal of the country’s arts and culture is regularly used as a foreign policy tool. To understand the most effective strategies through which South Korea can harness its soft power, reflecting on the former Moon Jae-in administration and the current Yoon Suk-yeol administration over the past few years is key.

Along with maintaining long-standing programs of cultural diplomacy such as the K-Pop World Festival and Korea Week, the Moon administration’s method of exploiting the international popularity of Korean culture can best be characterised as opportunistic. In 2021, Moon appointed BTS to the position of ‘Special Presidential Envoy for Future Generations and Culture’, making the seven-member boy band the first-ever special envoy from the private sector for a Korean president. In their first official assignment, BTS accompanied Moon to the UN General Assembly, where the group made remarks and performed their hit song ‘Permission to Dance’.

K-beauty has been another area of soft power that Moon and his administration had a personal hand in. Promoting K-beauty and other Hallyu products in Southeast Asian markets was a key priority for the Moon administration due to their widespread popularity in the region. In 2019, Moon personally launched the ‘Brand K’ initiative to provide assurances over the quality of Korean products such as K-beauty and household goods for global consumers. In 2021, the trade minister, Yoo Myung-hee, highlighted the enormous popularity of K-beauty and K-pop in Cambodia while overseeing negotiations over the Korea–Cambodia free trade agreement.

Moon’s speeches provide a clear indication as to why he promoted cultural exports such as K-pop and K-beauty during his presidency. On multiple occasions, he talked about the importance of reforming South Korea’s international image through soft power. Traditionally, South Korea has been associated with poverty and vulnerability in the form of repeated provocations from North Korea through missile testing. To challenge such international preconceptions, Moon highlighted the role of soft power in helping the country transform into an economically mature and developed nation with a prominent role in international affairs.

In a 2019 speech, Moon said, ‘When I meet with foreign nationals, I can sense their favourable impressions of Korea have grown.’ Similarly, in 2021 during the economic turmoil of Covid-19, Moon boasted that ‘the world is paying attention to [the South Korean] economy’s astonishing resilience and growth potential’ in part due to ‘K-pop, K-beauty, K-food and K-content’.

But Moon’s crowing was not without basis: the economic success behind Korean soft power on a global stage is clear. Between 2020 and 2021, Korean exports attributed to Hallyu increased by 1.5% to US$11.6 billion. In 2021, Netflix invested more than US$0.5 billion in Korean content in the wake of strong international interest for television series such as Squid Game.

Public opinion data also supports the notion that South Korean soft power has transformed the country’s international image. In 2021, a survey fielded by the Korean Foundation for International Cultural Exchange to over 8,500 overseas consumers of Hallyu found that nearly two-thirds experienced a positive change in perceptions about Korea after exposure to Hallyu content.

However, despite these ongoing economic successes, the Yoon administration must ensure that soft power doesn’t devolve into propaganda. While soft power is seen as a legitimate tool for attracting and persuading international audiences about a government’s foreign policy messages, propaganda lacks legitimacy because it is premised on coercion and one-way messaging.

For example, some countries in the region have perceived South Korea’s wielding of soft power as a way to project excessive national pride and perceived cultural superiority, which has resulted in anti-Hallyu movements in some Asian countries. The Korean Foundation for International Cultural Exchange found that the proportion of respondents reporting negative perceptions towards Korea after exposure to Hallyu increased from 24% to 31% between 2020 and 2021. The overly commercial nature of Hallyu was the top reason given by respondents from Asia, Oceania, the Americas and Europe.

With these findings in mind, the Yoon administration would do well to carefully evaluate the ongoing role of this aspect of Korean soft power as a tool of foreign policy. Already, Yoon has drawn criticism for appearing to blur the line between soft power and propaganda. Last year, for instance, he faced an international backlash after it was hinted that BTS was to perform at his inauguration. One online post expressed the widespread fears about the troubling agenda behind BTS’s slated appearance, stating: ‘Please do not politically exploit BTS. They do not exist to raise your approval ratings.’

South Korean foreign policymakers should focus on using the country’s soft power as a mechanism to promote meaningful two-way cultural exchanges. An example of such an exchange can be seen in BTS’s visit to the White House last May in the wake of a 300% rise in crimes against Asian Americans the previous year. Rather than opportunistically showcasing their highly synchronised dance moves, the group took the visit as an opportunity to share their own personal experiences of racism.

Ensuring that Korean culture remains appealing and enticing to international audiences is crucial if South Korea aspires to effectively leverage its soft power. But it, as well as any other country aiming to leverage its cultural assets in foreign policy, must be careful not to cross the line into propaganda.