[Column] Improving South Korea’s image abroad

Posted on : 2009-09-15 11:25 KST Modified on : 2009-09-15 11:25 KST
Park No-ja, Professor of Korean studies at the University of Oslo, Norway

I saw a performance Oslo a few days ago by the Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre, whose members were in Oslo to commemorate the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between South Korea and Norway. As I observed Norwegians silently listening to the sounds of the gayageum, a Korean traditional instrument, I was able to observe the universality of Korean music, which Koreans often refer to as “our tradition.” I wonder will these kinds of one-off events, however welcome they are to people like this writer who make a living teaching about “Korea” overseas, really contribute to informing the world about Korea?

The South Korean government, which depends excessively on easy-to-stage, one-off events, is likely all too aware that it is impossible to promote South Korea’s image through cultural events alone. And yet, when I listen to the long-term plans the government mentions for “enhancing the country’s image,” I get the feeling that the Lee administration is suffering from some kind of fundamental misunderstanding. For instance, they have announced plans to spread the Korean language by building King Sejong Institutes in various countries, following the precedent already seen in various European nations and China. Of course, the building of a King Sejong Institute in Oslo would be a wonderful thing, for this writer especially, but if they think that simply doing so will generate a sudden interest in and warm feeling toward South Korea among foreigners, this is an utter miscalculation.

The government is claiming that there are some six million people learning Korean in nations throughout the world, and that a systemization of this language study could even lead to the spread of Korean culture overseas. In reality, however, more than half of Korean learners overseas are people who already have some “connection” to Korea, whether they are Koreans living overseas or their children. No amount of focused support can overcome the fact that among foreigners without blood relations to Korea, the demand for the Korean language is directly proportional to its economic value, and thus is always limited. The South Korean government says they will send people to give taekwondo demonstrations, but an absolute majority of taekwondo learners overseas have no particular interest in Korea. Despite what the government may intend, Taekwondo enthusiasts are not interested in supporting South Korea’s national prestige, but rather are learning it for their health.

Among the majority of ordinary people unconnected with any particular country, a country’s image is determined by its policies as reflected through the news. Although a language academy teaching Norwegian does not exist in Seoul, the image of Norway tends to be pretty positive in South Korea. Why is this? It is a result of how favorably people the world over view Norway’s welfare policies that have been implemented and maintained since the 1930s and produced such good results.

Why is it that there are always a majority of people, even in Islamic countries like Indonesia and Egypt, who hold favorable views toward China in spite of countless issues, such as the abuse of Muslim residents in Xinjiang? There are likely several reasons for this, but mainly there seems to be a positive reaction to China’s peace-oriented foreign policy of eschewing war since 1979, in contrast with that of the U.S. that launches wars as readily as one eats lunch.

Favorable attention toward South Korea did rise up temporarily in Norway at the start of the Sunshine Policy, around the time late President Kim Dae-jung was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. I am certain that if the current administration in South Korea were to lead the way in inter-Korean joint arms reductions, and in particular help in reducing the arms expenditures of North Korea that exert tremendous pressure on the North Korean economy and threaten the survival of the people there, countless Norwegians who do not have the time and energy to learn the Korean language or taekwondo would come to have highly positive feelings about South Korea.

Instead, not only has the Lee Myung-bak administration failed to present policy for building inter-Korean trust to underpin the proposal for joint arms reductions given in the Aug. 15 celebratory address, it has focused its energies solely on destroying whatever trust has been built up over the previous decade. No matter how much money it sinks into cultural diplomacy, an administration that does not know how to implement peace policies amounting to anything more than talk has no chance of successfully promoting the country’s image.

The views presented in this column are the writer’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those of The Hankyoreh.